I am not in any way going to belittle the fact several thousand people
died in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. This
is a great tragedy, whichever way you look at it, and needs to be
recognized as such. However, in a global context, the magnitude of
this tragedy is not so big. Demanding that the whole world should come
to a stop, and that "things will never be the same again" shows a lack
of respect for victims of far worse tragedies.
Initially, I was going to mention the 1995 Kobe earthquake, since I
remembered it incurred a lot of casualties (over 5000 people). I feel
an intense shame that there has been a much more fatal earthquake this
year, and I did not know about it. Just this fact illustrates my
point. On January 26 2001, an earthquake hit near the India/Pakistan
border, killing over 20000 people. In 1999, an earthquake hit Turkey,
killing 14000 people. The worst of them all occured in 1976 in
Tangshan, China, killing 255000 people. This is an unimaginable number
(say that 200 airplanes were used instead of 4), yet I have never
heard this event mentioned in the mainstream media. For more details
about the earthquakes, see here.
There are of course more such catastrophes in recent history. Famines have hit several countries, causing mass
starvation. More than 250000 people died in the 1988 famine in
Sudan. There are similar numbers for other recent famines in Africa.
When such an extreme focus is put on the victims and tragedy of this
attack, while almost none is directed at the victims of other, much
more fatal and widespread catastrophies, it shows that there is an
imbalance in the view of human life. Clearly, the life of a rich,
educated person working in the World Trade Center is valued much more
than the life of a poor person in India, China or Sudan. This is not
consistent with the morals projected from the leaders of the developed
If we look beyond the basic human suffering and grieving, the other
importance of this attack is that it was in fact an attack, and not an
accident. This does not make it more or less sad for the people
involved, but it brings things such as revenge, punishment and war
into the picture.
In my opinion, claiming that there are "rules" for how war should be
fought, and when and when not you are allowed to kill people is
ridiculous and sad, and shows a lack of empathy. However, my opinion
is worth very little. What I can do instead is force people to be
consistent. If you claim there are rules, then those rules should
apply for everyone, and not just for other people.
The main criticism against this attack is that it was directed toward
civilians, or at least that a very high number of civilians died in
the attack. The 1950 Geneva
Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of
War expresses what is and what isn't allowed to be done toward
civilians, and expresses the basic idea that civilians should not be
hurt or killed. I think this is obvious for everyone. This attack
clearly violated this principle and is thus despicable. This has been
expressed very clearly by both for example Colin Powell, and also other
leaders in the world.
In December 1989, the US executed Operation Just Cause, which was an invasion of Panama. Here is a quote from the
One must not lose sight of the human tragedy resulting from the
invasion. Whereas the State Department is only willing to acknowledge
that 516 Panamanians died, both the National Human Rights Commission
of Panama and the Commission for the Defense of Human Rights in
Central America claim that at least 2,000 people had perished. The
Catholic and Episcopal Churches give estimates of 3,000 dead as
"conservative." In the predominantly black El Chorillo district of
Panama City alone, hundreds of civilians were killed and upwards of
30,000 made homeless by the "infernal mastery" of F-117A stealth
fighters and Apache helicopters. So much for the Pentagon's claims
that it was a "surgical operation.
This by itself is horrible, and makes the condemnations against the
terrorist attack less believable. However, when we discover that the
man who oversaw this operation was none other than
Colin Powell, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the condemnations seem nothing else than insincere.
Colin Powell has coined a doctrine, the "Powell Doctrine":
Use all the force necessary and do not apologize for going in big if that's what it takes.
Such a doctrine does not fit well at all with the outrafe against the attack.
Finally, there is of course the obvious fact that the US dropped
nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing 350000
people (presumably the absolute majority being civilians). This is
from the "selection of target" section of the report by The
Manhattan Engineer District, 1946:
Since the atomic bomb was expected to produce its greatest amount of
damage by primary blast effect, and next greatest by fires, the
targets should contain a large percentage of closely-built frame
buildings and other construction that would be most susceptible to
damage by blast and fire."
I don't think the association is lost on anyone.
I don't think it's productive to keep score of how many people each
side has killed, or whatever, and use this as an excuse for new
attacks. However, when Rudolph Giuliani labels the attack as "the most
heinous act in world history", there is cause for some examination of
history. When George Bush says "this is a war between good and evil,
and good will prevail" (transcribed from memory), then there is cause
to examine what really constitutes good and evil.