Accidents Can Happen

Dead Civilians and Other Minor Risks of War

Around 2 p.m. Sunday, as I sat down to write a column that was due the next morning, my boyfriend turned on the TV for the latest on the mayoral race—only to find out our country was carpet bombing Kabul. So much for advance planning. We spent the next two hours glued to the tube, his reaction ranging from a sudden,fleeting desire to enlist to a denunciation of Israel for its "deadly silence" in the face of this war. Across the street an American flag snapped in the wind, and several networks adopted "America Strikes Back" as their news banner.

"I gave them fair warning," Bush had said that morning, upon returning from Camp David. He obviously meant Bin Laden and company, but some pols and pundits seemed to have gotten notice as well. Tony Blair gave an incredibly rousing speech, and Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, and Peter Jennings were on hand to emcee another day that was guaranteed to disrupt our lives forever. A Pentagon press conference held at 2:44 p.m. was packed with reporters who had come out to hear Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld's delivery was cocky, but his red tie hung askew as he assured us that this was a war on terrorism, not on the Afghan people.

CNN had the coolest special effects, ranging from satellite imagery that showed how the pilots identify their targets to a simulated cartoon of a B-2 that had departed from Missouri and stopped in the Arabian Sea to refuel before embarking on its zigzag course to Kabul. A "CNN exclusive" showed continuous footage from a nightscope looking south on Kabul. At first glance, the view was a pea-green haze, but over time, it proved that Kabul was shaking all night long. Rather than a handful of flyovers, it looked like we were bombing myriad targets—at the very least a comprehensive approach, and just possibly overkill.

Now don't get me wrong: The Taliban are vicious barbarians. But that afternoon, I got queasy hearing all the talk of B-1s, B-2s, B-52s, and cruise missiles. There was retired general Wesley Clark on CNN, propped up in front of a map of Afghanistan, stiff and steely-eyed, declaring the strikes to be "carefully choreographed," the psychological-ops "well-coordinated." There was Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, promising that "visible or not . . . all instruments . . . are being brought to bear on this global menace," and finally Rumsfeld, who declared that even lacking a "silver bullet," we will fight this war "until we're convinced that those terrorist networks do not exist."

Unfortunately, this is the rhetoric of the drug war, which has proved to be a long, costly failure. If we can't arrest our way out of the drug problem, does anyone really believe we can bomb the terrorists out of existence? Once again, questioning the military attack doesn't mean I'm pro-Taliban. In fact, if I ever doubted the evidence linking the Taliban to the World Trade Center attack, that changed when I saw the so-called Osama bin Laden video news release, which CNN, ABC, and the Al-Jazeera TV channel began broadcasting Sunday afternoon.

In the tape, which seems to have been made before the U.S. struck back, Bin Laden appears in a camouflage jacket, with rocks behind him and a rifle by his side. First, a henchman predicts that America's "collapse will be directly connected to its attack on Afghanistan," then Bin Laden explains that the Muslims have suffered for decades, and now the U.S. must get a taste of its own medicine. "The United States will have no peace until every sinner, every Israeli, leaves the Palestinian lands." Talk about infinite justice.

The pundits' reaction to the video was mixed. While some found it "surprising" and "chilling," one expert called it Bin Laden's "common litany of complaints." Still others saw a smoking gun, proof that Bin Laden's goal in launching the events of September 11 was to provoke what Muslims would consider an "indiscriminate attack" and that having succeeded, he no longer had to dodge responsibility for WTC. After the special forces saw the Al-Jazeera video, one of their kind told ABC, they would no doubt be "lining up" for the opportunity to get Bin Laden. But if Bin Laden is a fanatic who enjoys sparking new rounds of violence, even against his own people, what are Bush and Rumsfeld? I couldn't help wondering what the Muslim radicals would do Monday morning, when they woke up to the news of the American-led jihad.

Around 4 p.m., my boyfriend went out, and I began to hear sirens every 10 minutes. Channel-surfing for an anthrax alert, I noticed that CBS and NBC had returned to football and NASCAR, respectively, and that only ABC and CNN were still covering the war. ABC had dug up a report on historical attempts to invade Afghanistan, which the correspondent called "the graveyard of empires."

Around the same time, CNN's Jamie McIntyre was reporting that our planes had dropped about 37,000 units of humanitarian aid over Afghanistan, as well as leaflets and (possibly) single-channel transistor radios, all of which are intended to persuade Afghans to turn against the Taliban. On the same subject, ABC showed footage of U.S. military drops over northern Iraq in 1991, in which boxes of food were kicked out of airplane doors from an altitude of 30,000 feet. Jennings questioned the effectiveness of these drops, noting that some people in Iraq were killed when the boxes hit them. By evening, MSNBC's Norah O'Donnell was holding up one of this year's food drops—a slender bag in which, she said, there was peanut butter, but no water.

If there was one piece of propaganda I found hard to swallow, it was the claim that these strikes would not kill any civilians. Tony Blair had stressed the point, and Dan Rather reported dutifully that the attack was "designed with care and precision to avoid civilian casualties." But as the day wore on, it became clear that we had hit Kandahar, Jalalabad, and Kabul—an airport here, an oil depot there—and it was still impossible to know exactly where the bombs fell.

By 4:30 or so, CNN's Judy Woodruff was on air, perfectly coiffed and ready for battle. When she asked CNN's resident generals Wesley Clark and Don Shepperd to explain how a strategy of "carpet bombing" could be expected to spare innocent lives, the hype began to unravel. "I am confident" that we are not targeting civilian areas, said Clark, and Shepperd agreed: "In no case will the U.S. attack civilians intentionally." When Woodruff pressed, Clark finally caved, saying, "Accidents can happen."

Around the same time, CNN was broadcasting footage that appeared to show return attacks by the Taliban, and an interview with a Taliban spokesman who claimed that his troops had shot down one of our planes. The Pentagon denied any U.S. lives had been lost, but the next day, the Taliban claimed that about 20 civilians had died—a small number, but blood on our hands nonetheless. And that, as MSNBC's Brian Williams explained Sunday night, is to be expected during wartime, until they invent a missile that hurts only buildings and leaves people standing.


ccotts@villagevoice.com

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