Disturbing Hidden Assumptions In
Otherwise Powerful New York Times Article About Civilian Casualties
December 18, 2001
In many respects, this New
York Times article
is what many of us had been waiting for, a hard-hitting, factually intense
report on civilian bombing casualties.
The headline is strong:
"In Village Where Civilians Died, Anger Cannot Be Buried."
The framing lead paragraphs
seem powerful enough:
Perhaps someday there will
be a reckoning for this tiny village of 15 houses, all of them obliterated
into splintered wood and dust by American bombs. United States military
officials might explain why 55 people died here.
But more likely, Madoo will
not learn whether the bombs fell by mistake or on purpose, and the matter
will be forgotten amid the larger consequences of war. It is left an
anonymous hamlet with anonymous people buried in anonymous graves.
And certainly the recitation
of facts is disturbing:
On Dec. 1, American planes
attacked several villages near the mountainous redoubt of Tora Bora in
eastern Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda fighters — and perhaps even Osama
bin Laden — were presumed to be hiding...
The attack, the men said,
came in four waves, the first being the killer. After that, the living ran
into a gully that was left unmolested. The houses were small, the bombing
precise. No structure escaped the thundering havoc. Fifteen houses, 15
America's own anti-Taliban
allies were horrified, claiming the targeting had been mistaken and that
hundreds of innocents had been killed. It was "like a crime against
humanity," said Hajji Muhammad Zaman, a military commander in the
The Pentagon said little in
response other than that it was sure of its quarry.
So what's my problem with the
article? Haven't I been screaming since the beginning of
the war, Where is the coverage of massive civilian casualties?
Look again more closely at
the opening two paragraphs. They have an artfully crafted tone of
indignation and lament. I wish I could write that well for my
site. And that's the problem. This expression of indignation and
lament wasn't written for my site, but for the most prestigious newspaper in
If I see that victims are
being forgotten, there's very little I can do about it other than post my
indignation and lament here. But The New York Times can do a heck
of a lot more! Those opening paragraphs assume the opposite.
Why does a foreign
correspondent for a media powerhouse write that "Perhaps some day there
will be a reckoning..."? That "United States military
officials might explain..."? That "more likely, Madoo will
With all its prestige and
access, the New York Times could force a "reckoning,"
extract an "explanation," enable Madoo to "learn" what
happened. Repeated requests to the Pentagon by The New York Times for
explanations about what happened in Madoo -- not to mention in the scores of
other locations where hundreds, if not thousands of civilians were killed by our
airstrikes -- would eventually compel the Pentagon to speak.
I can't make the Pentagon
talk about what really happened. The poor villagers of Madoo cannot
either. But the New York Times can.
Perhaps I am wrong and the
"newspaper of record" is exerting strong pressure behind the
scenes for such information.
Perhaps I am also wrong and
the publication is also investing the resources to conduct a systematic investigation of the entire bombing
campaign in Afghanistan to determine the overall extent of civilian deaths
and injuries caused directly by U.S. bombs.
If I am wrong on either
count, upon seeing such critical and urgently needed information published
in the New York Times, I will never have been happier to admit my