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Issue #1653      August 27, 2014

Are we not savages too?

Without question, the beheading of US journalist James Foley was an inexcusable and savage act of violence by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (now Islamic State). The killing of non-combatants should always be condemned. But there is a clear discrepancy in the response of both the Western media and the general public with regard to the killing of Western civilians compared to Islamic civilians. The number of Western civilians killed by Islamic militants pales in comparison to the number of non-combatants that have died at the hands of the US and its military allies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen. And yet, the outrage at the killing of these innocent Muslims, many of who are women and children, is virtually non-existent in the West.

Iraqis mourn over casualties of war.

According to several studies, more than 1,000 Afghan civilians were killed by the US military in the first six months of Operation Enduring Freedom. The number of non-combatants killed by coalition forces surpassed 3,000 by the end of the third year of the occupation. The killing of civilians by the US military continued thereafter with drone strikes accounting for most of the deaths in recent years. According to the UK-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, some 2,400 people were killed by US drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen during the first five years of Barack Obama’s presidency. The study claims that as many as 951 of these deaths were civilians and that almost 200 of the victims were children.

These numbers are corroborated by another study conducted by the Columbia Law School which reports that approximately 600 people were killed by US drone strikes in Pakistan in 2011. According to the report, as many as 155 of those killed were civilians. Together, these two reports suggest that 30 to 40 percent of people killed by US military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan are civilians. This percentage corresponds with that reported in a study headed by public health expert Amy Hagopian of the University of Washington. Hagopian’s comprehensive study of civilian deaths during the US invasion and occupation of Iraq (2003-2011) reveals that Baghdad was at the epicentre of the violence for much of that period and that 35 percent of those killed in that city by US coalition forces were civilians.

Some may argue that civilian deaths are inevitable in a war and that militants, not civilians, are the intended target of US operations. In accordance with such arguments we use terms such as “collateral damage” to eradicate the human factor and to justify the deaths of these innocents. But the rate of so-called collateral damage is extremely high if, as these studies suggest, 30 to 40 percent of those killed in US military operations over the past 13 years have been civilians. This means that when the US military plans an operation it can assume that approximately one out of every three people it kills will be a civilian. It is difficult to dismiss such a high rate of civilian deaths over such an extended period of time as merely accidental; clearly, military commanders are authorizsng operations with the full knowledge that a significant number of civilians will be killed by US forces.

President Obama addressed the issue of civilian casualties earlier this year when he stated that “we can take targeted strikes, understanding that anytime you take a military strike there are risks involved. What I’ve tried to do is to tighten the process so much and limit the risks of civilian casualties so much that we have the least fallout from those actions.” There are two troubling aspects to Obama’s statement. Firstly, the “risks involved” are not borne by Americans, they are almost 100 percent assumed unwillingly by civilians on the ground when operations involve drone strikes or aerial bombing, which have constituted the majority of US operations in recent years. And secondly, Obama’s use of the word “fallout” suggests that his primary motivation for reducing the number of innocents killed is the avoidance of bad press that might result from military actions rather than saving human lives.

But the conscious killing of civilians by the US military cannot always be easily dismissed with such Orwellian doublespeak as “collateral damage,” there have been many cases in Iraq and Afghanistan where there was no question regarding the intention of US troops to murder civilians.

There is a term that US presidents love to use in their efforts to assume the moral high ground in international affairs. Both George W Bush and Barack Obama have used it repeatedly in reference to Iraq and Afghanistan. That term is “the civilised world.” It is used to portray us Westerners as sophisticated and “civilised” and Islamic militants as barbaric “savages.” As with the term collateral damage, it is used to appease our conscience with regard to the brutal acts of violence that we repeatedly inflict on innocent people. After all, if we represent the civilised world then we must stand for all that is good. And if we stand for all that is good, then any innocent women and children that die from our actions must merely be unfortunate victims of a tragic occurrence. While we may be comforted by such rhetoric and self-agrandisation, I doubt our self-serving attitude provides much solace to a Pakistani mother who has watched her child get blown to pieces by a missile fired from one of our drones.

Every form of colonialism throughout history has given birth to a violent resistance movement. And it should not be surprising that the current imperialist model in the form of capitalist globalisation has also spurred a violent response. There were no extremist groups in Iraq before the US invasion. It was the US invasion and occupation that opened the door to Al-Qaeda’s entry into Iraq as part of the broader insurgency that rose up to liberate the country from its foreign occupiers. And it was this insurgency that gave birth to Islamic State. Therefore, it could be argued that our widespread killing of civilians in Iraq helped to create a fertile recruiting environment for extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda and contributed to the emergence of IS.

There is no question that the beheading of James Foley was a barbaric and savage act. Is it any more tragic than the deaths of the many other Iraqi and Afghan civilians who have been summarily executed by US troops? Is it any more heartbreaking than the killing of thousands of civilians in aerial bombardments ordered by US military commanders fully aware that the targeting of residential areas would result in the deaths of many innocents?

The lack of graphic video footage of the killing of innocent people by our bombs and missiles does not make these deaths any less brutal or horrific. So while we must condemn the tragic and gruesome killing of James Foley, we also need to take a good look in the mirror and reflect on our own complicity in the slaughter of innocent civilians.

Information Clearing House

Next article – My plea to the people of Israel: Liberate yourselves by liberating Palestine

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