Killing Civilians Is a Depressing Trend

News Abroad

Mr. Ekbladh is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Columbia University where he is a fellow at the East Asian Institute. He lives in New York City.

In the words of Rudy Giuliani, the coordinated attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11 was perhaps"the most jarring event in American history." Like the mayor of New York City, many have already loaded this stunning event with historical significance.

It is taken as a point of departure in a variety of ways. The United States is said to be embroiled in"the first war of the 21st Century." Those suspected are said to be waging an unprecedented campaign of terror against America. A new era of conflict is said to have begun where enemies do not use their own weapons but rather seize and turn the equipment of everyday life -- commercial airliners -- into bombs to be flung at their victims. The Congress of the United States discussed the unprecedented step of formally declaring war not on a country but on the individuals responsible. The attack and all that followed already are discussed as a historical turning point, separating all that came before from what will follow.

The bitter scale of the disaster lends itself to this conclusion. The gutting of the New York skyline, the exceptionally well coordinated assault on two different cities in the space of an hour, the disruption of the whole nation's transportation network, and above all the grim number of casualties serve to set this act apart in many minds. At first glance there seems to be little to hold up for comparison. In terms of lives lost, other terrorist attacks, particularly the 1993 attempt to bring the towers down with a bomb or any number of international acts, pale in comparison. The likening of the attack to the Japanese blow against Pearl Harbor, with its focus on military installations and the fact it was one nation-state attacking another is also less than satisfying.

Yet the attack, particularly the razing of the World Trade Towers, cannot escape the grip of the past so easily. In the planning of an assault on two office buildings, meant to destroy them at the height of the workday to maximize casualties and terror there is a direct connection to the violent excesses against civilians that reached new heights in the last 100 years.

Those non-combatants who we now define as civilians have long been targets. The Mongols made a habit of annihilating whole cities to cow those in their path. Violence against civilians, at least the threat of it, lies at the heart of Western literature. Shakespeare's Henry V could stand before the people of Harfleur and promise riot by his troops if they did not deliver their city to him. This is a reflection that deep into the past civilians have had to fear the depredations of armies and guerrillas.

Violence against non-combatants has a long and global history but it was in the last century that it reached a crescendo. It became not an addendum to warfare but a policy integral to it. The ratio of combatant to civilian deaths in violent conflict typically stood at 9 to 1 at the start of the century but by the 1990s this equation had reversed to 1 to 9. This was due to the increasingly acceptable practice of striking at civilian targets to further war aims. Air campaigns against cities that started hesitantly in the First World War, grew into major extensions of the Axis and Allied war efforts in the Second. Population centers came to be seen as legitimate targets as attacks on them damaged the enemy's economy, diverted military resources, and undermined morale. The thinking behind these operations was extended to the Cold War's nuclear balance of terror. Only in this confrontation the opponent's whole population, not merely sections of it, could be perceived as legitimate targets.

This expansion was not merely the action of great powers or even just states but small groups as well. In the second half of the twentieth century revolutionary and liberation movements adopted tactics that came to be known broadly as terrorism. The murder of political and security figures gave way to apparently random attacks on those seen to support or simply connected to the system the group wanted to overthrow. Hijackings, bombings, and other assaults were meant to frighten civil populations and force changes in policy. These acts increasingly ceased to respect borders. Grudges with their origins in the Middle East could be played out through the hijackings of planes in Europe, bombings in Africa or assassinations in Latin America. To be sure, contemporary terrorism had strong links to similar activities in the past. Many groups initially drew on the examples of revolutionary and anarchist groups from the nineteenth century. Undoubtedly too, political violence is as old as politics. Nevertheless, the list of fair targets has grown, the acceptable means have expanded, and the tolerance for" collateral damage" (as witnessed by the hundreds of Africans killed in the recent attacks on US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya) on the part of those who carry out these acts is shamefully high.

A part of the September 11 tragedy is that it was a repetition of much the world has witnessed over the past century. The international community has hastily removed many of the taboos on killing civilians and in doing so opened the door for shattering events like this. For all the talk of the attack being the start of some new era the sad fact is it is an extension of debasement that came before and there is blame enough to go around for this state of affairs. There was never a time in the past when civilians were held inviolate but we should realize that the killing non-combatants has not merely increased in tempo and scale over the past century but has become an explicit tool in the prosecution of violent human conflict. Through their own targeting and mass killing of civilians, those who attacked the United States last week merely reinforced this depressing trend.

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