Column: Mob Rule

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Mr. Carpenter is a writer and doctoral candidate in American history at the University of Illinois.

11From applying scientific humbuggery to the Kyoto accords to unilateral insolence on the ABM treaty to strong-arm indifference on fiscal policy, Bush II has demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt to American citizens and the world alike its penchant for a Mafia mentality, absent any pretensions of honor. The administration is stuck in the century-old Black Hand decadence of the T.R.-Taft-Wilson era, which historian Robert Wiebe characterized as profit- and power-oriented, and specifically in the realm of foreign policy, immature and"intuitive." Today's executive wiseguys flex all the muscle of a political John Gotti, but none of the brain power of a Meyer Lansky. It's top-down arrogance to die for.

Which is indeed what a lot of innocent Afghans have experienced--3700 of them by one estimate. It's been a trifle hard for peaceful villagers to keep the valiancy of Yankee saviors uppermost in mind when Team America is raining less-than precisely guided cluster bombs down on their children. And the bombing missions have been far from contained in time. As many as 36,000 undetonated bombs are now peppered throughout that charming land. Said Joost Hiltermann of Human Rights Watch,"The duds in effect become land mines that explode when touched."

The bloody things are like Al Capone's arsenic-laced bullets. Their lethal potential doesn't end on impact. But at least Al only aimed at his playmates, or as Bugsy Siegel rather astutely observed in defending his line of work,"We only kill each other." With nearly a billion dollars cash on hand for every day of the year, one would think the Pentagon would have figured a way by now to limit what it merrily calls" collateral damage"--a term even psychotic Bugsy would have regarded with ethical disapprobation.

But we're the undisputed good guys, and as such brook no namby-pamby whining from a bunch of haggard peasants. They just don't get it. They didn't get it when we twice bombed Red Cross storehouses in Kabul in October; or when we blitzed a friendly Afghan entourage blithely headed for pro-American Hamid Karzai's inauguration in December; or when we attacked and killed 21 locals who screamed in protest before the lights went out,"We are friends!"

Nor did they understand when American forces from the rarified safety of the skies extinguished 100 civilians while leveling the village of Karam; or 115 others throughout several hamlets near Tora Bora; or yet another 100 in Niazi Qala. If your mother or father or child were killed in a misdirected drug bust on your home by local constables, you might not get it either. And chances are you wouldn't be consoled by the mayor's coolness that"Mistakes will happen." Worse yet, what if--while you happened to be attending the family funeral--the mayor proclaimed that talk around town of your personal tragedy was"ridiculous," as our cocksure Defense Secretary so diplomatically put it. Even Carlo Gambino might have sent flowers.

On top of that species of secure, comfortable arrogance, the administration--like its erstwhile racketeering buddies over at Enron--has not been, shall we say, entirely consistent in protesting innocence. On the one hand, Secretary Rumsfeld and his military compatriots usually dismiss tales such as those cited above as fiendish bin Laden-style enemy propaganda. On the other hand, Rumsfeld in October dropped what was intended to be a reassuring comment: that American bombs were"85-90 percent reliable." Well,"probably" was the qualifier he used.

So let's make sure we have this straight. Most unflattering reports are pure propagandistic balderdash. Then again, the Pentagon says, when unleashing 1000 cluster bombs from some lumbering B-52 or whatever in heaven's name it uses to drop the ghastly things, maybe 150 stray from their intended target and go boom at a village wedding instead. Why, the brass just can't imagine how such a thing could get out of hand.

Integrity. Always integrity.

In a sort of"don't-call-us-we'll-call-you" plea, the head of Afghanistan's disarmament commission--who is nine family members short as the result of a presumably nonoccurring errant bombing raid--recently said"there is no need for more raids. If ... we have information that the Taliban leader Mullah Omar is somewhere, I can go there myself to negotiate or send guards." Enough with the favors, already. The interest rate paid on them--or the"juice," as the mob calls it--is too high.

The closest thing to an administration brush with honesty came from Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke, who confessed,"To say the conditions in Afghanistan are confusing is an understatement. And it's impossible to say these people are on this side and these people are on the other side." Victoria, why not put aside fretting over such triflings, as your"family" of underboss Don Rumsfeld and W."the Don" Bush have done. Their attitude is manly. Whack 'em all and let Allah sort them out.

© Copyright 2001 P. M. Carpenter

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More Comments:

Jacob Goldfinger - 2/27/2002

The problem with the "estimate" of civilian casualties in Afghanistan is that there is none. That is, there is no credible estimate, and there will not be for quite some time.

The claims of Prof. Marc Herold, whose "estimate" of 3,700 civilian deaths Carpenter refers to, has been specifically criticized by Human Rights Watch. Despite Carpenter's use of a quote from a HRW official that would appear to endorse this total, HRW has criticized Herold and his methods. Herold has been tallying civilian deaths based on second- and third-hand information, media reports, Taliban claims, whatever he can read from his desk at the University of New Hampshire, where he is an associate professor of economics and women's studies.

Certainly, cluster bombs and daisy cutters are not precision weapons. And just as Herold's claims cannot be taken seriously, neither can the Pentagon's claims of minimal civilian casualties be considered credible until there has been a thorough investigation.

In other words, we don't know how many civilian casualties in Afghanistan have been caused by American bombs. And the claims of anyone who claims to have an answer should be treated skeptically.

What follows is a letter to the editor from HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth that appeared in The Guardian Feb. 15, in response to Herold's internet summaries and his criticism of HRW's field research in Serbia:

"I encountered the difference between hearsay and first-hand evidence when I left my own desk to travel to Serbia to help investigate the civilian deaths caused by Nato's bombing campaign. As Professor Herold notes, the Yugoslav government and its defenders had claimed a civilian loss of life roughly three times the 500 deaths found by Human Rights Watch. The US government had low-balled the incidents of civilian death.
Today, because of Human Rights Watch's detailed, on-the-ground
investigation, our findings are accepted as definitive from Belgrade to Washington, though evidently still not by Professor Herold.

"Human Rights Watch will insist on the same rigour as we conduct a field investigation of civilian deaths in Afghanis-tan. In the meantime, we will treat Marc Herold's internet summaries with appropriate scepticism, as should others."

Kenneth Roth
Executive director, Human Rights Watch, New York