Ignorance is not bliss
Lack of reporting civilian casualties from the war in Afghanistan
is keeping Americans in the dark -- and endangering their
By Roberto J. Gonzales
For the past three months, Pentagon officials have veiled an essential
aspect of the "war on terrorism": civilian casualties in Afghanistan.
Blocking access to information about the human costs of U.S. bombing --
and its consequences -- might create a dangerous future for
Such restrictions keep us from understanding how the rest of the world
views the war, and why it might provoke future attacks on the United
States. They may also breed complacency, ignorance and national
Measures taken by military officials obscure information about the
effects of U.S. bombing.
For example, since October 11, the Pentagon has purchased exclusive
rights to all satellite images from Space Imaging, a U.S. company that
produces accurate pictures that might allow independent media to survey
In addition, U.S. bombs destroyed Al-Jazeera's television station in
Kabul in October. The Qatar-based independent network reaches much of
the Arab world and frequently broadcasts images from
Official acknowledgement of civilian deaths has been minimal.
Descriptions of heavily bombed frontline positions never mention that
they sometimes traverse densely populated neighborhoods. Frequently,
officials claim that civilian deaths "cannot be independently
Yet, according to a recent report by Professor Marc Herold, an economist
at the University of New Hampshire, the number of Afghan civilians
killed by American bombs has surpassed casualties from September
Herold's report -- the first independent survey of its kind -- claims
that 3,767 civilian deaths were caused by U.S. bombing between October 7
and December 10. Not included are indirect deaths caused by land mines,
lack of water, food or medicine.
The data, drawn from independent news sources and first-hand accounts,
include: dates, locations, types of munitions used and sources. Much
of it is based upon mainstream British, French and Indian press agencies
such as the BBC and The India Times.
While respected news agencies abroad have reviewed Herold's report, the
American media have largely ignored it. Only a few journals, Internet
sites and the radio program "Democracy Now!" have analyzed it.
Why have the U.S. media missed the story?
Part of the explanation may be related to the industry itself. Recent
mergers between media corporations have homogenized news, especially
television news. AOL/Time Warner, Viacom, News Corporation, Disney and
GE own CNN, CBS News, Fox News, ABC News and NBC, respectively.
Many American rely exclusively upon this cartel for information on the
"war on terrorism," which is presented more as entertainment than
Broadcasts include repetitive accounts of the search for Usamah bin
Laden, trivia about weapons, war images that resemble video games and
footage of cheerful Afghans trimming their beards and playing
These pictures are punctuated by angry pundits and politicians who
reduce complex events to simplified formulas ("good versus evil") using
language reminiscent of Hollywood Westerns ("dead or alive").
Whether such misinformation stems from Pentagon pressure, fear of
offending advertisers or shabby journalism is largely irrelevant. The
effect is the same: Warfare is presented as light
While American viewers remain oblivious, Europeans, Asians and others
have access to information about the catastrophic effects of U.S.
bombing. They have seen images of dead and wounded civilians and the
many widows, widowers and orphans created by Operation Enduring
Many are convinced that this is a U.S. crusade against Islam, and with
each passing week, violent "blowback" -- the CIA's term for unintended
foreign policy consequences -- appears more likely.
Ignorance may be dangerous in the current climate.
Murky official statements and a distracted mass media deny us
information which might help prevent future attacks.
George Orwell once noted that in free societies, censorship is more
sophisticated and thorough than in dictatorships because "unpopular
ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without any
need for an official ban."
But keeping Americans in the dark about inconvenient facts in
Afghanistan is reckless at best, and potentially dangerous.
Civilian deaths should be openly acknowledged by the Pentagon and
reported by the mass media if we wish to minimize the possibility of
future attacks on American soil.
Roberto J. Gonzales is an assistant professor in the Department of
Anthropology at San Jose State University.
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