As the actual events and details in Britain surrounding the alleged terrorist plot to blow up commercial airliners unfold, the fear and foreboding that has lived within many of us since Sept. 11 resurfaced.
Yet in the initial announcement of the alleged plot, there was a reference by a British official that caught my attention. Describing the alleged plot, this official went on to say that the outcome of such bombings would be an unimaginable loss of life.
Before going any further, let me be clear that as far as I am concerned, any attack on noncombatants is criminal and should be condemned. Yet in thinking about the comment by the British official, my first and continuing response was: Unimaginable to whom? The probable numbers of people who would have been killed might have gone as high as 15,000 (a very rough guess). But in today's world, 15,000 dead civilians is not an unimaginable figure — unless, of course, one means 15,000 dead civilians from Western Europe, the United States or Canada.
I do not wish to be harsh or unsympathetic, but let's count a few numbers and you tell me what conclusions you come to. Since 1997, approximately 4 million people have been killed as a result of the civil war (and foreign interventions) in the Congo. That comes down to approximately 444,000 per year, 37,000 per month, 1,200 per day. I would call that figure unimaginable, or perhaps inconceivable, in the sense that this planet has permitted 4 million people to die with very little international attention.
Or, a few miles to the north, in the Sudan, more than 2 million people were killed in the north/south civil war that recently ended. In the Darfur region of the Sudan, more than 400,000 people (not part of the 2 million) have died as a result of the government-backed genocide, and this number starts around 2003.
Or, if we wish to be more modest, we can see the more than 1,000 Lebanese civilians killed as a result of Israel's collective punishment of that country, a collective punishment that has specifically targeted civilians and civilian targets, this from an allegedly civilized nation. Should I mention Iraq? More than 2,600 U.S. personnel are dead and, by most reports, more than 100,000 Iraqis are dead as a result of an illegal war. This does not count the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who died as a result of the U.S./British sanctions against pre-war Iraq.
So, I found myself wondering about this term "unimaginable loss of life." The potential tragedy of a terrorist attack on civilian aircraft would deserve condemnation should even one person die as a result. But telling us about an unimaginable loss of life when the governments of Britain and the United States have been prepared to sit back and watch or participate in the massive loss of life in countries of the global South is nothing short of disingenuous.
This returns us to an issue that I have raised in previous columns — the relative importance or unimportance of the lives of different peoples. Four million dead in the Congo is absolutely unimaginable. It is unimaginable that so many people could lose their lives — and yet the Congo has to fight to get the attention of major news media in Western Europe, the United States and Canada.
Short of a titillating incident or an obvious and gross atrocity, the loss of 1,200 people per day does not seem to merit our consideration.
Bill Fletcher Jr. is a Washington, D.C.-based writer and activist involved with labor and international issues.