September 11 – October 07

Two possible options were immediately obvious in the aftermath of the appalling atrocities of one year ago yesterday: we could seek to identify and address the true causes of the catastrophe in the real and perceived grievances of those who caused it; or we could reject such attempts in an effort to protect and enforce the status quo. All who were comparatively free from hatred and revenge, and greed, had no doubt which was the sane option.

The seriousness of the search for causes of the catastrophe, was summed up by Tom Carver of the BBC when he talked last week of “anti-Americanism” as America’s “image problem”. Carver thought hard on the roots of this “anti-Americanism”, citing “envy” and “unrequited love” as possibilities: “people hate America for not paying them more attention”, he said. (Newsnight, BBC2, September 5, 2002)

It has been awesome over the last year to witness the efficiency with which the media has avoided serious discussion of the possible reasons that prompted the suicidal savagery of the September 11 attackers. While the press, literally within hours, leapt to the task of blaming Osama bin Laden, they mostly managed to see past his list of key grievances: the ‘desecration’ of holy sites by US military bases in Saudi Arabia, the mass death of Iraqis under US/UK-led sanctions, and the crushing misery of the Palestinians under Israeli military occupation. Whatever we might think of bin Laden, the fact is that large numbers of people around the world +are+ outraged by the suffering of the Palestinians and Iraqis.

An indication of how little has changed is provided by the fact that of all the many hundreds of thousands of words devoted to the prospective war against Iraq, almost none of them have focused on the suffering of the Iraqi people under more than a decade of sanctions, or of their likely suffering in the event of a new war. How many people, we wonder, are aware that Unicef has warned that by disrupting aid supplies to Iraq, a US/UK assault could lead to “famine on a large scale”? (Quoted, How many people know that Save the Children Fund has warned that war on Iraq would “lead to a humanitarian disaster for which the international community would bear a heavy responsibility.”? (Ibid)

That a massive military attack would fall on an innocent population already sunk in utter despair seems literally unworthy of comment to our media and politicians. We know of not one TV news reporter who has pointed out that war essentially means attacking the sick, the starving, the bereaved, and the dying with high-tech weaponry. Mentioning this misery appears to be deemed pro-Iraqi propaganda, or some kind of dangerous sentimentalism.

This is extraordinary. It suggests to us that, behind the high-tech communications, the smart suits and made-over smiles, our mass media represents a kind of brutal conformity filtered of individual thought and compassion to a staggering degree. In these curious times it is almost universally accepted that ‘neutral’ journalism means reporting the world from the point of view of ‘realpolitik’. As Noam Chomsky has said so well in his book, 9-11:

“It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that at some deep level, however they may deny it to themselves, they regard our crimes against the weak to be as normal as the air we breathe.”

To blank completely an investigation of the causes of catastrophe is to guarantee that they remain, intensify, and return to produce effects. Yesterday, on the anniversary of September 11, the terrible irony of the vast media coverage was that it was symptomatic of a deeply prejudiced mindset that precisely +nurtures+ the root causes of violence.

In the two weeks leading up and including the anniversary, there have been dozens of documentaries and special news reports focusing on the horror of September 11. Additionally there have been an enormous number of articles in the print media. Many of these have been worthy and warranted expressions of solidarity with, and sympathy for, the victims of September 11. But as the anniversary of the start of the bombing of Afghanistan on October 7 draws closer, we wonder how many BBC, ITV and Channel 4 documentaries will explore the tragedy of Afghan families torn apart by bombs, of mothers feeding grass to their dying children, of whole families freezing to death on mountainsides. How many people even know that October 7 marks the start of the US-led bombing campaign in Afghanistan?

Recall that on September 11, some 3,000 people lost their lives. After October 7, the University of New Hampshire conservatively estimates that 5,000 Afghan civilians lost their lives in the bombing. But this represents only a fraction of the real price paid. Before September 11, Afghanistan was already on a lifeline, and for three months that lifeline was cut by the West. A Western human rights analyst observes:

“Interrupting most of the country’s international aid programmes for three months only made matters worse. From mid-September to mid-December it is possible to say that in areas with already high levels of death from malnutrition and exposure there were likely increases in mortality rates.” (Quoted, Jonathan Steele, ‘Forgotten victims – The full human cost of US air strikes will never be known, but many more died than those killed directly by bombs’, The Guardian, May 20, 2002)

Medecins du Monde found the total number of dead in Afghanistan’s Maslakh refugee camp averaged 145 per month between September and December last year, almost double the total of 79 for February this year, a clear indication of how the bombing increased mortality rates.

Jonathan Steele concludes:

“A Guardian investigation into the ‘indirect victims’ now confirms the belief of many aid agencies that they exceeded the number who died of direct hits. As many as 20,000 Afghans may have lost their lives as an indirect consequence of the US intervention. They too belong in any tally of the dead.” (Ibid)

The true figures may be much higher – nobody was counting.

But surely things are different now, with the ‘liberation’ of Afghanistan. Consider these isolated words buried out of sight in the middle of an article by Jason Burke in The Observer:

“Last November the leaders of the developed nations promised that, unlike after the Soviet withdrawal, the Afghans would not be abandoned. Tony Blair pledged support ‘for the long haul’. In April, President Bush himself promised a ‘Marshall Plan’.

“But out of £1.1bn pledged for 2001, only a fraction has arrived, and there is little prospect of more in the near future. The situation is so bad that even the UNHCR – which dealt with 1.5 million returnees – has run out of cash. Now, as winter nears again, seven million people are at risk of famine.” (Jason Burke, ‘Chaos lurks in an abandoned land – Al-Qaeda and the roots of terror: The West vowed to end poverty, but little has changed for Afghanistan’s people – and this great failing could breed fresh trouble’, September 8, 2002)

Burke is admirable – to our knowledge he is the only journalist in the Observer, The Guardian, The Independent, on BBC TV or ITN, to have mentioned that literally millions of people are once again facing starvation and death in Afghanistan. Burke has now mentioned the impending starvation in two articles – a few dozen words on the fate of seven million people. This is no temporary media oversight. Last year, we reported how the media similarly turned a blind eye as aid agencies warned of mass death on a similar scale. Nothing has changed.

How can we explain this indifference to human suffering for which we bear real responsibility? Two weeks after the horror of September 11, a New Statesman editorial outlined a kind of ‘law of diminishing compassion’. The editors are at least to be applauded for articulating what is undoubtedly taken for granted by almost all of the mainstream media:

“Compassion radiates outwards: the closer people are to us, the more keenly we feel it when tragedy befalls them. To most of us, that starts with close family (partners, children, parents, siblings), continues through friends, fellow Britons, citizens of other countries whose culture we share (or which we have visited), and then the rest of the world, with the compassion diminishing at each stage… It is, therefore, wholly understandable that British emotions are touched when more than 5,000 people die at the hands of terrorists in New York and Washington: that people are more deeply troubled than they are by countless deaths in Colombia, Iraq, Afghanistan or the Congo. Most of us cannot imagine life in a poor African village or a Latin American shanty town, but New Yorkers lead lives much like ours, commuting from suburb to office, speaking the same language, nurturing the same aspirations.” (‘It’s not the Wild West, Mr President’, New Statesman, September 24, 2001)

An answer to this claim was made with great eloquence by the cousin of a Palestinian man shot dead by the Israeli army, apparently in error, in Nablus refugee camp in the West Bank. The man spoke of his shock at the events of September 11, and continued with these words:

“I know what they feel. But I want them to know what I feel. I think many of them don’t want to know about us, don’t want to know what we feel. They think we are from another country, or from another star. We also, like them, we cry. We live. We feel sad. We feel happy. And we have minds, also. I want them to use their minds and to understand what happened here.” (Through Muslim Eyes, Channel 4, September 6, 2002)

The death of an Afghan woman torn from her child by a bomb stirs our compassion quite as much as the death of a young husband torn from his wife on September 11. The truth of the New Statesman’s claim is that selective compassion is very often a political requirement, +not+ a human one. There will always be centres of power which benefit from fear and hatred, from the alienated sense of ‘us’ (who matter) and ‘them’ (who don’t), from the ‘evil empires’, ‘evil doers’ and ‘New Hitlers’ that are in effect conscripted to sell arms budgets, and to justify violent interventions in support of cynical policy.

Compassion cannot be limited by national boundaries, coastlines or dress codes – suffering is suffering. To the extent that we address the suffering of all with equanimity, we protect all, ourselves included. To do anything less, now more than ever, is to summon unimaginable horror to our world.


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Write to:

Richard Sambrook, director of BBC news: [email protected]

Jonathan Munro, head of newsgathering, ITV news: [email protected]

Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian: [email protected]

Roger Alton, editor of The Observer: [email protected]

Simon Kelner, editor of The Independent: [email protected]

Tristan Davies, editor of the Independent on Sunday: [email protected]