Peoples Geography — Reclaiming space

Creating people's geographies

Bill Fletcher: ‘An Unimaginable Loss of Life’

Black Commentator :: 31 August 2006, Issue 195 


As the actual events and details surrounding the alleged terrorist plot to blow up commercial airliners unfold, the fear and foreboding that has lived within many of us since 9/11 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 non-combatants 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). As someone who just flew back from the West Coast, I would not look forward to flying on a plane that was the target of a terrorist attack. Nevertheless, 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 or 37,000 per month or about 1,200 per day. I would call that figure unimaginable (even though it happened), 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, over 20 years, 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 dead and by most reports more than 100,000 Iraqis dead as a result of an illegal war (by the way, that is more than 30,000 dead per year or about 80 dead per day). This does not count the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who died as a result of the US/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 government of Britain, let alone the United States, has 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, i.e., the relative importance or unimportance of the lives of different peoples. Four million dead in the Congo is absolutely unimaginable. It is difficult to even count to 4 million sitting in the same place. 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 1200 people per day does not seem to merit our consideration.

Perhaps I have a different imagination?

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Washington, DC-based writer and activist involved with labor and international issues. A former president of TransAfrica Forum, he is now a Visiting Professor in Political Science at Brooklyn College-CUNY. He can be reached at [email protected].

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Timely Reminders

"Those who crusade, not for God in themselves, but against the devil in others, never succeed in making the world better, but leave it either as it was, or sometimes perceptibly worse than what it was, before the crusade began. By thinking primarily of evil we tend, however excellent our intentions, to create occasions for evil to manifest itself."
-- Aldous Huxley

"The only war that matters is the war against the imagination. All others are subsumed by it."
-- Diane DiPrima, "Rant", from Pieces of a Song.

"It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there"
-- William Carlos Williams, "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower"