"The price is worth it"

By Edward S. Herman

Try to imagine how the mainstream U.S. media and intellectuals would respond to the disclosure that at an early planning meeting of the terrorists responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the question had come up about whether the "collateral damage" of prospectively thousands of dead civilians wouldn't be excessive, but that the matter had been settled with the top leader's response: "we think the price is worth it"?

Suppose further that the terrorists' leaders then set out to make their case to their followers, arguing that it was extremely important to show the citizens of the Great Satan that they were not immune to attack on their own land--that they could not continue to bomb others freely and support the violent states of their choice without suffering some retaliation themselves. The terrorists argued that, as the Great Satan has been conducting low- (and often not so low) -intensity wars against the Third World and Arab states for decades, the planned attacks would be both just and legal under international law, justifiable under the UN Charter's grant of the right of self-defense, which He has relied on so often to excuse his own unilateral actions.

The leaders argued further that since the symbolic value of showing the Great Satan's vulnerability by attacking the WTC and Pentagon would be greatly enhanced by taking out several thousand civilians, this must be regarded as acceptable collateral damage. Finally, imagine the terrorists' leaders explaining to their followers that for the sake of global peace and security, no less than the welfare of peoples the world over, it is crucial to raise the costs of imperial violence, and help persuade the Great Satan's population to ask Him to terminate His wars. This, the terrorist leaders argued, would in the long run save far more lives than those lost in the bombing of the WTC and Pentagon.

Wouldn't the mainstream media and intellectuals be wild with indignation at the inhumanity of the terrorists' coldblooded calculus? Wouldn't they respond in one voice that it is absolutely immoral, evil, and indefensible per se to kill civilians on a massive scale to make a political point? And as to the terrorists' underlying argument that the attacks were justified both as retaliation for the Great Satan's ongoing wars and as part of an effort to curb His imperial violence, wouldn't this be rejected as outlandish?

Wouldn't establishment spokespersons rush to claim that despite occasional regrettable mistakes this country has behaved well in international affairs, has intervened abroad only in just causes, and is the victim of terrorism, not a terrorist state or supporter of terrorism?

And wouldn't it also be stressed that it is immoral and outrageous to even SPEAK of a "just cause" or any give any kind of legitimation for a terrorist action such as occurred in New York and Washington? That the only question in such a case of violence is "who," not "why"? (These last two sentences are a paraphrase of the indignant argument of a U.S. liberal historian.) And in fact, across the board the U.S. mainstreamers have refused to talk about "why" except for superficial denunciations of an irrational enemy that hates democracy, etc.

Turning now to the actual use of the phrase "the price is worth it," we come to U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's reply to Lesley Stahl's question on "60 Minutes" on May 12, 1996:

Stahl: "We have heard that a half a million children have died [because of sanctions against Iraq]. I mean that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And--you know, is the price worth it?"

Albright: "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price--we think the price is worth it."

In this case, however, although the numbers dead are mind- boggling--the ratio of dead Iraqi children to deaths in the WTC/Pentagon bombings was better than 80 to 1, using the now obsolete early 1996 number for Iraqi children--the mainstream media and intellectuals have not found Albright's rationalization of this mass killing of any interest whatsoever. The phrase has been only rarely cited in the mainstream, and there has been no indignation or suggestion that the mass killing of children in order to satisfy some policy end was immoral and outrageous.

Since the morning hours of Tuesday, September 11, the civilian dead in the WTC/Pentagon terrorist bombings have been the subject of the most intense and detailed and humanizing attention, making the suffering clear and dramatic and feeding in to the sense of outrage.

In contrast, the hundreds of thousands of children dead in Iraq are very close to invisible, their suffering and dying are out of sight; and whereas the ratio of Iraqi children killed by sanctions to WTC/Pentagon deaths was better than 80 to 1, the ratio of media space devoted to the Iraqi children and WTC/Pentagon deaths has surely been better than 500 to one in favor of the smaller WTC/Pentagon casualties. Pictures of sufferers and expressions of pain and indignation have been in a similar ratio.

The UN workers in Iraq like Dennis Halliday who have resigned in disgust at the effects of the "sanctions of mass destruction" have been given minimal space in the media to inform the public and express their outrage.

The "who" in the case of the Iraqi mass deaths is clear-- overwhelmingly the U.S. and British leadership--but the "who" here is irrelevant because of how the "why" is answered. This is done implicitly. Madeleine Albright said that the deaths are worth it because U.S. policy finds this to be so--and with Albright saying this is "why," that settles the matter for the media.

Their indignation at the immorality of killing civilians as collateral damage to make a political point ends, because the Iraqi children die by U.S. policy choice--and in this case the media will not even allow the matter to be discussed. The per se unreasonableness of killing civilians as collateral damage is quietly set aside (reminding one of how the Soviet's shooting down of KAL 007 in 1983 was per se barbarian, but the U.S. shooting down of Iranian airliner 655 in 1988 was a "tragic error.")

The media focus on whether Saddam Hussein will allow UN inspections to prevent him getting "weapons of mass destruction," not on the mass death of children. (And of course the media regularly fail to note that the United States and Britain had helped Saddam Hussein obtain such weapons in the 1980s, and didn't object to his using them, until he stopped following orders in August 1990.)

Because the media make the suffering and death of 500,000 children invisible, the outrage produced by the intense coverage of the WTC/Pentagon bombing victims does not surface on their behalf. The liberal historian who was so indignant at even asking "why" for the WTC-Pentagon bombings and argued that only "who" was pertinent has said nothing about the immorality of killing Iraqis; he is not interested in "who" in this case, partly because he does not have to see dying Iraqi children every day, and partly because his government has answered the "why" to his satisfaction, justifying mass death.

Is it not morally chilling, even a bit frightening, that he, and the great mass of his citizen compatriots, can focus with such anguish and indignation on their own 6,000 dead, while ignorant of, or not caring about, or approving his (their) own government's ongoing killing of scores of times as many innocents abroad?

This reflects the work of a superb propaganda system.

The U.S. government finding the mass death of Iraqi children "worth it," the media push the fate of these "unworthy victims" into the black hole, thereby allowing that policy to be continued without impediment. With the United States itself a victim of terrorism, here the reverse process ensues: with these ultra-worthy victims, the media feature their suffering and deaths intensively and are not interested in root causes, but only in "who" did it; they beat the war drums incessantly and push to the forefront the most regressive forces in the country, making violence and repression the probable outcome of their efforts.

But they will sell papers, get larger audiences, support the "national interest," and prove to the rightwing that they are real Americans.