Two potentially huge news stories broke earlier this week: North Korea’s nuclear test and the shockingly high civilian death toll from the U.S. war in Iraq. The North Korea story continues to dominate the headlines, while the Iraq death toll story has quickly disappeared.
By all logic it should have been the other way around. The North Korea story is about a deadly attack on the U.S. that might conceivably happen in the future, though it’s extremely unlikely. The Iraq story is about deadly attacks perpetrated by the U.S., paid for by our taxpayers’ money, every day.
Consider some simple math. According to the Johns Hopkins study, there is a 95% certainty that the civilian death rate in Iraq has exceeded the normal expected by at least 426,269 -- and probably much more, but let’s work with the low figure to be safe. The normal expected figure is based on the death rate during the Saddam regime, which (according to a reputable conservative source, The Wall Street Journal) killed as many as 14,500 civilians every year for twenty years.
The new Hopkins study also broke down the excess deaths in categories based on cause: 56% from gunshots; 27% from exploding bombs; 13% airstrikes. It’s that last number that should still be dominating the headlines. Neither “insurgents” nor Shi’ites nor Sunnis nor Kurds have airplanes that drop bombs. That 13% came completely from American military aircraft. Do the math: 13% of even just 400,000 (the absolute minimum figure) is 52,000. The study covered the first 40 months after the U.S. invasion. That’s 3.3 years. 52,000 divided by 3.3 gives us 15,777 dead civilians per year.
In other words, U.S. aerial bombardment alone has killed Iraqi civilians at a faster rate than Saddam’s killers -- at least 1000 more per year. That’s the most conservative figure. If we use the actual number of deaths the Hopkins study suggests -- 601,000 -- then we get 78,130 civilian deaths from U.S. bombardment. Divide that by 3.3, and we get 23,674 deaths per year. That’s over 50% more killing than the Saddam’s regime 14,500 per year. And that’s just from aerial bombardment. No one will ever know how many civilians were shot or beaten or tortured to death by U.S. troops.
Yet this story has all but disappeared from the mainstream news. That’s not just because the White House dismissed it so quickly. The mainstream editors are not puppets of the Bush administration. Many agree with over 60% of the public that the war was a mistake. Many agree with the Democrats who say we need a firm plan for withdrawing our troops.
The story of the atrocious death count in Iraq disappeared, I think, because it does not fit any plot that Americans are familiar or comfortable with. The stories that Americans are willing to hear have no room for their own soldiers as perpetrators of slaughter. They must always feature Americans only as real or potential victims of monsters out to destroy us. So when we destroy the monsters, we are still innocent victims, acting only in self-defense.
That’s why the story of North Korea’s attack stays in the headlines. It has been shaped to fit the plot line Americans are so fond of.
North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-Il, is taking a lot of risks to develop an atomic bomb. Why does think it’s worth the risks? In the mainstream American media there seem to be only two possible answers. Maybe Kim is just another crazy dictator in the mold of Saddam Hussein. But the more common answer is that he’s a shrewd bargainer, a wily dictator maneuvering to boost his power by manipulating splits in the international community and showing the U.S. to be a paper tiger. If you see the issue through either of those lenses, the Bush administration's tough stance against North Korea can make a lot of sense.
But overseas people get a different story, because their news is often written by real journalists who go out and get facts rather than just repeating the official U.S. government line. Donald Greenlees, a reporter for the International Herald Tribune, called a bunch of people who really know something about North Korea and asked them why Kim is so dead set on having atomic bombs.
It’s not about any desire to grab attention or gain leverage in negotiations, he found. It’s about Kim’s fear that his conventional military forces aren’t strong enough to withstand an attack from outside. Kim “is not trying to make foreigners dance to his tune,” one expert told Greenlees. “In many ways, the foreigners are irrelevant. He decided many years ago that he has no friends, and he needs a nuclear weapon in order to survive.”
Kim has seen how easily the U.S. disposed of Iraq’s second-rate military. He can’t afford to build a first rate conventional military. So he has concluded, quite logically, that the most cost-effective way to defend his country it is to have a nuclear deterrent. In other words, North Korea is doing just what the United States has done, and what most Americans expect our own government to continue doing.
The New York Times website deserves credit for posting Greenlees’ story. And the Washington Post deserves credit for running a brief commentary by Donald Gregg, the first President Bush’s national security advisor, who wrote: “Don’t panic. Kim Jong-il’s objective is survival ... not suicide.” But those stories were posted only for one day, and they never made it to the print editions, because they contradicted everything else you could read in the Times, the Post, or any other mainstream U.S. source. Indeed, the Times ran an op-ed asserting that North Koreans are "irrational" and "suicidal." Rather than give us accurate analysis, our media would rather disseminate America’s favorite story: the crazy or foxy monsters who are out to destroy us, the innocent victims.
That story was first invented to justify white America’s annihilation of Native Americans. In the 20th century it served to legitimate our long wars against Germany and the Soviet Union. Now it is pressed into service for the Bush administration's long war against terrorism, which in turn is supposed to justify the war in Iraq, where we kill people faster than Saddam ever did. The same story is also used to justify planning for a war against Iran.
If the Bush administration has its way, we’ll soon see it used to justify sanctions that will kill thousands of innocent North Koreans who already live on the edge of starvation -- unless we protest loud and strong, demanding that our government base its policies on the best information that knowledgeable people can provide, not the best stories that our media can spin. But the media will keep telling those stories, because they make money by giving the people what they want. The long-term task is to get Americans to understand how their own stories kill innocent people abroad and undermine our own security here at home.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His most recent book is Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin. E-mail Ira at firstname.lastname@example.org