Foreign Policy

When Numbers Get Serious

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The death toll from the destruction of the World Trade Center, once feared to be 6,000 or more, has shrunk to around 2,800, a still horrifying number that would have been much higher without a remarkably successful evacuation effort. With many people missing and much uncertainty about who was in the buildings that day, the task of compiling an authoritative list of victims has been daunting. But that challenge pales beside the puzzle of how many civilians have died as a result of the U.S. response to September 11.

Clearly, there is no moral equivalence between the deliberate murder of innocent people and the accidental killing of noncombatants during military action against terrorists. But that does not mean the death toll in Afghanistan can be shrugged off. It's tempting to blame Al Qaeda and its Taliban hosts for the "collateral damage," and surely an aggressor who hides among civilians does bear responsibility when they are killed as a result of retaliatory action by his victims. But in striking back, the victims have a widely recognized responsibility to minimize innocent deaths. That is why dropping nuclear bombs on Afghanistan was never seriously considered as a legitimate response to Al Qaeda's terrorism.

At what point does the cost of striking back become unacceptable? If it turned out that as many civilians died in Afghanistan as died at the World Trade Center, would it matter? These are questions we may never have to squarely confront, because it seems likely we will never have an accurate count of civilian deaths in Afghanistan, due to conflicting reports, quick Muslim burials, and a lack of independent observers on the ground.

A compilation that anti-war activists like to cite, by University of New Hampshire economist Marc W. Herold, counts at least 3,767 civilian deaths between October 7 and December 6, based on reports in the news media. Using stricter standards, Carl Conetta of the Project on Defense Alternatives, another critic of the war, estimates that the number was between 1,000 and 1,300.

By contrast, a recent investigation by the Associated Press tentatively concluded that "the toll may be in the mid-hundreds." Human Rights Watch plans to come up with its own estimate after sending investigators to Afghanistan.

It's a thankless mission, since both supporters and opponents of Operation Enduring Freedom may prefer not to know the truth.