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Of Humans and Rights

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U.S. newspapers sometimes print what they call the total death count from one or more of our wars, and all the dead who are listed are Americans.  They aren't all the Americans.  They don't include contractors or suicides or various other categories of dead Americans.  They certainly don't include those who died for lack of basic needs while we dumped half of our public treasury into wars. 

But they also don't include anyone from that 95% of humanity that's not from the United States.  In our current wars, well over 95% of the dead, even in the short-term, are from the countries where the wars are fought.  Some get labeled combatants and some civilians, but they're all left out of most body counts, and when they are counted they are counted low.  Our government pretends not to count them at all, and only thanks to Wikileaks do we know otherwise, that the military has counted some of them.

This may be a step up from the Vietnam War, when the deaths of Vietnamese were officially celebrated.  But it's not a step all the way to considering everyone human.  The dead are still dead and unmourned.  The official collection of ears in Vietnam has evolved into the unofficial collection of fingers in Afghanistan.  This is not the progress we ultimately need.

Some humans seem to have no business existing, even before they die.  Nearly five million Iraqis have been turned into refugees by our so-called liberation of their country.  To acknowledge their existence doesn't fit our narrative.  The global policeman doesn't chase people out of their homes or render whole pieces of the earth's surface uninhabitable.  Are the women of Fallujah, told by doctors to stop having children because so many are born with horrible defects, human?  Are they as human as the British royal couple or the U.S. president's family?  Do we hear about them as much?  Or at all?

I recently read the script of a play dramatizing the stories of some Iraqi refugees.  By doing so, common understanding would hold that I went through a process of what's called humanizing people.  Five million refugees is just a number.  But the story of one of them who has had specific and somewhat familiar troubles, the loss of loved ones, the loss of self-respect, and a struggle to endure, a story full of detail including the person's name, appearance, voice, manners, and personality -- well, that humanizing story makes that person and the four million nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand and nine hundred and ninety-nine others more than a number.  They have all now been humanized.  Or so it is commonly believed.

I don't deny that such humanization works.  But I question whether we must necessarily be so incredibly obtuse that it is necessary.  Do we really doubt that any human lacks a specific human story until we hear it?  While we should want to know the details of others' lives, do we have to know them before we can believe that those people are human and act accordingly?  I'd like to propose a definition for human being that goes in the opposite direction: A human is anyone at all, but especially those you know the least about or know the most unpleasant things about.  The person least like you is the most human, and you should work hardest to get that person human rights.  After all, people you know well need not be described in such general terms as "she's a human being." 

Our president recently began a war for the supposed benefit of the people of Libya, ceasing to arm and support Muammar Gadaffi and switching our government's support to his opponents.  To gain Saudi Arabia's backing for this humanitarian war, our government told Saudi Arabia it had our blessing to move troops into Bahrain where they would attack civilians.  Were the Libyans more human than the Bahrainis?  What about the Libyans whom U.S. and NATO bombs are killing?  Are they less human than other Libyans?  Are the Libyans on our side of the war the most human, except for the ones employing child soldiers, and the racist murderers, and the ones who fought against the United States in Iraq, and the ones we may poison with depleted uranium, but especially Khalifa Hiftar, the rebel leader who has spent the past 20 years living in Virginia near CIA headquarters with no visible means of support?  And what about Libyans who try to come to Europe, or who die of thirst and starvation on a ship while a U.S. aircraft carrier leaves them to their fate?  Are they the least human Libyans?  Reuters printed this headline this week: "Libya may be using migrants as weapon against EU- UN."  Remember when the Pentagon viewed suicides at Guantanamo as acts of war?  For Libyans and other Africans, just existing and being sent or sending oneself in the direction of Europe is an act of war.  These humans are imagined into objects deployed like bullets from a gun.  They disappear as human beings.  And we learn nothing.  If we'd known the Iraq War produced refugees, perhaps we'd have known the Libyan War would do the same.  The UN Refugee Agency estimates 1,200 have died on boats fleeing the humanitarian war in Libya.  Survivors say a U.S. aircraft carrier and other ships have left them to their fate.

Other humans are not erased, but rather demonized.  Whole races and nations and religions of people are hated.  While some back wars as humanitarian acts, others back the same wars as a way to kill evil beings.  Before he dropped atomic bombs on Japan, before he became president or vice president, Harry Truman was a senator who stood up in the U.S. Senate and said that if the Germans were beating the Russians we should help the Russians, and if the Russians were beating the Germans we should help the Germans.  That way, he said, more of the whole lot of them would die. 
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We think of the genocide committed by the Germans in their World War II camps as invented out of whole cloth.  It actually built on the colonial and imperial policies and thoughts of Germany, Belgium, France, Spain, England, and the United States.  Spanish murder and disease wiped out the inhabitants of the Canary Islands between 1478 and 1496, followed by the European elimination of humans from many parts of the Americas, the Pacific, and Asia.  In 1829, all non-Europeans in Tasmania were concentrated in one area and hunted down.  You know what the United States did to its native peoples.  The term "concentration camp" had been invented by the Spanish in Cuba in 1896, used by Americans, and used by the British in the Boer War.  In 1904, the Germans used it as they wiped out the Herero people of Southwest Africa. 

The Nazis killed several million civilians in camps and became the model for all things evil, but the war they started killed some 70 million people worldwide, each and every one of them a human being, and each a victim of the very worst thing we've ever created: war, and this war like every war the result of years and decades of predictably dangerous decisions. 

The Nazis are our model for evil, but we put their top living officials on trial in courts of law and declared, however hypocritically, that we would expect to be treated identically if charged with the same crimes in the years to come.  Germany just convicted another former Nazi this week.  The Nazis were evil, but human.  The people our propaganda now demonizes as this month's Adolf Hitler or next month's Adolf Hitler are depicted as sub-human.  Prisoners are bound and hooded and treated as animals, communicating the inability to reason with them, softening us up to accept their torture.  If the President of Bahrain were demonized on our televisions for his nation's abuses of innocent people, a good many Americans would want to bomb Bahrain, despite the fact that most of the victims of our bombs would not be the demonized president.  Of course, that scenario won't happen with Bahrain hosting a U.S. Naval fleet.  But it happens all the time in nations that our nation's government wants to bomb, with bin Laden, Gadaffi, Hussein, Milosevic, Noriega, and many others.

We've been reduced to arguing that we should try alleged criminals in courts of law, rather than murdering them, for our own sake.  We should do it to avoid lowering ourselves to what we understand as their level.  We admit that they are subhuman monsters, but we prefer to give them trials because that is who we are.  I don't think this is good enough.  Nor do I think it takes full account of our own monstrous foreign policies.  Every human is a human, even the cruel, sadistic, murderous ones.  They have blood on their hands and legitimate grievances at the same time.  They have caused widespread suffering, often with our government's support before it switched sides, and they have families and friends who love them at the same time.  Simple-minded hatred impedes our understanding of the world and our ability to take actions that will make the world better.  Rather than using crimes as excuses for wars or assassinations, we should consider adopting policies that make crime less likely and taking an approach to criminal punishment that looks at deterrence, prevention, restitution, and reconciliation, rather than immediate satisfaction of passions for vengeance regardless of the consequences.

Italy a couple of years back convicted a couple of dozen CIA agents in absentia of kidnapping a man in Italy to have him tortured in Egypt.  They are all free and living in the United States.  Terrorists convicted of attacks on Cuba live in Florida.  Presidents Bush and Obama, who have overseen illegal wars abroad, are on the loose despite open confessions of crimes like assassination and torture.  If an Italian or Cuban or Iraqi or Afghan or Pakistani death squad were to murder an American they considered a criminal, would Americans view that as law enforcement?  Would our president declare that justice had been served?
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We have one standard for five percent of humanity and a different one for the other 95 percent.  And when we do consider the possible ramifications of having killed a likely mass murderer like bin Laden, we still fail to consider that what we did to him with bullets we do to others with missiles all the time.  Our drone war in Pakistan has been denounced as illegal by the U.N. investigator on extrajudicial killings.  Five days after killing bin Laden with a gun, the United States tried to kill U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki with a drone.  Awlaki is an American, but a Muslim; he speaks English, but he lives abroad.  So, is he a human?  He has not been charged with a crime.  Neither had the two people who were killed in the failed attempt to kill him.  Two days before that strike, U.S. drones killed 15 people in Pakistan.  The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan says that 957 civilians were killed by U.S. drones there in 2010.

Drone victims may not look like humans to the drone pilots sitting comfortably thousands of miles away in Nevada or Virginia.  But we have soldiers at comfortable desk jobs dying of suicide.  Suicide is the number one cause of death for U.S. military participants in our wars.  It may be that while our policies don't recognize all humans as humans, those executing our policies do.  It may be that our double standards aren't fooling even ourselves. 

We've made one set of laws for our country and another for the rest of the world.  We hear a lot in Washington about Israel's sovereign right to attack Iran if it sees fit, while the idea of an Iranian sovereign right to attack someone is treated with appropriate scorn.  We've packed our prisons beyond what any other country has attempted, but our political criminal class has complete immunity, and the very first representative of the Wall Street gang that has recently stripped away so much of our nation's wealth, Raj Rajaratnam, was convicted this week and is appealing.  A couple of weeks ago, I merely suggested to former Senator Alan Simpson that corporations and the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes, and he flew into a rage denouncing a mythical poor man who bought four houses with nothing down.  Threatening those with power leads to demonizing those without.  This, too, is a problem of who counts as humans.  But I'm not sure it's fooling anybody.

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David Swanson is the author of "When the World Outlawed War," "War Is A Lie" and "Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union." He blogs at and and works for the online (more...)

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