Frame Game

Afghanistan Hijacked


On Sept. 11, agents of the al-Qaida terrorist network hijacked four planes and used three of them to kill 5,000 Americans. The fourth plane crashed short of its target. Afterward, U.S. officials disclosed that if the fourth plane had made it to Washington, D.C., they would have shot it down. They were prepared to kill some civilians, if necessary, in order to prevent the terrorists from killing many more.

A similar scenario is now unfolding in Afghanistan. Al-Qaida and its Taliban agents have hijacked a nation, making it a base of operations for mass murder and terror. They’re using the civilian inhabitants of this base as human shields. If we refuse to attack the terrorists, many more civilians around the world will die. So we have attacked, and some of our bombs have killed innocent people. Each of those deaths is terrible and tragic. But we’re no more responsible for them than we would have been for shooting down that plane full of innocent Americans. We didn’t put the lives of Afghan civilians at risk. Afghanistan’s hijackers did.

The killing of Afghan civilians, followed by worldwide outrage against the United States for those killings, is central to Osama Bin Laden’s long-term strategy. In a videotape released over the weekend, Bin Laden declared, “The entire West, with the exception of a few countries, supports this unfair, barbaric [military] campaign, although there is no evidence of the involvement of the people of Afghanistan in what happened in America. The people of Afghanistan had nothing to do with this matter. The campaign, however, continues to unjustly annihilate the villagers and civilians, children, women, and innocent people.”

So far, Bin Laden’s strategy is working. Pictures of dead civilians are pouring across TV screens and newspapers, turning Muslims and Europeans against the bombing. “We cannot accept what we see on the screen every day, hundreds of innocent civilians dying,” Syria’s president told British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Malaysia and Indonesia have called for a halt in the campaign, protesting that it has “takenso many innocent lives.” Leftist parties in Germany, France, and Sweden, along with civic and religious leaders in Norway and Scotland, have followed suit. Polls in Britain, Spain, and France show support for the campaign slipping. The killing of Afghan civilians could lead to “an explosion of anger in the Muslim world,” U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told Le Figaro last week. “Innocents shouldn’t pay for the guilty.”

The essential theme of this worldwide reaction is moral equivalence. “As long as the U.S. keeps killing civilians, it will not differ from the organizations it is fighting against,” a Turkish editor told the New York Times last week. Venezuela’s president punctuated a televised speech by showing his countrymen a picture of dead Afghan women and children. “This has no justification, just like the attacks in New York didn’t,” he declared. “You can’t respond to terror with more terror.”

It’s true that in Afghanistan, as in New York, killing civilians is wrong. But beneath that pattern lies another. In each case, only one party has believed that killing civilians is wrong. In each case, the other party has exploited that belief by putting civilians in harm’s way. And in each case, the ruthless party has been al-Qaida and its agents. What’s happening in Afghanistan isn’t the reverse of what happened in New York. It’s the same thing.

In recent years, al-Qaida has moved into Afghanistan, bought the Taliban’s allegiance, set up terrorist training camps, and made the country its headquarters for organizing attacks on civilians abroad. After engineering the slaughter in New York, Bin Laden went underground in Afghanistan while his Taliban protectors surrounded themselves and their weapons with human shields. The testimony of Afghan refugees on this point is overwhelming. One told the Washington Post, “Now the Taliban come at night to the houses of the people and bring their equipment into civilian places.” Another said the Taliban had parked 10 tanks at a mosque in Kabul. A third told Time that Taliban soldiers had positioned anti-aircraft guns on the roofs of houses in Kandahar. A fourth told the Christian Science Monitor, “Now the Taliban are taking their guns to the residential areas, and when they fire at the [U.S.] planes, the planes see them and drop bombs on them. That’s when the innocent people die.” If you don’t trust the American press, you can find similar accounts in foreign papers such as London’s Independent. Or you can consult the U.N. High Commission on Refugees, which reported on Oct. 27 that many refugees at the Afghan border have expressed fear of “being used as human shields by the Taliban.”

Two days after Sept. 11, Frame Game argued that the chief weapon of terrorists is “their willingness to defy moral expectations. If you can’t imagine that they’d target children, they’ll target children. … If you can’t imagine that they’d fly your plane into the World Trade Center, they’ll fly your plane into the World Trade Center. Your conscience is their cover.” That principle is no less true today. If you can’t imagine that al-Qaida and the Taliban would hide behind children, they’ll hide behind children. If you can’t imagine bombing a residential neighborhood, they’ll shoot at your planes from a residential neighborhood. Your conscience is their cover.

As Britain and the United States launch their public relations campaign to defend the war, they must take this message to the people and national leaders whose discomfort with civilian casualties is driving the global outcry for a bombing halt. The conscience of the world is the cover of terrorists. That’s just as true when we attack terrorists as when they attack us. Americans hate killing civilians. But we were prepared to pull the trigger on Sept. 11, when the civilians in the crossfire were our own.