The first victims . . . and many more

This column was published on the editorial page of The Standard-Times (New Bedford, MA) July 25, 2002.

by Greg Stone

June 13, 1917, was a bright summer day in England with puffy white clouds floating dreamily in a blue sky. Some Londoners looked up on that day and saw little silver specks high in that blue. They stared at them not in fear, but in wonder. Airplanes were still a relatively rare sight, and it's doubtful that many - if any - of those on the ground knew that these planes were German bombers.

Among those who soon learned differently were the hundreds of children at the Upper North Street School. Sixteen of them - most under five years old - were in a room where one of the German bombs exploded. Panicky, grief-stricken parents dug the mutilated bodies out of the rubble.

A week later the children were buried together in a common grave, beneath memorial wreaths bearing words such as: "To our children murdered by German Aircraft."


Meanwhile, back in Germany the raid looked much different. The "valiant" German airmen were hailed as heroes, for they had successfully attacked "fortress London" in broad daylight without the loss of a single bomber. And they had helped introduce the world to a new kind of warfare.


Of course, these fliers did not see themselves as dropping bombs on schools and killing children. They said they hit the London docks and warehouses and railroad stations.

Looking back nearly 90 years, it's easy to see how brutally stupid this all was. Europeans, of course, became the victims of such air attacks on a repeated basis a couple of decades later.

Until September 11, 2001, American civilians had not been targeted in their own country. Perhaps that's at least part of the reason we were so shocked by what happened. But we haven’t wasted any time in creating more victims.

As with those 1917 German airmen, we have no intention of killing civilians. Like them, we use the best technology of the time to try to hit what we target, and we try to target the opposing military. But as the Germans could not tell the difference between a school and a factory - or more likely, couldn't control their bombs well enough - we have difficulty knowing the difference between a wedding party and a band of Al Qaeda terrorists. (Understandably difficult at night in rugged, mountainous terrain.)

So it is with Israel, as well. They kill a suspected Hamas leader, sending in fighter planes to attack an apartment building in a crowded urban area - and in the process kill a number of Palestinian children as well. So what? That's war. Their leaders point out that the United States does the same. Our leaders say, "No, we don't."

Media reports were recently filled with estimates of the number of civilians we've killed in Afghanistan. Between 2,000 and 8,000 reported the Guardian, a British paper. More than 800 said a report on ABC from a respected human rights group which had counted only the first three months of the war and only selected sections of Afghanistan. At least 400 said the New York Times conducting their own survey.

Well who knows? It took us months to learn that there were, thankfully, fewer than half the number of deaths at the World Trade Center than initially reported. I doubt that we'll ever get accurate figures out of a rural, poverty-stricken, war-torn country such as Afghanistan. Does it matter? How many dead children is too many? One? Ten? One hundred?

If the cops were looking for a bad guy in your neighborhood and they killed your children instead, would you say, "Gee, that's terrible, but I understand. Blow up the whole neighborhood if you need to. And wipe out the child care center down the street, just as long as you get the evil doer. Oh, you didn't get him? Well, try again."

Don't think I'm pointing fingers just at the United States - or for that matter, at Israel. I don’t think our behavior in this respect is any worse than anyone else's, and we're a lot better than some. There is no defense for terrorists flying airplanes filled with innocent people into buildings filled with more innocent people.

And while even President Bush condemns an Israeli attack on the Hamas leader, can we really single Israel out as wrong? After all, what's right about a young Palestinian strapping explosives to his or her body and killing innocent Jewish children, women, and men?

Murder is murder and cannot be obscured with cries of "But we're fighting terrorists." The children are dead.

Such actions are no accident because war is no accident. It is merely the final stupidity of tired old men who can't find any other solution. There is no justifiable rationale for bombs going astray because they should not have been dropped in the first place.

We are murdering children just as the Germans did on June 13, 1917. That's unconscionable. We can claim it is accidental. To murder children is not our intention. But that is the defense of the drunk driver whom we charge with manslaughter for rolling recklessly down the street and running over a child.

Every civilized nation has laws forbidding people to kill one another, yet nations support and encourage such killing if the people being killed are of another nation - as if lines on a map made some of us less human than others.

Our bombing in Afghanistan does not do honor to us as individuals or as a nation, nor are they a fitting memorial to the dead of September 11. So who will have the guts to put an end to it all? Where is the leader who will stand up and say: " We are the strongest and the best and as such, we are the only chance for mankind to act sanely." Where is the leader who will say, "Enough is enough. There will be no more victims - anywhere."

Note: Thanks to Raymond H. Fredette, for his book "The Sky on Fire" which gives a gruesomely fascinating picture of the first bomber raids on London. And more important, thanks to the American Friends Service Committee for their "No More Victims" campaign, which is trying to bring some sanity to this troubled and grieving planet.

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Last updated July 28,, 2001


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American Friends Service Committee - "No More Victims" campaign

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