US massacre entirely fails to move us


In the Museo del Prado in Madrid there hangs the huge, monumental work of Pablo Picasso, the most famous of his political paintings, Guernica. It was painted in 1937 in response to the German bombing of the Basque city of Guernica on April 26th of that year.

The story of what happened in Guernica was conveyed to a shocked world by one of the greatest pieces of war reporting in the history of journalism, published in the Times of London, the following day. It was written by George L. Steer.

Steer wrote: "Monday was the customary market day in Guernica for the country round. At 4.30 p.m. when the market was full and peasants were still coming in, the church bell rang the alarm for approaching aircraft and the population sought refuge in cellars and in the dugouts [already] prepared. Five minutes later a single German bomber appeared, circled over the town at a low altitude and then dropped six heavy bombs, apparently aiming for the station. In another five minutes came a second bomber, which threw the same number of bombs into the middle of the town.

"About a quarter of an hour later three Junkers arrived to continue the work of demolition and thenceforward the bombing grew in intensity and was continuous, ceasing only with the approach of dusk. The whole town of 7,000 inhabitants, plus 3,000 refugees was slowly and systematically pounded to pieces . . . In the hospital of Josefinas, which was one of the first places bombed, all the 42 wounded militiamen it sheltered were killed outright. In the streets leading downhill from the Case de Juntas I saw a place where 50 people, nearly all women and children, are said to have been trapped in the air raid refuge under a mass of burning wreckage. Many were killed in the fields and altogether the deaths may run into hundreds."

It has not been possible in the years since then to determine how many people died in these raids. The estimates vary between 100 and 1,600. Steer's report was carried on the editorial page of the Times. It was syndicated to several newspapers around the world, including, in translation, the Paris newspaper, L'Humanite, and in was in L'Humanite that Picasso read of what had happened in Guernica.

At the centre of the massive painting is the figure of a horse with upstretched neck and crumpling body, screaming in its final death throes. Towards the left side there is a motif representing chaos, and further over there is a bull above the figure of a distraught mother with her dead child. Over on the right is a crucified figure and all around symbols of terror and pandemonium.

It conveys powerfully the horror of war and the horror of bombing in particular. Nobody seeing it can remain unmoved by its power and by its terror. And yet we can accept with indifference the most destructive airforce the world has known pounding one of the poorest countries on earth, and remain unmoved. Week by week stories of carnage are conveyed to us - albeit almost as an incidental and far down news lists that regard bush fires in Sydney as more important - and there is no outcry, let alone a minute's silence (forget a day of national mourning) for the thousands being massacred.

JUST as Guernica was terrorised by the German bombings of almost 55 years ago, just as the women there shrieked at the killing of their children, just as innocent people in Guernica were crucified on their streets, just as chaos and horror was rained down upon them, so too do Afghan women shriek in grief over the killing of their children, so too are Afghan people crucified on their streets, so too is chaos and horror rained down upon them.

So how is it we are unmoved? Even complaint is treated as heretical with insinuations that the complainants are running agendas of anti-Americanism, that they (the complainants) are themselves indifferent to other killings, such as the murders of September 11th, the victims of the appalling crimes perpetrated by the Russians in Chechnya (about which there is nowadays not a word of protest). Is it not possible to be against all killings, even the killings of soldiers whether of conventional armies, the Taliban or al-Qaeda? Since last week when I again criticised the American bombing of Afghanistan and quoted from a US study of civilian casualties by Prof Marc Herold of the University of New Hampshire I received, among many other responses, one from a Peter Caress of Bethesda, MD.

Mr Caress states that Prof Herold's estimate of 3,767 civilian deaths as a result of the US bombings in the two-month period between October 7th and December 7th has been discredited and he provides specific examples where, he alleges, Prof Herold, has relied on questionable sources for his claims or exaggerated the evidence. He also pointed out that my own assertion that over 100 people had been killed in Qalaye Naizi, in eastern Afghanistan on Sunday week last was subsequently shown to have been 52 deaths.

I accept that the estimates upon which I relied were subsequently amended downwards to 52. I can also see reasonable questions arising from Prof Herold's estimates. But even allowing for these, the number of civil deaths in Afghanistan is by now well over 3,000 and certainly significantly more than the number of people killed on September 11th.

And while, in technological terms, the precision of American "strikes" has been impressive, a large number of civilians have been killed and we all knew before this adventure began that this would happen. But it didn't matter then and it doesn't matter now.