Deadly accountancy – Accountability for death

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article was published in The Nation on February12 2012

Timothy J. McVeigh, a decorated US army veteran, was executed on June 11, 2001. Although ‘only’ 168 were killed, the Oklahoma bombing was a great shock to the American people because terrorism on American soil was unusual. Although the perpetrator was not a foreigner, the reaction set in train a series of encroachments of freedom which led to the Bush regime’s use of torture.

Provisional IRA

One might say that ‘only’ 3,000 people were killed during 33 years of the Provisional IRA’s campaign. Each of those deaths was a matter of pain, of grief, loss and bereavement.
Lost Lives: The Stories of the Men, Women and Children Who Died as a Result of the Northern Ireland Troubles is a 1,696 page volume in which three Northern Irish journalists and an academic list 3,638 deaths, directly attributable to ‘The Troubles’, from 1966 to 2000. It depicts the dead as individual human beings, blood and bone and nerve ends, with families and emotions.
League table of death

Neil Tweedie in the Daily Telegraph: “In proportional terms Norway has lost more people than America did on 9/11, and most of them are young, between 13 and 19”. In 2006, Slate contributor Jordan Ellenberg questioned the logic of such comparisons.

“It’s hard for Americans to comprehend what’s happening in the Middle East…What crime in America is morally equal to the killing of eight Israelis?…What event would have the impact on America that the killing of eight Israelis does on Israel? …Unless you truly think Israeli lives are worth more or less than our own, the crime that’s equivalent to the murder of eight Israelis is the murder of eight Americans.”
WTC attack

The fact that 3,000 died at once on 9/11 will always be shocking. The reaction caused more deaths in Iraq (1,033,000 according to Opinion Research Business survey, 601,027 according to The Lancet, 114,731 according to Iraq Body Count Project) and Afghanistan (the US does not release figures; a Brown University study says 14,000 but admits this is a conservative estimate). One of my editors, Nikki Stern, lost her husband on 9/11.

Nikki believes that the US response was disproportionate and says the overriding legacy for most Americans is either anger or apathy. She contends that this is a poor tribute to those killed in the attacks and prefers to remember the days of late 2001, when she observed people reaching out to support one another, despite political and religious differences.
How many dead Sri Lankans?

In Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, Jon Snow doomily intoned that ”As many as 40,000, probably more” civilians had died. Rohan Gunaratna contends that ‘only’ 1,400 civilians were killed in the north east Vanni pocket in the first five months of 2009. He said that this estimate was based on interviews with Tamil coroners.

Professor Michael Roberts considers this ‘astounding and misleading’. Rajasingham Narendran asked: “How many coroners were available during the war in the area for recording deaths? “ Narendran talked to IDPs and estimates deaths “were very likely around 10,000 and did not exceed 15,000 at most”.

Muttukrishna Sarvananthan of the Point Pedro Institute told Roberts “(approximately) 12,000 (without counting armed Tiger personnel)”.

Dr. Noel Nadesan estimated around 16,000, including fighters and natural deaths.
In the documentary Lies Agreed Upon, it is argued that 40,000 deaths would be physically impossible. The population of the Wanni is estimated at 300,000. 293,800 people were registered at the receiving centres. That leaves a maximum of 6,200 to be accounted for. Around 5,000 SLA soldiers were killed.
No civilian casualties

The Banyan column in the Economist: “It is probably too much to hope the government might adopt a fresh approach to these familiar allegations. There were always at least three ways to tackle them. It could, early on, have argued brazenly that the benefits of ending the war outweighed the cost in human life. The Tigers were as vicious and totalitarian a bunch of thugs as ever adopted terrorism as a national-liberation strategy. Or the government could have insisted that its army’s behaviour was largely honourable, but that some regrettable abuses may have occurred, which would be thoroughly investigated.”

The government’s position on ‘zero civilian casualties’ has modified over time to a claim that everything possible was done to avoid civilian casualties. However, by failing to come up with its own numbers the government has allowed western critics to take sole possession of the numbers game.