Hitchens and ‘moral idiocy’
October 17, 2006
Christopher Hitchens’s response to the Lancet study is ingenious. First he smears it as fantasy – because the Lancet apparently has “a reputation for conjuring bloodbaths”. But then, “for the sake of argument”, he assumes that the figures are correct. What then?
Indeed, if you look more closely, you will see that less than one-third of the surplus deaths are attributed, even by this study, to “Allied” military action. Grant if you wish that this figure is likely to be more exact, since at least the coalition fights in uniform and issues regular statistics.
Where are the “regular statistics” issued by the splendidly uniformed “coalition” on how many people they kill? Oh, that’s right, there aren’t any. The reassuring “less than one-third” figure is actually 31%. This is not, as Hitchens thinks, the proportion of the total “excess” or “surplus” deaths post-invasion attributable to the “coalition”, but specifically the proportion of violent deaths. It amounts to 186,318 people. Hitchens continues with a quibble born of ignorance:
We are told that 24 percent of the violent deaths were caused by “other” actors, and 45 percent of them by “unknown” ones. If there is any method of distinguishing between the “other” and the “unknown,” we are not told of it.
Uh, yes we are. The problem appears to be that Hitchens has only bothered to read the Guardian story on the report to which he links, and not the report itself. “Other” in the “cause of violent death” column at Table 4 (p 5) means deaths attributed to forces other than the “coalition”: in other words, to insurgent and factional violence. “Unknown”, meanwhile, means just what it says – that the study cannot with confidence attribute those deaths to one or other force: “the responsible party was not known, or the households were hesitant to specifically identify them” (p 5). But anyway, even if the “coalition” are killing people, one can conduct a hand-waving argument that they are killing the right people:
Make the assumption that some percentage of those killed by the coalition are the sort of people who have been blowing up mosques, beheading captives on video, detonating rush-hour car bombs, destroying pipelines, murdering aid workers, bombing the headquarters of the United Nations, and inciting ethnic and sectarian warfare. Make the allowance for the number of bystanders and innocents who lost their lives in the combat against these fanatics (one or two, alas, in the single case of the precision bombing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, just to take one instance). But who is to say how many people were saved from being murdered by the fact that the murderers were killed first?
Who is to say, indeed? Not Hitchens: he is merely pulling this stuff out of thin air. To a detailed statistical study that explains its methodology and gives confidence intervals for its estimates, Hitchens’s response is to appeal to “some percentage”. Look, some percentage of the people we are killing are themselves murderers. That is no doubt true. But what percentage does Hitchens suppose it to be? Does it make a particular difference, for instance, if some percentage is less than half, or more than half? Even if some percentage were, for instance, an impressively accurate 75%, that would leave 25%, or 46,580 civilians killed by US-led forces. Would that number be okay?
Hitchens no doubt intuits that even a favourable figure for some percentage would work out, after some minimal arithmetic, at a horrific total of blameless Iraqis killed by the “coalition”. That is why he leaves it so usefully vague. The appeal to some percentage is affectedly casual, even bored, displaying an aristocratic impatience with mere bean-counting, a confidence that a righteous roll-call of horrors inflicted by the insurgents will trump the findings of people who have been to Iraq and conducted a door-to-door survey of death. Some percentage further Unspeaks the leftover percentage of Iraqi civilians killed by the “coalition”, denies that there is any point in even coming to an estimate of how many they are. Why bother counting them? Just imagine that even more would have been killed by the “murderers” if, er, we hadn’t already killed them ourselves. Concentrate your mind on the fact that some percentage of the people we are killing are villains. After some further meditation on the fact that the “coalition” wears uniforms and the fiction that it issues regular statistics on how many civilians it kills, you may come to conclude that the percentage in question is as close to 100% – give or take “one or two, alas” – as makes no difference.
But the story is even happier than that:
But the “tit for tat” confessional killings were and are a deliberate tactic of the insurgency and now threaten to spread into mass reprisals on both sides, while all the effort of the coalition is devoted to negotiating a compromise between the country’s factions. It is simple moral idiocy to fail to distinguish between these phenomena.
From a vague protestation that we are killing the right people, Hitchens moves miraculously to a claim that, anyway, we aren’t killing anyone at all. All the effort of the “coalition”, you see, is “devoted to negotiating a compromise”. No doubt because of my “moral idiocy”, I have contrived to miss the recent statistics issued by the uniformed “coalition” showing that all airstrikes, bombing and shooting have ceased, to be replaced by diplomatic negotiations throughout the country. Or perhaps “negotiating a compromise” is a delicious new form of Unspeak for “killing people”. Or maybe some percentage of Hitchens’s article is disingenuous garbage.