It has been two weeks now since the War on Terror made its grim debut in Paris, and the western world is still reeling. There was sadness, anger and resilience in equal measure, but underlying all of this, a sort of disbelief. This particular war was supposed to be going on over there, in Syria, not in our neighbours backyard. But here it was again, rearing one of its many heads. That sobering thought: "It could have been us". And we reacted accordingly; towers, bridges, cheeks, and profile pictures glowed red white and blue, with such wonderfully warming (and western) solidarity.
If only a peruser of headline news, you could be forgiven for thinking that Parisians were the first victims of the War on Terror since 7/7 or 9/11. But shots are fired and bombs are detonated on civilians almost every week elsewhere in the world-- terrorism is almost commonplace.
Here's some other less memorable dates. What about 12/11? When two suicide bombers killed 43 civilians in Beirut. Only a day before Paris, yet so easily forgotten. Will we recall 10/10, when 102 were killed by multiple suicide bombings across Ankara? In fact, that very same day, 33 were killed in Chad. 135 casualties in a single day; casualties of the very same war, yet we won't remember that date.
Seemingly, so long as our cosy western life is safely tucked away, tragedies of equal gravity in the Middle-East & Africa are quickly rendered irrelevant, or at least, to be expected. Some don't even make headline news, and those that do are swiftly relegated to make room for more pressing matters (such as what colour Kate really looks best in).
But there is another forgotten group of victims, one whose size we can only estimate. Supposedly precise, drone strikes are sold to the public as 'good bombs', extinguishing evil, blowing the bad guys to smithereens, whilst keeping our soldiers off the front line. The Obama administration's choice term is "targeted killing" - an altogether cleaner solution to the war on terror. But what about when the target is wrong, or the target has moved, or someone is standing in the way?
Data obtained by the human rights group Reprieve, and published by the Guardian last year, suggests that these whoopsies are fairly regular. According to the data, in Yemen and Pakistan alone, 1147 civilians-- men, women and children-- were sacrificed in pursuit of only 41 suspected terrorists, some of whom are believed to still be alive. Endless errors in some out of control heavily armed goose chase.
And this is such a teeny tiny shard of the whole picture. How much larger would the body count become if we factored in similar errors of judgement in Iraq, Iran or Syria? What about if we factored in civilian deaths from manned aistrikes? And how much higher will the number climb as we continue to beat down this remarkably destructive path? Tens of thousands, perhaps.
But we don't hear about this. The phrase 'war on terror' conveniently keeps Western hands sparkling clean. Any losses in the Middle-East are easily excused as collateral damage. Stepping stones along our uncompromising path to the end of terror, that abstract indestructible concept. Mass killing is justified and then silenced in some misguided belief of a greater good. We never hear about it, but we should. These are tragedies too.
I pose a question: ideology aside, what exactly makes the atrocities in Paris a fortnight ago any different from the wreckage of a drone strike gone awry?
Both left children without parents.
In both cases the victims were innocent, collateral damage in an amorphous war being waged way above their heads.
And yet one is an internationally memorialised tragedy, whilst the other is the product of a necessary war.
And there lies the startling paradox of our term the War on Terror. As Howard Zin has asked: "how can you have a war on terrorism when war itself is terrorism?"
As our government begins to make the case for air strikes in Syria, we should reflect not only on the deaths in Paris, but take an honest look at the burgeoning death toll, on both sides.
In this light, one thing becomes clear: this is not just a war on terror, but a war on those living beneath it.
(For data on drone strikes see: http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2014/nov/24/-sp-us-drone-strikes-kill-1147)
N.B. I feel I should make clear that I am not suggesting that military intervention is unnecessary (I am hardly qualified to weigh in on this) or that the Paris attacks deserve less compassion. Rather, I am stressing the need for similar compassion to be extended to victims of the war on terror outside the Western world.