Magazine article The Spectator

Mark Steyn Is a Decent Man Who Values Human Life, but I Suggest He Is Wrong to Describe Me as Gullible

Magazine article The Spectator

Mark Steyn Is a Decent Man Who Values Human Life, but I Suggest He Is Wrong to Describe Me as Gullible

Article excerpt

There is unhappiness in the snowy wastes of New Hampshire. My item last week about the civilian war-dead in Afghanistan has upset my cherished colleague Mark Steyn. Readers may remember my pointing out that the official death toll for the attack on the World Trade Center on 11 September now stands at fewer than 3,000, under half the highest estimate used by many politicians. I also remarked that Professor Marc Herold of the University of New Hampshire had worked up some figures which suggest that as many as 4,000 Afghan civilians may have been killed by American bombs.

The mention of Mr Herold's name caused a good deal of eye-rolling and head-- shaking in the snowy wastes. In an article in the Daily Telegraph, our friend Mark did not address the way in which American and British politicians have exaggerated the number of people murdered in the World Trade Center, but went for Mr Herold's jugular. He ridiculed him for being a professor of economics and women's studies, and judged that his figures are 'complete bunk, full of dubious sources and conflated numbers', producing a few examples in an attempt to prove his point. Why, even Human Rights Watch had put 'civilian fatalities [in Afghanistan] at about 1,000'. The prof was way off the radar, and I was 'gullible' for attaching any credence to him.

Actually Mark is wrong about Human Rights Watch. According to a spokesman in London, the organisation has so far deliberately avoided any estimates for the number of civilians killed by American bombing in Afghanistan. 'We're very cross with Mark Steyn,' she says. 'We've never released figures for civilian fatalities in Afghanistan, nor have we speculated. It's all utterly made-up.' Was it possible, I asked - mindful of Mark's Americo-centric view of the world and his likely suspicion that the London office is a provincial offshoot of Human Rights Watch - that the New York arm would have offered its own statistics? No, it was not possible.

What is true of Human Rights Watch appears to be true of every similar organisation. Amnesty International has not produced its own estimates. Human Rights Watch will eventually do so, as it did after the bombing of Kosovo, but there is a lot of sifting and weighing of figures to be done. Besides, the American bombing still goes on, and Afghan civilians are still being killed. So far as I can see, the only person in the world who has produced a comprehensive toll of civilian dead is Marc Herold of the University of New Hampshire.

I suppose it is quite funny that Mr Herold is a professor of women's studies, but that does not make him wrong. My own prejudices were stirred on reading in his voluminous and highly detailed report the throwaway phrase 'the war waged by Britain upon Northern Ireland. Mr Herold is plainly a lefty, as well as a critic of America's bombing of Afghanistan. But while it may be wise to note where he is coming from, the proof of the pudding is surely in the eating. His report strikes me as being surprisingly lucid for an American academic, and measured and balanced in its tone. It is certainly not the work of a madman or fanatic. And it is, I stress again, all we have. It is the only game in town. No doubt Mr Herold's methodology is open to criticism - he may rely too heavily on Indian and Pakistani newspaper reports, and rather implausibly invests the Times of India with the authority and dependability of the New York Times - but I do not see how Mark can dismiss his report as 'complete bunk'.

How can he be so certain that so many fewer people have died in Afghanistan than the professor estimates? …

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