Rather than blaming Newsweek or the Pentagon, some commentators blamed Muslim protesters for being so upset about the reported mistreatment of the Quran. “From every part of the civilized world should have come denunciations of those who would react to the supposed destruction of a book with brutal threats and the slaughter of 17 innocent people,” wrote Jeff Jacoby in the Boston Globe (5/19/05). “But the chorus of condemnation was directed not at the killers and the fanatics who incited them, but at Newsweek.”
“The rioters are the real enemy,” wrote David Brooks in the New York Times (5/19/05). “After followers spend a few years living through rabid riots and vicious sermons, killing an American or a Jew or even a fellow Muslim seems no more consequential than killing a mosquito.”
Stanley Crouch (New York Daily News, 5/23/05) decried “the sorts of wild Muslims who killed 15 or 16 people during three days of rioting in Afghanistan.”
The problem with these analyses is that the “killers” in the Afghanistan riots were not mainly the Islamist protesters, but the police forces of the U.S.-backed government. While rioters did cause extensive property damage, the fatalities, according to Western news reports, were overwhelmingly the result of police firing into crowds of demonstrators.
“Afghan police opened fire yesterday at rioters protesting” the Newsweek allegation, the Ottawa Citizen reported on May 12, noting that “four demonstrators were killed and 71 injured in the clashes.” The next day, in what the New York Times (5/13/05) called “the most violent single incident, the police fired on hundreds of tribesmen” trying to join the Jalalabad protests; two protesters were killed (L.A. Times, 5/13/05), while another person was killed by exploding ammunition when a crowd set fire to a police station in Afghanistan’s Wardak province (Newsday, 5/13/05).
Even though “Islamic clerics urged protesters to refrain from violence in their Friday sermons,” the Washington Post (5/14/05) reported that the following day saw more police violence: In Badakhshan province, “police shot at the protesters, killing three and injuring 13”; another “protester was killed in a clash with police and government soldiers” south of Kabul; one person was killed in Badghis province “when police opened fire on a demonstration.” That day also saw the first apparent police fatality in the pro-Quran protests, when “two civilians and a police officer were fatally shot and 21 people were wounded” in the city of Ghazni after “shooting broke out after protesters stoned a police station and the governor’s residence.” (The L.A. Times of May 14 reported that this incident involved the deaths of three police officers.)
While details are naturally hard to confirm in Afghanistan’s chaotic environment, these early reports filed from Afghanistan made it clear that the vast majority of the violence was perpetrated by police against demonstrators. In follow-up stories generally reported from the U.S., however, the responsibility for the deaths quickly became blurred: “Fifteen people died and scores were injured in violence between protesters and security forces,” the Chicago Tribune reported (5/16/05). USA Today referred (5/17/05) to “riots in Afghanistan and Pakistan that killed 17 people.”
It’s a short step from attributing the deaths to no one in particular to putting the blame on the protesters, who were in fact the main casualties. In many pundits’ eyes, though, those victims apparently demonstrated their low regard for human life by failing to keep living when struck by U.S.-supplied bullets.