Mark Steel: I plead guilty to the charge of 'foaming malevolence'

'If you're only moved by the victims on one side, you're at least half-way to being foaming'
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Dare to suggest that there may just possibly be a slight link between America's past behaviour and the hijackings, and out pour the accusations. If you do, you are said to be guilty of "foaming malevolence", according to one paper yesterday. Because all decent people know the only humanitarian response is to shake your head, mutter a sentence containing the words "evil" and "monsters" and demand that someone, somewhere gets bombed.

Maybe they argue amongst themselves, these types. Perhaps they approach a fellow columnist and say, "How callous to describe the terrorists as 'evil' when they're at least 'despicably evil' – though I care more than anyone, because I wrote: 'Words can't describe this despicable evil.' Top that."

Strangely, many of those who appear the most horrified haven't always been so sensitive about the loss of innocent lives. They managed to watch the Gulf War on telly, for example, and even seemed to enjoy the experience. I wonder whether Iraqi TV showed the New York disaster in the same way we covered the bombing of Baghdad. Maybe a panel of experts sat around a table chatting about the extraordinary accuracy of the pilots, while the presenter said, "And we're being told that so far there's not a single Iraqi casualty, so that really is fantastic news, isn't it?"

Some people are almost poetic in their selective grief. On Radio 4 one morning we were treated to an 'adviser' to Vladimir Putin, sombrely running through his "evils" and "despicables", beside himself with bewilderment at how anyone could cause such carnage. Well, if I was his counsellor I might suggest he works through his confusion by asking the bloke he advises: who slaughtered 50,000 civilians in the city of Grozny?

Some Palestinians were so malicious they danced in the streets, raged the newspaper that screamed "Gotcha!" after the drowning of 300 conscripted Argentinians. It could be argued that that was different, because they weren't civilians. But the 500 women and children blasted by a cruise missile in a Baghdad bomb shelter certainly were. As were countless Nicaraguans, or one million Vietnamese, such as the victims in this account of the My Lai massacre by US forces: "The killings began without warning. Soldiers began shooting women and children who were kneeling, weeping and praying round a temple. Villagers were killed in their homes. Helicopters shot down those who fled. Many of the GIs were laughing, 'Hey, I got me another one. Chalk one up for me.' Soldiers took breaks to rest and smoke before resuming the killing."

Maybe this was a long time ago and therefore irrelevant to today's story, except that when George Bush senior launched the war against Iraq, he promised that it "won't be like Vietnam, where we were fighting with one hand tied behind our back". And this has summed up their attitude ever since – "We lost in Vietnam because we were too bloody liberal." All that stopping for fags between killings, it's no wonder they lost.

Then there was Chile and Lebanon and so on, thousands of innocent people with innocent families, amongst them firemen and fathers and people with faces who were never displayed on the centre pages of the Daily Mail, never remembered withsilences at the start of football matches.

So how can it be explained, this erratic caring of presidents and advisors and those who are opposed to "foaming malevolence"? Could it be that their grieving is, perchance, in some way politically motivated? That they weep not for the devastated families, shell-shocked citizens and unimaginable torment of the victims, but in horror and disbelief that this could happen to America?

Now the selective grievers demand retribution, and don't seem too bothered who against. The implication is that anything less than devastation of somewhere or other would be showing a lack of respect for the victims. Like teenage lovers, they're pleading: "Go on, you'd do it if you really, really cared."

So, it looks as if Afghanistan will do for a start – though I can't see the point in bombing buildings there, since the Taliban seem happy to blow them up themselves. After a cruise missile strike, they'd probably send Bush a note saying, "Cheers George, that's saved us from doing that infidel street, with its provocative curvy bit." Still, there's probably a Chinese Embassy somewhere that could be flattened.

So now an atrocity is likely to be answered with atrocity, together with the inevitable webs of lies bound up as part of a package. Already we're told that the CIA satellites can "pinpoint a cigarette". Really. Yet they haven't the foggiest idea where Bin Laden is. I suppose the one thing they didn't reckon on was that he doesn't smoke. If only he stopped for one occasionally between killings, they'd have him in a flash.

You can be – and if you're human, should be – extraordinarily moved by both sets of victims. But if you're only extraordinarily moved by the victims on one side, you're at least halfway to foaming.