Monday, September 24, 2007


Imagine reading in the paper one morning that the police had come up with a new method for capturing ‘bad guys’. They would put a wallet on a park bench and, if anybody should pick up and walk away with the wallet, they would shoot him. Dead.

The paper this morning reported of a technique being used in Iraq, called Baiting where the American military would set up snipers, plant something that had a military use within line of sight of the snipers, and kill anybody who tried to walk away with it – assuming that the victim was somebody who would use the equipment against the Americans.

I do not know the details of this program. The report said that much of it is classified. Therefore, I am not going to jump up and shout that the military is certainly doing something wrong here. However, I am going to say that there are elements here that somebody should be looking into.

If it were me, I may not be able to tell the difference between something that was militarily useful and something that was not. If I saw a spool of primer cord laying on the side of the road – again, assuming a land as chaotic as Iraq is right now where there is a humanitarian crisis (no food, no water, no jobs, no security) of unimaginable proportions, I would probably take the cord home to use it for a clothes line, or to tie the door of my house back onto its frame, or to sell to my neighbors so they can do the same.

If I were able to recognize an object as having a military use . . . well, if I can find it, then my neighbors’ children can find it, or the insurgents can find it. Again, I would likely take it home and bury it in the back yard.

I would likely have not returned it to the Americans. After all, the Americans are an occupying army. Assume that, after the Revolutionary War, the French had decided to stay in large numbers, build military bases on American soil, and insist in having a roll in writing our Constitution and in the government that resulted, arresting (or killing) Americans at will that they thought were anti-French, imagine how far they would be able to get with the claim, “But we helped you get rid of the British. You owe us.”

Anyway, the point is, there are a lot of good reasons for good people to walk away with that military equipment. However, this article suggests that there are American military teams who are set up to assume that there are no good Iraqis, and that anybody who would pick up that equipment deserves death.

Just like the police, in the sting operation that I mentioned above, are assuming that no good person would pick up and walk away with a wallet he discovers on a park bench, assumes that the individual is guilty, holds a secret trial, renders a verdict in that trial, and then executes that verdict on the man walking away with the wallet.

It is hardly justice.

Military ‘Justice’

Then again, there can be no justice in a war zone. Imagine asking a soldier, before he shoots somebody, to read an enemy soldier his rights before firing his weapon. It is an absurdity, and no sane person could hope to defend such a policy.

One of the ways in which military procedures are separate from civilian justice is that the military has fewer safeguards for protecting the innocent. This is why military situations tend to result in a lot more civilian casualties. It is the nature of the beast. Yet, sooner or later we need to restore civilian institutions. Otherwise, the senseless slaughter of innocent people will never end.

The practice mentioned above came to light because soldiers, who are defending themselves from charges of murder, are referring to it in their defense. These soldiers have been accused of killing Iraqi civilians with insufficient provocation. In some cases, according to the testimony, evidence was then planted on the victim, where the soldier then claims that he was following the procedures described above. The soldier had killed a person who was attempting to walk away with militarily useful equipment.

The report tells of one instance in which an apparently unarmed civilian was approaching a site where American snipers were hidden. Now, a ‘hide’ is selected precisely because it is a place that the Americans judge would not cause others to think Americans are hiding there. The soldier shot the intruder, then planted a weapon on the body in order to give the case more legitimacy. In this case, the soldier had been given permission to fire anyway, so planting the weapon was unnecessary.

I am not going to say that this story is accurate. It doesn’t matter. For the purposes of this posting, we can easily imagine something like this happening and look at the implications.

Apparently, in Iraq, it is a capital offense to approach a place that was specifically selected for its ability to appear to be something that nobody should worry about approaching.

We can relate this story or another hypothetical story in which an Iraqi carrying a weapon approaches an American ‘hide’. In this context, we must remember that Iraqi is a lawless place. If one is a Sunni then, at any moment, a band of Shiites might show up to kill you. If one is a Shiite, then one’s life is also in danger. When anarchy is the order of the day, a lot of innocent people take to carrying weapons. I suspect that I would.

This can be compared to yet another type of situation. An American soldier goes out, simply to bag some Iraqis. All he wants to do is kill somebody. He has come to view all Iraqi as the enemy and thinks nothing more than that, the fewer Iraqis there are, the safer he will be. He simply sees this program of ‘baiting’ as a simple way to execute his plan without facing any sort of punishment.

It’s a messy situation . . . and that is precisely the problem with it. It results in a lot of innocent death. Worse, it does so in a substantially bigoted culture that believes in revenge. It is a culture that thinks that there is nothing wrong with the idea that, if somebody with trait X harms my family, then everybody with trait X deserves to suffer for it.

Establishing Peace

Ultimately, there is only one way to put an end to this type of random violence, which is to establish a principle of ‘presumed innocent until proven guilty’. It is a principle that says, ‘We are going to assume that your reasons for carrying out these actions are perfectly legitimate, unless and until we have sufficient evidence to believe otherwise. Only then, will we act.”

This presumption of innocence and presumption against harm unless wrongdoing can be proved requires devotion to a few other principles. One of these is the right of Habeas Corpus. This is literally nothing less than the right of a person to be free unless those who would do him harm can prove that the harm is justified. It is nothing less than the embodiment of that which separates civilian from military action – the presumption against doing harm.

It also requires a system where the objective is to capture wrongdoers and put them on trial, rather than to convict and execute (presumed) wrongdoers on the field. Even in the obvious case of entrapment captured in the example where a wallet is taken, the only justified response on the part of civil authorities is to apprehend the individual, arrest him, and give him his day in court. This outcome also requires a respect for law and for peaceful over violent (militaristic) solutions to disagreements among individuals. On this issue, President Bush served as a very poor role model. He went to great lengths to tell the world, “Civil institutions are impotent and are not to be used when a military solution is available,” by circumventing all of the civilian institutions that stood between him and violence. What we have seen in Iraq is what happens when the values that embody this administration – the love of violent solutions over political solutions – grips a whole nation, rather than just a small part of a nation. In our case, it is unfortunate that this small part that loves violence over politics gained the power to command the military.

Joint Blame

I fully blame Iraqis for the problems in Iraq. They choose this particular reaction to events. Each bomb that goes off in a public place killing innocent civilians was planted there by somebody who could have done something else. When Bush and Blair are blamed for the violence in Iraq, it shifts the blame away from the individuals that actually planted the bomb. Those people deserve the full measure of our condemnation.

However, the fact that the people of Iraq are fully responsible for the violence there, does not change the fact that Bush and Blair were guilty of the grossest negligence in launching the war. If I discover that a neighbor of mine is a serial killer, and I send my wife there to deliver a message, the serial killer is fully responsible for murdering my wife. Yet, this does not change the fact that I am also morally contemptible for putting my wife in a situation where she could probably get murdered.

The people of Iraq are the wrongdoer fully responsible for the denigration of their society. Yet, this does not change the fact that Bush and Blair are also fully responsible for giving these people the opportunity to commit the moral crimes that they routinely commit in Iraq. They have no excuse.

It would be nice if one thing that the Iraqis (and the rest of the world) could learn from us - though they are not going to learn it from this administration. That would be a traditional respect for the time-honored principles of justice. Instead, this administration seems most interested in providing the world with different examples of injustice.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You say:
“I fully blame Iraqis for the problems in Iraq. They choose this particular reaction to events.”
“The people of Iraq are the wrongdoer fully responsible for the denigration of their society.”
I think you have just fallen prey to the inappropriate generalization habit you have condemned in the past.
Some Iraqi’s bear great responsibility for terrible things, but most are only responsible for being at the wrong place at the wrong time.