In yesterday’s post, I spoke about the unwritten rule that politicians, reporters, and commentators in the US are expected to follow when it comes to discussing the Israel-Palestine conflict.
A similar rule exists when it comes to discussion of the policies of the US government. Glenn Greenwald points out where this rule leads, where now ‘serious’ commentators dismiss the idea that people in the Bush-Cheney administration should be tried for war crimes because ‘they meant well’ and supposedly had ‘good reasons’ for committing awful acts, such as trying to ‘keep the country safe from terrorists’. He points out what happens if you carry that argument to its logical conclusion.
“[V]irtually every single war criminal in history can recite good reasons for undertaking “excessive” measures. Other than psychopaths who do it exclusively for sadistic entertainment, every torturer can point to actual fears, or genuine threats, or legitimate grievances that led them to sanction violence and brutality.
But people like Goldsmith, Drezner, Douthat, and The Los Angeles Times Editorial Page can only see a world in which they — Americans — are situated at the center. They cite the post-9/11 external threats which American leaders faced, the ostensible desire of Bush officials to protect the citizenry, and their desire to maximize national security as though those are unique and special motives, rather than what they are: the standard collection of excuses offered up by almost every single war criminal (my italics).
If ostensible self-protective motives are now considered mitigating factors in the commission of war crimes — or, worse, if they justify immunity from prosecution — then there is virtually no such thing any longer as a “war crime” that merits punishment. Every tyrant and every war criminal can avail themselves of this self-defense. But advocates of this view — “Oh, American officials only did it to protect us from The Terrorists” — can’t or won’t follow their premise to this logical conclusion because their oh-so-sophisticated and empathetic understanding that political leaders act with complex motives only extends to their own leaders, to Americans.
But the rest of the world’s war criminals — the non-Americans — have no such complexities. They are basically nothing more than Saturday morning cartoon villains who commit war crimes not for any rational or justifiable reason or due to some grave predicament, but rather, out of some warped, cackling pleasure or to satisfy their evil, palm-rubbing plot for world domination and conquest.
This is the self-absorbed mindset that allows the very same people who cheered for the attack on Iraq to, say, righteously condemn the Russian invasion of Georgia as a terrible act of criminal aggression. Russia’s four-week occupation of Georgia is a heinous war crime, while our six-year-and-counting occupation of Iraq is a liberation. Russia drops destructive, lethal bombs on civilian populations, but the U.S. drops Freedom Bombs. Russian leaders were motivated by a desire for domination even though they withdrew after a few weeks; Americans, as always, are motivated by a desire to spread love and goodness.
Jim Henley adds that “The United States government has always engaged in war crimes and human rights violations. What’s different this decade is that, under the leadership of a terrible president, our elites have become vociferous advocates of the goodness and rightness of war crimes and human rights violations.” (emphasis in original)
Matthew Yglesias says, “According to the perverse rules of our post-9/11 discourse, willingness to verbally endorse the idea of having other people torture strangers counts as a form of courageous “toughness” akin to, you know, actually doing something brave. And the rot has, I’m afraid, spread pretty far.”
There are occasions for comparing actions and trying to create some kind of moral calculus especially if one is looking at the unfolding of history and trying to point out how cycles of violence usually become more cruel. But if an act is a murder or an atrocity or a war crime, then it remains so irrespective of who commits it or whether other people also do it. Justifying or excusing or minimizing an evil by pointing the finger at another evil only leads to a continuing cycle of evil.
During the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in August 2006, I covered some of this ground before in a four-part series of posts (part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4) describing how this kind of tribal thinking leads to never-ending violence and death and destruction, made even worse by smug feelings of self-righteousness by the perpetrators.
Part 3 is particularly relevant to today’s and yesterday’s posts. In re-reading what I had written in it, it was depressing to see that if you replace the words Lebanon with Gaza and Hezbollah with Hamas, that essay would apply with equal force to the events of today. Will we ever learn?
POST SCRIPT: Prosecutions for torture and war crimes
Lawyer Phillipe Sands, who directs the Centre for International Courts and Tribunals at the University of London and is author of the book Torture Team: Rumsfeld’s Memo and the Betryal of American Values, discusses with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air how war crimes are considered so evil that international treaties have declared that people who commit them should have no refuge. They are considered crimes against humanity, so that citizens of one country who committed those acts within their own country, can still be prosecuted by other countries.
So the fact that US authorities may choose to ignore the war crimes committed by its own citizens by not prosecuting them because they were done by ‘our’ people only increases the chances that prosecutors in other countries might open investigations. He says that many people in the Bush administration had better be very cautious about going abroad because they might be subject to arrest, the way Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was when he visited England.