Monday, March 19, 2007

The Face of Evil

The face of evil appeared on "60 Minutes" last night.

Scott Pelle conducted an interview with Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich about the latter’s role in the Haditha Massacre, the Nov. 19, 2005 killing spree which left 24 Iraqi civilians dead. Sgt Wuterich, a twenty-something marine with the clean, even features of a boy, steadfastly maintained that he had done nothing wrong, that he and his marine squad had followed the standard rules of engagement for the American occupation of Iraq. Slowly and doggedly, Wuterich responded to Pelle’s questions about whether he and his squad had "gone berserk" and whether he felt he owed the families of the slain an apology. "My emotions were put away," insisted Wuterich. "We responded to a threat from those houses."

As the interview and numerous publications laid it out, the incident began when a roadside bomb blew up one of four humvees on patrol in Haditha on Nov. 19, killing Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas. Wuterich then ordered his Kilo Company into action. First, he said, they spotted a car with 5 Iraqi men inside who they surmised were responsible for the bomb. When the marines approached to investigate, according to Wuterich, the Iraqi men tried to escape. "They know the drill," said Wuterich. "They’re supposed to flatten out on the ground, hands up." Since the Iraqis violated this code, the marines shot them all.

Here is the first lesson in evil. Aside from the truth of Wuterich’s account (Iraqis insist the five were students returning to their homes in a cab. With marines approaching, their cab driver tried to back away, whereupon, witnesses said, all were slain inside the car. A photo shown on "60 Minutes" depicted all the dead Iraqis very close to the car.), we cannot avoid the indelible image of the American occupiers as soldiers who expect nothing less than servile behavior from those they are supposed to protect. If, when American authority approaches, Iraqis fail to behave like fearful, belly-crawling dogs, that is evidence of hostile intent, and justifies killing them without further ado.

Pelle asked Wuterich about the rules of engagement covering such encounters. Wuterich responded that troops are, in fact, supposed to positively identify a target before shooting. "You have to see them," he said, explaining that there should be hostile intent or action. Pelle asked this several times, particularly in relation to the next episode, the killing of 19 more civlians in nearby houses. Wuterich insisted each time that even though he and his troops did not see hostile action or even people, they still felt threatened. First they deduced that the nearby houses must have been the source of the IED that killed Terrazas, and then they assumed that one house in particular had been the source of hostile fire. Wuterich added quite calmly that he had told his troops approaching the houses to ‘shoot first and ask question later.’ "Here," he kept insisting, "you can’t hesitate. If you hesitate, you’re dead."

Not hesitating was, according to Wuterich, how the subsequent killings took place. The troops approached the first house, kicked the door down, and seeing movement, rolled a hand grenade inside. When they entered after the explosion, they found bodies splattered over the room, many of them women and children. They also saw another room with the door closed. Again, they broke down the door and rolled a grenade inside. They realized, said Wuterich, that they had created some "collateral damage," but then noticed a back door open. Figuring that the combatant must have fled that way, they proceeded to the next house and repeated their operation. Again, nothing but women and children inside. By the end of their afternoon-long operation, no less than 24 residents of Haditha, none of them insurgents, had been slaughtered.

Before going on, it must be noted that eyewitnesses from Haditha flatly contradict Wuterich’s account. First of all, the initial Marine report by Capt. Lucas M. McConnell, Kilo Company commander, claimed that only 15 civilians had been killed, either in response to an attack from a house, or because of the IED. But Haditha residents had a different story. They described an intentional massacre, with marines entering homes filled with cowering women and children, many in nightclothes, all begging for their lives. Most were shot, deliberately, at close range. The Washington Post on May 27, 2006 reported that one resident, Aws Fahmi, heard his neighbor, Younis Khafif, pleading for his life. "I heard Younis speaking to the Americans, saying: ‘I am a friend. I am good,’" Fahmi said. "But they killed him, and his wife and daughters." Death certificates identified five slain girls in Khafif’s house, their ages being 14, 10, 5, 3 and 1.

This wanton killing is the focus of the investigation now going on. But even aside from its results, the incident as described by Sgt. Wuterich clearly trying to justify himself, speaks volumes. Why did the marines not wait to identify the residents cowering inside their homes, residents they supposedly killed with grenades without even seeing them? Because, says Wuterich, even in the absence of evidence, they felt threatened: "It’s kill or be killed here; if you hesitate, you’re dead."
When Scott Pelle, focusing on the dead women and children, asked Wuterich if he felt sorry for what he had done, Wuterich again insisted that he and his troops had done the right thing for the situation, admitting slowly that he did regret the loss of innocent life. But he again insisted that he and his men had not lost control, and would probably do the same thing again. His lawyer reiterated this, saying that when American troops are threatened, they have an inherent right to respond with deadly force.

So we have what comes to this: First, Americans troops and Americans leaders (and many Americans in general) expect people in the rest of the world to grovel when confronted by American power. If they refuse, they deserve to die.

Second, in an occupation, occupying forces simply assume that everyone is a deadly threat. Therefore, they must kill first, and ask questions later. The rightness or wrongness of an occupation, the fact that American Marines in Haditha are foreign invaders in the country of the residents they terrorize, does not enter into such decisions.

This is exactly the logic that Bush & Co. applied in attacking Iraq in the first place. ‘Iraqis may have Weapons of Mass Destruction. Therefore, we have the right to invade and decimate an entire nation.’ When confronted with the evidence that Iraqis had no such weapons, the answer becomes: ‘We could do no other. We had to save ourselves from what appeared to be a threat.’ But wait. Did you see evidence of WMD, or any attack threats, or anything threatening the U.S. at all? ‘No matter. We could not take that chance. And once in country, neither we nor our troops can take that chance even today. It’s kill or be killed.’

Israeli troops occupying the Palestinian territories operate by the same logic. So do urban police departments in many cities. Indeed, it is civilians, in our world, who most often risk mortal danger in their own homes, villages, neighborhoods. Imperial power, State power, Civic power has become the face of evil in our time.Though it often appears to be a handsome, clean-cut, boyish face without a blemish or a snarl marking its features, it is nonetheless the true face of evil.

Lawrence DiStasi

No comments:

Post a Comment