The Death Penalty for Killing Innocent Civilians?

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The Death Penalty for Killing Innocent Civilians?

With the September 11, 2001 attacks thrust back into the news by the controversy over trying their alleged masterminds in New York City, it's not terribly shocking to hear legislators calling for the death penalty in the killing of innocent civilians these days. But there's one cry for capital punishment making the rounds that might pull a few people up short: A group of Afghan legislators has backed the execution of those responsible for the deaths of Afghan civilians. And the perpetrators they have in mind are American military personnel. No, these legislators are not members of some Taliban shadow government calling for death to their enemies; they are representatives sitting in the elected parliament of Afghanistan, the very government the U.S. has put in place and maintains through massive force of arms.

Following the latest incident of civilian deaths - 27 killed in an air strike by "US-led coalition forces" in a border area between Daikundi and Uruzgan provinces - the Afghan news agency, Pajhwok Afghan News, reported that Hamidullah Tokhi, member of parliament from Uruzgan, declared the Afghan government was currently doing little more than issuing routine condemnation statements following each incidence of civilian deaths and that henceforth, "Anyone killing an ordinary Afghan should be executed in public." Another representative, Fatima Aziz of Kundiz, agreed, because, she said, foreign troops "time and again ... killed innocent people." Maulvi Abdul Wali Raji, senator from Baghlan province, added, "Being a Muslim, I would suggest Qisas (killing in retaliation) for such killers."

We can hardly be surprised at the failure of this item to show up in the mainstream American news media, nonetheless we should ask why. How is it not news when members of an allied or, we might even say, a puppet government suggest the killing of American soldiers for what they have done to their constituents?

American response to this ignored item would doubtless be agitated - "barbaric" would likely be one of the politer words used. And in this, much of the rest of the world would probably concur, since most nations have either formally abolished the death penalty (91 of them) or simply stopped using it (another 33), so from their point of view, the countries still utilizing it - including Afghanistan, the U.S., Iraq, Iran and China - probably do seem somewhat primitive in this regard.

Unfortunately, however, a story like this is not particularly likely to bring all that many Americans to the point of assessing the appropriateness of our own death penalty. Officials in Afghanistan countenancing the killing of "our boys" (and nowadays girls, too), after all we've done to help those people! They're there to fight the "bad guys," as the soldiers themselves will often put it, with a touch of that American naivete toward the rest of the world that might be considered charming - if it did not so often arrive armed to the teeth. No, this story would probably not prompt all that much soul searching in the U.S.

On the other hand, calls for the spilling of more Afghan blood are readily available in the American news media, one particularly notable example being the recent New York Times opinion piece, "Empty Skies Over Afghanistan." In this article, apparently solicited by the Times, Lara Dadkhah, a heretofore unknown employee of Booz Allen, one of the nation's largest defense and intelligence contractors, declares that so far as America's Afghanistan policy goes, "the pendulum has swung too far in favor of avoiding the death of innocents," because "no past war has ever supplied compelling proof" of the claim "that dead civilians are harmful to the conduct of war." Our goal, she writes, "should be victory in as short a time as possible, using every advantage." Kill as many of em as you want, there are American lives at stake.

When you read something like this, you have to wonder if the New York Times editors actually think about the real-life meaning of words like those above, written by defense analysts sitting in their safe offices. Do they spend any time trying to imagine what it would be like to have someone from their family killed in a bombing and then have the representatives of the foreign power that did it say, "Oops, our bad! But you know we mean well - and here's $2,000 for your trouble"? (That's the current amount offered as reparations - considered a lot of money over there, you know.)

However reflective or unreflective these editors may actually be though, they do seem to fairly represent a certain empathy deficiency in a country where so few have any direct experience of what it is like to live under bombs. Certainly this lack of appreciation of the realties of war has to be a major factor in the war machine's ability to roll on, decade after decade, against ever-changing enemies, with support that includes millions of Americans who largely scorn the government's activities at home while seemingly thinking it can do no wrong abroad.

For now, until more Americans can grasp the fact that Afghans (like people in most of the world) take the death of their own innocent civilians just as seriously as we do, we can probably expect continual cries for American blood coming from their country.

Tom Gallagher

In years past, Tom Gallagher has served as a surrogate speaker for presidential candidates George McGovern, Jesse Jackson and Dennis Kucinich. A past member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, he is the author of "Sub: My Years Underground in America's Schools."  Reach him at TGTGTGTGTG@aol.com or TomGallagherwrites.com.

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