The Crime of Silence
such an incident took place in
America, even if an animal were killed like this, what would they do?
Has anything better expressed the current disconnect between America and its foreign wars than the above words from Noor Eldeen? Eldeen is the father of Reuters photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen, one of those whose 2007 death at the hands of U.S. forces in Baghdad was captured in the video released by WikiLeaks.org. What would we do? It's hard to believe it wouldn't be substantially more than we are now doing to prevent this sort of thing from happening again in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and to humans.
The official soothers are, of course, busily at work in the news media cleaning up the damage this previously secret footage has caused: This is sad, but it is what war is. Mistakes happen. Soldiers obviously are trained to kill. It has to be that way. These defenses are not in themselves wrong. This is, indeed, what war is all about. But while such arguments may explain away the actions of the soldiers in the video, they do not justify the actions of those who send them there -- nor the silence of those who let it happen. Yes, war is certainly a terrible thing and it is precisely because it is such a terrible thing that it should be strictly reserved for situations where it is absolutely necessary and has a chance of accomplishing something -- conditions not remotely met in either of America's ongoing wars.
Ah, but some may say, the leaked footage of the laughing gunners is from Iraq! That's just George Bush's old war. Let's shove it into the closet with the other memories of those bad old days. Unfortunately, the Iraq War is far from over, and more importantly we know that atrocities such as this are happening in Afghanistan right now. How do we know this? Why the U.S. commander told us so himself. Speaking of reckless shooting incidents that NATO forces engage in, General Stanley A. McChrystal acknowledged "We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat." As Noor Eldeen asks, what would be our reaction if a statement like this applied to events in America? Would a "We'll try to do better in the future" suffice -- even if it were animals we were talking about?
In 1967, organizers submitted a petition entitled "Individuals Against the Crime of Silence" to UN Secretary General U. Thant with the names of thousands of Americans who signed "as both a permanent witness to our opposition to the war in Vietnam and as a demonstration that the conscience of America is not dead." At that point, the Nuremberg Trials were twice as close in time as the Vietnam War is to us and the idea of collective responsibility was perhaps therefore higher in public consciousness. It was, after all, just a little over twenty years earlier that "Good Germans" had followed orders and kept quiet as the Nazis led them to World War II. The petition signers were determined not to be those kind of "Good Americans" in the Vietnam War era.
It's a fair bet that the lion's share of those who signed that petition were supporters of many of President Lyndon Johnson's other initiatives, the "Great Society" legislation he had pushed through Congress. So this was not an easy choice for them -- as it might have been a couple of years later when Johnson's war became Richard Nixon's war. Yet the signers didn't think that things like the passage of Medicare, or having progressive Cabinet members, or a President who talked a more peaceful line than the man he defeated could justify their silence in the face of the Vietnam War, for the simple reason that it did not meet the criteria for a just war and no amount of good at home could justify atrocities abroad.
The story of the latest Afghanistan cover-up is in its own way every bit as grotesque as the events shown in the Iraq video, although thus far not so graphically depicted: NATO now acknowledges that two pregnant women "were accidentally killed as a result of the [NATO] joint force firing" in a February 12 raid in the village of Khataba, although General McChrystal's headquarters initially claimed that the women had been "tied up, gagged and killed" before the raid. And this is happening in the war that is obviously not yesterday's, but the one that President Obama has embraced as the war of the future.
The questions these wars raise for Americans
today are not terribly different from those facing the early
Do things like the signing of a health care bill justify silence in the face of the mobilization of 100,000 troops in a war against a hundred men at arms (the number of Al Qaeda -- the presumed primary enemy -- estimated to actually be in Afghanistan)?
Do positive steps like a nuclear arms reduction treaty justify silence when the head of the state that our war effort ostensibly supports says he himself might join the opposition because our invading armies are turning it into something that looks like a legitimate "national resistance," as Hamid Karzai said of the Taliban (the secondary enemy)?
Does having an administration more committed to the rights of American workers justify silence as the President escalates a war where, in the words of famed Vietnam War whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, "There is no prospect of any kind of success ... any more than the Soviets achieved in their ten years there, just as in Vietnam we really had no realistic prospect of more success than the French?"
If our answer to these questions is no, it's never too late to make up for past silence. Later this month or early next, the Administration, although struggling to fund its priorities at home, will be back to Congress looking for another $33 billion to expand its Afghanistan War. Regardless of how our Representatives and Senators have voted in the past, any of us who think silence is a crime when it abets an unjust war need to pick up the phone and tell them to vote down the appropriation. (The number's 202-224-3121).
Nothing we can do will bring back Namir Noor-Eldeen or any of the tens or hundreds of thousands of others who have died needlessly in these wars, but perhaps we can one day hope to give his father an answer we can live with.