"In a fascinating juxtaposition, two news stories this week affirmed all that is right and wrong in the system of American justice as it pertains to the killing of civilians around the world.
One story reported the results of an academic study which concluded that nearly half a million people died in Iraq due to war-related causes in the eight years following the U.S.-led invasion of that country in 2003. Another story reported that the U.S. Justice Department has brought new charges against four former security guards from the private American Blackwater company who are accused of taking part in a shooting in Baghdad six years ago that killed 14 unarmed civilians and wounded 18 other people.
The scales of the killings are vastly different, and, unfortunately, so is the lesson we learn from this juxtaposition of two tales about how the American system of justice deals with the responsibility for killing civilians abroad.
The four indicted private sector guards, who were providing security for American diplomats under a contract with the State Department, were with a four-vehicle convoy of American officials who were being evacuated from the scene of a bombing in the Iraqi capital.
They claimed that they opened fire on a crowd of civilians in self-defense. Yet an investigation by the U.S. government resulted in the new indictment that charges the guards with abusing their power “through a relentless attack on unarmed civilians that recklessly exceeded any possible justification ... A limited number of members of the Blackwater team unleashed powerful sniper fire, machine guns, and grenade launchers on ordinary people going about their daily lives.”
U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen, Jr. said in Washington, D.C., last week that “this prosecution demonstrates our commitment to upholding the rule of law even in times of war.”
That is a very noble attitude, and when it is applied in real life it reflects the very best of the American political system that holds every person accountable for their conduct, whether in the U.S. or abroad, in times of war or peace.
The problem is with the massive contradiction between, on the one hand, using the legal system to hold accountable a few privately contracted security guards when they allegedly kill and injure innocent civilians, and, on the other hand, totally ignoring the same principle of accountability, responsibility and culpability when it comes to the use of military violence by the government and armed forces in the same foreign country, as happened in Iraq.
The other news story I refer to reported on the findings of a study by researchers from the U.S. and Canada that was based on randomized surveys of 2,000 households in Iraq, which estimated that the “total excess deaths attributed to the war” until mid-2011 was around 405,000. Another 56,000 deaths were not counted because of the emigration of households from Iraq in recent years.
The study concluded that more than 60 percent of the 461,000 deaths were directly attributable to violence, while the rest were associated with the collapse of infrastructure and other indirect causes that were linked to the conflict, such as the collapse of health, water, sanitation, transport and other systems.
The study was conducted by scholars from the University of Washington, Johns Hopkins University, Simon Fraser University and Mustansiriya University in Iraq.
So how should we view an American system of justice and political power that indicts four individuals from a private company for killing and injuring 32 defenseless Iraqi civilians, but totally refuses to hold accountable those officials in the federal government whose decision to attack Iraq resulted in nearly half a million deaths?
It seems difficult to maintain respect for a system that allows such gross disparities in the administration of justice, and continues to advocate and justify the use of unilateral American military power abroad in situations where the decision to use force is based almost exclusively on the whims and inclinations of officials in Washington, D.C. The added danger of such attacks, beyond the deaths that can be estimated, is that they continue to bring about death and destruction for years after the fact, as in Iraq today, which has become a leading global site for the development and export of Al-Qaeda-like Salafist terrorists.
One day, Americans will have to wake up to this grotesque disparity in how they administer justice in the case of contracted civilians who kill and maim on a small scale, but totally ignore large-scale criminality by American presidents and officials.
When the system of justice becomes deeply entwined in absolving government officials of any responsibility for their conduct abroad that kills and injures hundreds of thousands of civilians, this erodes the moral basis of all the other good things in the American political system, and turns it into an accomplice in mass murder. And decent Americans still wonder why so many people around the world have lost respect for the United States? "