(A version of this story first appeared on the blog Wide Asleep in America)
"Great shapes like big machines rose out of the dimness, and cast grotesque black shadows, in which dim spectral Morlocks sheltered from the glare...there was an altogether new element in the sickening quality of the Morlocks — a something inhuman and malign ... I wondered vaguely what foul villainy it might be that the Morlocks did under the new moon." - H.G. Wells, The Time Machine, 1895
Nearly eight years ago, on April 1, 2004, former speechwriter and Special Assistant to Ronald Reagan Peggy Noonan wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal, where she was a contributing editor. It began like this (emphasis in original):
The world is used to bad news and always has been, but now and then there occurs something so brutal, so outside the normal limits of what used to be called man's inhumanity to man, that you have to look away. Then you force yourself to look and see and only one thought is possible: This must stop now. You wonder, how can we do it? And your mind says, immediately: Whatever it takes.
The inhuman event she referred to was the killing in the Iraqi city of Fallujah of four American civilian contractors, whose SUV was ambushed by rocket-propelled grenades the day before. The four men, all employees of the infamous mercenary outfit Blackwater, were dragged from their cars. They were shot, their bodies burned, mutilated and dragged through the streets in celebration. The charred corpses of two of those killed that day were strung up on a bridge over the Euphrates River. The news, and accompanying ghastly photographs, sent shockwaves of horror and disgust through the United States and prompted editorials from coast to coast.
Noonan described "the brutalization of their corpses" as "savage, primitive, unacceptable" and decried that the "terrible glee of the young men in the crowds, and the sadism they evinced, reminds us of the special power of the ignorant to impede the good." She wrote that the Iraqis responsible for such gruesome actions "take pleasure in evil, and they were not shy to show it. They are arrogant. They think barbarity is their right."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan condemned the killings as "despicable, horrific attacks" and "cowardly, hateful acts," saying, "it was inexcusable the way those individuals were treated." He called those responsible for the deaths "terrorists" and "a collection of killers" and vowed that "America will never be intimidated by thugs and assassins."
The United States Marines responded by bombarding Fallujah, killing over 600 Iraqis, most of them women, children and the elderly in the very first week of the assault in early April 2004. By the end of the year, two massive assaults on the city by the U.S. military had killed more than 2,000 Iraqis, including hundreds of women and children, injured thousands more and dispalced at least 300,000. Such is the American capacity for bloodthirsty revenge.
Nowhere has this vengeance been more tragically demonstrated than Afghanistan and upon an innocent and terrorized civilian population that bares absolutely no responsibility for the events that led the United States to invade and occupy the country over a decade ago.
Just last month, on Feb. 8, 2012, a NATO airstrike killed several children in the eastern Kapinsa province of Afghanistan, with "young Afghans of varying ages" identified among the casualties. Similar strikes were responsible for the deaths -- no, murder -- of nearly 200 civilians last year alone. In less than 10 months from 2010 to early 2011, well over 1,500 Afghan civilians were killed by U.S. and NATO forces in night raids, a brutal occupation tactic that has been embraced -- along with drone attacks -- by President Barack Obama. According to a September 2011 study by the Open Society Foundation, “An estimated 12 to 20 night raids now occur per night, resulting in thousands of detentions per year, many of whom are non-combatants." These raids produce heavy civilian casualties and often target the wrong people.
Then came a story that continues to mutate. Last Sunday Reuters reported that "Western forces" shot dead 16 civilians including nine children in southern Kandahar. Witnesses told Reuters they saw a group of U.S. soldiers arrive at their village in Kandahar's Panjwayi district at around 2 a.m., enter homes and open fire.
The New York Times reported a different story: that "a United States Army sergeant methodically killed at least 16 civilians, 9 of them children," after "[s]talking from home to home." The Guardian added, "Among the dead was a young girl in a green and red dress who had been shot in the forehead. The bodies of other victims appeared partially burned. A villager claimed they had been wrapped in blankets and set on fire by the killer."
The U.S. mainstream media was quick to follow the lead of "U.S. military officials" who "stressed that the shooting was carried out by a lone, rogue soldier, differentiating it from past instances in which civilians were killed accidentally during military operations." While Reuters noted that "U.S. officials" asserted "that a lone soldier was responsible," this conflicted with "witnesses' accounts that several U.S. soldiers were present." Neighbors said they had awoken to crackling gunfire from American soldiers, who they described as laughing and drunk.
"They were all drunk and shooting all over the place," said neighbor Agha Lala, who visited one of the homes where killings took place.
A senior U.S. defense official in Washington rejected these accounts. "Based on the preliminary information we have this account is flatly wrong," the official said. "We believe one U.S. service member acted alone, not a group of U.S. soldiers."
U.S. officials were also quick to express their "deep sadness" as they described the "individual act" as an "isolated episode." Lt. Gen. Adrian J. Bradshaw, deputy commander of the international coalition in Afghanistan, called the murders "callous." Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told Afghan President Hamid Karzai, "I condemn such violence and am shocked and saddened that a U.S. service member is alleged to be involved." U.S. President Barack Obama declared, "I offer my condolences to the families and loved ones of those who lost their lives, and to the people of Afghanistan, who have endured too much violence and suffering. This incident ... does not represent the exceptional character of our military and the respect that the United States has for the people of Afghanistan.
Such "isolated incidents" have been obliterating the lives of Afghan civilians for over a decade. Between January and May 2010, members of a U.S. Army Stryker brigade, who called themselves the "Kill Team," executed three Afghans -- a 15-year-old boy, a mentally retarded man and a religious leader -- and then staged combat situations to cover up the killings, snapped commemorative and ghastly celebratory photographs with the murdered corpses, and took fingers and teeth as trophies. Peggy Noonan might say that they thought barbarity was their right.
To date, 11 soldiers have been convicted in connection to the murders. Last year, one of the soldiers, Spc. Jeremy Morlock of Wasilla, Alaska, was sentenced to 24 years in prison for his role in the killings. One of the leaked Kill Team photos shows "Morlock smiling as he holds a dead man up by the hair on his head." At the beginning of his court-martial, Morlock bluntly told the judge, "The plan was to kill people, sir." He may be eligible for parole in less than seven years.
Then there was the online video showing four giddy U.S. Marines urinating on the bodies of three slain Afghan men while saying things like "Have a good day, buddy" and "Golden like a shower." One of the soldiers was the platoon's commanding officer. Just a few weeks later, American troops at Bagram Air Base deliberately incinerated numerous copies of the Quran and other religious texts, sparking mass riots across Afghanistan and leading to a rash of killings of U.S. and NATO soldiers by Afghans armed and trained by NATO. Just two days ago, in the eastern Afghan province of Kapisa, "NATO helicopters apparently hunting Taliban insurgents instead fired on civilians, killing four and wounding three others."
A 2011 military report determined -- unsurprisingly -- that the treatment of Afghans by the occupying armies was one reason why members of the Afghan National Security Force sometimes kill their NATO comrades. The report credited such actions to "a crisis of trust and cultural incompatibility." One would hope that night raids, drone strikes, the willful execution of men, women and children, mutilating, desecrating and pissing on corpses would be "incompatible" with any American culture.
In the wake of the Quran burnings, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters, "We can't forget what the mission is -- the need to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida remains," and stressed that "the overall importance of defeating al-Qaida remains."
Carney said this despite the fact that, in late June 2010, then-CIA Director Leon Panetta judged that the number of al-Qaida militants in Afghanistan was "at most ... maybe 50 to 100, maybe less." In April 2011, Gen. David Petraeus told reporters in Kabul that al-Qaida's total strength in Afghanistan is "generally assessed at less than 100 or so" combatants, of whom only "a handful" were seen to pose a threat to Western countries.
Hardly any Afghans even know the "reason why foreign armies have invaded and occupied their land and have been killing their family and friends for years." A survey released by the International Council on Security and Development in November 2010 revealed that, "in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, the two provinces currently suffering the most violence" and where Obama had recently sent thousands of American soldiers, "92% of respondents in the south are unaware of the events of 9/11 or that they triggered the current international presence in Afghanistan," after being read a three-paragraph description of the attacks. Furthermore, of those interviewed (1,000 Afghan men ages 15 to 30), 40% "believe the international forces are there to destroy Islam, or to occupy or destroy Afghanistan." Chances are, incinerating their holy scripture and bombing their villages don't help challenge this perception.
Consequently, when U.S. missiles and bullets tear through villages, rooftops, windshields and the living, breathing bodies of Afghan men, women, boys and girls, the carnage is devoid of "context" -- not that a deadly attack on U.S. soil over a decade ago can possibly, in any conceivable, legal or human way, justify the atrocities, trauma, terror, dehumanization and devastation that have befallen the Afghan people at the orders and hands of American soldiers, officers and commanders in chief.
This kind of American impunity cannot be considered surprising.
Over the past decade, the United States military has invaded and occupied two foreign countries (illegally bombing and drone striking at least four others), and has overseen the kidnapping, indefinite detention without charge or trial, and the physical and psychological torture of thousands of people, including at places like Guantanamo, Bagram and Abu Ghraib. Prisoners held by the United States in Afghanistan and Guantanamo, in addition to being "chained to the ceiling, shackled so tightly that the blood flow stops, kept naked and hooded and kicked to keep them awake for days on end," have also been beaten to death by their American interrogators. Of the 15 soldiers charged with detainee abuse ranging from "dereliction of duty to maiming and involuntary manslaughter," all but three have been acquitted. Those three received written reprimands and served, at most, 75 days in prison for their war crimes and crimes against humanity.
In response to the lethal rampage in Kandahar Sunday, the Taliban condemned the "sick minded American savages" and vowed to "take revenge from the invaders and the savage murderers for every single martyr." The official Taliban statement continued,
A large number from amongst the victims are innocent children, women and the elderly, martyred by the American barbarians who mercilessly robbed them of their precious lives and drenched their hands with their innocent blood.
The American terrorists want to come up with an excuse for the perpetrator of this inhumane crime by claiming that this immoral culprit was mentally ill.
If the perpetrators of this massacre were in fact mentally ill then this testifies to yet another moral transgression by the American military because they are arming lunatics in Afghanistan who turn their weapons against the defenceless Afghans without giving a second thought.
The words of the Taliban could be Peggy Noonan's. One would assume, as the victims of this latest massacre were not trained, uniformed combat troops but rather innocent civilians, many of them children, whose corpses were brutalized like the men in Fallujah, that the Peggy Noonans of America would similarly speak out for justice.
But don't hold your breath. The silence of Americans -- or worse, equivocation -- will be thunderous.