We Do Killing Right

President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell have recently gone out on the political limb by denouncing the “barbarism” of the latest terrorist decapitation of an American hostage in the Middle East.

Yes, of course you have to be depraved practically beyond belief to cut off the head of a defenseless hostage, to film that act, and then to distribute the images across the world. Anyone who engages in such conduct has forfeited any claim they might have once had to being human. Barbarian? Absolutely. There are some things, one hopes, that everyone can agree on.

Where, however, is the Bush administration’s disgust and anger over the actions of Uzbekistan dictator Islam Karimov, who is known for boiling his political opponents alive? His barbarian regime, which routinely tortures and kills dissidents, recently received $500 million from the self-declared guardians of global decency in the White House.

And how much worse are the Johnson and Berg killings than the killing of at least 22 Afghan and Iraqis in U.S. imperial prisons since December 2002? Three of those killings have been classified as murders and ten are under investigation for homicide charges. The torture in Abu Ghraib and other U.S. prisons appears to have had a significant exhibitionist dimension, as seen in the numerous photographs left behind.

And what is it but, well, barbarism to wage an absurdly one-sided and thoroughly illegal and unnecessary “war” that has killed anywhere from 22,000 to 55,000 Iraqis for falsely sold, transparently imperial reasons Many thousands of these victims have been non-combatants, including large numbers of defenseless, shattered children.

In one of many terrible episodes that run together to create the terrible Iraqi body count, U.S. “defense” planners early in the “war” blew up 18 civilians in a house they thought might be sheltering Saddam Hussein. An Air Force participant in that noble action told PBS “Frontline” that the two sets of coordinates given to the B-1 bomber pilots who conducted the operation “were less precise than usual.” “Intelligence” told the Air Force to increase the likelihood of getting Saddam by taking out two structures, not one. “Emotionally,” the Air Force officer recalled, “it was, ‘we annihilated that target, ok we did that, let’s move on to the next one.’”

Eighteen civilians died when the U.S. “did that and moved on.” Left in the rubble was “Abdul M’s” “entire family,” including his daughter and his wife. “I dug them out,” Abdul told “Frontline”, “with my own bare hands. I carried them out with my own bare hands. I buried them with my own bare hands.”

What was it but barbarism to open this “war” with a faceless live made-for-TV snuff-film called “Shock and Awe”? Did they really think we imagined nobody was dying beneath their spectacular imperial fireworks? In a disgusting nod of approval to the most barbarian acts in human history, Pentagon hawks openly compared their initial bombing campaign to the 1945 Hiroshima and Nagasaki atrocities.

What was it but barbarism to kill more than 500,000 Iraqi children through the imposition of a mass-murderous embargo that bore the dry technical label “economic sanctions”? For U.S. policymakers, we recall, that “price” – in the damning and immortal words of Madeline Albright, speaking on CBS’s “60 Minutes” – was “worth paying.” That’s the morality of the Third Reich.

During the sanctions campaign (1991-2003) and the latest U.S. attack, the imperial authorities did and do not bother to count the Other’s” fatalities (very different from the official enemy body-count obsessions of Vietnam). Beneath their surface humanitarian rhetoric, they have consistently seen dead Afghans and Iraqis pretty much the same way al Qaeda saw the thousands of Americans it killed in September 2001 – as expendable “offal” on the path to higher political and doctrinal objectives.

Beneath Bush, Cheney, and Powell’s expressions of horror at the latest al-Qaeda be-heading, there lurks a dark imperial distinction between the right way and the wrong way to kill innocents. The wrong way is to openly, sadistically, purposefully, and closely murder Americans (or people from American ally states) in the service of officially designated enemy movements or states.

You can kill quite closely and personally, however, without being denounced by American authorities if you happen to stand in service to, or on the side of, the U.S., the self-declared “beacon to the world of the way life should be” (U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson).

The best way is to murder in the service of empire is from 30,000 feet or from a distant air-conditioned missile targeting room or in an pleasant office that denies needed medicines to a desperately poor society whose public health capacities have been devastated by an earlier high-tech U.S. bombing campaign. We do killing right, and on a much larger scale.

Paul Street ([email protected]) is a researcher and writer in Chicago, Illinois.

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