Human equality, human rights, and wartime atrocities

Prosecuting American soldiers for maltreating Iraqi civilians shows that we still believe what Jefferson wrote: that human beings are fundamentally equal, and that they have rights independent of their status. Torturing suspected terrorists shows that we don’t believe it anymore. Which view seems patriotic to you?

Haditha was bad news: not so much because some soldiers went out of control, but because there was no internal system in place to keep them from covering it up and getting away with it. The Powers-that-Be seemed content to ride along with the false story until they knew that Time had a videotape.

The atrocity at Mahmudiya &#8212 a young woman raped, and the woman, her sister, and their parents murdered as part of the coverup &#8212 reflect much less excusable behavior on the part of the soldiers. If the facts are as charged, this wasn’t a combat operation gone wrong: this was simply a crime. (Reportedly the incident was the culmination of a pattern of sexual harrassment directed at the rape victim by U.S. soldiers as she passed through a checkpoint.)

But in this case, the military seems to have been aggressive in ferreting out the truth. The original report that atrocity had been committed by insurgents passed mostly unchallenged, but when two members of the unit in question spilled to the beans in psychological counselling sessions, the alarm bells went off just as they should have.

It might be too optimistic to read this as systemic change for the better, perhaps as a result of organizational learning from the Haditha fiasco. Still, the indications are that the mistakes of Haditha aren’t being repeated.

Any occupation, especially in the face of an insurgency and with a big cultural gap between the occupiers and the occupied, is going to generate some atrocious behavior. All we can reasonably ask from our military is that crimes against civilians be treated as crimes, not excused with some version of “boys will be boys.” That seems to have been the case this time.

It’s as good a way as I can think of for the military to celebrate the Fourth of July, and as good a reason as I can think of for the rest of us to celebrate it, too.

This country was founded on the twin ideas of human equality and human rights. Every time we show that we mean it, we reaffirm that foundation. Every time we show we don’t mean it, by treating other human beings the way no decent human being would treat an animal or by justifying such treatment with the cowardly plea of necessity, we proclaim that the men who pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to those twin propositions were a pack of fools. To a patriot, desecrating the Declaration ought to be much more offensive than burning the Flag.

Update This post was previously misattributed to Mike O’Hare, since I posted it from his computer.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

4 thoughts on “Human equality, human rights, and wartime atrocities”

  1. You slam the 'powers that be' for accepting what they're told until evidence surfaces to the contrary. would you prefer that our military commanders take the opposite approach, always assuming that the reports they are given are full of lies?

  2. No, Steve, I would prefer that they react to credible reports of misconduct by investigating them rather than denouncing them as al Qaeda propaganda. They didn't wait "until evidence surfaced;" they waited until someone produced a smoking gun videotape.

  3. Mark has defended his notion quite calmly and ably. As I am not him, I would also note that Steve recasts "rid[ing] along" with judicious analysis.
    We have been given no reason to suspect that during the last few years, honest analysis has anything to do with the reasoning behind our military command. In fact, there are many reasons to suspect that our national reasoning infrastructure is actually an obstacle to be overcome, not a support for, the goals our leaders appear to be persuing.

  4. A systemic change for the better?" What evidence leads you to that interpretation? Or that the "mistakes" of Haditha are not being repeated?
    An equally plausible interpretation might be that the US Armed Forces have become touchy about rape – excepting rape of lesbians – because the media have caught them covering it up so many times – in Okinwawa, at the USAF Academy, and elsewhere – and there has been hell to pay.
    In contrast, atrocities against civilians have occurred with great regularity for several years now and the consequences have been zero for higher ups and minimal for the perpetrators. And the media are afraid to touch the issue, unlike rape.
    As I recall, Lt. Calley served a day and a half for each civilian he caused to be murdered at My Lai. The system that covered up My Lai for 18 months (a coverup engineered by Colin Powell) and then tried, convicted, and soon released William Calley seems firmly in place to me.

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