It's an excuse that curdles the blood of the listener, while masking the guilt of the speaker. A spin that's as old as war: we good, them bad. The Sobhraj refrain has a military version: "we never mean to kill good people". This helps the generals sleep. But in today's era of terror, even that excuse is no longer comforting. It is all too obvious that we do kill good people on purpose, and lots of them. Leaving aside the "unavoidable deaths" resulting from stray missiles and ill trained soldiers, it is now military practice to kill any number of "good people" who happen to be in the vicinity of a suspected "bad person". Last weekend, Israel blew up a car containing the usual "suspected Hamas militant", in the knowledge that young children were among the passengers. It is not the first time, and is unlikely to be the last.
Assassinations that kill and maim beyond their intended target are a CIA staple, assisted by robotic planes and false information extracted by torture. The claim, "we never mean to kill good people", no longer applies, unless you believe that babies have criminal intent. So how shall we update this mantra for the third millennium? "We only kill good people when they are in the company of a bad person and we don't want to look them in the eye". This position is openly argued by political leaders and the New York Times. In January, when a CIA strike on Damadola village in Pakistan missed an Al Qaeda fugitive and wiped out five women and five children, there was not only a lack of an official apology but a rebuke to the weeping relatives. You shouldn't hang out with bad guys. While US Senator John McCain did apologize, unlike Bush, he didn't seem to mean it, "I can't tell you that we wouldn't do the same thing again". A New York Times editorial decided the Damadola strike had been "legitimately aimed". So there you have it. A pinheaded Goliath unleashes Hellfire missiles at an impoverished village in a friendly nation, liquidates children, and is defended by moderates. It doesn't make sense. If it is "legitimate" to kill innocents, then it is legitimate for bin Laden to strike the World Trade Centre. This is absurd. Therefore the argument is false.
Where do we go from here? First, acknowledge that our leadership stinks - in Washington, in London, in Canberra. There is such a convergence of threats facing the world, that it is perilous to remain constrained by political loyalties or knee jerk patriotism. Truth is what your country needs most.
Three years after hitting Iraq with "shock and awe", it is we the reviled opponents of war who are still reeling from shock and awe. Shock at the deceits of leadership, awe at the flouting of law, amazed at the endorsement of sadism. In a single episode of Boston Legal there are more examples of people grappling with ethics, of pursuing what's fair and right, than has been exhibited in the entire spectrum of the Bush Presidency. The James Spader character's hunger for justice brings to mind the scores of activists I met in late 60's early 70's America, whose spirit and soulfulness are sadly missing from today's Washington. Despite the horrors we've inflicted on innocent Muslims, the leaders of the ever shrinking Coalition of the Willing, as well as their ethically challenged cheer leaders, still seem prepared to kill, torture or maim every citizen in Iraq and Afghanistan, in order to .... what? Save face. What face? Since the start of the terror wars, what we have been witnessing are a series of mini Mai Lais, thuggish statesmanship and the makings of prison states. Rarely has the sun sunk so low in the lands of the formerly free.
The 2002 invasion of Afghanistan showcased the "march-in-shooting" strategy of US house searches, which served to boost support for bin Laden. There were reports of massacres. It was alleged that 30 to 40 U.S. Special Forces assisted in the massacre of 3,000 Taliban prisoners. When Amnesty International viewed the documentary footage, much of it wisely shot in secret, it stated there was prima facie evidence of serious war crimes. In July, US planes and helicopters swooped on a wedding party southwest of Kabul, killing 54 guests and injuring over 100. "It was like an abattoir", said a survivor. "There was blood everywhere." One of the guests, Mohammad Anwar, whose wife was killed in the raid, told Yahoo News that after the bombing, US soldiers "stormed into the houses and tied the hands of men and women. They refused to let the people help the victims." A week later, the local District Commissioner Abdur Rahim, paid out to relatives US$200 on behalf of each person killed and US$75 for each of the wounded. Little was made of this at the time. Much might be made of it when the orphans grow up. Charles Sobhraj was partly shaped by what he saw as a child in war torn Vietnam.
The US military has had four years to learn how to win Afghani hearts and minds. Last week, when A-10 "Warthog" warplanes strafed the village of Azizi from midnight till dawn, suspected Taliban ran from a religious school into nearby mud brick homes, which were then attacked. "I saw 35 to 40 dead Taliban", said Haji Ikhlaf, a blood smeared witness, "and around 50 dead or wounded civilians". Another villager, Zurmina Bibi, cradled her wounded 8-month-old. She said about 10 people were killed in her home, including three or four children. Attah Mohammad, said at the hospital that 24 members of his family were dead , including children. In New York Times speak, such houses would be considered "legitimately bombed".
Meanwhile, the coalition leaders believe they're instruments of God. And that heaven awaits them, an illusion not shared by rank and file serial killers. As for the carnage, Bush, Blair and Howard don't even see it. That life is worse off for the locals - never mentioned. That 82% of Iraqis hate the occupation - not an issue. That the death toll is ever soaring? No worries - they don't do body counts. Trouble is, God probably does.