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The Age of Irresponsibility

How Bush has created a moral vacuum in Iraq in which Americans can kill for free.

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  MICHAEL HIRSH  
Hirsh: Bob Gates Scores Quiet Victories
To little notice, the Defense secretary  has gotten his way on Iraq, and possibly on Iran. Now, Gates is about to appoint a former top Clinton official to prove he means business.

WEB-EXCLUSIVE COMMENTARY
By Michael Hirsh
Newsweek
Updated: 3:12 p.m. ET Sept. 20, 2007

Sept. 20, 2007 - Imagine a universe where a man can gun down women and children anytime he pleases, knowing he will never be brought to justice. A place where morality is null and void, and arbitrary killing is the rule. A place that has been imagined hitherto only in nightmarish dystopian fiction, like “1984,” or in fevered passages from Dostoevsky—or which existed during the Holocaust and Stalinist purges and the Dark Ages. Well, that universe exists today. It is called Iraq. And the man who made it possible is George W. Bush.

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The moral vacuum of Iraq—where Blackwater USA guards can kill 10 or 20 Iraqis on a whim and never be prosecuted for it—did not happen by accident. It is yet another example of something the Bush administration could have prevented with the right measures but simply did not bother about as it rushed into invading and occupying another country. With America’s all-volunteer army under strain, the Pentagon and White House knew that regular military cannot be used for guarding civilians. As far back as 2003, then-defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld convened a task force under Undersecretary of Defense David Chu to consider new laws that might be needed to govern the privatization of war. Nothing was done about its recommendations. Then, two days before he left Iraq for good, L. Paul Bremer III, the Coalition Provisional Authority administrator, signed a blanket order immunizing all Americans, because, as one of his former top aides told me, “we wanted to make sure our military, civilians and contractors were protected from Iraqi law.” (No one worried about protecting the Iraqis from us; after all, we still thought of ourselves as the “liberators,” even though by then the worst abuses at Abu Ghraib and other places were known.)

Nor can these private armies even be prosecuted in America under U.S. law. The Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act of 2000, which permits charges to be brought in U.S. courts for crimes abroad, apparently applies only to Defense Department contractors (and even then the administration has rarely used it). Blackwater and other security firms work for the State Department. Even today, despite the crucial role of Blackwater and other private security firms—who employ up to 30,000 operatives in keeping the civilian side of the U.S. occupation going—Iraqis can do nothing if they are abused or killed by them. While many Blackwater operatives are brave and honorable—the company has lost some 30 of its employees in Iraq—many of these paramilitaries have long been known to be cowboys who act as if they are free to commit homicide as they please. And according to numerous Iraqi witnesses, they sometimes do.

Take the case of the Blackwater guard who got drunk at a Green Zone party last Christmas Eve and reportedly boasted to his friends that he was going to kill someone. According to both Iraqi and U.S. officials, he stumbled out and headed provocatively over to the “Little Venice” section, a lovely area of canals where Iraqi officials live. He had an argument with an Iraqi guard, then shot him once in the chest and three times in the back. The next day Blackwater put him on a private plane out of the country—probably only because the incident involved a rare killing inside the Green Zone and the victim was a security guard for a high-ranking politician. That was it. The company has refused to disclose his name. (Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell did not return phone calls seeking comment.) Then there was last week’s incident, when Blackwater guards killed between 10 and 20 Iraqis at a traffic stop, including a woman and a child. The company later said in a statement that “the ‘civilians’ reportedly fired upon by Blackwater professionals were in fact armed enemies … Blackwater professionals heroically defended American lives in a war zone on Sunday.” However, even President Bush acknowledged at a news conference Thursday that “evidently” innocent lives were lost in the incident.

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