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(DV) Van Haitsma: Beyond Guilt and Innocence







Beyond Guilt and Innocence
by Susan Van Haitsma
July 14, 2005

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In the wake of the London bombings, reporters and commentators have referred to the deaths of innocents and have speculated about unstated motives of the unknown perpetrators.  Reading these commentaries, I wonder who is guilty, who is innocent, and whether it is helpful to discuss the bombings using these dichotomies.

An Austin American-Statesman editorial responding to the bombings quoted President Bush's statement, "The contrast couldn't be clearer between the intentions and the hearts of those of us who care deeply about human rights and human liberty, and those who kill, those who've got such evil in their hearts that they will take the lives of innocent folks." 

News of the London attacks made headlines around the world and most victims have been identified. On the same day as the attacks and possibly every day for the last fifteen years, civilians have been killed in Iraq as a result of bombing, embargo, invasion and occupation. News accounts of Iraqi civilian deaths are underreported in the US media, and victims rarely are named. Disproportionate numbers of the dead have been children.

The American-Statesman editorial refers to the London bombing perpetrators via typographic error as "al terrorists" and claims "what the terrorist leaders want is the destruction of the Western way of life. Nothing less." How do journalists know this? Is it certain that terrorist "leaders" planned the London bombings? And how would one define the "Western way of life?"

The editorial not only ascribes motives but also predicts future strategies of an organization assumed responsible for the London bombings. "If all foreign troops left Iraq today, al Qaeda would make other demands." Who actually speaks for al Qaeda, what demands are made and to whom are the demands directed?

The US and Britain vow to not appease terrorists who induce fear and attempt to pressure governments by killing civilians. Yet, for more than a decade before the invasion and occupation, Iraqi civilians were the objects of brutal economic sanctions and systematic bombing conducted by US and British forces -- policies designed to pressure Iraqi leaders to accede to demands that kept changing. If one defines terrorism as targeting civilians through secretly planned and coordinated acts of violent retaliation with goals that are often unclear, then methods used by terrorists and methods used in the war against terror become indistinguishable.                     

Columnist Thomas Friedman calls Muslim leaders to account for the London bombings even while he states there is "no obvious target to retaliate against." At the same time that Friedman warns the West about the dangers of "making every Muslim in its midst guilty until proven innocent," he blames Muslims and suggests that an appropriate response to terrorism is to find "something we can punch in the face," as the US did in Afghanistan.  

When US and British leaders know beyond doubt that bombing campaigns will kill civilians, where is the line between those who care about human rights and those who kill? Maintaining a distinction between civilians as targets and civilians as collateral damage is not possible. President Bush's "contrast" between human beings who value life and those who plan death blurs to gray.

In a democratic society, who is responsible for government policies? In an undemocratic institution such as the US military, who is responsible for the actions of individual soldiers? As a US citizen, I theoretically help determine US policy. If policies have included killing civilians, am I guilty? Is a soldier who has killed civilians under orders innocent? If soldiers who kill are beset with post-traumatic stress, what does guilt or innocence mean then?

Friedman describes the British as "resilient, determined people." I have heard the same words used to describe Iraqis. While I admire these attributes, I also want to stop and remember every human being who is killed as a result of terrorism and war. Whether civilians, soldiers or suicide bombers, I'd like to know their names, ages and something about the universe of possibility that is lost with each life that is stolen.

Though it may seem like a brave response, we cannot simply mourn and move on.  Families of victims are not back to normal within a couple of days, and even if it is not acknowledged, neither are societies. I wonder how long war and terrorism could continue if we were able to set aside labels of guilt and innocence and learn the intentions and the hearts of every victim and perpetrator. 

Susan Van Haitsma is active with Nonmilitary Options for Youth in Austin, TX. She can be reached at

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Other Articles by Susan Van Haitsma

* Pushing Back the Violence: Peacemaker Teams Get in the Way
* Operation Red Flag: Recruiting at the IMAX
* Confessions of a Conscientious Objector
* Rethinking the D-Word:  Does the Military Really Instill Discipline?
* The Recruiter in Each of Us
* Weapons Trade: Mixing Guns, Schools and the Messages We Give Our Kids