Long ago, when governments slaughtered the enemy merely for being different and thus subhuman or for occupying desired territory, such crude rationales satisfied the states’ agents and subjects. The modern democratic state, however, employs more sophisticated propaganda when it burns, gasses, shoots, and bombs people including civilians. There is always the excuse of security: the targeted people pose a threat. When this argument seems tenuous, it is well complemented by that most insidious of pretenses: The killing is done for the good of others. It is an act of kindness. The American empire, like the Roman and British before it, inflicts violence to civilize and rescue those in need.
Along these lines even the unparalleled mass death of World War II has been vindicated. Since then most U.S. killing sprees have been directed against Hitler’s ghost. Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic were both compared to the Nazi ruler. So were David Koresh and Muammar Gaddafi.
Killing Children to Stop Child Abuse
In the case of Koresh, leader of the Branch Davidian church at Mount Carmel, Texas, the comparisons to Hitler were especially strained. Yet everything about the siege just outside Waco, aside from its humanitarian rationale, seems to have been forgotten. Sure, the religious group was "stockpiling weapons." One of them was a legal arms dealer. But why didn’t the cops just arrest Koresh while he was hanging out around town? He was an integrated member of the community. Local law enforcement befriended him. The feds were given intimate access to the Davidians’ home – even enjoying a stint on their firing range with Koresh – and he welcomed them to inspect the property. The raid commenced on February 28, 1993, not out of anything approaching necessity, but because the ATF wanted to look good for the cameras. "Operation Showtime" was the name of the long-planned attack on the Davidian home. Its main purpose: to overcome the bad publicity the agency had suffered over allegations of sexual harrassment and racism.
The feds had constructed a model of the Davidian home where they rehearsed the raid, whose planning began late in the George H.W. Bush administration. But the raid went horribly wrong. The Davidians fought back – apparently in self-defense, which is why when the ATF ran out of bullets, the Davidians ceased fire, and let the agents leave their property in peace.
Soon enough the domestic siege looked militaristic even by modern American standards. It was full-out psychological warfare: The FBI took over and cut off the Davidians’ access to the press, to water, to phone calls with relatives or lawyers. They blasted recordings of loud, obnoxious music and the sounds of animals being slaughtered. They shone bright lights upon the home all night. They called it a hostage situation, but people trying to leave the building were typically met with flash-bang grenades thrown at them by the feds.
The siege ended on April 19, 1993, after the FBI spent hours pumping flammable and poisonous CS gas into the area where women and children had gone for safety. Then the Bureau rammed a tank and launched incendiary devices into the home. The Davidians also had Coleman lanterns in nearly every room, which could have easily fallen over in the chaos, and various combustible chemicals stored in the gymnasium. Although Clinton blamed the Davidians for starting the fire, the flames erupted in a manner consistent with the tank’s collision into the building. There is no credible evidence that the Davidians were planning a mass suicide by fire, and all the survivors have denied that they were. As researcher Carol Moore put it, "There is no doubt that Mount Carmel was systematically turned into a fire trap. The only question is, was it done through criminal negligence or with intention to commit mass murder?"
Some survivors convicted in the mockery of a trial have only been out of prison since 2007. Within government, however, no one even had his wrist slapped. Most Americans assume that the government was negligent at worst, and that even this can be forgiven, since the FBI, with military assistance, was attempting a rescue of the innocent. You see, as we’ve been reminded many times, David Koresh was molesting children.
The first argument behind this accusation concerns Koresh’s multiple young wives. Jack Harwell, the Sheriff of McLennan County, explained why we should not excuse the raid on this basis:
To this day, we don't have a case that we can make against Vernon Howell [David Koresh] or anyone else for child abuse even though the news media here and other people were saying this is what happened. A man from Australia said this is what happened. But we can never get them to give us anything more that just "we know that’s what happened." You have to have proof to go into court . . . Keep in mind, too, that most of the girls who were involved were at least 14 years old and 14-year-olds get married with parental consent. So if their parents were there and letting things happen in the way of sexual activities and what have you with their 14-year-old kids, you have common law husbands and wives. Uh, I don't say that I agree with that and that I approve of it. But at the same time, if parents are there and they're giving parental consent, we have a problem with that in making a case.There are more serious allegations of abuse, but they too are questionable. On the first day of the 1995 Congressional hearings on Waco, Democrats attempting to whitewash the Clinton administration’s conduct brought out Kiri Jewell, who accused Koresh of having molested her when she was ten. No charges of this nature had been pressed against Koresh. However, during the standoff, Jewell, who was not living at Mount Carmel at the time, had appeared on The Phil Donahue Show while her dad pitched their story to the television networks. On the show, she said she expected to be one of Koresh's wives at age 13. In another public statement, she said that while living with the Davidians she never expected to live past 12.
Despite all this, Jewell’s testimony forever colored the mainstream perception of the Branch Davidian Church as a cult of child molestation, which somehow is supposed to make the federal killing less objectionable. The public assumes these allegations are true and no due process is necessary to conclude that the FBI, a heroic if flawed institution, swept in to stop a monster from abusing minors. Presumably, had those children not been gassed, suffocated and burnt to death, they along with the surviving kids would have been exposed to Koresh’s torment. This narrative is hardly questioned now and it was hardly questioned then: Not only should we believe all of the government’s accusations about Koresh, but those charges somehow mitigate what happened in 1993 when more American civilians died at the hands of the federal government than in any confrontation since Wounded Knee.
Bombing Libyans to Save Libyans
Eighteen years after the flames of Waco, we again see the federal government killing in the name of human rights. Practically no one questions the utilitarian calculus of this altruistic butchery. Most critiques of the Libya war concern strategic prudence, legal issues, or the fiscal price tag.
Should we leave unchallenged the characterization of Obama and NATO as protectors of the innocent? In particular, we hear that Operation Odyssey Dawn prevented Gaddafi from massacring large numbers of civilians in Benghazi. Almost everyone takes it for granted.
To be sure, Gaddafi is a dictator and thug, who indeed killed hundreds of rebels before U.S. cruise missiles hit Tripoli. But would have he slaughtered tens or even hundreds of thousands, as was suggested and claimed, if not for Obama’s intervention? Stephen Walt shares his compelling doubts:
Although everyone recognizes that Qaddafi is a brutal ruler, his forces did not conduct deliberate, large-scale massacres in any of the cities he has recaptured, and his violent threats to wreak vengeance on Benghazi were directed at those who continued to resist his rule, not at innocent bystanders. There is no question that Qaddafi is a tyrant with few (if any) redemptive qualities, but the threat of a bloodbath that would "[stain] the conscience of the world" (as Obama put it) was slight.
Misurata’s population is roughly 400,000. In nearly two months of war, only 257 people – including combatants – have died there. Of the 949 wounded, only 22 – less than 3 percent – are women. If Khadafy were indiscriminately targeting civilians, women would comprise about half the casualties. . .Paul Miller, who served on Bush and Obama’s National Security Councils, intones that far from a genocidal clash, we are looking at a "Libyan civil war. . . between a tyrant and his cronies on one side, and a collection of tribes, movements, and ideologists (including Islamists) on the other." (Incidentally, these opponents of Gadhafi’s regime, like practically all other insurgent allies of the CIA, are far from the angelic freedom fighters that the U.S. implies. Their leader outright admits connections between his group and al-Qaeda, which has offered his rebels aid. The U.S. went to war with Iraq boasting of Saddam’s fictitious ties to al-Qaeda, a connection that was "proven" on the tortured testimony of Libyan al-Qaeda operative Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi. But unlike Saddam, America’s allies in the struggle against Gaddafi are probably tied to these Islamist killers.)
Nor did Khadafy ever threaten civilian massacre in Benghazi, as Obama alleged. The "no mercy" warning, of March 17, targeted rebels only, as reported by The New York Times, which noted that Libya’s leader promised amnesty for those "who throw their weapons away." Khadafy even offered the rebels an escape route and open border to Egypt, to avoid a fight "to the bitter end."
In any event, let us concede for argument’s sake that Gaddafi is precisely as diabolical as is claimed, and the dictator indeed wishes to wipe out as many innocents as possible just for the sake of it. Or let’s assume this was a reasonable inference when the NATO bombing began. Time and again we have been reminded that Benghazi is home to over half a million people. But does a large population mean they’d all be vulnerable? Let us recall that Gaddafi is not Harry Truman. He has no nukes. As Seumas Milne put it: "Given that [Gaddafi’s] ramshackle forces were unable to fully retake towns like Misurata or even Ajdabiya when the rebels were on the back foot, the idea that they would have been able to overrun an armed and hostile city of 700,000 people any time soon seems far-fetched." Whereas the citizens of Benghazi have arms, like the civilians at Waco, they far outnumber Gaddafi’s forces, unlike the Branch Davidians against the FBI. Even if he wished to commit a Waco-like massacre of a whole city, Gaddafi had more effective limits on his killing than does the U.S. government.
The notion that U.S. bombs stopped Gaddafi’s murder of many thousands is more than dubious, and it was at the time the bombings began. Even if we believed the questionable claims about his intention to commit such an act, it is not clear how he was supposed to have succeeded. Yet simply by starting a war and saying it was to protect the innocent, Obama shifted public support of intervention against Libya from about 25% to about 60%.
Putting aside the suspicious claims of Gaddafi’s impending civilian massacre, we might wonder how many civilians Obama and company have actually killed in Libya. The NATO governments shrug off any reports of such casualties or deny them outright. Like its predecessor the Obama administration doesn’t do body counts. What’s more, the U.S. intervention most likely "magnifies the threat to civilians in Libya, and beyond," Kuperman argues, citing the Balkans in the 1990s and showing that foreign bombs often exacerbate ethnic cleansing and civilian massacres.
Indeed, U.S. involvement appears to have prolonged the bloodshed in Libya. Although Obama denied the goal was regime change, he now says Gaddafi must step down to end the war. Gaddafi has offered a ceasefire to the rebels, who rejected it, probably knowing that the U.S. will support them so long as they resist until the regime is toppled.
People can freely argue that U.S. intervention has preempted Gaddafi’s impending genocide, but the burden should be on them to prove it, and as with Kosovo, they have not done so. To the contrary, Gaddafi has seemingly focused his violence on the rebels, whereas the U.S. central state is not always so discriminating. At Waco, dozens of children were snuffed out. In Iraq and Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands of innocents have died in wars based on lies. In Obama’s drone attacks in Pakistan, ten civilians die for every "militant" killed, even according to moderate estimates by very mainstream sources. That these "militants" are a threat to the United States government is never demonstrated, but let’s assume they are. The ratio of unarmed, innocent bystanders to belligerents killed by the United States is higher than that of which Gaddafi is guilty in Misurata.
Why do people believe the U.S. government’s propaganda about Libya when every single major military intervention it has conducted has exacerbated the problems on the ground or at least added to the death toll directly? Why is the mere assertion that a massacre is being averted a license for the U.S. to drop at least hundreds of bombs?
18 Years of Murderous Salvation
The American belief in benevolent mass murder is not a partisan disposition. Most liberals and conservatives alike take it for granted that, while the federal government’s armed agents sometimes act recklessly or carry out mistaken orders, their acts should never be seen as murder. The assumption is nearly universal that Obama, Bush and Clinton, whatever their partisan opponents might think, are not mass murderers in the mold of Gaddafi, or cult leaders along the lines of Koresh, when in fact our presidents are far worse than either of these men in terms of cultish power as well as sheer body count. All three of these chief executives, and many before them, have commanded the loyalty of far more subordinates willing to die on their orders than Koresh ever could, and have extinguished more innocent lives than Gaddafi ever did.
Waco and Libya are only the first and latest examples of U.S. humanitarian atrocities in the post-Cold War era. In both situations, we see the U.S. government leaving behind rubble and death, and the chattering classes agreeing that Washington has the innocents’ best interests at heart, even as it imposes sanctions on civilians or cuts them off from water, disregarding the very humanity of the victims of Uncle Sam’s explosions. When D.C. kills it is never seen as when others, whether private American citizens or foreign despots, do it.
When a private religious separatist allegedly molests children, it is an excuse for gassing children to death. But when the federal government molests children it is merely airport security. When a foreign dictator is allegedly about to kill tens of thousands of innocents, it is an excuse for another non-defensive U.S. presidential war. But when the U.S. government kills millions though sanctions, chemical warfare, conventional bombings and depleted uranium, it is simply the mainstream foreign policy consensus at work.
It is particularly hard to cut through these double standards when left-liberal presidents kill, as both sides of the spectrum benefit from pretending that these politicians are less trigger-happy than the conservatives. Yet Clinton and Obama have both revealed themselves to be as bloodthirsty as the Bushes before them.
Whether using the military to police the world or militarizing the police here at home, the federal government’s favorite activity appears to be killing. Thanks to the domestic precedent of Waco and the foreign-policy traditions of the last few presidents, there are now essentially no limits on the power of Washington to kill men, women and children, at home and abroad, and get away with it in the court of public opinion. Nothing gives the executive branch the free hand to snuff out human life like the promise of humanitarian salvation.