War and Accountability
by Jonathan Schell
The Nation magazine, May 23, 2001
Few things are harder than an honest, voluntary accounting
by a nation of its own crimes. When the crimes are committed by
other nations, people know well how to respond. The pictures-those
of, say, Serbia's recent atrocities in Kosovo shown in the Western
media-are abundant. Investigations are energetic, coverage prompt.
The outrage is spontaneous, and the indignation flows easily.
Perhaps judicial proceedings will begin, or "humanitarian
intervention" will be contemplated, accompanied by a gratifying
debate on the limits of decent outsiders' moral obligations. Perhaps
in time movies will be made showing and caricaturing-their evil
and contrasting it with our virtue. Maybe museums of the horrors
will even be founded.
But how different everything becomes when our own countrymen
are the wrongdoers. Investigations move at a snail's pace perhaps
they take decades, if they occur at all. Whereas before we seemed
to be looking at the events through a sort of moral telescope,
which brought everything near and into sharp focus, now we seem
to look through the telescope's other end. The figures are small
and indistinct. A kind of mental and emotional fog rolls in. Memories
dim. The very acts that before inspired prompt anger now become
fascinating philosophical puzzles. The psychological torments
of the perpetrators move into the foreground, those of the victims
into the background. The man firing the gun becomes more of an
object of pity than the child at whom the gun was fired. All of
these responses have been on full display in the reaction in this
country to the excellent, meticulous report in the New York Times
by Gregory Vistica on the killing of at least thirteen civilians
in February 1969 in the Vietnamese village of Thanh Phong by a
Navy SEAL team led by Bob Kerrey, now president of the New School
University (where, I should state, I am a part-time lecturer)
and formerly a senator from Nebraska and presidential candidate...
Some have suggested that the United States has anguished long
enough over the Vietnam War and that it's long past time to put
it behind us. The debate over Thanh Phong, however, occurs in
a new context. Today, nations all over the world-South Africa,
Chile, Argentina, Poland, the Czech Republic, Serbia, Rwanda,
to name just a few-have been struggling to come to terms with
crimes committed in their recent past. In some countries, judicial
proceedings are under way. In others, truth commissions, offering
amnesty in exchange for full confession, have been founded. Elsewhere,
lustration-laws preventing wrongdoers of the past from holding
office-has been the recourse. Western countries have been liberal
with their advice. "International civil society" has
added its voice. Hundreds of academic conferences have been held.
In still other cases, international tribunals have been created
at The Hague to bring committers of crimes against humanity to
justice. Special tribunals are in operation to prosecute the perpetrators
of the genocide in Rwanda and the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo by
Serbia. The United States is among many countries that have sought
the extradition of the former President of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic,
and others to face justice at The Hague. More important, thirty
countries have ratified an agreement to establish a permanent
international criminal court. Taken in their entirety, these efforts
amount to a sort of movement, in the wake of the terrible violence
of the twentieth century, to create a bare minimum of accountability
for the worst crimes in the twenty-first.
The reactions of journalists and senators on news programs
in the United States to the Thanh Phong massacre will not decide
the outcome of these efforts. But if as a nation the United States-
the self-styled "world's only superpower"-cannot investigate,
cannot condemn, cannot assign responsibility for the killing of
the women and children of Thanh Phong, then state-licensed murderers
everywhere will take heart and those who are seeking to bring
them to justice will be discouraged. The United States cannot
condemn in others what it covers up when committed by its own.
The movement forjustice will continue, but the voice of the United
States will be discredited. We'll be missing in action.
Jonathan Schell is The Nation s peace and disarmament correspondent
and the Harold Willens Peace fellow at the Nation Institute.