The world is used to bad news and always has been, but now and then there occurs something so brutal, so outside the normal limits of what used to be called man’s inhumanity to man, that you have to look away. Then you force yourself to look and see and only one thought is possible: This must stop now. You wonder, how can we do it? And your mind says, immediately: Whatever it takes.
What they did in Fallujah, Iraq, yesterday was such an event. The ambush, grenading, shooting and killing of four American civilians, the setting of their SUVs on fire and the brutalization of their corpses was savage, primitive, unacceptable. The terrible glee of the young men in the crowds, and the sadism they evinced, reminds us of the special power of the ignorant to impede the good. The pictures that television appropriately mostly did not show and the Internet inevitably mostly did were horrifying in a way that was reminiscent of the first still pictures of the Trade Center victims of 9/11. It was like seeing people in business suits falling through the air again. It was as if someone pointed a camera at evil and actually caught it in the act.
The Americans who were murdered were, according to the wires, working for a security company, a North Carolina-based subcontractor hired by the U.S. government, among other things, to guard convoys.
The convoys carried food. They carried it to Fallujah.
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The four civilians were not the only Americans who died in Iraq yesterday. We lost five soldiers in a roadside bombing. The statements of American officials in Iraq were appropriate: This stops nothing, the terrorists will not win. A State Department spokesman said the contractors “were trying to make a difference and to help others.” Indeed they were. There are many such in Iraq. They are risking their lives for many reasons, including improving the prospects for health and safety of 12-year-old boys like the one quoted by Reuters who witnessed the actions of his elders after the attack on the civilians. “I am happy to see this,” he said.
It is hard not to hate the teenagers and young men who celebrated under the bridge where they hanged the charred bodies. They are human expressions of nihilism. They take pleasure in evil, and they were not shy to show it. They are arrogant. They think barbarity is their right.
If this time, in this incident, these young men are left unchecked, their ways and attitudes, their assumptions and method of operating will only be encouraged, and spread. So we had better check them.
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It is possible that the atrocity in Fallujah was spontaneous or not fully thought through, but it doesn’t look like it. It seems likely to have been at least to some degree, and perhaps a high degree, well planned and calculated. The brutalizing of the bodies was done in a way that seemed imitative, as all have noted, of the incident in Mogadishu, Somalia, where in 1993 a frenzied mob dragged the dead body of a U.S. Army Ranger through the streets. The civilized world was horrified, and everyone knows what followed: a quick American retreat.
It is not a stretch to imagine the young murderers of Fallujah had this on their minds: Do it again to America, kill them and string up their corpses, because when you do this America leaves.
And so this time the response must be the opposite of the response in Mogadishu.
We know what the men and boys who did the atrocity of Fallujah look like; they posed for the cameras. We know exactly what they did—again, the cameras. We know they massed on a bridge and raised their guns triumphantly. It’s all there on film. It would be good not only for elemental justice but for Iraq and its future if a large force of coalition troops led by U.S. Marines would go into Fallujah, find the young men, arrest them or kill them, and, to make sure the point isn’t lost on them, blow up the bridge.
Whatever the long-term impact of the charred bodies the short term response must be a message to Fallujah and to all the young men of Iraq: the violent and unlawful will be broken. Savagery is yesterday; it left with Saddam.
It is not only coalition forces that should send this message. It is important that Iraqis themselves—pro-peace and pro-democracy Iraqis who are attempting to build a new government—come forward to denounce what happened in Fallujah. They should stand before the world and denounce the atrocity in the most serious terms. So should our allies. And so should the United Nations.
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If an unforgettable message is not sent to the young men of Fallujah, the young nihilists will be inspired, and the lesson of their nihilism—brutality trumps goodwill—will gain ground. The progressives of Iraq will be further disheartened, and all of those there from the West to help, from contract workers to military troops, will feel more beset, more resentful and less hopeful of a good outcome.
The terrible pictures of the charred bodies on the bridge cannot be erased, and no one who saw them is going to forget them. But they can in time come to be accompanied by other pictures—of determined U.S. Marines, for instance, rounding up the men who massed on the bridge under the bodies, and brandished their weapons, and laughed.