Thou shalt not kill

Hypocrisy: In the debate on violence emerging from the Colorado tragedy, war-making in Yugoslavia is conveniently omitted.

May 02, 1999|By COLMAN MCCARTHY

FOR CHEEKINESS, here is a peak moment in Bill Clinton's presidency: On April 22, he travels a few miles south of the White House to Alexandria, Va., to T.C. Williams High School to hail the virtues of nonviolent conflict resolution.

For nearly an hour, the war-making president who in the past 10 months has ordered his military to deliver death by bombs and missile warheads to people in Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq and Yugoslavia, speaks earnestly to about 25 students in the school's peer mediation program. Television cameras are feeding the event to several thousand schools throughout the traumatized land, the citizenry shocked and benumbed by the massacre at Columbine High in Littleton, Colo. Clinton offered fatherly counsel: "Parents should take this moment to ask what else they can do to shield our children from violent images and experiences that warp young perceptions and obscure the consequences of violence -- to show our children by the power of our own example how to resolve conflicts peacefully."

Two days before, while bloodied bodies still lay on the floor of the Colorado high school, Clinton had the same advice: "We must do more to reach out to our children and teach them to express their anger and to resolve their conflicts with words, not weapons."

These are statements of duplicity and hypocrisy. Clinton tells the nation to adopt the ways of peacemaking -- the ways of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, St. Francis, Jan Addams -- while he pushes on with the killing of Serbs in Yugoslavia. Are Clinton and his warrior advisers so obtuse as to think that citizens in this country and abroad can't see that he talks peace while practicing killing? Or that his own example of trying to resolve conflicts in Iraq and Yugoslavia by bombing people is itself teaching that weapons are good. Weapons of the U.S. military, that is. And the weapons of the Columbine High killers? Those are evil.

Hours after the worst act of schoolhouse violence in the nation's history, Belgrade suffered its most intense bombing since NATO and United States pilots were turned loose March 24. That same night, Virginia did some killing, too: the execution of still another death-row prisoner, this one a man known to be mentally ill, intellectually disabled and whose last words in the death chamber were: "Please forgive me for my sins." Virginia, backed by the Supreme Court, said no, you die.

As governor of Arkansas, Clinton oversaw four executions, the last one in February 1992 of a brain-damaged inmate who thought he would come back and eat part of his last meal after the execution. As president, Clinton is on to death-dealing on a wider global scale. But his lectures on nonviolence to students and his ordering up violence via bombing runs in the Balkans fits the pattern of double-standard ethics. Two types of violence exist: official and legalized, and unofficial and illegal.

The first kind has the blessing of political leaders, who, predictably, perfume the stench of state-sanctioned killing with high-toned phrases. When George Bush sent troops to Somalia in late 1992, he described the mission as "God's work." It was loftily labeled, "Operation Restore Hope." On Oct. 3, 1993, with 18 elite U.S. soldiers killed in an ambush and at least 500 Somalis dead, God's work became dirty work. Nearly seven years later, stability remains elusive in Somalia and famine has eased only slightly.

In the current Colorado-inspired national discussion about violence, the boundaries are rigidly set: Let's talk only about illegal violence by deranged criminals. Violence by the state -- from U.S. responsibility for killing people in Grenada (1983), Libya (1986), Panama (1989), the Persian Gulf (1990, 1992, 1993, 1998, 1999), Sudan (1998), Afghanistan (1998), Yugoslavia (1999), for death-row executions, for police brutality -- is conveniently omitted from the debate.

'Official violence'

Why? Some sociologists provide an answer. In "Violence: Perspectives of Murder and Aggression" (Jossey-Bass Publishers), Dane Archer and Rosemary Gartner write: "The most obvious explanation is that wars and other forms of official violence are unique in that they wear the mantle of governmental legitimacy. When aircraft bomb a village, when the CIA hires assassins to kill foreign leaders, when a policeman shoots a looter, when a prison firing squad kills a convicted murderer the killings that occur are the result of governmental orders. These orders originate in a hierarchical organization. They are issued by appointed or elected officials and carried out collectively by uniformed deputies who perform the actual killing. Official killings, therefore, differ from illegal violence in that they result from governmental orders, are usually performed by several agents acting collectively, and are justified as instruments to some higher purpose."

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