Real culprits in killings must be held accountable

May 02, 2001|By Gregory Kane

FORMER Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey recently confessed that when he commanded a Navy SEAL team 32 years ago during the Vietnam War, his unit killed unarmed women and children. Kerrey's revelation came at the same time that New York City police exonerated the four officers who shot Amadou Diallo to death.

Yes, there is a connection.

I could go off on the standard diatribe against "white supremacy" so common among black race-baiters these days. You know it: the one that says both incidents show how white folks devalue the lives of nonwhites and how in both cases a bunch of white guys got away with murdering "people of color," the politically correct phrase these days.

But that's not the connection I'm talking about. There's another similarity to the cases of Kerrey and his SEALs and the four officers who shot Diallo. Some are tempted to make them scapegoats and suggest that Kerrey and Officers Ed McMellon, Kevin Boss, Richard Murphy and Sean Carroll should be punished for the deaths they inflicted. Few have dared mention that those who put these men in a position to kill also should be held accountable.

In Kerrey's case, that may not be possible. The real culprits for the deaths of the 14 civilians killed Feb. 25, 1969, at Thanh Phong - where Kerrey's unit was operating - are former President Lyndon B. Johnson, former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, former Secretary of State Dean Rusk, former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara and retired Gen. William Westmoreland. Some of these men are dead, but they were the ones who escalated the war in Vietnam. They were the ones who knew that the conflict was a civil war and that the Viet Cong units fighting the South Vietnamese government were composed of combatants who were mostly men, but sometimes women and children, too.

In the book "The Tunnels of Chu Chi" - about how those ingenious little rascals in the Viet Cong used a series of underground passages to foil and befuddle American troops - authors Tom Mangold and John Penycate tell of a Sgt. Arnold Gutierrez, who sprayed machine gun fire at a sniper in a tree during one fight with the Viet Cong. Gutierrez brought down the sniper, a 13-year-old girl. She had been fighting for the Viet Cong since she was 10. Her father was a barber at Gutierrez' camp and was described by Mangold and Penycate as "a friend and confidante" of the men in Gutierrez' unit. Later, Americans found Viet Cong documents revealing that all 14 barbers at Gutierrez's camp were Viet Cong sympathizers.

American brass sent Kerrey and his unit into an area controlled by the Viet Cong. If Kerrey didn't know what to expect, his superiors certainly knew, just as they knew that Lt. William Calley's unit, one year earlier, might have to kill civilians - some armed, some not - at My Lai. That's exactly what happened. At My Lai, 347 Vietnamese civilians were killed. Calley took the fall and was convicted of murdering 22 of them. But the men who really should have been on trial were named Johnson, Humphrey, Rusk, McNamara and Westmoreland. (Calley, when asked recently at his Georgia home if he would like to comment on Kerrey's nightmare, brusquely told a reporter, "Not at all," and then hung up. Can you blame him?)

Now to New York and the death of Diallo, where the man who sent police out into the streets with the slogan "We Own the Night" and wearing T-shirts extolling the thrill of hunting humans has given his take on the exoneration of McMellon, Carroll, Boss and Murphy. Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has called Diallo's shooting a tragedy, an accident, a mistake, and said that those distressed by his death need to move on. In other words, the official reaction from the man who sent cops into the night in combat mode is: "Whoops. Diallo's death was a mistake. Can we do lunch now?"

We were taught as wee tykes that when we make a mistake, we have to pay for it, and amends must be made. Giuliani wants to acknowledge the mistake, but he doesn't want to pay for it. The notion of making amends clearly doesn't fit his psychological profile. But amends can be made in the Diallo case much easier than can be made in the case of Kerrey and his unit.

All Giuliani has to do is settle, out of court, the tidy sum Diallo's parents indicated last year they intend to seek in a lawsuit. Giuliani shouldn't even bother to have the city dispute it, because he's more or less admitted guilt. Then the good mayor of New York can go before television cameras and tell citizens that because this mistake and tragedy happened on his watch, he bears primary responsibility. Then he should announce his resignation, effective immediately, which wouldn't be soon enough.

The "tragedy," the "accident," the "mistake," occurred Feb. 4, 1999. If he had a conscience, Giuliani would have had that resignation in the next day.

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