Fallujah images harden opinions

Iraq: While Americans expressed disgust at the atrocities, the incident seemed to change few minds about the war.

April 02, 2004|By Susan Baer and Ellen Gamerman | Susan Baer and Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - When Tom Driscoll saw the horrific images of gleeful Iraqis dancing and cheering as the charred bodies of four American civilians were dragged through the streets of Fallujah, his gut reaction was, let's get out.

"The first thought I had was, `Let's just pack our bags - the heck with them,'" said Driscoll, 55, of Elk Mills in Cecil County, a sales manager for a lab instrument company and father of three girls. "Why are we even there?"

But even as the harrowing picture of two mutilated bodies hanging from a bridge lingered in his mind yesterday, the Republican and Bush supporter explained to himself what he later tried to explain to his daughters:

"The better response is, are we still doing good there? Is it the right thing to be doing? Are innocent people benefiting from us being there? And my answer is yes, I still believe we should be there."

Americans reacted with anger, outrage and disgust at seeing the jubilance of Iraqis as four U.S. civilians employed by a North Carolina security firm were ambushed Wednesday by insurgents in the Sunni stronghold of Fallujah, shot or beaten to death, then burned and desecrated. The bodies of two were suspended from a bridge over the Euphrates River.

But the graphic stories and scenes seemed to reinforce - rather than change - sentiments about the war effort. Many who have supported the war from the start, such as Tom Driscoll, see the atrocities as the work of a handful of terrorists and religious warriors, and believe that the United States should not waver in its resolve to bring freedom and democracy to Iraq. On the other side, many who opposed the war say they are now even more convinced that it was a mistake, an increasingly costly mistake.

Despite the brutality of the killings, neither critics nor supporters of the war seem to necessarily view this week's actions as a turning point or justification for immediate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq - unlike the gruesome deaths of 18 Army servicemen in Mogadishu in 1993 that marked the beginning of the end of the U.S. commitment in Somalia.

"We are getting back the violence that we initiated," said Judy Kaplan, 59, director of development at a domestic violence shelter in Wheaton, Ill. "But I don't think the answer is leaving."

Kaplan, an independent who says she never understood why U.S. forces invaded Iraq in the first place, believes the Bush administration should change course and appeal to the United Nations to take over the lead.

"We should go on bended knee to the U.N. and apologize," she said. "But I don't think Bush has the courage to do that."

Hilary Coman, 33, president of a market strategy consulting firm in Charlotte, N.C., said the images from Iraq were "eerily similar" to the video from Somalia in 1993 when a slain Army Ranger was dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.

"We did back down then, I think to our detriment," said Coman, a Republican. "Hopefully, this time we will stiffen our backbone and not go weak. If we do, there will be even more peril down the road."

If any Americans were becoming inured to the steady stream of U.S. casualties in Iraq, this week's particularly violent attacks - showcased in graphic photographs on newspaper front pages across the country yesterday - seemed to reawaken passions and spark visceral reactions.

"It was up there with seeing somebody fall from the twin towers," said Noah Baylin, 33, a writer for the television series Law and Order in Los Angeles, adding that the news provoked sober conversations on the Universal Studios lot.

Paula Martin, 39, a lawyer in Vancouver, Wash., said she turned off the television so her 8-year-old son wouldn't see the grisly scenes.

"It's not something he needed to see," said Martin, a former servicewoman who supports the war. "It's hard enough for me to explain to him why Americans are dying in Iraq."

Michael Hildreth, 59, a barber in Savannah, Ga., said he spent the morning venting his outrage with eight others in his shop. "I was angry to stand by and watch people being dragged through the street like that and no one can step in and do anything," he said.

Even to Kaplan, who works every day with victims of domestic violence, the display of inhumanity was shocking. "You never get used to it," she said.

Some said they were unsure what the U.S. response should be to the increasing violence and horrors in Iraq.

"The more I see of that kind of thing, the more disgusted I am with the whole [Middle East] area," said Jack Reddington, 67, a retired building inspector in Bright, Ind. "I think we need bigger bombs and more bombs!"

Upon a moment's reflection, the staunch Bush supporter added, "I don't really know what the answer is."

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