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Witness to War Crimes


How culpable is the person who watches a mugger rob someone and does nothing? What is our social psychology as we bystand silently and our government gears up toward yet another war crime?

Lies or misleading information that leads to war should be an enforceable war crime and crime against humanity. The UN actually took the first baby step toward that in 1947 and has made virtually no progress since. It was titled “Resolution adopted by the General Assembly 110 (II). Measures to be taken against propaganda and the inciters of a new war.” The strongest measure, unfortunately, was mere condemnation. There was no mandate to the Security Council to level economic or political sanctions if such propaganda were proven.

We are watching another such crime against humanity unfold and the crime of incitement propaganda is about to descend into more serious bloody war crimes. The Pentagon–apparently leading the President instead of the other way around–is claiming that Syria’s agreement to let the UN experts inspect alleged chemical weapon use is “too late to be credible.” This is almost exactly the language used by Bush and Cheney to falsely justify the invasion of Iraq. We seem about to attack Syria with a similar low level of evidence. Indeed, analysts from that Condi Rice/Robert Gates school of hawkthought are weighing in with their private enterprise persuasion. For years the rightwing invested $millions in “institutes” that produced this thinking. Now they just form for-profit consultancies and get hired to write analysis that promotes more bloodshed all the time. They produced Shock and Awe in Baghdad in 2003 and they have produced Shock and Awe in slo-mo in the US by bleeding our resources to war, to war, to war, leaving everything else crumbling.

And, as usual, the rightwing media is featuring the calls of John McCain for a military strike right now. I’m almost waiting for McCain to demand that Obama override the ban on production of chemical weapons and allow US contractors to make them so we can give them to the Syrian rebels. Seriously, the older I get, the more I see things happen that I once thought were so fringe and so objectionable that they were impossible–until the war hawks make them happen. Of course even in this case–cruise missiles from off-shore aircraft carriers seem the most likely murder weapon–McCain and his ilk will be criticizing Obama for waiting too long and telling their base that the US should have done this much earlier.

Some cogent analysis suggests that this is all about who controls what oil flow from the region, and that is frankly credible, but there is an even more basic problem. The conflict industry is determined to enrich themselves endlessly at the expense of the American taxpayer. Calls for more military involvement, more weapons use or export, all serve this war profiteering complex and it’s blood money. In our democracy the blood is on our hands.

I’ve been out of town for 10 days and am emailing my friends to find out where and when to meet to demonstrate against striking Syria. I’m hoping this is spontaneously and naturally happening across our great country. Daniel Ellsberg was featured in the brilliant 1974 Academy Award-winning documentary Hearts and Minds, in which he said (paraphrase), “It is to the eternal credit of the American people that they react strongly against those who fool them in order to commit acts of war. It is to the eternal shame of the American people that they are so easy to fool.”

Let us try not to be fooled again. Let us overcome the “Bystander Effect” and try to stop a US attack that will kill even more Syrian civilians and precipitate even more war in the Middle East.

Tom H. Hastings is PeaceVoice Director and teaches in the Conflict Resolution program at Portland State University.

Tom H. Hastings is core faculty in the Conflict Resolution Department at Portland State University and founding director of PeaceVoice

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