Ira Chernus  


Blaming the Victim is an Old Habit

Ira Chernus

Old habits are hard to break. European-Americans started doing it 400 years ago. Invade the territory of a darker-skinned people, although they have never attacked you. Bring overwhelming military technology, leaving them little chance to defend themselves. When they dare to fight back, using whatever means they can, cry "Foul! Unfair! Savages! Terrorists!" Blame the victim.

A sadly typical example turns up in the Washington Post (April 6). Two law professors write: "British and American forces [in Iraq] find themselves under attack by fighters masquerading as civilians. Some now wonder whether codes designed to spare civilians from the ravages of war are dangerously outmoded, forcing coalition forces to fight with one hand tied behind their backs, while Iraqi forces flout the rules of warfare."

Should we pity the poor forces of the "coalition" (such a civilized word), victims of unfair Iraqi tactics, forced to fight "with one hand tied behind their backs"? I'm trying to figure out how to laugh, cry, and scream at the same time. Perhaps this phrase means the same thing today that it meant in Vietnam: "Hey, at least we ain't nukin' 'em."

But I should not rush to judgment. After all, these professor are experts in international law. They explain that civilized nations have developed rules of war, to tell everyone what is fair and what is not. I'm just having a bit of trouble understanding these rules. After many hours of watching network TV news, here is what I have learned:

If we spend 12 years destroying a nation's anti-aircraft defenses, then drop tons and tons of bombs on a defenseless people, that is fair.

If some of them take off their uniforms and fight in civilian clothes, that is unfair.

If we use sanctions for 12 years to deny a nation any new military technology, while we build several generations of new computer-based weapons to use against them, that is fair.

If they turn a school into a military base, that is unfair.

If we order our uniformed soldiers into a battle where they might be killed, that is fair. We call those soldiers heroes.

If they have people who wear civilian clothes and volunteer for missions where they will surely be killed, that is unfair. We call those suicide bombers cowardly, villainous, and insane.

If they place guns next to private homes, putting civilians at risk, that is unfair.

If we invade their country, knowing that this may very will trigger terror attacks in the U.S., putting thousands of U.S. civilians at risk, that is fair.

So now I get it. The basic principle that determines the rules of war is crystal clear. If we do it, it is fair and within rules of war. If the Iraqis do it, it is unfair and violates the rules of war. By definition.

The British figured out this principle back in 1776, when their neatly arrayed, technologically superior redcoats were bedeviled by colonists, who used tactics they had learned from the Indians.

Los Angeles Times columnist Robert Scheer reminds us (April 1): "How easy to forget that our own war for independence was largely fought by 'irregulars' condemned as terrorists by the British because they would snipe from behind scattered trees rather than fight from the tight parade formations that were the civilized form of warfare in those days. Ours is a long history of covert actions, political assassinations, special ops, anti-democratic coups and dirty tricks that are, even today, being used in Iraq. And we claim that the ends of U.S. policy are so noble that even clearly illegal means, such as a preemptive invasion, are justified."

The ends justify the means. And our ends are so noble. We are so civilized, so far superior to the life of savagery our enemy lives. That is why, if we do it, it is fair. If they do it, it is unfair. By definition, blame falls on the victim.

Liberal commentators have come up with a more subtle way to blame the victim while proclaiming our noble motives. They tell us that the real problem for Iraqis is not U.S. bombs falling on them, but their own reluctance to embrace the freedom we offer them so generously.

"Liberation Brings Iraqis Freedom to Choose, Fail," says a headline in the Denver Post (April 6). The article explains that "before the war, Iraq's totalitarian system took care of practically everything." Now the invading armies are forcing them to learn to think for themselves, as if they don't know how and will not know until we teach them.

"You guys are responsible for your own actions," a U.S. officer tells Iraqis. "That's what freedom is about." The reporter adds: "The locals looked at him, seemingly aghast. Helping instill self-rule will be a complicated challenge for western government and nongovernment aid and reconstruction groups."

They may fail to meet the challenge. The article notes that westerners are heading in to rebuild Iraq "without Arabic-speaking staffers," which may make it tough for the Iraqis' free choices to get heard and translated into action. The article also mentions in passing the Iraqis' growing rage as the death toll mounts. But hey, as the headline points out, the glory of our system is that everyone is free to fail.

Los Angeles Times columnist John Balzar (April 6) also asks: "Will the Seeds of Freedom Take Root in the Mideast's Soil?" He just wants the Arabs to understand us Americans. We are romantics, sentimental and often naive, he tells them. "Our president is such a man, and he has dared to proclaim that war will liberate an oppressed people in Iraq." Since we are a democracy, we have the right to dissent, and many of us "see misguided imperialist motives by our leaders, and a forfeiture of morality."

So is our president a sentimental romantic or an immoral imperialist? Balzar's rather bizarre argument is that the Arabs themselves, not Bush and his advisors, will determine the answer. He tells Arabs that they must decide whether to "take a chance on Bush's promise of opportunity or decide on confrontation, or seek some other path. Whichever view prevails depends on you." The Arabs, not the White House or the Pentagon, will determine U.S. policy and "the order of this coming new world." If we turn out to be imperialists, it is the Arabs' own fault!

Yet Balzar immediately tells the Arabs that in fact the choice has already been made for them. We are obviously liberators and not conquerors, he implies, precisely because we are giving them the freedom to determine the future: "You are empowered. Self-determination? This is no longer something for the future. We call it voting with your feet. Drink it in. This is what democracy tastes like." The sooner they welcome their conquerors, the sooner they will be just like us. They will even have the right to dissent - though not, apparently, to dissent from being just like us.

Four centuries ago, the first English invaders came to these shores with the same vision of innocent righteousness. They were sure they were here to do God's will. So how could they not be righteous and innocent? They were inviting the Indians to receive the Lord's salvation. If the Indians declined - if they chose deceitful terror over enlightened civilization and had to be exterminated - whose fault was that? Surely their own.

Blaming the victim is a very old game here in America. Sadly, much of our public swallows it whole. And there is no end of it in sight. The only question is which victims we will be blaming next.