According to news reports, 15-year-old eighth-grader Jaime Gonzalez, who was shot and killed yesterday by police in his middle school in Brownsville, TX, was hit at least two times: in the chest and once “from the back of the head.”
Police say they were called by school authorities because Gonzalez was carrying a gun, which turned out, at least according to the police, to be a “realistic-looking” pellet gun, a weapon that uses compressed air to fire a metal pellet which, while perhaps a threat to the eye at close range, does not pose a serious threat to life.
There is now a national discussion going on in the media about whether police used excessive force in the incident, and there is, in Brownsville and at Gonzalez’s school, and of course in the Gonzalez family, both anger and mourning. The boy had reportedly been a victim of bullying.
Let me say unequivocally from the outset that, yes, whatever police authorities may say about “justified use of force,” the cops in this instance used excessive force (American cops these days are in military mode, and justify just about any firing of an officer’s weapon). Unless there were other children who were being held hostage by Gonzalez (there were not), or who were near him and being threatened (there were not), the police had no reason to kill him. For one thing, a pellet gun has such a tiny muzzle opening it would be pretty hard to mistake it for the muzzle of a Glock, as police are claiming, unless Brownsville police have very low vision standards. Furthermore, there is the question of why three shots were fired, why they were fired at the chest of a child with clear intent to kill, and of course, there’s that shot to the back of the head, which is simply unjustifiable under any circumstances.
But having said that, I want to call attention to another point, that gets beyond this one case of overkill by police: the double standard of concern when it is an American kid and when it is foreign kids who are killed.
I’m referring here to Iraq and Afghanistan, where thousands of kids even younger than Jaime Gonzalez, most of whom were not even armed, have been killed by American bombs and by the guns of American soldiers, and whose deaths evoke not the slightest word of sympathy or regret from either the killers themselves or the leaders, military and civilian, who issue the orders that led to their deaths. Nor is any concern about this slaughter of innocents expressed by the millions of Americans whose taxes pay for this ongoing atrocity.
Take Fallujah, a city of 300,000 in Iraq that in 2004 was the scene of one of the most brutal and brutish fighting of the US invasion of Iraq.
In what was clearly a war crime to rival anything the Nazi Wehrmacht engaged in during World War II, the Bush/Cheney administration and the Pentagon ordered the leveling of Fallujah in retaliation for the killing by resistance fighters of four Blackwater mercenaries in the city, and the hanging of their burned bodies from a bridge over the Euphrates River. The assault on the city was a pure case of “collective punishment,” a tactic which is expressly declared a “war crime” by the Nuremberg Charter, drawn up and approved by the Allies at the end of World War II, and encoded in the Geneva Conventions in 1949.
The assaults on Fallujah, first in April, when the onslaught was called off because of nationwide protests in Iraq over the massive civilian casualties, and then in November when a larger and even more devastating assault was mounted that leveled nearly half the buildings in the city, also featured more war crimes, including the deliberate attack on and bombing of hospitals, and the executing of captured and wounded enemy fighters.
One of those crimes though, well documented by American reporters (though none of those from the mainstream press ever labeled what was happening as a war crime), was the deliberate entrapment of all “combat-aged males” in the city before the assault began. Under the Geneva Conventions, all civilians must be allowed to flee the scene of a battle or impending battle. Furthermore, since 1970, all those under 18, even if they are armed fighters, are defined as having “protected status” and must to be offered special protection by military forces.
Instead, as AP reporter Jim Krane wrote at the time, the US military ordered a cordon of Marines and members of the British Black Watch regiment to be placed around Fallujah in mid-October, three weeks ahead of the announced assault on the city. Civilian residents were urged to flee. But they had to pass through checkpoints, before being taken to heavily guarded refugee camps, and at these checkpoints, all males between the ages of 15 and 55 were turned back (some accounts said that boys as young as 11 were being turned back as potential “combatants”). Since the Pentagon was estimating the number of insurgents in the city at only about 4000 (and concedes that many of them had slipped away from the city before the attack began), it was clear that most of those boys and men trapped in the doomed city were civilian non-combatants. Krane, asking about this, quoted a 1st Cavalry Division officer who declined to be identified as saying of those who were denied safe passage from the future free-fire kill zone, “We assume they’ll go home and just wait out the storm or find a place that’s safe.”
Easy words, but with over 10,000 buildings flattened in the ensuing US blitz on the city, finding safety would have been quite a challenge, and in fact well over 6000 civilians were killed in the nine-day attack in November. Bodies are still reportedly being pulled from the wreckage seven years later.
There was no remorse expressed at this slaughter, which included many 15-year-old boys just like Jaime Gonzalez, and younger kids too. Not by President Bush or Vice President Cheney, not by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld or L. Paul Bremer, the jack-booted proconsul who headed up the US occupation administration in Iraq at the time, or by any of the commanders on the ground who set the rules of engagement for the assault. Nor was there any outrage expressed by the bulk of the American people in whose name this slaughter was conducted. Instead, the “victory” was cheered and the Marines were dubbed “heroes.”
Apparently for Americans, murdering young Iraqi boys and civilians in general is no big deal, any more than it is a big deal when helicopter gunships mow down young boys collecting wood on a mountaintop in Afghanistan, or execute sleeping high school students in a night-raided compound.
An exception is Ross Caputi, a Marine who was part of that assault on Fallujah, who in a powerful message of contrition last month published in the British newspaper, the Guardian (but not in any major US publication), wrote movingly that, “As a US marine who lost close friends in the siege of Fallujah in Iraq seven years ago, I understand that we were the aggressors.”
Caputi, who hails form a military family, wrote:
I understand the psychology that causes the aggressors to blame their victims. I understand the justifications and mechanisms. I understand the emotional urge to want to hate the people who killed someone dear to you. But to describe the psychology that preserves such false beliefs is not to ignore the objective moral truth that no attacker can ever justly blame their victims for defending themselves.
The same distorted morality has been used to justify attacks against the native Americans, the Vietnamese, El Salvadorans, and the Afghans. It is the same story over and over again. These people have been dehumanized, their God-given right to self-defense has been delegitimized, their resistance has been reframed as terrorism, and US soldiers have been sent to kill them.
History has preserved these lies, normalized them, and socialized them into our culture: so much so that legitimate resistance against US aggression is incomprehensible to most, and to even raise this question is seen as un-American.
History has defined the US veteran as a hero, and in doing so it has automatically defined anyone who fights against him as the bad guy. It has reversed the roles of aggressor and defender, moralized the immoral, and shaped our society’s present understanding of war.
As a society, it is time for us Americans to stop condoning all this violence, particularly against children. No amount of rationalizing by police and by their bloody-minded supporters can justify the killing of Jaime Gonzalez and other children like him, and no amount of rationalizing by the purveyors of fear in government and media or by the rabid neo-cons and neo-liberals who back them and urge them on can justify America’s endless brutal imperial wars and the the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocent people, many of them children, that are such an integral part of those wars.