When the charges came out five years ago, it was easy to write them off as lies or exaggerations. Iraqi police accused U.S. military forces of capturing 11 people — including women and children — and then simply executing them.
Even those of us who oppose the war found that hard to believe. It had to be lies, because Americans soldiers just don’t do things like that. Except … well … it appears there’s a good chance U.S. soldiers did do that, based on at least one of the secret U.S. cables released last week by Wikileaks.
The initial news report from 2006 quoted the Iraqi police report:
“The American forces gathered the family members in one room and executed 11 persons, including five children, four women and two men. Then they bombed the house, burned three vehicles and killed their animals.”
The U.S. military denied everything. In fact, a military spokesman denied ever having even heard of the allegations. There were promises to “get to the bottom of this” and find out the truth, but we never heard anything more about it.
It turns out that a UN special investigator — a law professor now teaching at New York University — pursued the story at the time, because his investigation told the same story that the Iraqi police had concluded. One of the newly released secret cables includes a document from the investigator:
“In the document, written a dozen days after the shootout, [the investigator] requests more information from U.S. authorities about the Ishaqi episode. From his investigation, which is not described in detail, Alston concluded that, at the end of the shootout, the ‘troops entered the house, handcuffed all the residents and executed all of them.'”
So there was credible reason to believe that U.S. forces committed a serious crime, but nothing was ever done about it. (The investigator told a reporter last week that U.S. officials never responded to him and that his superiors at the UN Human Rights Council weren’t willing to follow up on it.) Sadly, this should make all of us wonder how many other “outrageous” claims about atrocities were also true.
Governments invent all sorts of reasons to keep secrets from their own people, but I think we all know the real reason. The vast majority of what they keep secret is to prevent you from finding out the truth that might embarrass them. It’s not to keep you safe. It’s to keep them safe.
Over the past 60 years or so, we’ve grown far too willing to comply with any government insistence that information remain secret — and U.S. courts have gone along with that, creating a situation where the public never has honest information with which to judge what governments are doing. Compounding this is the fact that hardly anybody is paying attention on those rare occasions when things such as this come out — times that point to the strong probability that governments were covering up the truth. So we end up with a few reporters tracking down truths that get ignored and we end up with old soldiers whispering shameful secrets of things they once did that they’re not allowed to talk about out loud.
The only solution is to open up all the secrets. Back in the days when I generally trusted my government, I didn’t mind taking its word for what happened. Today, I don’t trust governments. They’ve lied to me too many times for me to believe much of anything they say. If we’re going to allow some form of the coercive state to stick around, we at least need to demand that we not be treated like children who aren’t ready to hear the truth.