How Do You Shoot Babies?

Facing execution for his role in the murder of more than 1 million people, many of them children, Auschwitz commandant, Rudolf Hoess, reflected on his life and works:

“Today, I deeply regret that I did not spend more time with my family.”
(Hoess, ‘Auschwitz, The Nazis and the Final Solution,’ BBC2, February 15, 2005)

Hoess of course lies at the extreme end of the spectrum, but his inability to recognise the extraordinary horror of what he had done is by no means exceptional. Mike Wallace of CBS News interviewed a participant in the American massacre of Vietnamese women and children at My Lai.

“Q. You’re married?
A. Right
Q. Children?
A. Two.
Q. How old?
A. The boy is two and a half, and the little girl is a year and a half.
Q. Obviously, the question comes to my mind… the father of two little kid like that… how can he shoot babies?
A. I didn’t have the little girl. I just had the little boy at the time.
Q. Uh-huh… How do you shoot babies?
A. I don’t know. It’s just one of those things.”

(Quoted, Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority, Pinter & Martin, 1974, p.202)

One of the delusions promoted by our society is the idea that great destructiveness is most often rooted in great cruelty and hatred. In reality, evil is not merely banal, it is often free of any sense of +being+ evil – there may be no sense of moral responsibility for suffering at all.

We are all familiar with the words that typically accompany the shrug of the shoulders when someone is asked: “How could you do it?” Time and again during the war on Iraq we have heard obviously well-meaning US and British military personnel insisting that they were just doing their jobs. A typical response is: “I’m just doing what I‘m paid to do.”

Repeated often enough, these responses can even come to seem reasonable. But consider, by contrast, these comments made by US soldier Camilo Mejia who refused to return to his unit in Iraq after taking leave in October 2003:

“People would ask me about my war experiences and answering them took me back to all the horrors — the firefights, the ambushes, the time I saw a young Iraqi dragged by his shoulders through a pool of his own blood or an innocent man was decapitated by our machine gun fire. The time I saw a soldier broken down inside because he killed a child, or an old man on his knees, crying with his arms raised to the sky, perhaps asking God why we had taken the lifeless body of his son. I thought of the suffering of a people whose country was in ruins and who were further humiliated by the raids, patrols and curfews of an occupying army.

“And I realized that none of the reasons we were told about why we were in Iraq turned out to be true… I realized that I was part of a war that I believed was immoral and criminal, a war of aggression, a war of imperial domination. I realized that acting upon my principles became incompatible with my role in the military, and I decided that I could not return to Iraq.”
(Mejia, ‘Regaining My Humanity,’ www.codepink4peace.org/National_Actions_Camilo.shtml)

Normally, the implicit assumption is that signing a contract and being paid to do a job absolves us of all further moral responsibility. We have signed an agreement to do as we are told – an ostensibly innocuous act. If the people with whom we made this agreement then choose to send us to incinerate and dismember civilians, that is +their+ moral responsibility, not ours.

The psychologist Stanley Milgram noted that this is a classic evasion used by people unwilling to accept responsibility for their own actions:

“The key to the behaviour of subjects [willing to torture and kill on command] lies not in pent-up anger or aggression but in the nature of their relationship to authority. They have given themselves to the authority; they see themselves as instruments for the execution of his wishes; once so defined, they are unable to break free.”
(Milgram, op., cit, p.185)

Other studies, on the psychology of torturers, have come to similar conclusions. Lindsey Williams, a Clinical Psychologist, notes:

“…apart from traits of authoritarianism and obedience, and ideological sympathy for the government, there is little evidence that torturers are markedly different from their peers – at least, until the point where they are recruited and trained as torturers.”
(Williams, Amnesty, May/June 1995, p.10)

The +fundamentally+ immoral act, then – the disaster that clears the way to vast horrors in the complete absence of a sense of responsibility – is the simple one of accepting that we are obliged to ‘do as we are told‘.

But in our society exactly this self-surrender is promoted and affirmed by the fact that it is demanded of us by every corporation that ‘employs’ us (like a tool), requiring us to sign our agreement to strict terms and conditions, and by the fact that massive costs are imposed on those of us unwilling to be ‘team-players’. In 1937, Rudolf Rocker wrote:

“It is certainly dangerous for a state when its citizens have a conscience; what it needs is men without conscience, or, better still, men whose conscience is quite in conformity with reasons of state, men in whom the feeling of personal responsibility has been replaced by the automatic impulse to act in the interests of the state.”
(Rocker, Culture and Nationalism, Michael E. Coughlan, 1978, p.197)

The “Gushing” Phenomenon

Like military personnel, corporate journalists also sign themselves over to authority. Individuals may come and go but, year after year, in an all but unvarying pattern, reporters end up demonising official enemies and prettifying their own government’s crimes. Like military personnel, they view what happens next as someone else’s moral responsibility.

In January 2003, Media Lens wrote to BBC presenter Fiona Bruce asking her why she had described the build-up of troops in Kuwait as being “to deal with the continuing threat posed by Iraq”. Bruce replied simply: “I’ll forward your point to the news editor – thank you.”
(BBC 18:00 News, January 7, 2003. Bruce, email to Media Lens, January 7, 2003)

But if we refuse to accept responsibility for the very words that come out of our mouths, have we not lost our humanity? The result, very often, is that other people lose their lives.

ITN’s John Irvine recently reported on “the hermit state” of North Korea where people celebrated the birth of the country’s leader in a “display of people in perfect unison – cynics might call it Come Dancing, or else!”
(Irvine, ITV 22:30 News, February 16, 2005)

The North Korean people, it seems, had been “treated to hours of gushing television” in honour of the leader. “When it comes to propaganda”, Irvine concluded, this is a broadcaster beyond comparison.”
There are ugly ironies here. The first, of course, is that British TV viewers are also familiar with the “gushing” phenomenon. When Baghdad fell to US tanks on April 9, 2003, British journalists gushed uncontrollably. The BBC’s Rageh Omaar, for example, reported his first sight of the invading army:

“In my mind’s eye, I often asked myself: what would it be like when I saw the first British or American soldiers, after six years of reporting Iraq? And nothing, nothing, came close to the actual, staggering reaction to seeing American soldiers – young men from Nevada and California – just rolling down in tanks. And they’re here with us now in the hotel, in the lifts and the lobbies. It was a moment I’d never, ever prepared myself for.”
(BBC News At Six, April 9, 2003)

It was to these same young men that ex-Marine Staff Sergeant Jimmy Massey was referring when he said:

“It sickened me so that I had actually brought it up to my lieutenant, and I told him, I said, ‘You know, sir, we’re not going to have to worry about Iraq – you know, we’re basically committing genocide over here, mass extermination of thousands of Iraqis…’”

An hour after Omaar’s report, the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, told Channel 4 news presenter Jon Snow that he had met with the French foreign minister that day: “Did he look chastened?” Snow asked, wryly.
(Channel 4, April 9, 2003)

On the same programme, Washington correspondent David Smith pointedly ended his ‘piece to camera’ on the fall of Baghdad by quoting “a leading Republican senator”:

“I’m just glad we had a commander-in-chief who didn’t listen to Hollywood, or the New York Times, or the French.”

John Irvine, himself, declared: “A war of three weeks has brought an end to decades of Iraqi misery.”
(Irvine, ITN, 18:30 News, April 9, 2003)

This at the height of an illegal invasion based on a set of outrageous lies in which literally tens of thousands of Iraqis were being killed.

The deeper irony is that Irvine’s comments on North Korea were made from the heart of the West’s own propaganda system – a system that consistently demonises official enemies in exactly this way. In April 1950, a US National Security Council Directive stated:

“The citizens of the United States stand in their deepest peril,” being threatened with the “destruction not only of this Republic but of civilisation itself” by “international Communism“.
(Quoted, Mark Curtis, The Ambiguities of Power, Zed Books, 1995, p.43)

The threat was a fraud. Privately, former Under-Secretary of State and future Deputy Secretary of Defence Robert Lovett pointed out (March 1950): “If we can sell every useless article known to man in large quantities, we should be able to sell our very fine story [regarding the communist ’threat’] in larger quantities.”
(Ibid, p.44)

In May 1985, Ronald Reagan declared a “national emergency” to deal with the “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States” posed by “the policies and actions of the Government of Nicaragua”.
(World Court Digest, http://www.virtual-institute.de/en/wcd/wcd.cfm?107090400100.cfm)

Nobody laughed!

In September 2002, Tony Blair declared in his foreword to “the British dossier assessing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq“:

“It is unprecedented for the Government to publish this kind of document. But in light of the debate about Iraq and Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), I wanted to share with the British public the reasons why I believe this issue to be a current and serious threat to the UK national interest.”
(‘Full text of Tony Blair’s foreword to the dossier on Iraq,’ The Guardian, September 24, 2002)

John Morrison, an adviser to the parliamentary intelligence and security committee and a former deputy chief of defence intelligence, told the BBC: “When I heard him using those words, I could almost hear the collective raspberry going up around Whitehall.”
(‘Official sacked over TV remarks on Iraq,’ Richard Norton-Taylor, The Guardian, July 26, 2004)

Morrison was sacked for his honesty. A year later, Blair is up for re-election, while his ‘retired’ spinmeister Alastair Campbell recently appeared on the quiz show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? Campbell has also been quietly ‘welcomed back’ into the New Labour fold.

Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh, Panama’s Noriega, Nicaragua’s Ortega, Cuba’s Castro, Haiti’s Aristide, indeed any leader or movement obstructing Western corporate or strategic interests, have all been reflexively demonised by journalists who are always happy to rally to their leaders call without a second thought.

The companion to media demonisation is the hagiolatry of Western leaders and apologetics for their crimes. Thus Simon Tisdall writes in the Guardian:

“Groundbreaking elections in Afghanistan, Ukraine, Palestine and Iraq, extolled in President Bush’s ‘dawn of freedom’ inaugural address, have encouraged western hopes that democratic values are gaining universal acceptance.”
(Tisdall, ‘Bush’s democratic bandwagon hits a roadblock in Harare,’ The Guardian, February 16, 2005)

On the BBC’s main news, Clive Myrie describes America as “the champion of democracy”, referring to “a role call of newly-minted democracies.”
(Myrie, BBC1, 13:00 News, February 23, 2005)

A Warning To The Curious

We need to be clear that the commandant of Auschwitz did not for one moment see himself as evil or destructive. Nor did the troopers at My Lai. And nor, of course, do our well-heeled, well-educated, Oxbridge journalists. They may have tempers and egos – they are surely not mass murderers.

But journalists who reflexively reinforce an authorised, Manichean view of the world – a world made up of “humanitarian interventionists” (‘Us’) and “Monster States” {’Them’) – +are+ utterly vital cogs in the machinery of industrial killing. It makes not one jot of difference that no actual blood is visible on their hands.

The 2nd century sage, Nagarjuna, made the points that matter:

“Not doing harm to others,
Not bowing down to the ignoble,
Not abandoning the path of virtue –
These are small points, but of great


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Write to Simon Tisdall
Email: [email protected]

Write to John Irvine
Email: [email protected]