Shattering the last of our moral credibility

The killing of Mostafa Ahamdi Roshan is a prime example of the impunity characteristic of US foreign policy.

Iranian nuclear scientist Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan’s killing was ‘a cold-blooded act of terror’ [EPA]

New York, NY – On a recent trip to Libya, I was staying at the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli at the same time that Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was meeting with members of Libya’s transitional council in the same hotel. Like many other Libyans I spoke with during the course of my trip, I was outraged by the visit, and extremely critical of the decision of our transitional leadership to host the Sudanese strongman.

After all, hadn’t Libya just endured a painful uprising and sacrificed thousands of lives to rid itself of its own brutal dictator? Didn’t the transitional leaders see a moral conflict (if not a looming public relations disaster) in welcoming Bashir to Libya, their common enmity for the late Colonel notwithstanding? How could our leaders – how could Libya – continue to claim that theirs was a struggle for democracy, human rights and an end to totalitarian rule? Weren’t the hypocrisy and the double standards glaringly obvious? Hadn’t Libya’s transitional leadership – and by extension, Libya itself – lost a crucial part of its moral credibility in the process?

The following week, I returned to my other country, the United States, and to news that an Iranian nuclear scientist and university professor, 32-year-old Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan, was killed along with his driver, when unidentified men on motorcycles attached a magnetic bomb to his car in a Tehran street. Again, I felt that familiar sense of indignation, but this time it was even more pronounced, because it involved the killing of an innocent man in cold blood.

Although Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other government officials have publicly denied US involvement in Roshan’s murder, I’m going to go out on a limb and just say what most reasonable observers are probably thinking: The US and/or Israel are almost certainly responsible for (or, in the case of the United States, at least tacitly approving of) this attack, whatever our government officials may publicly claim.

Impunity and unfairness

I found myself a bit surprised by the intensity of my reaction to the news of Roshan’s killing. What was it – beyond the ugliness inherent in any act of terror and murder – that made this particular attack so heinous in my mind to the point that it angered me?

 Listening Post – Murder in Tehran

After thinking about it for a while, I realised that it boiled down to two things: the impunity with which the attack was carried out and the subsequent apathy with which it was regarded by the US public and its leaders (with the noteworthy exception of commentators and politicians such as Rick Santorum, who actually celebrated it); and the idea that a powerful nation could attack the most precious resource of a much weaker one. No, I’m not talking about oil – I’m referring to the destruction of the latter’s human resources: its brains, its talent and its experts (Roshan was not the first, but the fourth Iranian scientist murdered in recent years).

Politicians in the US may pretend, for a few months every two to four years, to lament our dependency on foreign oil and the danger this addiction supposedly poses to our national security interests. But many Middle Eastern countries have long been dependent on the West for a different type of resource: technology and scientific expertise (the Arab Gulf states are a prime example of this).

Iran is a notable exception in the region, and has a far more technically capable population than, say, Saudi Arabia or Kuwait (indeed, more than most Arab states). An attack on Iran’s scientists, experts, academics and intellectuals – on its most talented human resources – is an attack on Iranian society’s ability to function independently of western hegemony and influence, by forcing that country’s dependence on (among other things) western technical and scientific knowledge – which, as we all know, always comes with strings tightly attached.

As we continue to pressure and now, it would appear, to intimidate the rest of the world into isolating Iran politically and economically, it will become increasingly important to the Iranian state to develop the technical capabilities to function independently of foreign, and particularly Western, influence.

Aggression and sabotage

Iranian government officials and their supporters may chant “Death to America and to Israel”, but when we actually bother to examine the historical relationship between Iran and the West (and particularly its history with the US and Britain), it becomes glaringly obvious that gross acts of aggression, intervention and sabotage overwhelming take place in the opposite direction (hence the frequent chants against us).

One startling example, which has long since vanished from the American public’s collective memory, was the shooting down of an Iranian commercial airliner in Iranian airspace (over the Strait of Hormuz, no less) by a US guided missile cruiser, the USS Vincennes, in 1988. All 290 people on board the plane were killed, and the bodies of many mutilated beyond recognition. To this day, our government refuses to apologise or acknowledge wrongdoing for what it has described as a “mistake”. Of course, the toppling of Iran’s democratically elected prime minister by the CIA and Britain’s MI6 in 1953, followed by the installation of a brutal dictator more sympathetic to western economic and energy interests, also comes to mind. And there are many other examples.

The Iranian state habitually represses its own people (as do many states that we consider friends), and all conscientious individuals must vigorously and unequivocally condemn its record of gross human and civil rights abuses, as we support the efforts of the Iranian people to demand reform. But this doesn’t change the fact that our foreign policy towards Iran is seriously flawed and not in our nation’s best interest.

Neither are our policies towards Iran in the interest of the Iranian people (for whatever that’s worth to the average US politician). In fact, many Iranians who vehemently oppose their current regime reserve equal condemnation for the West’s lengthy record of interference and aggression towards their country. 

Lack of debate

Yet Iran represents the Bermuda Triangle of US foreign policy discussions. When it comes to the issue of our relationship with the Islamic Republic, rational debate – or any debate – tends to simply vanish into thin air.

Rather than take a good hard look at why we are so obsessed with the idea of Iran acquiring the bomb (the answer to this and to so many other questions about our self-destructive foreign policies may be found in Israel and its lobby), or whether such an acquisition really poses a serious threat to the most powerful nation in the world (one whose military bases are quite literally choking the Iranian state) and its Middle Eastern proxy, we’ve resorted to blowing up civilian scientists on their own streets in an effort to cut their country’s independent nuclear energy programme off at its knees.

This culture of impunity and contempt for the lives of foreign nationals whom we habitually kill on their own soil is reflected in the painfully telling video, which emerged around the same time as Roshan’s killing, showing US Marines urinating on the corpses of Afghan Taliban fighters as they taunt the dead and appear to revel in their repulsive behaviour.

This was not some random group of debauched individuals engaging in hooliganism, but a group of soldiers belonging to an elite corps of the US military – uniformed representatives of our country before the world. I felt sick watching the video, and once again, ashamed that such individuals represented my country. I couldn’t help but recall the infinitely more barbaric 2005 Haditha massacre, in which Marines slaughtered 24 innocent Iraqi men, women and children between the ages of one and 76, mostly in their homes, after one of their fellow soldiers, Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas, was killed by a roadside bomb.

Like the Haditha victims, the lives of Afghan Taliban fighters were worthless to this group of soldiers, and they had no qualms about desecrating them in the most dishonourable of manners. Dehumanising the enemy – whether real, imagined or created – and acts of unthinkable cruelty and disregard for human life (and death) suddenly become thinkable – even inevitable.

This cycle of dehumanisation and violence is the same mechanism that prompted Daniel Pearl’s captors to behead the innocent journalist back in 2002; that convinced “insurgents” to bomb crowded public markets and holy shrines in Iraq, and to lay the roadside bomb that killed Lance Corporal Terrazas; and that caused the soldiers in the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine regiment to shoot innocent civilians in their homes at point blank range, including an infant, several children and a 76-year-old wheelchair-bound man, in a country the soldiers themselves were forcibly and illegitimately occupying.

No accountability

Just today, news emerged that Staff Sgt Frank Wuterich, leader of the group of Marines that carried out the massacre at Haditha, accepted a deal to plead guilty to a lesser charge of dereliction of duty, for which he is expected to receive a whopping three months in prison. The remaining soldiers who participated in the massacre have already been acquitted or seen their charges dropped. The failure of our government to hold these men accountable for what amounts to a war crime ought to shake the collective conscience of our nation to its core. But it probably won’t.

As I watched this recent group of Marines urinating on and taunting dead enemy-strangers while fighting an unwinnable war thousands of miles away from their homes, I wondered if they would feel quite as smug or amused with themselves if they could hear how former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had once described them. Military men are “dumb, stupid animals to be used” as pawns for foreign policy, Kissinger told then-White House chief of staff Alexander Haig, according to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their book, The Final Days.

“The killing by car bombing of an Iranian nuclear scientist in Tehran was an act of terror, murder and intimidation, period. It is an act that reeks not only of hubris and inhumanity, but also of desperation – the very hallmarks of terrorism.”

Even in the cold and calculating words of Kissinger, a central architect of US foreign policy whose influence has extended far beyond his time in office, the chilling relationship between dehumanisation and violence – this time directed at duped soldiers – is unmistakable, and the irony undeniable.

To Kissinger’s credit, he was at least honest about the disgraceful and self-serving motives that he and other policymakers have, as they send hapless soldiers off to fight and die in illegal wars while convincing them that they are somehow defending their country rather than advancing the economic interests of a powerful elite. In contrast, most US politicians these days persist in invoking a sanctimonious authority predicated on an imagined moral superiority vis-a-vis the rest of the world, and particularly the non-western world. 

Fictitious righteousness

Indeed, many in the US bask in this fictitious self-characterisation. We are, after all, what Reagan called “a beacon of hope for those who do not have freedom”, a phrase which has been regurgitated in one form or another by more politicians than I care to count. Yet nearly every administration in recent history – and many current politicians – have not only consistently chipped away at any moral credibility we may have once had as a nation, but now have completely shattered it, even as they continue to invoke meaningless and hypocritical tropes.

For the more thoughtful among us, what happened in Tehran, what happened in Afghanistan, and the moral failure of our government to hold the perpetrators of the Haditha massacre accountable is cause for alarm, and hopefully for engaging in sober introspection and self-criticism. Yet for a significant proportion of our public, and certainly for too many of our political leaders, it would seem that we can do no wrong to others, no matter how much wrong we do. For a great number of US citizens, it seems that our foreign policy decisions – and in particular, our acts of violence against Other states and Other peoples – are justifiable, simply by virtue of the fact that they are ours.

The killing by car bombing of an Iranian nuclear scientist in Tehran was an act of terror, murder and intimidation, period. It is an act that reeks not only of hubris and inhumanity, but also of desperation – the very hallmarks of terrorism.

What do the public and the media’s largely indifferent response to this act suggest about the political culture we inhabit? More importantly, what does it say about the moral culture we live in, and about our collective capacity for self-reflection and self-criticism? About our attitudes toward the value of human life – not just lives of US citizens, but the lives of Others as well?

Wilful disregard

Policy analysts, pundits and much of the media can spin any story they like about the murder, on his home soil, of Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan, husband to Fatemeh and father to a young boy – who will now have to grow up without him. They can choose to use sterile language such as “targeted killing” and “elimination” in order to distort US public sentiment regarding his murder. But their questionable rhetorical and editorial choices don’t change the ugly reality that this was, at the very least, a crime and a moral failure which will probably do little in the way of achieving its desired outcome (assuming, of course, that we have a right to pursue such an outcome, which is questionable in itself). 

This latest act of aggression, whether committed by the United States or by Israeli agents with the US government’s tacit approval, will only intensify the Iranian public’s widespread distrust for the US and its policies toward their country, a sentiment which is understandable, given the record of western interference in Iranian internal affairs.

Regrettably, it is a record which US politicians and policymakers – as well as most of its media and its public – persist in wilfully disregarding, even as the former continue to pursue a foreign policy which is destructive, both to Iran and to ourselves.

Najla Abdurrahman, a Libyan-American writer and activist, is a teaching fellow at Columbia University.

Follow her on Twitter: @Nejletta

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


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