Timothy McVeigh, who is scheduled to be executed May 16, has solidified his position as the poster boy of cold-blooded villainy. The Oklahoma City bomber has once again outraged the American public when he described the 19 dead children among his 168 victims as "collateral damage" in an interview.
Although it scarcely seemed possible, this appalling comment has made McVeigh an even more despised figure in American society. It produced widespread and justified expressions of revulsion and anger at his lack of regard for even the most innocent of his victims.
There is no doubt that McVeigh is an exceptionally malevolent and brutal criminal. Yet the rest of us may not be as distant from his propensity to rationalize the killing of innocents as we prefer to believe. All too often, good people allow themselves to believe that the end justifies the means, that "war is hell." Or they find some other means to dismiss the deaths of those who did nothing to deserve being killed.
It is worth recalling where McVeigh got this chillingly antiseptic phrase "collateral damage." It was coined by the Pentagon during the Gulf War to describe the deaths of innocent Iraqis during the massive bombing campaign in 1991 and was an attempt to obscure and rationalize these deaths through Orwellian jargon.
"Collateral damage" during the Gulf War included, in only one instance, 313 people incinerated at the Amiriya bomb shelter in western Baghdad, which was deliberately attacked.
When asked about the extent of Iraqi casualties toward the end of the Gulf War, then-military Chief of Staff Colin Powell blandly remarked: "That is really not a matter I am terribly interested in."
Indeed, it is not a matter that has ever seemed to concern too many Americans. The same applies to the effects of sanctions on innocent Iraqi civilians over the past decade. Asked by an interviewer if the deaths of 500,000, not 19, Iraqi children because of sanctions could possibly be justified, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright did not dispute the figure or the causality, but instead simply remarked: "We think the price is worth it."
McVeigh was a gunner on a Bradley fighting vehicle during the Gulf War and told his relatives that "after the first time, it got easy" to kill Iraqis. It is possible that by invoking the awful phrase "collateral damage," McVeigh is not only repeating a rhetorical device for denial he learned in the military service, but he is actually taunting the government, and even society at large, for its own propensity for callous indifference.
"Collateral damage" also was invoked to describe the effects of attacks on civilian passenger trains, refugee convoys and the headquarters of Radio Television Serbia during the war in Kosovo.
And who remembers, or ever even cared about, the night watchman killed during the missile attack on the Shifa factory in Sudan, a facility no one now denies was simply making badly needed medicines, not chemical weapons?
Of course, these psychological defenses are not confined to U.S. society. They approach a depressing universality. To take another example, the process of rationalizing the deaths of innocents is clearly evident on both sides of the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Objections from Americans that the Gulf and Kosovo wars were "just," from Palestinians that liberation must be achieved "by any means necessary" or from Israelis that they must ensure their security "at all costs" merely illustrate how the process of rationalization actually works. Once we begin to accept the pernicious notion that the ends justify the means, a callous moral blindness is the inevitable result.
In our tendency to rationalize and accept the killing of innocents,
there may be more of McVeigh in most of us than we would care to admit.