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Jewish World Review May 3, 2001 / 8 Iyar, 5761

Clarence Page

Clarence Page
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Consumer Reports

'Free-fire' zones, then and now -- WHILE former Sen. Bob Kerrey confessed in a news conference to killing civilians in Vietnam, New York City's police department was preparing to announce that it would not discipline the four officers whose 41 shots killed unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo.

And in Michigan, family members were preparing to bury Veronica "Roni" Bowers, a missionary, and her baby daughter Charity. Both were shot out of the sky over Peru when allies in our government's increasingly militarized war on drugs mistook their little Cessna for a drug-running plane.

In common, these three sad stories show a form of profiling gone awry. In each case a hasty judgment was made, based on presumptions that turned out not to be true. Each showed the damage that can result from policies that intentionally encourage front-line troops to kill first, then pray later that they have guessed right.

Kerrey knows. Confronted with evidence unearthed by The New York Times Magazine and CBS's "60 Minutes II," the former senator and governor of Nebraska confessed that a squad of Navy SEALS he led killed more than a dozen unarmed women and children in a Vietnamese village in early 1969.

Kerrey says the deaths of unarmed civilians was unintentional. Gerhard Klann, the only member of Kerrey's squad to dispute that, told reporters that the unit "rounded up women and children" and machine-gunned them on Kerrey's order so the SEAL team could escape. Otherwise, Klann told the Times, "Our chances would have been slim to none to get out alive."

That was the kind of war it was. The village was in a "free-fire zone." That was our government's chilling term for an area where civilians have been warned to leave their homes and regather in "strategic hamlets," if they didn't want to be regarded as allied with the enemy.

Kerrey's squad was assigned to go into the village in the dark of night and kidnap an enemy leader who intelligence officers assured them was conducting a meeting there. The darkness, of course, made it all the more difficult to distinguish the already-murky difference between enemies and civilians.

The euphemistic language in this war reflected the ambiguities of its policies. It was a war of "search and destroy" or "search and clear" missions to rack up "body counts."

Kerrey's commander was "a body count kind of guy," Kerrey recalls. The commander, also interviewed for the article, doesn't really argue with that. Why should he? It was our government's official policy at the time. As long as they had more casualties than we did, it looked in the news like we were winning.

So, go ahead. Send young men into a terrifying situation with ambiguous rules regarding what they should do to anyone who gets in their way. Then wait for disaster.

Which brings us back home. Today, too many tragedies like Diallo's occur because American communities commit the same disservice our Vietnam policies did to our servicemen and women and to the civilians they were trying to help.

New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's public statements seem, more often than not, to be more concerned with protecting his police than with building the public's trust in them - especially his city's low-income and African-American public.

Too often, cities push police officers to feel like they are patrolling combat zones and cause resident to feel like they live in an occupied territory. Unlike Vietnam, our cities have the opportunity to help police and neighborhoods to work together in effective "community policing" programs. Some of the greatest drops in crime over the past decade have occurred in such communities.

Unfortunately, as the tragedy over Peru suggests, America's anti-drug war appears to be headed the other way, sinking into another Vietnam. A recent State Department report says America's total anti-drug spending is about $1.9 billion a year. That, the report notes, is approximately the same street value of the cocaine the drug cartels lost in a few shipments, a loss they barely felt.

Are we really winning this anti-drug war? When officials insist that they are turning the corner on drug traffic these days, they sound like our generals in Vietnam who persistently saw nonexistent lights at the end of that decade-long tunnel. It defies this nation's best principles to be participating in a mission that involves firing on unarmed aircraft. The CIA's use of "contract employees" who speak little Spanish on that mission also asked for disaster.

Most important, we should question whether the increased militarization of our drug war is worth the risks. A better policy would be to treat drug addiction as a public health problem on the consumer end, not just a criminal problem at the supply end.

"Free-fire zones" didn't win in Vietnam. They won't win back home, either.

Comment on JWR contributor Clarence Page's column by clicking here.


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