This editorial will appear in Thursday’s print edition.
Genuine justice doesn’t play favorites with either criminals or their victims. A state, for example, that’s quick to execute murderers who kill whites, but not those who kill blacks, shouldn’t be in the business of executing anyone at all.
For many years, the U.S. military court system has been flunking the test of impartiality in handing down death sentences. As The News Tribune’s Adam Ashton documented Sunday, the military has been willing to condemn its own to death only if they kill Americans. For killing foreign noncombatants, U.S. personnel have gotten – at most – life in prison.
The four soldiers, one airman and one Marine now on death row at Fort Leavenworth all got there by murdering fellow Americans. In more recent cases, prosecutors have sought the death sentence against two defendants: Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, accused of slaughtering 13 people in 2009 at Fort Hood, Texas, and Army Sgt. John Russell, accused for murdering five other service members in 2009 in Iraq.
Conspicuously missing from both lists are any troops accused or convicted of killing foreign civilians. Members of the rogue “kill team” – four Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldiers who killed three Afghan noncombatants for sport in 2010 – never faced capital punishment, for example.
In a more appalling atrocity, a civilian court chose not to condemn the ringleader of a gang-rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl and the massacre of her family in Iraq; the Army did not seek the execution of any of the other four soldiers involved.
The pattern is clear. Iraqis and Afghans couldn’t help but conclude that their lives are worth less than Americans’ in the eyes of the United States.
The case of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales of Lake Tapps poses an extreme test of prosecutorial discretion. He stands charged with killing 16 Afghan villagers, most of them children, on March 11. This wasn’t a question of shooting the wrong people in a split-second mistake or otherwise confusing bystanders with enemies; Bales is accused of sneaking off base twice in the middle of the night to systematically kill and burn the bodies of obvious noncombatants.
Arguments against executing U.S. troops for such atrocities typically invoke the soul-deadening fear, stress and confusion many experience in combat zones. A man who winds up as a war criminal conceivably might have remained a law-abiding citizen had he not served in the first place.
This is a reasonable rationale for imposing a life sentence instead of capital punishment, but it also produces a double standard. As long as death row is reserved only for personnel who kill Americans, the United States appears unconscionably lenient in dealing with those who kill mere foreigners.
The military isn’t big on the death penalty. It hasn’t executed anyone since 1961. Given its lack of interest in carrying them out, its nominal death sentences chiefly serve to undermine America’s moral authority abroad. Better to strike capital punishment from the Uniform Code of Military Justice.