This editorial will appear in Friday’s print edition.
The Army’s Article 32 hearing for Sgt. Robert Bales was so replete with witnesses and evidence that it looked as if he were on trial.
In fact, it was a preliminary procedure. Commanders at Joint Base Lewis-McChord will now decide whether the evidence tying Bales to the murder of 16 Afghan villagers on March 11 justifies a court-martial.
That’s a foregone conclusion.
Soldiers saw Bales returning to Camp Belambay alone – covered in blood – the night of the massacres. DNA experts linked the blood to at least one of the victims. Comrades testified that he made what sound like self-incriminating statements.
Prosecutors have won outright murder convictions with far less evidence than emerged in this hearing.
Bales is entitled to due process, and the Army is giving him plenty of it.
His skilled defense attorneys are raising key questions about his state of mind, including reported drinking and Valium abuse, and the possibility that he suffered from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder. They’ve turned up ambiguous evidence that there were more than one American involved in the slaughters.
The law must presume Bales’ innocence.
Let’s take a step back. Whoever committed the atrocities detailed in the hearing hardly deserves to be called human.
It’s the murder of the children that pushes this case beyond all bounds of empathy for Americans in combat zones.
The testimony included: A dead child whose head was stomped so hard that a footprint remained visible on it. Boys and girls being shot as they attempted to hide or run – while shouting, “We are children.” Children piled up, splashed with kerosene and burned along with parents and loved ones.
Four of the dead, reportedly, were younger than 5. Of the 16 killed, at least nine were children. One should not invoke the Holocaust lightly, but this is depravity characteristic of the Nazi killing squads that followed the German Army across Eastern Europe, methodically murdering any Jews of any age.
It is horrifying that the killer was American.
Those trying to mitigate the crime point to alcohol, repeated deployments, stress, steroids and mental disturbances unique to combat. But countless soldiers and Marines have experienced all those things without cold-bloodedly and systematically pulling the trigger on so many noncombatants over a period of hours. For at least 40 years, the country hasn’t been shamed by a deliberate, face-to-face atrocity of this magnitude.
Mullah Khamal Adin, an Afghan who testified at the hearing, reportedly lost 11 relatives in the slaughter. He got to the point: “This is my request: Justice.”
Ours, too. Ours, too.