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When Bad Things Are Caused by Good Nations

5 minute read
Walter Shapiro

The event defied precedent. The U.S. Navy blew 290 people out of the sky — victims whose only offense was the understandable desire to fly from Iran to Dubai. Something had gone monstrously awry, yet Americans seemed to respond almost grudgingly: there were guilt-stricken voices, yes, but they were distressingly few, and there was almost no compelling sense of shame. What the nation offered in the face of inadvertent tragedy was dry, formulaic expressions of official regret, the diplomatic equivalent of preprinted condolence cards.

The captain of the Vincennes, Will Rogers III, came closest to genuine emotion when he began a written statement, “This is a burden that I will carry for the rest of my life . . .” He was unable, however, to end his sentence there. Like good people who cause bad things to happen, he felt the need to explain and justify rather than putting a period after his grief: “but under the circumstances . . . I took this action to defend my ship and my crew.” The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral William Crowe Jr., used a similar yes-but formulation in saying, “We deeply regret the loss of life here, but that commanding officer had a very heavy obligation to protect his ships, his people.”

And what of Ronald Reagan, a President normally so lavish in his displays of heartfelt sentiment? On that somber Sunday, July 3, Reagan dispatched a formal five-paragraph note to Iran expressing “deep regret.” The President told aides he considered this an apology that satisfied the nation’s obligations, but his public comments were measured in the extreme. Reagan allowed that the shooting down of the Iranian airbus was a “great tragedy,” but soon belittled even that cliched description by also calling it an “understandable accident.”

Words may be small balm in the face of pictures showing lifeless children plucked from the Persian Gulf. But there is something disturbing when a great nation finds itself mute in the face of its own complicity in disaster. Corporations are not expected to show soul, yet immediately after the Bhopal disaster the chairman of Union Carbide took the risk of making a symbolic pilgrimage to India. Personal gestures of atonement are commonplace in other cultures: the president of Japan Air Lines resigned because 520 passengers perished in a 1985 plane crash.

America’s tongue-tied denial may be rooted in the way the destruction of Flight 655 brutally conflicts with the nation’s self-image. Americans do not see themselves as trigger-happy gunslingers; that black-hat role was played by the Soviet Union in 1983 when it brazenly shot down a Korean airliner. Terrorists are supposed to be the ones who cause death in the air — not the nation upholding the civilized rights of free passage in the Persian Gulf.

Social psychologists use the term “cognitive dissonance” for the anxiety caused when facts conflict with deeply held beliefs. Americans appear to have responded to the cognitive dissonance triggered by the Iranian airbus disaster by stifling both moral responsibility and collective grief. A Washington Post- ABC News poll found that 74% of those surveyed believe that Iran is more to blame than the U.S. for the destruction of Flight 655. Certainly this reaction was compounded by the role that Iran plays in American demonology. Nine years of demonstrators in Tehran chanting “Death to America!” have fueled an emotional climate where 290 dead Iranians are deemed unworthy of genuine mourning, even when they are chance victims of a wayward American missile.

The Pentagon rushed a six-member oversight team to the Persian Gulf to review the Vincennes’ procedures and performance. The rationale for the inquiry is clear: If the Vincennes correctly adhered to the rules of engagement, how could America possibly be blamed for the tragedy? But such bureaucratic reasoning and reflexive faith in systematic procedures fails to countenance that sometimes — in a disorderly world — grand intentions produce grotesque results.

Central to the American character is a litigious mind-set that cannot acknowledge blame without worrying about legal liability. Before the passengers on Flight 655 were even buried, Washington policymakers were locked in a distracting wrangle over whether to pay damages. The questionable notion that some form of monetary compensation to the victims’ families could assuage Iran’s grief was advanced by House Speaker Jim Wright and Republican Senator John Warner. The Administration has agreed to study the possibility of such payments, and the President is leaning strongly in favor of them. The primary obstacle appears to be political: 61% of those polled oppose such payments.

The destruction of the Iranian airbus should, by rights, lead to some form of searing national soul-searching. Whatever the provocation, whatever the perceived danger, whatever the rectitude of America’s mission in the gulf, it was the Vincennes that fatally fired. The captain, who was only following proper procedures, may be free of personal fault. But no matter how understandable each of the Navy’s actions, the fact remains that a string of American decisions created a situation that led to the shooting down of the Iranian airbus.

But judging from the denial and drift last week, the nation seems on the verge of endorsing the premise that the death of 290 civilians warrants only conditional and begrudging apologies. Because the U.S. did not intend for those people to be killed, many Americans seem to be saying, it is thus not at fault that they were. If so, Independence Day Weekend 1988 may be remembered as that moment when Americans declared their independence from the moral consequences of misadventure.

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