Why sorry isn't enough after deadly hospital airstrike: Neil Macdonald

When an Israeli missile killed civilians near a UN school in Gaza last year, the U.S. condemned the action as "appalling." But now the shoe is on the other foot, Neil Macdonald writes, following the deadly U.S. airstrike on a Doctors Without Borders' hospital in Afghanistan.

'Appalled' has new meaning when the U.S. is to blame

Injured Doctors Without Borders staff are seen after explosions near their hospital in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz on Saturday. Twenty-two people were killed in a U.S. airstrike that went on for an extended period. (Doctors Without Borders/Associated Press)

Mark Toner, the suave U.S. State Department spokesman, arrived in the briefing room Monday unprepared for what was coming.

Two days earlier, American airstrikes had obliterated a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, operated by Doctors Without Borders. The attack killed 22 people, including several staff members.

By the time Toner took to his podium, U.S. military officials had already given conflicting versions of what had happened.

But the underlying message was the same: There had been Taliban militants near the hospital and, in defence of American and Afghan troops, an American airstrike had inadvertently and tragically killed civilians.

Clearly, in Toner's mind, the attack was a Pentagon matter. His briefing book contained some words of condolence to families of the dead, and evidently not much more.

Then Matt Lee of the Associated Press asked a question.

The meaning of 'appalled'

Lee began by reading aloud a State Department statement issued in August 2014 after an Israeli missile attack killed several people at a UN school in Gaza.

"The United States is appalled by today's disgraceful shelling outside an UNRWA school," said the State Department at the time. "The coordinates of the school, like all UN facilities in Gaza, have been repeatedly communicated to the Israeli Defence Forces."

The statement continued: "The suspicion that militants are operating nearby does not justify strikes that put at risk the lives of so many innocent civilians."

So, asked Lee, does that sentence about the presence of militants not justifying strikes that endanger innocent civilians stand as U.S. government policy?

Toner, having seen where this was going, dived into his official condolences, but quickly ran out of prepared messages.

He looked up: "Uh, you know, these are difficult situations, uh, it was I think … an active combat zone."

Lee wasn't going to be put off.

U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner trying to answer reporters' questions on the U.S. airstrike in Kunduz, Afghanistan, that destroyed a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders and left 22 people dead. (CBC)

U.S. forces in Afghanistan, he told Toner, had been given the coordinates of the hospital, "much as the IDF had been given the coordinates of the school in Rafah" in Gaza.

Toner evaded: "I think it's safe to say that, you know, this attack, this bombing, was not intentional," he replied, asking for "a pass" until the investigations by U.S. agencies are completed.

Lee then expertly closed the trap.

After the "disgraceful" Israeli attack, he pointed out, the State Department declared itself "appalled" even before any investigation had begun.

"So. Can you say now … that this shelling of this hospital was disgraceful and appalling?"

American exceptionalism

At that, Toner just gave up, and re-read the condolence lines.

A "gotcha" moment, perhaps. But the reporter was, consciously or not, going after something much deeper.

In bringing up the 2014 denunciation of Israel, and its similarities to the slaughter in Kunduz, he skillfully peeled away a central hypocrisy of American governments, and left it on shivering display before TV cameras.

Supporters of Israel immediately cited the exchange as yet another example of Israel being held to a different standard than other countries when its military kills Palestinian civilians in the midst of conflict.

They are correct. Israel is indeed held to a different standard by the U.S., even though both countries use exactly the same PR playbook.

Both claim to have highly moral militaries. Both claim to only ever act in self-defence or, in the case of the U.S., to intervene abroad on what it usually terms "the right side of history."

Both, in short, claim to be exceptional. Israel portrays itself as a beacon of freedom and democracy in the Middle East. But the U.S. goes much further.

Gen. John Campbell, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, told a Senate committee on Tuesday that the attack on the hospital in Kunduz was a mistake, despite "rigorous" military procedures to try to avoid such occurrences. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

It holds to something called the doctrine of American exceptionalism, which maintains that the U.S. has a special role in the world.

Some interpretations of the doctrine argue that America should not be subject to international laws governing other nations. They are also bound up in Christianity and a desire to export American values.

So little wonder that, when it comes to militaristic excesses, the U.S. holds itself to a different standard.

For example, the White House and the State Department maintain lists of terrorist organizations and of states they accuse of supporting terror.

Washington has also seen to it that several foreign leaders have been indicted and judged for war crimes.

At the same time, it brushes off as ridiculous any assertion that America has funded or supported terrorists, despite ample evidence to that effect over the years, in places like Central America, Southeast Asia and Afghanistan.

America's violent proxies abroad are always "freedom fighters," because fighting on America's behalf is per se fighting for freedom, under the circular logic of the doctrine of exceptionalism.

Wanton disregard

Doctors Without Borders has said the attack on its hospital, (carried out by one of America's fearsome Spectre aircraft, basically a flying weapon of mass destruction), constituted a war crime — wanton disregard for civilian life.

And perhaps Doctors Without Borders is correct. It's not the first such accusation against the U.S. military.

Invading Iraq on the justification of a lie, and secret bombing campaigns in Southeast Asia decades ago would all seem to at least bear consideration.

But under the system designed by the great powers, the International Criminal Court acts on cases referred to it by the UN Security Council, which means none of the five permanent members of the council, all of which hold vetoes, will ever be referred.

No American general or leader will ever be a convicted war criminal.

Mark Toner has probably considered all this. He is, after all, a highly educated diplomat with an impressive career abroad.

But he is also an American, raised on the notion that his country is always, in every action, intrinsically good, or pursuing good.

So it was no surprise when he ignored the hypocrisy of the statement about Israel last year:

America's motives, he effectively said, are pure: "There's no other, frankly, country or government that takes greater care to investigate incidents like this, uh, to hold folks accountable and to, uh, try to, uh, take every measure possible to avoid civilian casualties."

On Tuesday, President Obama apologized. His spokesman said that when America "makes a mistake, we're honest about it."

And the families of those who died in that hospital attack will just have to be content with that.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


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