Commentary: Lawyer for Staff Sgt. Robert Bales shifts focus away from the real victims

The (Tacoma) News TribuneMay 13, 2012 

Noted national defense attorney Alan Dershowitz titled his autobiography “The Best Defense,” leaving readers to fill in the rest of the sports cliche.

The best defense, it is said, is a good offense.

Rather than wait for prosecutors to set the pace, rather than react to their case, a good defense lawyer goes on the offensive. And in the months leading up to a trial, the place to do that is in the news media.

I get the game, and I get the strategy. Still, if I never read another news article about lawyer John Henry Browne or about his diversion strategy in defense of accused Afghan war criminal Robert Bales, it will be too soon.

I couldn’t even escape the drumbeat while in Southern California visiting my daughters.

“Lawyer in Afghan murder case hopes to put the war on trial,” read the front-page headline in the Los Angeles Times over the weekend. It follows the same formula as the others – the 6-foot-6 lawyer, the six wives (not at the same time), the former anti-Vietnam activist, the marquee list of bad guys on his client list, the attempt to blame the war and not Bales. Browne isn’t exactly saying the Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier isn’t guilty, just that there’s a long list of reasons he isn’t to blame.

And we all go along. Maybe Bales is the real victim. Maybe we asked too much of him. Maybe, maybe, maybe. We even list addresses for people to contribute to a fund to pay Browne’s fees.

If Bales isn’t the real victim, then most certainly his wife and children are. Put them on a parade float, list ways for people to give money to help them out.

Few, it seems, find this odd. But search all you want for news stories about how to contribute to defense funds for members of the so-called Stryker “kill team,” who committed their crimes in 2010. Search for stories about the families of other notorious criminals. You won’t find any of that.

Why is the Bales case different? Maybe we feel guilty for what we have put soldiers through for the past decade. But you can’t support soldiers by failing to distinguish between good and bad soldiers. You can’t smear the real heroes by furthering a myth that many who have slogged through similar assignments as Bales must all be on the verge of snapping.

Maybe we can’t identify with victims who are foreign and faceless. Little was reported about the three “kill team” victims, either.

I guess the Panjwai district village in Afghanistan where the people Bales allegedly killed lived and died is a rough neighborhood, not a safe place for a Western journalist to go knocking on huts asking for photos that don’t exist anyway.

We do know this: seventeen civilians died and six were injured during two separate assaults that, despite the Web-fueled conspiracy theories, seem to have been launched by one rogue American soldier. Among the dead are four women and nine children, 11 from a single extended family. Among the injured are a woman and four children.

It took Al Jazeera to find and report the names.

The dead: Mohamed Dawood son of Abdullah, Khudaydad son of Mohamed Juma, Nazar Mohamed, Payendo, Robeena, Shatarina daughter of Sultan Mohamed, Zahra daughter of Abdul Hamid, Nazia daughter of Dost Mohamed, Masooma daughter of Mohamed Wazir, Farida daughter of Mohamed Wazir, Palwasha daughter of Mohamed Wazir, Nabia daughter of Mohamed Wazir, Esmatullah daughter of Mohamed Wazir, Faizullah son of Mohamed Wazir, Essa Mohamed son of Mohamed Hussain, Akhtar Mohamed son of Murrad Ali.

The wounded: Haji Mohamed Naim son of Haji Sakhawat, Mohamed Sediq son of Mohamed Naim, Parween, Rafiullah, Zardana, Zulheja.

Just back from Afghanistan, News Tribune reporter Adam Ashton says it is the slaughter of the children that most troubled the soldiers he met. Children, you see, give them hope. Children help them understand why they are there. Children help them make sense of an often messy mission.

Sorry, Mr. Browne, but they are the real victims.

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