The cover of the July 28, 1967, issue of Life magazine was one of the grimmest I’d ever seen. It showed a 12-year-old black kid in filthy sneakers and worn-out jeans sprawled on the filthy pavement of a street in Newark.
His left arm was bent at a gruesome angle. Blood was pooling beneath his body. He looked dead.
The article was about the Newark riots, one of the most violent outbursts of the 1960’s.
The war in Vietnam was raging at the time. I remember staring at the magazine as I sat on a footlocker in one of the barracks at Fort Belvoir, Va. I was a very young buck sergeant who was finishing out his last few months in the service. While others were serving in Vietnam, I’d spent 14 months in South Korea. I couldn’t wait for September and my discharge to come around.
I opened the magazine, still thinking about the kid on the cover. He was like zillions of kids I had grown up with. It was sad, depressing. Then I got to Pages 20 and 21. They are still shocking to me.
There, in a sequence of photos that would go on for four pages, was a guy I had known in my hometown of Montclair, N.J., a casual friend named Billy Furr.
The sequence starts with Billy looting beer from a liquor store. Then a squad car pulls up and police officers with shotguns jump out. Billy takes off, the tails of his light-colored shirt flapping. A uniformed cop in a yellow hard hat lifts his shotgun to his shoulder, aims and fires.
In a photo that covers two-thirds of Page 22, Billy lies on the blood-stained sidewalk, dead. On the next page was another photo of the 12-year-old boy. He was a bystander who was hit in the neck and thigh. Although seriously wounded, he would recover.
This all came back to me yesterday with the news report out of Baghdad that U.S. military forces would be authorized to shoot looters on sight. The first thing I thought was that Billy Furr had been dead these 36 years because he stole some beer. It was wrong, but the barbaric punishment in no way fit the crime.
Now, in the dawn of the 21st century, when this nation above all others is supposed to be a model of progress and fairness and justice and due process, the U.S. military was to be given the high sign to start shooting Iraqis like dogs in the street.
The news article, by The Times’s Patrick Tyler, said the authorization to shoot looters on sight would be part of “a tough new security setup” that included the hiring of additional police officers and curbs on the use of high-ranking Baath Party officials in public service positions.
Mr. Tyler wrote:
“The far more muscular approach to bringing order to postwar Iraq was described by the American administrator, L. Paul Bremer, at a meeting of senior staff members [Tuesday], the officials said.”
This government, I thought, is losing its mind. I went to the computer and began to put this column together. The president, the secretary of defense, military authorities and anyone else in a position of command should know that a policy of shooting looters on sight is wrong, and if it was being considered it needed to be stopped in its tracks.
I wrote: “We are not barbarians. Our young men and women in uniform did not join the military to take on the odious mission of gunning down unarmed Iraqis in the streets. Deadly force should always be a last resort, and shooting looters on sight does not fall into that category.”
By late yesterday afternoon the administration seemed to be backing away from this crazy policy. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was still doing his macho act, telling a Senate subcommittee that the forces in Baghdad “will be using muscle to see that the people who are trying to disrupt what is taking place in that city are stopped and either captured or killed.”
But Maj. Gen. Buford Blount, of the Army’s Third Infantry Division, told reporters in Baghdad that his troops “are not going to go out and shoot children” who might be stealing, say, wood or cement from a factory.
Stay tuned. This controversy is one more screaming example of the need for the U.N. to be handed the major responsibility for administering Iraq. This is not an appropriate mission for the U.S., and we’re making a hash of it already.
Americans should take a long, honest look in the mirror. We’ll find that it’s impossible to look good in the ugly garb of a colonial power.