Monday, March 24, 2008

The Truth About "Blood Money"

Certain media outlets, among them ABC News, have been trying to make hay with a story about Blackwater offering money to the families of civilians killed at Nisoor Square last September. With each telling through other media outlets or around the blogosphere, the story becomes more outlandish: Blackwater trying to bribe families into silence, Blackwater trying to obstruct justice, etc., etc.

The truth of the matter is quite different.

Condolence payments are standard US government policy. In the accompanying photo, Brig. Gen. Joseph L. Votel shakes hands with a villager from Nangarhar, Afghanistan, who received a solatia payment from the US military.

Condolence payments are similar to a local custom known as solatia. Presently, US military commanders can make on-the-spot condolence payments, a practice that troop supporters like Senator Ted Kennedy have criticized. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report in 2007 that describes the US military's practice of condolence payments and solatia.

In Iraq, for example, the Department of Defense routinely offers payments to families of innocent victims of US military operations; generally the sum is reportedly about $5,000. In the case of contractors providing diplomatic security support - such as Blackwater, Triple Canopy and DynCorp - the State Department sets the sum. Even ABC admits that Blackwater has been giving between $10,000 and $20,000, and doing so through the Iraqi legal framework.

The people most strongly pushing for Iraqi families to hold out for larger payment are not the Iraqis themselves, but American trial lawyers working the cases. (Some of the lawyers suing Blackwater over Nisoor Square, as we have reported, are tried to al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.) Why are they pressing for larger sums? Because they're hoping to profiteer in their own way from the war. They make nothing on condolence payments. But they can make millions - as much as a 30 to 35 per cent cut - from a lawsuit award from a U.S. court.

A source familiar with the situation explains:

The payments are not intended to "make the problem go away" or to admit guilt. They are simply a charitable gesture of condolences, and the right thing to do. I love how the trial lawyers try to put a cash value on a human being. Five thousand dollars isn't enough, for sure. Is five million? I don't think so. How about five billion? Where do these lawyers get off placing cash values on people's lives? They're only interested because the higher the price, the more money they stand to make.... Most Iraqi families have accepted the condolence payments as condolence payments: Not as attempts to place value on the dead or to make things go away, or to bribe, or anything else. Especially in a hospitality-based culture, it's the gesture, not the dollar amount, that matters most.

In an official statement, Blackwater explains:

At the request of US Embassy Baghdad, Blackwater has reached out to the families of those killed or injured in Nisoor Square on September 16 as part of this condolence payment process. These are customary condolence payments, and are not an admission of guilt, but recognize that Iraq is an extremely dangerous place. When faced with an enemy intent on maximizing civilian casualties, innocent people will tragically be caught in the crossfire; when that happens, their suffering should not go unrecognized.

So ABC is running what's essentially a fake story that's driven by trial lawyers who want to profiteer from war victims.

It is worth mentioning one final concern with compensations of any kind, a concern you won't hear in the mainstream media: As is the case with some suicide bombers, impoverished people will sometimes take advantage of large sums and get themselves killed on purpose so that the families can receive the payments. Just another reason to believe the issues at stake aren't always as clear cut as folks like ABC make them out to be.

No comments: