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Blackwater’s Baghdad massacre is a reminder of how the US became what it hated in Iraq

Supporters of the four Blackwater employees gather outside the federal courthouse on the day of the sentencing.
Supporters of the four Blackwater employees gather outside the federal courthouse on the day of the sentencing.
(Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

"In Iraq," Mohammed Hafedh Abdulrazzaq Kinani testified at the sentencing hearing for four Blackwater contractors in DC federal court on Monday, "Blackwater was perceived as so powerful that its employees could kill anyone and get away with it."

"Blackwater had power like Saddam Hussein," he said. "The power comes from the United States."

Kinani's nine-year-old son, Ali, was killed by the Blackwater contractors in a 2007 massacre that was one of the war's darkest moments. The guards opened fire in Baghdad's Nisour Square, killing 17 people and wounding 24 others. After years of legal and diplomatic wrangling, the four contractors were tried last year in DC federal court. In October, Nicholas Slatten was convicted of first-degree murder, and Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, and Dustin Heard were convicted on manslaughter and weapons charges. Yesterday, Slatten was sentenced to life in prison, and the other three men to 30 years apiece.

Nominally, this trial was about four individual Americans' decision to use force on that day in 2007. But for Iraqis, the trial was about something much bigger: the fear and violence they lived under during the US occupation. And that speaks to a fact that Americans have still not fully acknowledged: Though the US believed it was liberating Iraqis from the terrors of Saddam, Iraqis experienced the American occupation not as liberation but as continued oppression — a new tyranny of violent chaos and uncertainty.

At the beginning of the war, the US truly believed it was on a righteous mission to free Iraq. It would depose Saddam Hussein's genocidal regime, then watch as Iraqis gloried in the democracy and rule of law that would inevitably follow.

But instead, the collapse of Hussein's regime opened up a power vacuum that was quickly filled by violence. Iraqis still lived in fear, but now it was fear of the many armed groups that battled for control of the country and the civilians who lived there. Those groups included Sunni and Shia insurgents. But as the Blackwater trial reminds us, Iraqis also perceived the US and its contractors the same way: as another armed group to fear, operating with impunity. From Iraqis' perspective, the US became part of the tyranny it had tried to destroy.

What the Americans failed to bring to Iraq

In retrospect, the error in America's judgment is clear. US officials believed democracy and the rule of law would follow as soon as Saddam was gone, because they thought rule of law meant the absence of tyranny. But while that is certainly important, the real core of the rule of law is freedom from fear: it means creating a system that replaces force with rules, and that protects the people who rely on it. Creating that is much harder than simply deposing a dictator, and the Blackwater trial is a reminder of how utterly the US failed to do it.

When I was a lawyer, many of the people I worked with were refugees or victims of persecution at the hands of armed groups. The circumstances varied — sometimes they had been targeted by armed gangs, other times by revolutionary militant groups or terrorist organizations.

No matter the specifics, there was always the moment when we had what I came to think of as The Talk: when they would sit down and tell me, eyes downcast and voice trembling with anger or shame, about the fear that ruled their communities, and why they were powerless to resist it.

Quietly and carefully, they would explain how the violence they had experienced was really part of a system of control. Rapes, murders, or torture were not mere isolated atrocities. Rather, they sent a very specific message to the entire community: this is what happens if you don't obey. No one will stop us. No one is coming to protect you. Your only option is to submit.

The violence they described was always appalling. But those cases taught me that the true heart of the problem was the belief that no one was coming to help. The fact that the groups could operate with impunity was what truly enabled their violence, and the fact that the people they preyed upon had no one else to rely on for protection was what made fear such a powerful motivator.

That's what the US failed to understand in Iraq. The rule of law isn't just the mere absence of a cruel dictator, or the existence on paper of appropriate legal statutes. Rather, those laws need to offer a true alternative to a system in which the powerful use force to prey on the weak.

For that to work, the system has to constrain the powerful — and in Iraq, that included the American forces. If it does not, people will have no choice but to accept the rule of the gun, because they will know that the powerful can freely use it against them.

Nisour Square was and remains a perfect symbol of America's failure in Iraq

In Iraq, the US saw itself as a liberator, but it also became a powerful group that refused to be constrained by the very rule of law it was trying to build.

In other words, the US thought that it was there to free Iraqis from armed groups who ruled by fear. But to the Iraqis themselves, incidents like the massacre in Nisour Square were evidence that the US wasn't a savior from those armed groups — it was another one of them to fear.

After the massacre, the Iraqi government demanded that the contractors stand trial in Iraq, but the US refused. Legally, this was inevitable: as US military contractors, the men had immunity from local law at the time of the massacre. But to Iraqi civilians, it looked like the men were evading justice. The promise that they would eventually stand trial in US courts seemed like a trick.

That perception stuck, even after the eventual trials and convictions of the four Blackwater guards.

"I’m not convinced that the verdicts aren’t some kind of play to tell the world that the United States respects human beings and they’re valuable, while in fact it’s the opposite, that humans aren’t valuable to them," Ali Abbas Mahmoud told McClatchy this week.

When the US or its contractors used force with seeming or actual impunity, Iraqis took it as evidence that there was no institution they could rely on for protection. That problem went far beyond the Nisour Square attack, and even beyond military contractors such as Blackwater; Iraqi insurgent groups were in fact far more vicious.

But only the Americans truly saw themselves as liberators, or were in a position to do something about Iraq's chaos, making it that much more tragic that the US not only failed to achieve this but became part of the problem. During the conflict that followed the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime, Iraqis needed to decide whether they could trust in the rule of law. And when Nisour Square happened — or Haditha, or Mahmudiyah, or Abu Ghraib, or the countless other attacks that showed Iraqis they were powerless to control the US — it was a reminder that there was no institution powerful enough to protect them.

These pale in comparison, of course, to the insurgents and terrorist organizations that committed brutal atrocities against Iraqi civilians and tore the country apart in sectarian conflict. Those militants were the true parallels to the people who once terrorized my clients, not the US. But the US, by providing Iraqis with constant reminders that it operated with impunity, also reinforced the message of fear that empowers armed groups' rule of terror: No one will stop us. No one is coming to protect you. Your only option is to submit.

There were plenty of good reasons why the US didn't agree to subject its personnel to the Iraqi justice system. And the US justice system did eventually work in the Blackwater case. From the perspective of US civil liberties, the delays and deliberations were a good thing: we should be proud that our justice system protects defendants' rights, even in politically contentious cases. But the intricacies of US justice and Status of Forces Agreements and immunity rules were hidden from ordinary Iraqis. To them, these cases were a reason not to trust their government to protect them.

There are no easy answers to this problem. And things went so poorly in Iraq and Afghanistan that the US might not be doing nation-building again for a while. But if it does, we should remember the lesson of Iraq and Blackwater: the rule of law is a system, and if we're not part of it, we're undermining it.