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Jewish World Review May 16, 2001 / 23 Iyar, 5761

Paul Campos

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The thin line between hero and hated -- HE had killed for his country, and now his country was revenging itself on him.

For years he had lain awake at night, traveling down endless labyrinths of accusations and apologies. In all wars, he told himself, innocent people die. "Collateral damage" -- that is what he was told to call it by his superiors, men whose nights remained untroubled by memories of women and children pleading for their lives, or images of a baby's shattered body lying in the mud where a building had once stood.

A good soldier follows orders. If, after the killing stops, the men of power judge the orders they gave were justified, they pin a medal on the soldier's chest and declare him a hero. If they decide otherwise, they throw him in a cell like a common criminal, to await whatever punishment their so-called system of justice deems should be his.

In the midst of the ecstatic chaos of battle, the line between heroes and traitors often trembles, blurs and disappears. Had he done the state some service by killing for its government? Or did he betray his country by following atrocious orders, signed by men with manicured nails in clean, well-lighted rooms, far from that heart of darkness where those incomprehensible commands were carried out?

If his fate was to be judged a hero, then part of him would always know that the punishment he deserved had passed him by, at least in this life. Or perhaps that was his punishment.

If he was declared guilty, then the world would judge him the worst of criminals: A man who slaughtered helpless children in the name of his nation -- a man who betrayed his country while claiming to save it.

He thinks: If that of which I stand accused is true, then it would be just to consign me and all like me to the deepest circle of hell. But what if I am innocent? To what infernal circle are those who order good men to commit unspeakable acts condemned?

These are the thoughts that keep him awake at night, turning a thousand and one arguments and counterarguments over and over in his head, waiting for a final judgment no earthly tribunal can dispense.

Sometimes, after he has finally fallen into uneasy dreams, he awakens to what seems the sound of another's voice. The voice is familiar, yet he can never quite give its speaker a name, nor is he certain of the message the voice is attempting to convey.

Yet once, he believes, he heard the voice clearly. In the cold moment before dawn he sat upright, trembling with fear, and repeated these words:

If any should ask why we died

Tell them: Because our fathers lied.

The forgoing little fable might be taken as referring to former Navy SEAL and U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey. Yet it takes only a little imagination to understand how it might also be about Sgt. Timothy McVeigh.

Kerry and McVeigh are both soldiers who ended up killing civilians for ideological reasons. When the ideology in question leads to governmental action, we call the violence it engenders "war." When individuals take the violence of the state into their own hands, we call that "terrorism."

Pointing this out should not lead to the crude conclusion that there is no difference between a soldier and a terrorist. But it should make us wonder why we are so ready to consider Kerrey a sympathetic figure, trapped in a nightmare not of his own devising, while at the same time treating McVeigh as if he were some sort of inexplicable moral monster.

Considering the possibility that the difference between a Medal of Honor winner and a mass murderer might not be so vast after all interferes with an untroubled enjoyment of the pleasures of revenge. That is why we should consider it.

Paul Campos is a professor of law at the University of Colorado. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, Paul Campos