The My Lai massacre happened in March of 1968, when a US company of soldiers in Vietnam savagely murdered around 500 defenseless innocent civilians, most of whom were women and children. The US soldiers, who had been traumatized by the brutalities of the Vietnam War for months prior to the mission into My Lai, had gone into the village under the assumption that they were about the meet the enemy who had been picking them off one by one for so long.
But they had bad intelligence. The Viet Cong soldiers who they thought they were about to finally engage in battle, and whom they thought they would finally be able to take out their anger and frustration on, was no where near that village of My Lai. But when the soldiers who had gone into the village, guns a blazing, discovered that they had reason to suspect the information they were working with was wrong, most kept killing the people in the village anyway. That's what the trauma of war does to people.
This was the case with soldiers returning to their counties after WW I, and with American soldiers who brutally raped and murdered hundreds of thousand of German civilians as reprisals for the Concentration camps discovered after WW II.
In August of 1969, Charles Manson directed his "family" to murder 7 defenseless innocent people in Los Angles, California, in a murder spree that shocked the nation.
Lieutenant William Calley, Jr., who consistently claimed during his trail for the My Lai massacre, that he was simply following the orders of his commanding officer, Captain Medina, was
convicted and sentenced to life in prison on March 29, 1971, after being
found guilty of premeditated murder of not fewer than twenty people.
On that same day, March 29, 1971, Manson, and three "family members" - Patrica Krenwinkel, Susan Atkins and Leslie Van Houten - received the death penalty for the murders they had committed.
But while many Americans applauded the outcome of the Manson trial, they protested in the streets about the conviction of Lieutenant Calley. So much so, in fact, that two days after Cally's conviction, President Richard Nixon released Calley from custody at Fort Benning, Georgia, and put him under house arrest instead, pending appeal of his sentence. After 3 1/2 years under house arrest, including 3 months in a disciplinary barracks in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Calley was paroled by the Sec. of the Army, Howard Callaway.
The contrast between these two events illustrates the power of perspective to define two different acts of murder, the first being far worse in many respects, in very different terms. While the murders of Manson were seen by Americans as inexcusably evil (much like acts of terrorism by Muslims), the murders committed by American soldiers at My Lai, it was thought by many Americans, needed to be understood within the larger context of the Viet Nam conflict overall.
It was easy for people to see Manson and those who killed for him as monsters of evil, of course, because people in general had no connection to them, and what they did was so unquestionably evil. But what American soldiers did at My Lai was not so simple, because Americans had a really hard time seeing their own soldiers as capable of committing "evil." Although it was easier to see this at Abu Graib, for example, in 1971, American's were not as willing to simply accept the "few bad apples" excuse.
Hence, the former was evil and thus did evil for evils sake, while the latter was clearly not evil (as far as Americans were concerned) and therefore, whatever "evil" they may have engaged in must have been the result of the evil situation around them.
Today, some people try to understand "Muslim terrorists" in the same way Americans tried to understand what prompted the American soldiers at My Lai, while others see Muslim terrorists as no different than the Manson Family. Some see that those American soldiers should never have been sent to My Lai in the first place, not only because the intelligence they were acting on was wrong, but because America was only in Vietnam because of the Gulf of Tonkin lie to begin with. Others think that, regardless of the lie of Tonkin or the bad intelligence, those soldiers were responsible for what they did, in this life or the next.
But however one chooses to think about the My Lai massacre or the Manson Family murders, what is interesting to note is how often we change the perspective we are using to interpret just how "evil" we conclude either was, and perhaps for no other reason than because of how we think one does or does not reflect something about ourselves.
And more importantly, it is useful to think about which lens we chose to use in our interpretation of not only Muslim terrorism, but of American aggression employed in response to it.
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