Kerrey's Attempts at Healing Cover Up Real Crime

John Leo

5/2/2001 12:00:00 AM - John Leo
No journalist is better than Mickey Kaus at cutting quickly to the heart of an issue. Here is his comment about Bob Kerrey last week on his Web site (www:kausfiles.com): "There is already entirely too much respectful attention being paid to the moral and psychological agony of Bob Kerrey, and to the 'healing' process. ... The question is what happened to the people who haven't had the luxury of agonizing for 32 years because they've been dead. Kerrey's agony is a distraction."

Exactly. Ex-senator Bob Kerrey is undoubtedly feeling a lot of stress after finally admitting that his squad killed unarmed women and children during a Vietnam raid in 1969. And his three decades of silence (or cover-up, if you like) obviously took a toll. But his feelings are not the issue. In an Oprahfied culture, important moral and political issues are always in danger of being obscured by huge clouds of media-generated empathy.

This process is now so common that we hardly notice. After Janet Reno drew heavy criticism for the Elian Gonzalez raid, Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder said: "I held the attorney general in my arms and she wept. She did not want this to happen." But whether she wept, fled into the arms of a subordinate or simply sat at her desk playing solitaire is irrelevant. In politics, we properly judge actions, not emotional states, especially ones retailed to the media to generate empathy and deflect criticism.

The Kerrey case is already a classic example of a serious moral issue propelled before the public almost entirely in psychological and therapeutic terms. "How hard this must be to stand up and tell the world your secret," one network reporter told viewers. Kerrey "is baring his soul about a 32-year-old mission in Vietnam," burbled a sympathetic CNN talk-show host. "We should all recognize the agony that Bob has gone through," said the trustees of Manhattan's New School University, whose new president is Bob Kerrey.

The ex-senator kept issuing statements that encouraged a close focus on his psychological struggle. "Now I can talk about it. It feels better already," Kerrey told the Los Angeles Times. The New York Times said Kerrey spoke of the military's need to provide psychological training in how cope with killing.

The psychologizing flows freely though "What Happened in Thanh Phong," Gregory Vistica's April 29 New York Times Magazine article that forced Kerrey at last to speak out. It begins with a scene of Kerrey's hands trembling as he read documents on the case. It goes on quickly to discuss his nightmares, his fleeting thoughts of suicide, and Kerrey's weird notion that his memories of the raid are personal ones that belong to him alone. "Part of living with the memory, some of those memories, is to forget them," Kerrey told Vistica. "I've got a right to say to you it's none of your damned business. I carry memories of what I did and I survive ..."

But this is the way somebody might speak to a therapist, not to a journalist asking whether you massacred women and children. Try to imagine other people accused of killing unarmed civilians -- the New York cops who shot Amadou Diallo, for instance -- trying to argue that their memories of the night are personal and nobody else's business.

Even Kerrey's argument that the killings were justified is couched in terms of his effort to cope with trauma: "Knowing that the people we killed were probably enemy sympathizers and their missing men had fired upon us, drawing our fire, has not helped." Similarly, his occasional admissions that something horrific occurred are also expressed in the language of feelings: "To describe it as an atrocity, I would say, is pretty close to be being right, because that's how it felt." In a press conference, Kerrey announced: "I have chosen to talk about it because it helps me to heal."

This is not just an awful bit of psychologizing. It's also untrue. Kerrey is talking about it because the expose in the Times magazine was on its way, and he wanted to get out ahead of the story and spin it his way.

Stripped of psychologizing, the central issue is clear: Was this a war crime? One -- and only one -- member of Kerrey's platoon says, in effect, that it was. In his account, an old man, several women and young children and a baby were herded together in a thatched hut and executed. "We just basically slaughtered those people," Gerhard Klann told Dan Rather on the "60 Minutes II" program to be broadcast this week.

Kerrey's version is that his men had been shot at and fired back in the dark from a distance of about a hundred yards. (Kerrey's recollections shift. He reports a memory of Klann killing the old man with a knife, which undercuts the report of long-distance shooting.) Besides, the village was a "free-fire" zone, meaning that all who lived there were regarded as enemies who could be fired on at will.

Did that policy amount to a blank check for American troops to commit atrocities? Even at this late date, we need to know the answer. And we need sworn testimony from each member of Kerrey's platoon on how and why the women and children of Thanh Phong died. No more psychology, please. There are real issues to deal with.