Standing in line to get into Tuesday’s hearing, I found myself in a strange position. In front of me, dark-suited and staid Blackwater executives stood waiting to show moral support for their boss, Erik Prince, while the colorful and animated Pink Ladies behind me ticked off reasons he and his industry should be feared.
The two extremes represent the bookends of public debate on the private security industry. The former military men who run Blackwater view their supporting role in the war on terror as both necessary and good, while human rights activists believe there is something deeply wrong with authorizing private citizens to kill other private citizens.
One of the women waiting in line asked me, “How can we find out what these people are doing?” I suggested she could go to any neighborhood in Baghdad and just ask the locals.
Or better yet--spend a week driving through Baghdad in an unmarked car to see how often convoys blast through intersections, guns bristling from every door, pointed directly at you, giving you mere seconds to get out of the way before the bullets start flying. Feel your own pulse racing as you realize how easily you could have been killed if you’d had your radio a little louder, or hadn’t noticed their approach, or hadn’t swerved to a stop fast enough.
Companies like Blackwater wield a life-and-death power in Iraq, creating an arrogant misuse of force the United States has put into civilians hands.
I spent time in Sadr City and other areas interviewing the victims of Blackwater and other security companies. Terrified Iraqis, many who did not want to be identified or publicly quoted, told of sudden unexpected encounters with fast moving convoys of SUVs--then death, destruction, or permanent life change as family members were crushed, maimed, killed, or traumatized.
During the time I spent researching my book Licensed to Kill, I realized there were thousands of stories waiting to be heard about excessive force being used on civilians in the name of “security”. Not surprisingly, many victims look to a militia to seek some revenge for the transgression in the form of an ambush or IED.
It is also no coincidence that BW has been involved in shootouts with the Iraqi police. They too have seen the destructive force Blackwater has been authorized to unleash on their citizens.
Security companies are reviled; the Iraqis that work for these companies have to cover their faces because they know militias or their neighbors will kill them and or their families.
Military commanders understand that a non-state actor on the battlefield is a wild card--whether death squad, militia or security company. Iraqis know that the undermanned military must rely on contractors to deliver 16 flavors of ice cream, frozen lobster and bullets to the war effort.
The normally timid State Department, known more for issuing warnings and shutting down embassies when things get rough, has decided that its people must travel the mean streets of Baghdad rather than give in to intimidation. Security contractors are literally the grease that makes our forward-leaning foreign policy in Iraq work.
So when Prince pretends like he is defending the US--justifying violent acts by categorizing it as fighting bad guys--he does it with the support of the State Department, though to the direct determent of the Iraqi civilians those actions terrify and kill.
When Prince testified that his people “acted appropriately at all times," it made me wonder how many killings he investigated from the Iraqi viewpoint. He has a blind spot towards the damage he causes if he thinks that firing a contractor who just murdered someone somehow fixes the problem. “Window or Aisle” instead of “guilty or not guilty” does not enforce any accountability
When Prince rattles off the various legal umbrellas he operates under, he conveniently ignores that none of his hired guns have been brought up on any charges for anything—despite clear incidents of malfeasance. Blackwater itself has faced no ill consequence for deploying unstable men into the war zone.
"Anytime a contractor is abroad, he can be brought up on charges," is the equivalent of saying speeding is illegal while cars whip by at 80 mph without a cop in sight.
Blackwater is the personification of war as a business, violence as a service, and chaos as a product. Any corporate master would take the position, like Prince did in front of Congress Tuesday, that his people are perfect, his conduct perfect.
Exposed deceit or corruption at most companies would lead to its own downfall, or if it’s a monster like Enron, it could conceivably flutter Wall Street for a few days. But the conduct of companies like Blackwater directly impact US strategic interests.
The negative blowback of Haditha and Abu Ghraib are clearly recognized, but the violently aggressive tactics of the security convoys in Iraq could arguably be determined a more significant contributor to the gradual loss of hearts and minds of the Iraqi public.
While the US government stresses the separateness of contractors, Westerners working as part of the war effort represent a monolithic entity to the Iraqis, and their hatred and fear of the hard-rolling security convoys has led to a general degradation in confidence in the goodness of their country's occupiers.
The obvious polarization of politicians addressing Prince during the hearing indicates that Republicans are willing to bless the use of lethal force by a private individual against the people they are trying to pacify, while Democrats have yet to quite capture what it is about the industry that makes people so nervous.
I say again: Go to Iraq. Talk to the people. Drive in an unmarked car. When an armed convoy pushes you off the road with guns drawn, you’ll understand the naked fear that Blackwater sells.