Las Vegas Sun

September 21, 2019

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Sun editorial:

Abuse of pardon power damages trust in U.S. justice at home, abroad

Edward Gallagher is facing accusations of savage crimes, including that he shot a school-aged girl from a sniper’s roost and killed a 15-year-old suspected combatant by stabbing him the neck and then posed for a photo with the body.

Whether that’s true hasn’t been determined. Gallagher, a Navy special operations chief who served in Afghanistan, was accused of the crimes by several of his subordinates and is facing a court-martial May 28.

So like any American accused of wrongdoing, Gallagher deserves to defend himself before a fair and impartial court.

But he in no way deserves a presidential pardon, as reportedly is being considered by President Donald Trump.

If Trump is indeed planning to pardon Gallagher and others who have actually been convicted of war crimes, as The New York Times reported last week, it’s a thoroughly repellent idea.

For the millions of Americans who have served honorably — who have fought and died to uphold our national values of protecting the innocent and restoring peace — it’s a slap in the face. For those on active duty, it would place them at greater risk.

At issue is our nation’s commitment to abiding by the rule of law, including laws involving war. And yes, there are such laws; the Defense Department maintains an extensive list of them. They’re essentially designed to shield noncombatants and civilians from harm, provide some protections for prisoners of war and ensure that military forces are used in a disciplined way. Ideally, these rules of engagement are designed to limit the spillover of hostilities and bring them to an end as efficiently as possible.

Trump’s pardons would send a distressing message that America is no longer committed to those laws — that its forces are free to prey on civilians and prisoners of war without fear of retribution.

Offering a “get out of jail free” card for atrocities also would greatly hinder commanders from maintaining discipline, which could have horrible consequences. Risks would be heightened not only for noncombatants but current U.S. service members through retaliatory acts by victims of war crimes and the inflaming of international opinion against the U.S.

In addition, the pardons would damage our support among allies who understand that civilian populations are far more likely to support forces they see as protectors and liberators from tyranny than those they perceive as conquerors and thugs.

Another reprehensible aspect to the situation is that Trump apparently wants to make a political show of it. The Times reported that he asked for paperwork to be expedited so he could announce the pardons by Memorial Day, no doubt with an eye toward drawing applause from Fox News and its conservative audience, which has turned the issue into a cause.

In other words, it’s chest-thumping by a weak man desperately trying to look tough.

But there’s nothing strong about excusing such behavior as shooting indiscriminately into crowds of civilians and urinating on combatants’ corpses, both accusations that have been lodged against individuals who are reportedly on Trump’s pardon list. One of those individuals, former Blackwater security contractor Nicholas Slatten, has been convicted twice of initiating the 2007 massacre of civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square.

Strength is aiding the oppressed, defending the vulnerable and subduing aggressors. It’s not the jingoism that Trump reportedly is considering.

Terrible things happen in combat zones, including that soldiers are at times unfairly accused of committing war crimes. But whenever atrocities are reported, it’s a matter for the uniform code of military justice, not the political code of Donald Trump.