Last month, the Pentagon released a summary of its investigation into a 2019 airstrike on Baghouz, Syria, that killed dozens of women, men, and children. The Pentagon inquiry concluded that the military personnel involved did not violate the laws of war and that most of the people killed were probably ISIS combatants, contrary to independent reporting from multiple sources, including the New York Times investigation that prompted the Pentagon’s review that confirmed the predominantly civilian character of the population. No disciplinary action was recommended.
These conclusions appeared to stem from a US international legal interpretation that puts the burden of proof on civilians and is at odds with the global consensus. The vast majority of states recognize Article 50(1) of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions as customary international law, which affirms that in case of doubt, the person shall be considered a civilian. However, the US Law of War Manual does not recognize this rule as binding. This stance had clear implications for Baghouz: The Defense Department’s assessment reportedly classified all adult men as combatants whether they carried weapons or not. And because women and children associated with ISIS “sometimes took up arms,” the Pentagon described the status of the women and children injured and killed as unclear, rather than assuming innocence. Further, little transparency exists as to how the Pentagon even reached its determination of combatant and civilian status.
This legal position didn’t emerge in a vacuum. While far from the only factor influencing how the United States responds to civilian harm, the entrenched culture of victim-blaming in the United States has enabled its security forces, both at home and abroad, to evade responsibility for harming civilians. This reinforces a culture of impunity that has placed genuine accountability further out of reach for victims, survivors, their families, and their communities.
BLAMING THE VICTIMS IN BAGHOUZ
Victim blaming occurs when the victim of a crime or other wrongful act is held wholly or partly responsible for the harm they experienced. Psychologist William Ryan coined the phrase in his 1971 book, “Blaming the Victim,” which highlighted how the wealthy, white power structure in the United States blamed poor Black people for their poverty and the discrimination they experienced. Feminists, too, have long utilized the language of victim-blaming to draw attention to how victims and survivors of sexual and domestic violence are regularly held responsible for their abuse.
The entrenched culture of victim-blaming in the United States has enabled its security forces, both at home and abroad, to evade responsibility for harming civilians.
The tendency to blame the victim also appears when the US military harms civilians abroad. In Baghouz, the presence of these men, women, and children in what represented ISIS’s final holdout likely led Pentagon targeters and investigators alike to assume that even if the people injured and killed were not ISIS combatants, they were supporters of an armed group responsible for numerous atrocities and therefore deserved their fate. This assumption fell far, far below what international law requires. Furthermore, a broader understanding of the context of ISIS’s self-proclaimed caliphate calls this assumption into question. Forced marriages of girls and women to fighters frequently occurred within ISIS-controlled areas, and many women, boys, and girls were brought to ISIS territory by family members under coercive circumstances. We also cannot know whether the crowd included Yazidi women and girls captured in Sinjar, Iraq, and sold as sex slaves to ISIS fighters.
Even if combatants of various ages and genders were among the crowd in Baghouz, the civilians present likely did not have a choice as to whether combatants were sheltered in their midst. And even if they did, international humanitarian law still requires parties to a conflict to distinguish between civilians and combatants and only direct attacks against combatants. In addition, the presence of individual combatants among civilians does not render the civilians a target or erase the civilian character of a given population.
VICTIM-BLAMING AT HOME
Inside the United States, victims of law enforcement abuse are frequently blamed for the harm they experience. A common narrative grounded in racist, classist beliefs about the inherent criminality of poor Black and Brown people posits that victims must have been doing — or were about to do — something wrong, or else law enforcement would have had no reason to injure or kill them. Aspects of victims’ personal lives, past criminal records, and health histories further fuel blame. For example, in the wake of Michael Brown’s shooting by police officer Darren Wilson in 2014, a New York Times article referred to the unarmed Black teenager as “no angel” and highlighted his shoplifting and problems with substance use along with allusions to elevated crime rates in Brown’s hometown of Ferguson, Missouri.
Coroners and medical examiners around the United States also routinely identify the cause of in-custody deaths of people experiencing mental health crises or drug addiction as “excited delirium syndrome” or rush to claim an individual’s preexisting health conditions caused the death despite clear evidence that law enforcement had beaten, tased, or asphyxiated the person. Yet, neither the International Classification of Diseases, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (known as the DSM-5), the American Medical Association, nor the American Psychiatric Association recognizes “excited delirium syndrome” as a diagnosis. The majority of people that police claim suffer from the condition are Black or Latinx. During the trial of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for his murder of George Floyd, the defense cited both “excited delirium” and sickle cell trait, in addition to Floyd’s drug use and other health problems, as the reasons he had died, rather than Chauvin’s eight-and-a-half minute chokehold.
Like in Baghouz, the victims’ location matters as well. US Park Police justified heavy-handed tactics that included beatings, tear gas, rubber bullets, and flash-bang grenades against an overwhelmingly peaceful crowd of racial justice protesters in Lafayette Square in 2020 because of a small number of individuals had allegedly thrown projectiles at police. President Donald Trump would later pass through the cleared square so he could reach nearby St. John’s church for a photo opportunity.
BREAKING THE CYCLE
Victim-blaming contributes to a widespread culture of impunity for security force violence in the United States. Suppose civilians harmed abroad in a drone strike, or targeted at home by law enforcement, can be painted as terrorists or criminals who threatened law-abiding Americans. In that case, the actions of security forces are seen as justified. Of course, with no apparent wrongdoing, there is no need for accountability: Officials will not feel obliged to provide accountability, and the general US public will not advocate for it.
This logic of impunity undermines existing laws designed to shield people from the might of the State. International humanitarian law protects all civilians not directly participating in hostilities, including “enemy” civilians, from direct and disproportionate attack. In addition, the US constitution provides a right to due process that is routinely denied when law enforcement acts as judge, jury, and executioner.
Impunity, in turn, feeds victim-blaming. The absence of accountability for prior abuses enables security actors, politicians, and US society to blame victims more easily for the harm they experienced. After all, if accountability for similar incidents has been unnecessary before because no wrongdoing had occurred, why would it be necessary now? What makes the victims of one incident different from past victims with similar profiles? This cycle of impunity and blame places accountability even further out of reach of the people who have been injured by and lost loved ones to US security force violence.
Blaming the victim allows us to believe we live in a just world. It allows us to believe we will be safe if we don’t do anything that causes security forces to classify us as a threat and hurt or kill us. Breaking the cultural habit of victim-blaming will, therefore, not come easily. However, continuing to blame the victim will further cement security force impunity and jeopardize accountable governance and the rule of law, key pillars of democracy. Ending impunity and demanding democratic governance requires American society to question gendered and racialized narratives of criminality — and who is labeled as a “combatant” — that places some lives above others. It requires us to advocate for transparent, comprehensive investigations into incidents of harm, both at home and abroad, followed by comprehensive accountability measures that adequately center the needs and priorities of the civilian women, men, and children who for too long have borne the costs of unaccountable violence.
Rosie Berman is the Project Manager for Accountable Security at Center for Civilians in Conflict. The project, a joint initiative with the Stimson Center, seeks to advance accountable security policies and practices in both the domestic and foreign policy of the United States as a key component of democratic legitimacy. Rosie also worked for the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, a US congressional commission dedicated to promoting, defending, and advocating for international human rights, where she built advocacy coalitions to release prisoners of conscience around the world.