Last week Henry Kissinger was expatiating before a Senate committee when he was rudely interrupted. A bunch of females suddenly swarmed around the elder statesman, dangling handcuffs around his head and proclaiming him a war criminal. They were quickly whisked away, of course. Senator John McCain denounced the disruption as “disgraceful, outrageous and despicable.” He called the agitators, members of a quirky peace group called Code Pink, “lowlife scum.”
The next day Code Pink’s leader/founder, Medea Benjamin, raised some objections to the senator’s objections. She pointed to a historic record which, she suggested, would more reasonably attach the “lowlife scum” characterization to Kissinger than to his Code Pink antagonists. Among other examples she cited Kissinger’s dutiful relay of Richard Nixon’s order calling literally for massive indiscriminate slaughter in the bombing of Cambodia: “Anything that flies on anything that moves.” No one was counting, so no one knows just how many innocent Cambodians died in the Nixon-Kissinger bombing campaign, but the victims certainly numbered in the tens of thousands if not the hundreds of thousands.
Benjamin also mentioned Kissinger’s support for the Pinochet dictatorship that arranged for the permanent “disappearance” of over three thousand Chileans after snuffing out that country’s democracy. Tens of thousands more were imprisoned, many of them tortured. (Kissinger had told Pinochet soon after the coup that the United States would “understand” the new regime’s need to take firm measures to restore order. The understanding was mutual.) She also blamed Kissinger for his role, along with President Gerald Ford, in giving a green light to Indonesia’s genocidal dictator, Suharto, to suppress East Timor’s independence movement. That operation took the lives of somewhere around 100,000 East Timorese. Suharto, like Pinochet, met with no objections from the United States.
So, it would seem that Benjamin may have a point. Kissinger, who played a direct or indirect role in the killing of very large numbers of innocent people, enjoys the respect and admiration of his fellow Americans. But she and her fellow agitators, who have killed no one, are lowlife scum for calling attention so flamboyantly to Kissinger’s record.
Is Benjamin being unrealistic or unfair? Kissinger, after all, undoubtedly believed sincerely that he was doing his best to serve the interests of the people of the United States and, indeed, of the world. The US has a responsibility for the maintenance of world order, and that responsibility sometimes involves killing large numbers of innocent people. That’s just the way the world works. But the sincerity defense doesn’t always work that well. It didn’t work for the Japanese warlords who bombed Pearl Harbor after ravaging large swaths of North Asia. It didn’t matter whether they were sincere or not in their belief that they were seeking to bring stability to the West Pacific through a Japan-led co-prosperity sphere. That was what their emperor believed, and who’s to say he was insincere? The emperor got off easy, but dozens of his loyal servants were executed for war crimes by the superpower whose victory in war put an end to Japan’s ambitions.
There is no victorious superpower to hold Henry Kissinger accountable for his real or alleged crimes. We are the only superpower, and Kissinger is our respected elder statesman. That’s just how the world works. Still, I’m glad that there are some people, like the women of Code Pink, who stubbornly refuse to understand that.