This is what it comes to when Americans become disengaged with their democracy: Private security guards kill 14 Iraqis without cause and apparently without fear of retribution. Curing the illness may take years; treating the symptom needs to begin with punishing those involved and toughening and clarifying the law on when such contractors can use deadly force.
The episode occurred two months ago in Baghdad. Blackwater security guards shot and killed 17 Iraqi civilians. An FBI investigation has concluded that at least 14 of those killings were unjustified, the New York Times reported Wednesday. At least five guards opened fire, some of them with automatic weapons. "Turret gunner No. 3," as yet unidentified, was responsible for several deaths, investigators say.
Blackwater is operating in a gray area of the law. While the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act covers contractors working for the Defense Department, some experts, including leaders in the State Department -- for which Blackwater works -- say it does not apply to companies that work for other departments.
But what are Americans and the world supposed to make of that? Is it national policy that the U.S. government can hire cowboys and send them into war zones with a license to kill anyone, anytime, anyplace? It doesn't seem the best way to convince Iraqis that they need democracy.
Officials of Blackwater, to their credit -- or because they have no other choice -- say they support "stringent accountability" for any wrongdoing, and that certainly has to be the standard. But while accountability obviously includes those who pulled the triggers, investigators also need to know about the training and instructions given to security guards from higher-placed officials of the company.
It's fair to keep in mind that Iraq is a fearsomely dangerous place right now. Blackwater has its defenders, especially among those it has been hired to protect in Iraq. Improvised explosive devices take lives daily and no one feels safe. It's not a surprise that men would be on hair triggers.
But it's not an excuse for mass murder. Investigators need to pursue this case and file whatever charges are called for and possible. This country is already known to sanction torture; it is urgent to send a message of intolerance for those who kill civilians without cause.
But isn't it sad we have come to the place where we have to make sure that people understand that?