|Bobby Bales, US Army sergeant|
One major part of media reaction to the Kandahar Massacre has been to explore the perpetrator's all-American background. We learn Robert Bales is suburbia-bred, former high school footballer, a family man, a patriot, even a local hero. He may have 17 charges of murder to his name, but the media can not help themselves but humanize Robert Bales, American child killer.
It points to the US media's fascination with an apparent contradiction — how could 'one of us' ever be a war criminal? It isn't that the media is trying to garner sympathy for Bales, or outweigh some of the bad with the good as some have suggested. Instead the media is echoing the mystification of America as to how one of its own could behave like a foreign psycho. If Bales' former Cincinnati neighbors reacted to news of the massacre with disbelief it could have been perpetrated by their 'Bobby', the media have been similarly mystified as to how come an American could ever commit an equivalent of throwing babies out of incubators.
One answer that is emerging and threatening to become the definite one is the narrative of Bales as an all-American on the outside, but in fact an outsider to American society. Some reports are determined to paint Bales in this manner. We learn that he may have been a family man, but he had also assaulted a woman! He may have been a patriot, but he also defrauded pensioners! He may have been a four-tour combat veteran, but he was trying to keep from being deployed again on the account of a possibly minor injury! He may have been on a high school football team, but he was not its biggest star! (eek!) He was strange from the start, and only seemingly fit in, but beneath the veneer of all-American normalcy lay a black sheep (!), is the message.
True or not, none of this is very relevant. What if indeed Bales was flawed? He was nonetheless good enough for the American government to pay him tens of thousands of dollars for his service per annum. Good enough to put on a US Army uniform and make sergeant. Good enough to earn a dozen US Army medals, ribbons and badges. Good enough to be, we can safely assume, on many occasions approached by strangers eager to thank him 'for his service'. Good enough to receive rounds of applause on planes, as American soldiers often are, and be thrown parades. Good enough to be handed a rifle and shipped to Afghanistan to wield power over ordinary people there leading peaceful, civilian lives. Denial that Bales fit in the American mainstream is critically undermined by the fact many of the same people who would now disown him as a renegade, would have just weeks ago swooned over him as an American military man.
Bales is undeniably an all-American then, yet the other day The New York Times had to refer to him as a "war crime suspect". When you consider that a "war crimes suspect" (always plural) is a term normally reserved for Serbs, Bosnian Croats and Africans, a term ubiquitous in the coverage of the Balkans, but never ever applied to Americans, you can understand the mystification the massacre has posed to America. It is a produce of an incredible level of willful self-delusion.