Gen. Raymond Odierno, then the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, wrote to Ali’s mother, “In the face of your family’s own personal tragedy, your act of kindness and compassion for grieving American families is truly remarkable.”
Until Tuesday, the American system worked to give Ali’s family a modicum of justice. Blackwater settled with the family. The guards were prosecuted criminally. The process was torturous, with several roadblocks, but powerful figures in the United States were determined to see it through. After a judge dismissed the charges on procedural grounds, Vice President Joe Biden promised, in a 2010 news conference in Baghdad, that there would be an appeal. “The United States is determined, determined to hold accountable anyone who commits crimes against the Iraqi people,” he said.
Eventually three of the Blackwater guards, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard, were convicted of voluntary manslaughter and other charges. A fourth, Nicholas Slatten, was convicted of murder and last year sentenced to life in prison. Kinani moved to America and became a citizen, though he was back in Iraq when the BBC reached him on Wednesday. Until just days ago, he’d felt that the legal system in the United States had been “very fair with me,” he said.
Then came Tuesday’s pardon spree, which included the Blackwater killers along with some Russiagate felons, corrupt ex-congressmen and others. It was perhaps not surprising that the president acted to free the mercenaries; Trump’s enthusiasm for war crimes is well known, and last year he pardoned three men accused or convicted of them. Because of Biden’s words in 2010, some conservatives called the perpetrators of the Nisour Square massacre the “Biden four,” giving Trump an extra incentive to let them go. Erik Prince, who founded Blackwater, is a close Trump ally and the brother of his education secretary, Betsy DeVos.
Neither the predictability of these pardons, however, nor our dulled capacity for shock, lessens their grotesqueness. The last days of Trump’s reign have been an orgy of impunity, as he hands out indulgences like party favors and rubs America’s face in his power to put his supporters beyond ordinary law. On Wednesday, Trump pardoned even more cronies, including, most egregiously, his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, a likely reward for Manafort’s help undermining Robert Mueller’s investigation. But even in this low moment, the pardons of the Blackwater killers stand out for their depravity.