COLUMN: Nicholas Slatten and other military contractors should be held accountable for massacre in Iraq

United States District Judge Royce Lamberth declared a mistrial Wednesday in the second trial of Nicholas Slatten over shootings he carried out along with three other employees of the private military contractor Blackwater, now renamed Academi, in Iraq in 2007.

Slatten and other military contractors should be held accountable for this massacre.

In 2015, Slatten and the three other Blackwater employees were prosecuted for the shootings of unarmed Iraqi civilians that left 14 dead and at least 17 injured. The shootings are known as the Nisour Square massacre. 

Slatten’s colleagues received charges of manslaughter and attempted manslaughter, while Slatten was charged with murder, because he is accused of firing the first shots. Last August, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit overturned Slatten’s murder conviction on the grounds that he should have received a separate trial.

Now that Slatten’s second trial has been declared a mistrial, his fate is uncertain. But the most crucial aspect of the case is not what will happen to Slatten as an individual. The failure to prosecute Slatten sends a message that private military contractors will never be held accountable for similar atrocities.

Private military contractors shouldn’t even exist in the first place. For military contractors, war is a business. They rely on perpetuating a state of permanent warfare to turn a profit.

This is more than clear from the recent actions of Blackwater founder Erik Prince, the brother of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Prince has used his access to the Trump administration to promote Academi’s services.

Last year, for example, Prince approached Trump and other administration officials about a proposal to send 5,500 private contractors in Afghanistan on a long-term basis. The mission would be managed by what Prince called a “viceroy,” using a dated term that once referred to colonial officials that governed colonies on behalf of the empires that possessed them.

But since contractors do exist, the court system should hold them accountable for following international law and protecting civilians.

Slatter and his colleagues fired on a crowd of unarmed civilians. Even the FBI, investigating on behalf of the government that hired Blackwater, found the 14 deaths to be unjustified. 

Imagine if four men were to fire on a crowd of innocent people in the United States, in broad daylight, with dozens of witnesses, killing 14 people. We would never let them walk free.

If Slatter’s victims had been Americans, this would be an open-and-shut case of murder. Slatter is getting off easy for two reasons. One is that his victims were Iraqis, not Americans or other Westerners. The other is that private military contractors are associated with the military, and the U.S. has a culture of venerating the military and assuming it can do no wrong.

Neither of these things make the heinous killings carried out by Blackwater in Nisour Square any less important. We should be holding military contractors accountable for the actions they carry out on our government’s behalf.

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