The youngest victim of the 2007 massacre in Baghdad’s Nisour Square, committed by Blackwater mercenaries whom Donald Trump pardoned Tuesday, was a 9-year-old boy named Ali Kinani.
In a 2010 documentary, journalist Jeremy Scahill interviewed Ali’s father, Mohammed Hafedh Abdulrazzaq Kinani, who spoke of how he’d welcomed the U.S. invasion of his country and brought along his son to greet U.S. soldiers. “The first day the American Army entered Baghdad, I handed out juice and candy in the street to celebrate our liberation from Saddam,” said Kinani. Scahill called him “that rare personification of the neoconservative narrative about the U.S. invasion.”
On Sept. 16, 2007, Kinani was driving toward the traffic circle at Nisour Square with his sister, her children and Ali when guards from Blackwater opened fire with machine guns and grenade launchers. (Blackwater, a private security company, has since changed its name to Academi.) Ali was one of 17 people killed. According to The Washington Post, a U.S. military report found that there had been no provocation. “It was obviously excessive, it was obviously wrong,” a military official told the paper. An FBI investigator reportedly described it as the “My Lai Massacre of Iraq.”
The U.S. Embassy offered Ali’s family a $10,000 condolence payment. After initially refusing the money, they donated half of it to the family of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq. “They wanted to do that to honor and acknowledge the sacrifice of those men and women that had come over to Iraq to fight for them and free them from Saddam Hussein,” Paul Dickinson, a lawyer who represented Kinani and others in a civil suit against Blackwater, told me.
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 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 chair 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.
They also exemplify a core tenet of Trumpism: absolute license for some and absolute submission for others. Nowhere is that truer than in Trump’s conception of the relationship between U.S. soldiers and paramilitaries and foreigners.
Last year, Trump intervened to reverse a demotion of Eddie Gallagher, a Navy SEAL special operations chief who took a celebratory photo with a corpse and was described by men under his command as “freaking evil” and “toxic.” But the president didn’t just spare Gallagher. He lionized him, and his movement made him an icon. The New York Times described Gallagher “making appearances at influential conservative gatherings and rubbing elbows with Mr. Trump’s inner circle at Mar-a-Lago.”
You could argue that Trump has simply stripped pretense from the dynamics that always drove the “war on terror.” As Spencer Ackerman wrote in The Daily Beast, “Blackwater fed from the same American logic of occupation — the same impunity — that turned even those Iraqis willing to work for the U.S. into ‘local nationals’ who had to enter dining halls on U.S. military bases through separate doorways.”
But if the approach to Iraq that preceded Trump was infested with hypocrisy, that hypocrisy at least revealed an aspiration to a humane foreign policy. That aspiration did more than flatter the sensibilities of liberals and neoconservatives. It could be leveraged to allow a man like Kinani to make demands of the country that occupied his.
Trump’s pardon, Kinani told the BBC, made him feel as if Ali, who should now be 22, had been killed again. Before, he said, he felt that no one was “above the law.” No more.
“I feel I’m nothing today. I feel I’m nothing. I lost my son, and I feel I’m nothing,” Kinani said. By all indications, the president of the United States agrees.
Michelle Goldberg is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.