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Much to apologize for, then and now

The sequence of events that led to Wounded Knee Massacre is familiar
enough, in its apocalyptic atrocity - the harbinger of so many mass murders
in the century that followed - to need for full repetition here.

The words of one General E.D. Scott right after the massacre are less
familiar. But as Americans begin a new year, we find ourselves in a war
that forces us to consider his written statement. Here it is in all its
soul-destroying horror:

"There is nothing to conceal or apologize for in the Wounded Knee Battle -
beyond the killing of a wounded buck by a hysterical recruit. The firing
was begun by the Indians and continued until they stopped - with the one
exception noted above.

"That women and children were casualties was unfortunate but unavoidable,
and most must have been [killed] from Indian bullets ... The Indians at
Wounded Knee brought their own destruction as surely as any people ever
did. Their attack on the troops was as treacherous as any in the history of
Indian warfare, and that they were under a strange religious hallucination
is only an explanation not an excuse."

These words have a ring of military excuse-making that has become familiar
through repetition in the century-plus since. But they've never sat well
with Americans, not even at the time. The newspaper writers that made the
Indian wars of the 19th century the early film scripts of the 20th became
unusually sympathetic over Wounded Knee, and the snowy killing field with
its haunting name is now hallowed ground the whole world over.

But that doesn't mean our military is any less at one with General Scott
than it was in 1890. Why do his words, or words like his, not bother us
today? On the basis of explanations that have proved false time after time,
America has launched and prosecuted a war of aggression that finds little
defense in the world community.

We insist Iraqis under a cruel dictator brought their own destruction upon
them, just as surely as those Indians at Wounded Knee. Yet like General
Scott, we offer no evidence of that beyond their "otherness" and our
self-justifications. This is of a piece with the idea that "Operation
Plymouth Rock" in Fallujah represents freedom and democracy. It represents
one more insensitive effort to market a misjudged war.

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Our raw, untrained, sometimes hysterical recruits have killed many wounded
"terrorists" at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere; yet we apply that word
indiscriminately to many people we happen to kill; likewise an Indian
warrior, wounded no doubt in the protection of women and children, was okay
to kill as long as he was a "buck" and not a human being.

We also manage to point out that many of the Iraqi citizens dead in the
war, women and children among them, are killed by their own suicide bombers
- never mind that Iraq wasn't a hotbed for that problem, not by any means,
until the occupying forces showed up. Now they are coming out of the

We still don't know how many Iraqi women and children have been killed in
the fighting, though we certainly do consider these casualties "unfortunate
but unavoidable."

As for "strange religious hallucination" ... here the going is complicated.
It is true that in desperation, with every last one of their traditional
stays under sustained assault, the Teton people who perished at Wounded
Knee had embraced a religious practice without precedent in their past. One
might call the Ghost Dance a hallucinatory experience, or one might simply
call it the desperate consolation of people who bore their losses as well
as anyone would have in their circumstances. The point here is that many
Arabs feel themselves to be in similar circumstances of dispossession and
betrayal. We don't understand their desperation any better beforehand than
we did at Wounded Knee.

For that matter, our own president's religious affirmation appears to be
more hallucinatory every day. Once decisions are publicly made in the name
of God, correcting them is tantamount to disavowing the will of God.
Christianity has forceful things to say about false prophets, but all that
we leave to the almighty.

Here and now though, as human beings with more feeling for others than our
military spokesmen give us credit for, we can begin to insist that the war
establishment stop scripting our reaction to government terror.

Rebecca Adamson is the president of First Nations Development Institute and
a columnist for Indian Country Today.