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The US soldier who slew 17 Afghan villagers and the French civilian who killed seven French citizens came from very different backgrounds but they had one thing in common. They were men whose lives were soured by personal failure and whose fates were determined by Western intervention in the Muslim world.
The soldier, Robert Bales, went on a rampage on March 11 in two Afghan villages near the military base where he was posted, killing nine children and eight adults, three of them women. Eleven victims were members of one family.
Bales, 38, was born and raised in a small town in the mid-western state of Ohio. He studied economics and business at Ohio State University but did not graduate. In 1996 he began selling community bank stocks, working in five firms over five years.
While at the third of these firms, he was sued by an Ohio couple for swindling them out of $600,000 from their retirement fund. He was employed by two more firms before setting up his own firm in 1999 with a brother and a friend. After this firm collapsed in 2001, he joined the military. In 2003, the Ohio couple won a settlement of $1.3 million for fraud. It has never been paid.
Bales could be a violent man. He was prosecuted in 2002 for assaulting a security guard at a casino and in 2008 he fought with another man in a bowling alley. But charges were dismissed once he attended anger management courses and paid fines.
In October 2006 Bales and his wife, whom he married in 2005, borrowed more than $500,000 on two houses, one where they lived and the other rented. In 2008, the housing market collapsed, leaving them unable to meet high mortgage and other payments on properties with falling values. His salary as a master sergeant was only $60,000 a year. In a bid to boost his earnings, Bales applied for promotion which was denied in spite of his years in the military. This suggests that his superiors decided he was at his maximum rank.
He served three tours of duty in Iraq, where he received a head wound in an accident and lost part of a foot due to medical mistakes. Although he was told he would not be sent abroad again, he was dispatched to Afghanistan.
When Bales returned to his Afghan base after his shooting spree, he told fellow soldiers that he had killed some Afghan men, in a bid to suggest he had a legitimate reason for sneaking out in the middle of the night of a kill-mission. It may be significant or not that four soldiers from the same base in the state of Washington deliberately slew three Afghans in 2010.
Bales was whisked out of Afghanistan to Kuwait and then to the US where he is set to stand trial in a US military court. Initial investigations conducted by army prosecutors have led them to believe the killings were premeditated and that he was fully aware of what he was doing. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.
Bales’ defence counsel argues there is no forensic evidence to convict him and is expected to register a plea of “diminished responsibility” due to the head injury he received in Iraq and to trauma over the injury received by a fellow soldier.
During the week before his rampage, a roadside bomb near the base had blown up under a vehicle and one soldier lost a leg. An Afghan elder from the area said that US troops had threatened retaliation. While Afghan villagers living in this area regard Bales as a “terrorist” among “terrorists” who enter their homes at night in search of Taliban, intimidate entire families, and occasionally kill, the word “terrorist” has not been used in accounts of Bales’ actions in the US press.
Some legal analysts argue that he might even “walk” free of the charges, as have a number of US soldiers known to have killed Iraqi civilians during the US occupation of that country.
The civilian, a French citizen of Algerian origin, Muhammad Merah, 23, killed three French soldiers, two of Arab descent, in the town of Montauban and a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school in the city of Toulouse.
Merah, from a broken family, failed at school, secured occasional employment as an auto mechanic and became a petty criminal who spent much of his youth in and out of police courts where he was sentenced 15 times for theft and violent behaviour. Christian Etelin, the lawyer who often defended him, told a French news channel that he may have been radicalised while serving an 18-month term in a Toulouse prison.
French media report that he went to Afghanistan in 2007 when he was 18. He was allegedly caught in possession of bomb-making material and sentenced to three years in Kandahar prison. In 2008, he was among 100 to escape when the Taliban mounted an assault on the prison.
This account conflicts with others which put him in Afghanistan in 2009, where, after a few days, he was stopped by the Afghan army, handed over to the US military and deported to France.
Two years ago he applied to join the French Foreign Legion or the French army but was rejected.
He visited this region in 2010, touring Turkey, Lebanon and was briefly detained by Israeli police in occupied Jerusalem for carrying a knife. He went to the Pakistan-Afghan border area in August 2011 and was sent back to France that October, ill with Hepatitis A. During that time he claimed he had received training from Al Qaeda.
As the police surrounded his home, he told French television that he had staged his attacks to protest the French law banning the veil for Muslim women, France’s participation in the Nato force in Afghanistan, and in revenge for the slaying of Palestinian children by Israel. He said he had filmed his attacks with a video camera and “intended to put the videos online.”
Merah was killed by a security force sniper while jumping from his balcony on Thursday. He was firing at police as they stormed into his flat after a 32-hour siege of his apartment.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is running for a second term, adopted a vigorous “anti-terrorist” line. He said anyone who taps into “websites which support terrorism or call for hate or violence will be punished by the law” and pledged to prosecute anyone who travels abroad “for the purposes of indoctrination in terrorist ideology.”
Bales and Merah were opposite sides of the same coin: Bales, a soldier engaged in Western imperial outreach in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Merah, an angry young French Muslim who lashed out at individuals who symbolised Western imperial ventures in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan.
THE AUTHOR A WELL-RESPECTED OBSERVER OF MIDDLE EAST AFFAIRS, HAS THREE BOOKS ON THE ARAB-ISRAELI CONFLICT.