“I want you to feel that Iraqi life is precious,” he told them.

Well, that’s not going to happen. Here, at the level of basic humanity, the occupation of Iraq — indeed, the entire Bush administration — begins to unravel. We can see this with excruciating clarity as requests for an apology waylay the smooth, legal cover-up (one in a series) of the latest spasm of panic and target practice by Blackwater thugs, which left 17 Iraqis dead in Baghdad’s Nisoor Square in September.

Even the embedded media, so valiant in their attempts to cast the American presence as well-intentioned and, you know, doing the best it can (under the circumstances), couldn’t help but convey, as they reported on the investigation of the Blackwater killings, the humanity of the grieving Iraqis. In so doing, the coverage hinted, unavoidably, at the truth about the occupation: that we are, to put it mildly, the bad guys, that what we’re doing there is barbaric, racist, insane.

Nothing drives this truth home quite as blatantly as America’s mercenary army in Iraq, which is immune from prosecution under either Iraqi or U.S. law. And the baddest of the American privateers are the Blackwater guys, about whom a rival security contractor told Fortune magazine: “They always shoot first and ask questions later. When we’re out in country, we often fear Blackwater more than the Iraqis.”

Back on Sept. 16, Blackwater personnel — not for the first time — convulsed the people to whom we are bringing democracy with an unprovoked shooting rampage. While providing security for a U.S. embassy mission, they opened fire in the crowded square. By the time they stopped, 17 Iraqis lay dead and another several dozen were wounded. These were just ordinary people going about their lives. No one had fired at the security team first, witnesses insisted. But apparently something spooked them, and when you’re not accountable under any law, why take chances?

The incident, or massacre, as the Iraqis call it, was outrageous enough to require some sort of investigation by the occupying authorities — albeit a meaningless one, if you measure the seriousness of an investigation by the potential consequences that would flow from it. In the middle of it, the State Department renewed Blackwater’s contract in Iraq, indicating that, whatever the result, nothing was at stake.

The U.S. also tried to buy its way out of this sticky wicket by offering money to the injured and the relatives of the dead. For some reason, the Iraqis refused their envelopes full of cash; they wanted apologies.

It’s hard for me to read anything about Iraq in the mainstream media without being tormented by the way it’s written: especially by what I would call the requisite spin and omission. Thus every travesty of our occupation, every hellish mishap, every stealth brutality that somehow finds its way into the spotlight, is presented to us context-free. This is the media’s ongoing gift to George Bush (and John McCain).

The Los Angeles Times, for instance, in its May 4 story about the investigation of the Nisoor Square massacre, doesn’t trouble us with references to other Blackwater shooting sprees; much less the larger context of invasion, mission accomplished, and five years of occupation in which more than a million Iraqis have died; much less the ample testimony of returning vets that “the hadjis” of occupied Iraq are routinely belittled, mistreated and dehumanized. If it had done so, the massacre in question would suddenly be a piece in a far larger picture that would make almost all Americans recoil in shame.

The story does, however, report the awkwardness of Iraqis’ turning down cash settlements as a reflection of “the deep disconnect between the American legal process and the traditional culture of Iraq, between the courtroom and the tribal diwan.”

Ah, so that’s it. Here in America, when someone is killed by a burly goon wearing wraparound sunglasses as he walks through a public square, our cut-and-dried system of justice spits out a cash payment to the parents and they go away happy. In primitive Iraq, however, “The perpetrator admits responsibility, commiserates with the victim, pays medical expenses and other compensation, all over glasses of tea in a tribal tent.”

In other words, as a U.S. diplomat is quoted as saying, “Our system is so different from theirs.”

But the story in spite of itself refutes this explanation and cuts through to the human core that knows neither national nor cultural bourdaries by quoting the Iraqis themselves, who are the only ones speaking in plain language: “Let them apologize by saying those were innocent people,” said the father of one of the dead. “Then we will be ready for understanding.”

At some point the wall of denial and lies that is the U.S. occupation of Iraq will give way and world — including American — outrage will demand its cessation. I believe the collapse will begin with an apology, which is why that’s the one thing Iraq’s grieving survivors cannot have.

Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at or visit his Web site at © 2008 Tribune Media Services, Inc.