Are People Who Shoot Down Passenger Planes ‘War Criminals’–or ‘Hard to Fault’?

Downed Malaysian airlines (Dmitry Lovetsky/AP)

The New York Times depicts the shootdown of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 (photo copyright Dmitry Lovetsky/AP).

The New York Times (7/22/14) didn’t mince words in its editorial on the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17: “Whoever unleashed a lethal missile not knowing how to distinguish between a military and a civilian plane is not only irresponsible and stupid, but a war criminal.”

That seems pretty unequivocal. But if you look at the New York Times‘ archives, you’ll see that some people who unleash lethal missiles without knowing how to distinguish between military and civilian planes aren’t irresponsible, stupid or criminal–they’re just doing what they had to do. Of course, if you’re going to shoot down a civilian jetliner–from the Times‘ point of view–it helps to be working for the US Navy when you do it.

When the Navy shot down Iran Air 655 over the Persian Gulf in 1988, killing all 290 people on board (Extra!, 7/88), the Times editorial (7/5/88) insisted that “while horrifying, it was nonetheless an accident. On present evidence, it’s hard to see what the Navy could have done to avoid it.”

Far from denouncing Will Rogers, the captain of the USS Vincennes that brought down the passenger plane, as “irresponsible and stupid,” let alone a “war criminal,” the Times invited readers to “put yourself in Captain Rogers’ shoes.” He “had little choice,” the paper assured. “It is hard to fault his decision to attack the suspect plane.”

USS Vincennes (Wikimedia)

The USS Vincennes launching the kind of missile that it used to kill 290 people aboard Iran Air 655.

Bear in mind that this is not one of the ragtag separatists the Times points to in the Malaysia Airlines case–so unsophisticated that the Times suspects they must have had outside help to learn how to use a surface-to-air missile. Rogers was a high-ranking professional military officer who had at his command the finest surveillance and computer technology that the Cold War produced. Still, it’s his “not knowing how to distinguish between a military and a civilian plane,” not the separatists’, that the Times finds easy to empathize with.

Has the Times just grown less forgiving over the years? Well, not really. A few years before the downing of Flight 655, the Times published a blistering editorial (9/2/83) about the Soviet Union shooting down Korean Airlines Flight 007. “There is no conceivable excuse for any nation shooting down a harmless airliner,” it began.

Yet the Times was able to conceive of excuses when a certain other nation shot down a harmless airliner. Perhaps the editorialists don’t know what the word “conceivable” means.

The Times was dismissive of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to deflect responsibility about Flight 17. “Mr. Putin also sought to transfer blame to Ukraine, saying the tragedy would not have happened if Kiev had maintained a cease-fire. And he sanctimoniously declared ‘no one has the right to use this tragedy to pursue their own political goals.'”

But Putin’s effort to blame an enemy state for its continued belligerence sounds a lot like the New York Times in 1988. The paper first said that  if Navy rules that allow its ships to shoot first can’t be “prudently altered,” then “the onus for avoiding such accidents in the future rests on civilian aircraft.” (One tip offered by the Times: “avoid combat zones,” a suggestion not offered by the paper in the wake of the Malaysia Airlines disaster.)

But the best prospect for avoiding similar tragedies in the future would be “Teheran’s willingness to bring an end to its futile eight-year war with Iraq.” Note that that war began when Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980–and that the Vincennes was in the Persian Gulf to defend Iraqi oil shipments as part of the United States’ intervention on Hussein’s side. One might almost say that the Times was using the Iran Air tragedy to pursue the United States’ political ends.

You don’t have to go back to 1988 to find examples of the Times‘ hypocrisy, though. For the editorialists, Putin pointing to Ukraine’s failure to maintain a ceasefire was a cynical effort to “transfer blame.” The New York Times editorial (7/18/14) after four children were killed by Israeli bombing on a beach in Gaza closed with this:

Without a political strategy, another cease-fire may be the most anyone can hope for at this moment. But Hamas leaders have rejected one proposed in the past week by Egypt and are demanding better terms. Meanwhile, Palestinian civilians suffer the consequences.


About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.