Impact of the Media on US Foreign Policy in Darfur

In order to determine what, if any, impact the media had on US foreign policy towards Darfur, I have examined articles published in the New York Times between January 2003 and January 2006 on the topic of Darfur and then crossed reference those with actions taken by the US government. A visual depiction of this analysis can be found in Appendix A. The New York Times being the top print news outlet in the United States provides a good basis for this analysis.

At the height the conflict in Darfur, between April 2003 and April 2005, the New York Times (NYT) published 192 article on the topics, including news reports, editorials, and letters to the editor.[1]Of the articles published by the NYT’s between April 2003 and April 2005, 59.5% were plain news stories about the atrocities in Sudan, the Sudanese government’s reactions, and international response to the atrocities.[2] There were also 15 editorials, 17 letters to the editor, and 3 news stories that urged US government official to intervene and help the Sudanese; as such the “NYT reported in a more US-centered way and promoted American intervention in the incident.”[3] These articles, which focused on urging the US to intervene in the conflict, are the focus of my analysis.

Nicolas Kristof was the primary author of the editors for the NTY on the topic of Darfur. His editorials are written in a very provocative tone, meant to solicit a response from the reader and prompt the reader to take action for his cause. His articles are personalized; in many, he speaks directly to President Bush as if the conversation was just between the two of them.[4] He also constantly invokes the Rwanda narrative and the shame of the United States’ lack of involvement in ending the Rwandan genocide and also shames the United States for their lack of initiative in preventing the escalation of violence in Darfur.[5] The articles also call on the American populations, individuals and elected representatives alike, to put pressure on the Bush administration to act in regards to the crisis in Darfur.[6] The articles are written with a strong sense of purpose and urgency; implicit in their writing is the sense that a failure to respond will result in continued atrocities.

From the analysis of the print media articles in the NYT and the US’ reaction to the crisis in Darfur (see appendix A), the influence of the media on US policy towards Sudan can be isolated into three waves. The first wave is from March to April 2004. The NYT editorials written during this time period draw public attention to the atrocities being committed in Darfur and framed the conflict as genocide.[7] The awareness struck by their articles pushed the issued to be addressed in the United States Senate, where Senator Kennedy, Senator McCain, and a coalition of Senators (Senator Frist and Senator Daschel among them) called the crisis in Darfur genocide and began to lobby for US intervention.[8]

The second wave of influence corresponds with the lull in Senate efforts to influence the Bush administration to take action in Darfur. The last of articles produced by the NYT in June forces Darfur back on the Administration’s agenda.[9]This wave of the media campaign is marked by two events: a bipartisan letter by 51 Senator addressed to Secretary of State Collin Powell calling on the US government to take action in Darfur and the President Bush’s deployment of Powell to the Sudan region to assess the crisis and make a determination regarding the occurrence of genocide.[10]

The third wave of articles by the NYT occurred through July and August 2004, while Powell was in the Sudan region conducting his investigation. From the persistence of these articles, it appears as though there purpose is to keep the spotlight and the pressure on the conflict,[11] while the US Congress passes concurrent resolutions – first in the Senate, then in the House of Representatives –calling the crisis in Darfur genocide and subsequently calling of US action in this regard.[12] The culmination of the media pressure is seen in Powell’s declaration of genocide in Darfur on 9 September 2004, followed by President Bush’s declaration of genocide in Darfur to the United Nations General Assembly on 21 September 2004.[13] In its labeling of Darfur as a genocide the “United States stood virtually along among nations-states and non-governmental organization,”[14] supporting the claim that the US’ determination of genocide was, in large part, due to immense pressure from the media and subsequently the public.

There is one other trend in the NYT’s articles that is worth noting. As the debate in the US Congress over the question of genocide intensified and the resolution were past classifying Darfur as genocide, the rhetoric in the articles shifts – it not longer strongly asserts genocide is taking place, but rather begins to contemplate the technically of the definition of genocide and examines the situation for the point of those (United Nation, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International), who would not classify the conflict as genocide.[15] In this, it becomes evident that the intention of the articles has been achieved: the United States has recognized the crisis in Darfur as genocide; however, implicit in this intention was the belief that the recognition of genocide would force US engagement in the region. As it turns out, this was not the case.

Despite the US’ recognition that the conflict in Darfur is a genocide, both Powell[16] and President Bush[17] downplayed the calls for US intervention, advocating for working with African Union troop and the United Nations rather than deploying Americans to the regions. In doing so, they exercised article VIII of the Genocide Convention that states “any contracting party may call upon the competent organs of the United Nations to take such action under the Charter of the United Nations as they consider appropriate to prevent and suppress acts of genocide.”[18] In essence, the United States was able to declare the crisis genocide while simultaneously absolving itself of any requirement to physically intervene. This stripped away the illusion that a mere declaration of genocide would lead to significant action,[19] and made it clear the genocide is not a “magic word that triggers intervention.”[20]Moreover, it provides evidence to the fact that the Genocide Convention does not have the impetus that many originally thought it to have.[21]This makes the present situation in Darfur all the more frustrating, as while the US has determined it to be genocide, it has done little since. Although the International Criminal Court has issued indictments for Sudanese President Al-Bashir, Al-Bashir remains at large and the crisis in the Darfur region continues.

Through an examination of articles written in the New York Times it has become evident that there is a correlation between print media publication regarding the crisis in Darfur and the US’ subsequent declaration of genocide, suggesting that pressure from the media impacted this debate in the US government. However, this is where the media influence stopped, for while it was able to assist in the having Darfur declared a genocide, it has not be successful in mobilizing action beyond this point, and the topic of Darfur no longer makes the front page of newspapers.

Was then the media able to influence US foreign policy towards Darfur? To a certain extent yes. The media was able to influence the declaration of genocide. However, the flaw lies in the assumption that the declaration of genocide would prompt action. The intended goal was reached, the declaration of genocide was made, but the intended outcome of international action was not attainable. The United States was able to hid behind the United Nations and argue than it would support the efforts of the United Nations – the irony of course is that the UN did not believed the crisis to be a genocide. Moreover, once the conflict was declared genocide, it lost public interest for the same reason: the general belief that recognition would lead to intervention. This lack of public interest inevitably results in decrease in media attention, due to the basic economics of supply and demand. Could the situation have been different? That is hard to say. What can be concluded is that the rhetoric of the media can and does influence government policy.

Jolene Hansell is a Master’s Candidate of Conflict Resolution at Georgetown University. Her specific area of focus is transitional justice and rule of law in post-conflict countries. You can email her at or follow her on twitter @joleneh340

[1]  Jang Hyun Kim, Tuo-Yu Su and Junhao Hong, “The Influence of Geopolitics and Foreign Policy on the US and Canadian Media: An Analysis of Newspaper Coverage of Sudan’s Darfur Conflict,” The Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics 12, no. 3 (2007): 87-95. 91

[2]  Ibid. 92

[3]  Ibid. 92

[4] See Nicholas Kristof, “A Whimp on Genocide,” The New York Times, sec. F, 18 September, 2005. and Nicholas Kristof, “Dithering as Others Die,” The New York Times, sec. F, 26 June, 2004.

[5] See Nicholas Kristof, “Ethnic Cleansing, again,” The New York Times, sec. A, 24 March, 2004.; Editorial Desk, “Peril in Sudan,” The New York Times, sec. A, 7 April, 2004.; Nicholas Kristof, “Bush Points the Way,” The New York Times, sec. A, 29 May, 2004.; Nicholas Kristof, “Dare we Call it Genocide?” The New York Times, sec. A, 16 June, 2004.; Editorial Desk, “Time for Action on Sudan,” The New York Times, sec. A, 18 June 2004, 2004.; Kristof, Dithering as Others Die, 13.

[6]  Ibid.

[7] See Kristof, Ethnic Cleansing, again; Kurt Mills, “A Genocide in Sudan, and our Silence,” The New York Times, sec. Letters to the Editor, 30 March, 2004.; Samantha Power, “Remember Rwanda, but Take Action in Sudan,” The New York Times, sec. A, 6 April, 2004.; Editorial Desk, Peril in Sudan; Nicholas Kristof, “Cruel Choices,” The New York Times, sec. A, 14 April, 2004.; Nicholas Kristof, “Attacked, Expelled, Ignored,” The New York Times, sec. 6, 25 April, 2004.

[8] See United States Congress, Executive Session, 108th Congress sess., 2004, , (accessed 2 May 2013).; United States Congress, On Sudan, S4678 Cong., 108th Session sess., 2004, , (accessed 2 May 2013).; United States Senate, “Condemning the Government of the Republic of Sudan,” Congressional Record 150, no. 62 (6 May, 2004): S4931, (accessed 2 May 2013).

[9] See Kristof, Bush Points the Way; Yazen Joudeh, “Suffering and SIlence,” The New York Times, sec. A, 2 June, 2004.; Marc Lacey, “White House Reconsiders its Policy on Crisis in Sudan,” The New York Times, sec. A, 12 June, 2004.; Kristof, Dare we Call it Genocide?, 21.; Editorial Desk, Time for Action on Sudan; Nicholas Kristof, “Sudan’s Final Solution,” The New York Times, sec. A, 19 June, 2004.; Foreign Desk, “World Briefing Africa: Sudan: Genocide Charged,” The New York Times, sec. A, 24 June, 2004.; Kristof, Dithering as Others Die, 13.

[10]  Heinze, The Rhetoric of Genocide in US Foreign Policy: Rwanda and Darfur Compared, 359-383. 386

[11] See Editorial Desk, “Death in Darfur,” The New York Times, sec. A, 3 July, 2004.; John Prendergast, “Sudan’s Ravines of Death,” The New York Times, sec. A, 15 July, 2004.; Nicholas Kristof, “Saying no to Killers,” The New York Times, sec. A, 21 July, 2004.; Marc Lacey, “In Darfur, Appalling Atrocity, but is that Genocide? ,” The New York Times, sec. A, 23 July, 2004.; Eduardo Gonzalez, “The Sudan Horror: A Time to Act,” The New York Times, sec. A, 27 July, 2004.; Marc Lacey, “Sudanese Suffer as Militias Hide in Plain Sight,” The New York Times, sec. F, 6 August, 2004.; Sam Dealey, “Misreading the Truth in Sudan,” The New York Times, sec. F, 8 August, 2004.; Somini Sengupta, “Crisis in Sudan: Thorny Issues Underlying Carnage in Darfur Complicate World’s Response,” The New York Times, sec. F, 16 August, 2004.; Ibid.

[12]  Concurrent Resolution Declaring Genocide in Darfur, S. Con. Res. 133, 2nd sess., 108th Congress, (22 July, 2004): ,; Concurrent Resolution Declaring Genocide in Darfur, Sudan, H. Con. Res. 467, 2nd Session sess., 108th Congress, (7 September, 2004): ,

[13]  Heinze, The Rhetoric of Genocide in US Foreign Policy: Rwanda and Darfur Compared, 359-383. 386

[14]  Lippman, Darfur: The Politics of Genocide Denial Syndrome, 193-213.

[15]  Dealey, Misreading the Truth in Sudan, 11.

[16]  Heinze, The Rhetoric of Genocide in US Foreign Policy: Rwanda and Darfur Compared, 359-383. 372

[17]  George W. Bush and John Kerry, “The First Presidential Debate,” Commission on Presidential Debates (30 September 2004),; MainLayout::init (accessed 2 May 2013).

[18]  United Nations, Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide ¶VIII

[19]  Kasfir, Sudan’s Darfur: Is it Genocide, 195-202. 202

[20]  Strauss, Darfur and the Genocide Debate, 123-133. 131.

[21] Ibid. 123


Why We Kill…

Every day the headlines are plagues with stories of violence—murder, abuse, assault, rebellion, armed conflict, war. Such violence has becomes so deeply entrenched in our society that it takes a truly extraordinary act to so much as stir the general populations attention. It has become almost matter of fact: human commit violent acts against each other. The question is why do we kill our own kind?

It’s the age-old question: are human beings inherently good or evil? Are we the product of the society in which we live or are we predisposed to certain actions based on our genetic coding? Nature vs. Nurture.


Dave Grossman, author of On Killing: The Psychological Costs of Learning to Kill in War, argues that while humans are perfectly capable of killing another specifies (the majority of human beings are meat eaters), when it comes the killing their own kind, the act of killing can be deeply traumatizing to the individual. While his book has been criticized for being flawed in many aspects, this particular argument does provide support for the nurture side of the debate; that humans are not genetically programed to kill one another and, in fact, are resistant to such an action. If this is true, if humans are not inherently violent, where does such violent action originate? How does so much violent conflict exist in a world where humans are resist to the very act of killing?

In attempting to reconcile this dichotomy there are three important factors that taken into consideration: the disjuncture between the civilian actors in the military and the soldiers, the military’s culture of obedience, and evolution of weaponry throughout military history

Civilian-Military Relations: Those at the top of military command are not members of the military. In the United States, the President is the head of the military, the Commander in Chief; however, he, himself, is a civilian. While some Presidents have had military experience, serving in various ranks and units in their country’s military, others have no such experience. Of those Presidents who do have experience, some have never seen combat or been to the front lines. Without having such and experience, there remains a disjuncture between the President who is giving the ultimate order to launch an attack or invade a country and the soldiers who carry out this order. This top down structure allows a the Commander in Chief to see military engagement as an abstract notion while simultaneously disengaging them from the personal nature of the act of killing via the their physical and/or command distance for the act.

Military’s Culture of ObedienceWhen one thinks of the military, the first image that comes to mind is its ridged structure: soldiers marching uniformly at their superior’s command. The relationship between a solider and his/her superiors is not simply one of respect; it is one of legal obligation. Failure to comply with the orders of a superior can result in military reprimand and/or criminal indictment. The military places a high degree of value on the obedience of its members. This is not only for the creation of a highly functioning military unit, but also for the psychological refuge of the soldiers. When a soldier kills another human being, they can take refuge in the fact that they were following orders and not acting on their own accord. Thus, the culture of obedience actually provides a mechanism to mitigate to psychological impact that results from killing another.

Military Weaponry: In the medieval times knights fought face to face with soldiers in extremely close proximity to one another. Put plainly, they could look in the eyes to the opposing solider before they killed them. Then came the development of the arrow that allowed the soldiers to be further away from their victims; then cannons, armed boats/planes, missiles, bombs, and now drones. With each new development in military weaponry, the physical distance between the soldier and his or her victims is increase. Today, a drone operator can sit at base in the United States and press a button that launches a strike in Pakistan some 7,500 miles (12,300 km) away.  While some studies have shown that the psychological impact on drone operators is greater than aircraft pilots because drone operators have a very clear view of their victim, this does not negate the fact the tactics themselves have developed in such a why as to place the greatest degree of distance between the soldiers and the victim.

If, then, we are to take a human’s aversion to killing as valid, is must follow that the existence/continuation of armed conflict is the result of the adaptation of the military to address this psychological phenomena. But, this then leaves us with an obvious question: If we are willing to go to so much effort to override a human’s aversion to killing, wouldn’t our time be better spent changing our tactics? Rather than working against this natural aversion, should we not attempt to work with it and seek non-violent conflict resolution mechanisms? The biggest problem here is that violence begets violence. In order to have a world system of non-violent warfare (oxymoronic by nature) each state would need to buy into the system and summarily eliminate all violence means of combat. Unfortunately this does not seem feasible in today’s world, but it might be something to aspire towards.

Jolene Hansell is a Master’s Candidate of Conflict Resolution at Georgetown University. Her specific area of focus is transitional justice and rule of law in post-conflict countries. You can email her at or follow her on twitter @joleneh340

Unpacking the Syrian Conflict: What’s Next?

Syria made the headlines again today. In more than two year of fighting, the Syrian civil war has resulted in over 90,000 deaths, displaced over 4 million people, and has caused more than $80 billion in damage. Yet, there is still no end in sight. As described in the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and the New America Foundation’s June 2013 Report, Dissecting an Evolving Conflict: The Syrian Uprising and the Future of the Country, the conflict in Syria has reached a stalemate, a condition if not resolved soon could spiral Syria into becoming a failed state.

Syria was the fifth Arab spring country, following in the footsteps of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen. What began as a peaceful call for political reformation in March 2011 quickly took up the slogan of the Arab Spring revolution – “the people want to overthrow the regime” – and was consequently met with stark regime crackdown. The regime’s use of violence transformed the nature of the conflict from one of rebellion, seeking political reform, to one of revolution, seeking the overthrow of the Assad regime. As the protests gained momentum, the Syrian governments stepped in with increasing force, perpetuating further protests. Each time this cycle occurred, the conflict escalated a little bit further.

The militarization of the rebellion came in response to Assad’s implementation of the security solution—a plan that involved breaking up protests but quickly escalated to include the use of military might to disband the unarmed protesters. Syrian soldiers, who are now being asked to fire on unarmed civilians, began to defect from the Syrian army. The defected Syrian military officers formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in July 2011 to combat the unchecked Syrian army in its campaign of human rights violations and crimes against humanity.

After the 18 July 2013 bombing of Syrian regime’s National Headquarters and the killing of four high ranking Syrian personnel, the opposition gained momentum and provided the catalyst of numerous opposition victories. Despite immediate successes, the progress of the rebels has since been slowed and has been met with immense opposition. With Assad’s government backed by Russia and Iran, the question in the last six months has been whether the West would intervene and support the rebels. For President Obama, the Syria’s use of chemical weapons was the ‘red line’ the eventually prompted the US to support the Syrian rebels.

An end to this conflict is in the interest of regional stability. The conflict has already spilled over into neighboring countries, putting tremendous stress on the region. Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey have all experience shelling and/or fighting as a direct consequence of the Syrian conflict.  Moreover, the conflict has forced the creations of regional alliances, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar supporting the Syrian rebels, while Iran continues to support the Assad regime.

The stability of the region is now tied to the stability of Syria, a country locked in civil war stalemate. If the support of the US is able to tip the scales in favor of the rebels, this alone will not be sufficient to bring stability and security to the region. Over time the rebel movement has become fragmented and the success of the rebels would not bring stability alone. This is all to say that the road to regional stability in Syria may be longer than is immediate apparent. The end to civil war will not equate to stability. There are many difficult steps in between.

Drones: 4 Questions to Consider

“Do we want to live in a world where the U.S.’s justification for killing is so infinitely malleable?”

Rosa Brooks, Professor of Law at Georgetown University

Drones (also known as remotely piloted aircrafts) are the warfare of the 21st century. They make it possible for an American soldier, sitting comfortably at the Haddock Air Field Base in New York, to targeted individual in Afghanistan, 7,000 miles away. This capacity to engage in warfare without putting boots on the ground has generated significant debate, a debate which recently took place at the United States Senate.

On June 23rd 2013, the United States Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing to which legal, public policy, and military officials were asked to testify regarding the potential constitutional and counterterrorism implications of using drones in targeted killings. As we continue to contemplate the use of drones, there are four main questions that should be considered.

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Are Drones Inherently Bad?

Drones are a tool of warfare, just as missiles, guns, swords, and cannons are tools of warfare. It is a mechanism of force, a means of eliminating an adversarial target. What does differentiate the use of drones from other tools of war is that they are operated remotely, causing some to believe that they are inherently bad. In reality, however, the use of drones requires the highest level of scrutiny; there are certain criteria that need to be met before a drone attack can be launched. Moreover, after the attack has been launched, it can be aborted until the very last second. Yes, capture mission might be ideal; however, when taking into consideration the high opportunity costs of such missions, from military standpoint, the use of drones is a better option.

From a legal standpoint, drones do not create any new rule of law issues in the traditional battlefield. They are well within the scope of international law. Ilyam Somin, Professor of Law at George Mason University stated, “[the] means doesn’t matter so long you have the target right.” In saying this, he calls attention to the protocol that bridges the gap between suspect and launching of an attack. Once the appropriate steps have been taken to determine that an individual is a legitimate threat and therefore a legitimate target, the means of attack becomes irrelevant, except in terms of opportunity costs.

Who Can Become the Target of a Drone Killing?

Traditionally, drone attacks have been authorized under the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) joint-resolution passed by the United States Congress in 2001. The AUMF gives the President the authority to use all ‘necessary and appropriate’ force against those individuals who ‘planned, authorized, committed, or aided’ the September 11th attacks. This question recently took on another dimension, when it was asked if Americans can be targeted by US drones, and if this answer is different depending on whether the American is on US soil or on foreign soil.

Senator Cruz set out four criteria to keep in the consideration of a drone strike: is the individual a terrorist target?, where is their geographic location?, are they active in a foreign hostile force?, and is there an imminent threat?

The question here is not really about citizenship but more about the capacity of the individual to be apprehended and captured. If the individual is a terrorist target, his active in a foreign hostile force, and is an imminent threat, then yes, they could be drone attack. However, a drone attack should be the last resort, not the de facto action. If the individual can be apprehended and captured, without the use of drones, this is ideal. By this logic, an American citizen on American soil would not be subject to a drone strike, as the United States has the police and law enforcement capacity to apprehend, detain, and try the person in question. It is by this same logic that al-Qaeda affiliates in the mountains of Pakistan – who are difficult to reach via a deployment mission and where the government does not have the capacity/willingness to apprehend and detain these individuals – are subject to drone attacks. Thus, the nationality of an individual is not the primary determinate in the decision use of drones, but rather one’s criminality and the capacity for him or her to be apprehended determines the employment of drones.

When Can Drones be Employed?

The ambiguity in the decision to employ the use of drones is threefold: ambiguity in the legal framework governing the use of drones, ambiguity of the terminology, and ambiguity the determination of war. Each of these make it difficult to develop a clear understanding as to when drones can be employed as a mechanism for targeted killings.

As stated above, the AUFM provides the legal framework uses to justify the employment of drones. However, it is limited in scope to those individuals who carried out the 9/11 attacks. At this point, almost 12 years after the 9/11 attack and with Bin Laden having been killed, can it really be argued that the perpetrators of 9/11 are still the targets? The targets have largely remained Al-Qaeda affiliates, but to say that they were actively involved in the 9//11 attacks might be an unwarranted exaggeration. If this framework is to be the justification for the targeted killings in the future, it needs to be amended to reflect the present day situation: the war on terror not a targeting of 9/11 perpetrators.

The AUFM uses the term ‘imminent threat’ to describe those who can become targets. This term, however, is largely subjective. Historically, the term imminent threat has come to mean that if one does not act, the target will carry out an attack against. This is also known as -1 stage, with 0 being the launch of the attack, and -1 being the moment just before the attack is launched. It is this principle that governed the Bush Doctrine of Preemption. This raises the following questions: can someone over 7,000 kilometers away, hiding in the mountains be considered an imminent threat? What are the criteria to determine an individual is an imminent threat and thus a legitimate target? Without definition this term can be used very loosely to justify the any target killing; thus, the development of accountability measure becomes tremendously important (see below).

There is also difficulty in determining the state of war, and thus the legality of an attack. Within the context of war, the concept of imminent threat becomes void and the targeting of adversarial combatants is supported by international law. In peacetime, however, there is a system of processes that determines the use of force. A police officer in the United States, for example, has a set of criteria that he or she must meet before he or she can employ the use of force against a suspect. The problem with ‘war on terror’ and the targeted killing of Al Qaeda leaders is that it is not a formal war as the United States never formally declared war on Afghanistan. This makes the definition of war ambiguous and the determination of targeted killing within the traditional legal framework all the more difficulty. Once again, this calls attention to the need to develop transparency and accountability mechanisms for this process of determination.

What Mechanisms are Necessary to Ensure Transparency and Accountability?

Presently, the decision as to who can be the target of an attack is made by a very small group of people under a framework that is ambiguous at best. This is a slippery slope. Without transparency and accountability mechanisms, how can it be determined that only legitimate threats are targeted and how can those who make mistakes be held accountable for their actions?

At the hearing, it was suggested that a court system be developed with the function of vetting potential targets to ensure that they are legitimate threats and can be rightful targeted under a predetermined framework. This would allow for a level of transparency in the process, expand the number of people involved in the decision-making process, and legitimize the process of targeted killing as a whole.  Such a court, however, would need to be front-ended. That is to say, the court should have the capacity to give the okay for a potential target to be targeted, but the ‘go’ order should remain in the ranks of the military. Due to the checks within the military and the degree of certitude needed for an operation to be given the ‘go’ order, when the stars align and the attack can be launched against a target, waiting for court approval could result in a loss of the target.

Furthermore, in dealing with targeted killings, there needs to be accountability mechanisms. Although the number of civilian casualties from the use of drones has significantly decreased in recent years, these cannot be completely eliminated. In the case of civilian casualties resulting from the use of drone, there needs to be a system of accountability, a capacity of holding individuals responsible for the harm of civilians. Moreover, there should be a process to make amends to harmful action against civilian population, a recognition of their suffering and an effort to mitigate future suffering. Civilians are not the targets of war, by rather the innocent bystanders. When their protection status under international law is violated, be it intentional or accidental, there need to recognition and accountability for these casualties. With accountability mechanisms and without making amends to civilians harmed in conflict, we risk the inflation of anti-American attitudes. Rather than work against a country as whole, we should seek to work against criminals and with the governments of a given country whenever possible. And if accidental harm is caused to civilians, be it in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, or elsewhere, amends should be promptly made.

Is There Room for Forgiveness in Criminal Justice?

On March 28th 2010, 19-year old Connor McBride shot Ann Margaret Grosmaire, his fiancé and girlfriend of three years in the midst of a heated argument between the two. Ann died in the hospital four days later. Rather than flee or try to cover up his actions, Connor walked into the Tallahassee Police Department in Tallahassee, Florida and turned himself in. Previously, Connor had never been in trouble, he was youth leader in his community, and had become a part of Grosmaire family. In any other case, Connor would have likely been convicted of first-degree murder, a conviction that, in the state of Florida, carries a minimum life sentence or the death penalty. But in this case, Connor only got 20 years imprisonment plus 10 years of parole. The reason: forgiveness.

Ann’s parents, Andy and Kate Grosmaire, were practicing Catholics, with forgiveness at the very essence of their practice. This moral grounding drove their actions in the coming days, weeks, and months after Ann’s death. Rather than retaliate or seek retribution, the Grosmaires searched forgiveness. What they wanted was closure, to understand how and why their daughter died. Moreover, they did not want Connor to spend his life imprisoned.  So, they decided to take part in a restorative-justice diversion program: victim-offender dialogue.

Victim-offender dialogue allow for the airing of the truth. Both parties confront one another and state the facts, as they understand them. This process creates a space in which reconciliation can begin and is thought to reduce recidivism rates. This practice was typically used for drug cases or more minor offense, and had never previously been attempted for a murder case. The Grosmaires, however, were insistent, and the prosecutor eventually agreed to participate, though did not promise to rescind the first-degree murder charges.

The dialogue took place on June 22nd 2011, with the Grosmaires, the Prosecutor, a mediator, and Connor. Connor told the story of how he shot Ann, step-by-step, and after he was finished, the Grosmaires were given the chance to ask questions. At the end of the session, the mediator asked the Grosmaires to recommend a sentence for Connor. Kate asked for no less than 5 years imprisonment and no more than 15; Andy asked for between 10 and 15 years imprisonment. The ultimate decision however, lay with the prosecutor. Having been impacted by the process, he eventually rescinded his original charges and gave Connor the option of 25 years imprisonment or 20 years in prison with 10 years of parole.

The case calls into the question the very premise of the criminal justice system. Criminal justice is, by nature, retributive – it is punishment for wrongdoings. The question is, what is the purpose of criminal prosecution. Arguments are made for its capacity to deter criminal activity and bring closure to the victims and their families; however, in this case, restorative justice was more beneficial to the victim’s family than the traditional system would have been. What is gained through punishment by imprisonment or, in the United States, the death penalty? Are there criminal cases when forgiveness should play a role and restorative justice should prevail?

In answering this question, it is important to remember the particulars of this case. Ann’s murder was not an accident, but it was not meticulously planned either. Given the circumstances of her death, it is unlikely that Connor would have ever killed again. This was a crime of passion, in the heat of the moment, and that opens the door for restorative justice.

This is not to discount the role of the criminal justice system. It is a tremendously important piece in the maintenance of law and order in a given society. But it is to say that the system is incomplete, lacking the reconciliation factor that allows one to move beyond the crime; allowing criminals to be better reintegrated into society, allowing victims to make their peace. It shouldn’t be one or the other – retributive or restorative justice. There should be space for the two systems to work together. There should be space for forgiveness.


Jolene Hansell is a Master’s Candidate of Conflict Resolution at Georgetown University. Her specific area of focus is transitional justice and rule of law. You can email her at, follow her on twitter @joleneh340, our read her blog at