Mark Steel: That's an awful lot of bad apples

The best way to win the people’s hearts and minds? Burn copies of their holy book

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The case of the soldier who went berserk in Afghanistan and killed 16 people must be utterly baffling to psychiatrists. Who can imagine what might cause someone in a stable environment such as Kandahar, with reliable role models training you to distrust the entire local population as terrorists, and no access to weapons except automatic machine guns, to flip like that? Still, they say it's always in the tranquil places that these things happen.

The army base this soldier attended was the same one that Calvin Gibbs went to, who was recently convicted of killing three civilians. There's just no rational explanation is there? Maybe they're not getting enough vitamin D.

And it's only a few weeks since American soldiers were caught burning copies of the Koran. It has no luck at all that American army, does it? Defenders of this war insist we're there to help the Afghans. So presumably there was a misinformed sergeant who briefed his soldiers by saying, "Our task is to win the hearts and minds of the local population. And what's the best way to do that quickly and thoroughly? We burn copies of their holy book. This should always be done in the street, and remember to be filmed laughing and dancing at the same time, to create a party spirit."

Next week, Hillary Clinton will probably issue another statement, that goes, "We sincerely apologise for any offence caused by the marines who made a film called 'Mohammed the Lapdancing Pig' and showed it on national Afghan children's television."

The important thing to remember is these are all individual mistakes, and in no way is there a pattern. Just as the soldiers filmed urinating on dead Afghans, and the ones who chopped off fingers to keep as trophies, and the ones the Pentagon discovered had formed a death squad aimed at civilians were all, like the one who killed 16 people, lone nutters.

If Al-Qa'ida were smart, they'd adopt this approach. They'd issue a statement saying, "We apologise for our operative who appears to have lost control by making a video called 'DEATH to you ALL may you BURN in a billion AGONIES' before marching on to a bus strapped with explosives. We assure you he's a lone nutter and hope this won't interfere with our cordial relations and efforts to bring peace to your country."

So with everything going to plan, it's worth recalling those columnists and politicians who screamed support for this war, and the one in Iraq, and now scream we should do the same in Iran. They are, of course, entitled to a view, just as a racing tipster is still allowed to make tips, even if the horse he backed yesterday ran backwards, and the one the day before turned out to be a statue, and the one the day before that was a tabby cat, and the one the day before that broke loose from the paddock and trampled 16 people to death.

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