Maybe it doesn't matter. The terrorists who are our enemy are devoid of rationality, and they will treat a simulated act as they would the real thing. They are certifiable. They possess a mind-set that flew passenger airliners into commercial buildings and killed 3,000 innocent civilians. They beheaded West Chester businessman Nick Berg in retribution for Abu Ghraib. And assassinated Dutch director Theo van Gogh for producing a film about the way in which women are subjugated in Islamic society.
Which is why our Marines in the video displayed a reprehensible lack of professionalism. Surely they should have known that acting in this manner would provide fodder for future acts of retribution against their brethren. Shame on them, therefore, for putting comrades in harm's way. Moreover, why record it? Bad as it was to conduct (or simulate) the act, it was arguably worse to memorialize it - essentially ensuring that it would be circulated, weaken U.S. standing in the world, and put others at risk.
Everyone, it seems, has a reaction.
While running for president, Rick Perry said: "Obviously, 18-, 19-year-old kids make stupid mistakes all too often. And that's what's occurred here." John McCain offered: "The Marine Corps prides itself that we don't lower ourselves to the level of the enemy. So it makes me sad more than anything else, because ... I can't tell you how wonderful these people [Marines] are. And it hurts their reputation and their image."
They're both right. These were sophomoric acts committed by young men who should have known better, and their poor judgment will lessen U.S. prestige. That there is no excuse is a no-brainer. The more difficult question is: Why?
Sebastian Junger - who, with photographer Tim Hetherington, was responsible for Restrepo, the Academy Award-nominated documentary about the war in Afghanistan - offered an explanation that makes some sense. He wrote in the Washington Post:
"But of course they have dehumanized the enemy - otherwise they would have to face the enormous guilt and anguish of killing other human beings. Rather than demonstrate a callous disregard for the enemy, this awful incident might reveal something else: a desperate attempt by confused young men to convince themselves that they haven't just committed their first murder - that they have simply shot some coyotes on the back 40.
"It doesn't work, of course, but it gets them through the moment; it gets them through the rest of the patrol."
I sought out Junger to hear more from the man who was an embed in the Korengal Valley and witnessed the pressures of war firsthand. He said society didn't fully appreciate the cost of war on those serving. He sees the bad behavior as a defense mechanism, a way in which they deal with the harshness of what we ask them to do.
"The only way to psychologically deal with that is to convince yourself that you didn't really kill a human being, you killed an animal," he told me.
Junger believes that the offending Marines need to be investigated and punished, but that our ire and accusations are ignoring the larger truth. As a country, we have asked young people to do worse than urinate on a corpse - we've asked them to create that corpse. So we must keep in mind that they are confused as to why shooting a Taliban with a sniper's rifle from 250 meters is justified, but urinating on his dead body is over the line.
"We're asking these guys to kill, and we can't be too judgmental about the aftereffects of killing while we go on ordering it to be done without owning it," Junger told me this week. "If you're going to have young men go to war, you have to be prepared for ugly behavior, and you have to discipline it, but you shouldn't be shocked."
I asked the acclaimed writer and director if he shared my observation that the Marines might have been acting. He said it had not occurred to him, and then added:
"There is a lot of performance in war, a lot of acting out in things. I can imagine that they actually weren't urinating but were doing something symbolic to say they didn't care they had killed these people, which means deep down they did care, and didn't know how to deal with it."
Which is why the victims in the video that has captivated the world are not only the dead men on the ground.
Contact columnist Michael Smerconish via www.smerconish.com.
Read his columns at www.philly.com/smerconish.