Susan Estrich commentary: Why are they killing innocent civilians?

Summary: Whether the Russian people know what their army is doing is one of the big unanswered questions; what they can do about it in a repressive society is another. The revolutions brought about by social media elsewhere seem very far away. How can those walls be broken down?

Ukrainian villagers count dead after weeks confined in school basement
The names of the dead are scrawled on the peeling wall of a school basement where residents say more than 300 people were trapped for weeks by Russian occupiers in Yahidne, a village north of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv. Halyna Tolochina, a member of the village council, struggled to compose herself as she went through the list, scribbled in black on the plaster either side of a green door, in the gloomy warren where she said she and hundreds of others were confined. To the left of the door were scrawled the seven names of people killed by Russian soldiers. To the right were the 10 names of people who died because of the harsh conditions in the basement, she said. "This old man died first," Tolochina said, pointing at the name of Muzyka D., for Dmytro Muzyka, whose death was recorded on March 9. "He died in the big room, in this one."
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The photos coming out of Ukraine, coupled with eyewitness accounts, leave no room for doubt. Terrible things are being done. The bodies are not just those of soldiers. Civilian casualties are skyrocketing. This is not inevitable. This is murder.

Who is giving the orders?

Susan Estrich
Susan Estrich commentary
Tribune graphic

Of course Russian President Vladimir Putin and his generals are to blame for the acts of the Russian army. But did they order this? Have they tried to stop it?

And if they do try, will it stop?


Reports of random shootings of civilians for no reason at all raise terrible questions about the human condition. Is this how human beings treat each other when they know they will get away with it? The banality of evil, brought to you by social media.

Ukraine is far away. We should be grateful every day that our children can play outside instead of hiding in basements, that the electricity works, that our husbands and sons, brothers and fathers, have not left home to take up arms to defend our country. I cannot imagine the lives of the mothers, trying to protect their children from things that no child should face.

Babi Yar, the famous mass grave site, lies in Ukraine. Ukrainians are no strangers to senseless violence. But that was then -- so long ago, we like to think; never again, we say to ourselves.

Yes, again, we must admit. "More killing in Ukraine," "Mass graves found," the headlines say, before reporting on weather and sports and the like. Not so different from the newspapers of the 1930s, reporting on Hitler's persecution of the Jews. We didn't know, we tell ourselves now, although that is not entirely true, not at all. We knew enough and did too little and the very existence of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is a pledge that next time will be different.

Is it?

The president is asking for much more military aid to Ukraine, and this is one of the very few things both parties seem to agree on. We should send weapons. And we will. And there will be more killing, because this is war.

We must do more than send weapons, though. Somehow, whether through international law, diplomacy, sanctions and shame, we must make clear that Russia has stepped over the line not only by invading a free people but also by committing mass murder of civilians. And for the latter, if not also the former, they deserve the fullest condemnation the world can offer.

We try to stay out of territorial disputes. Fair enough. But can we stay out of genocide? And are more weapons the only answer? What about more speech, Elon Musk?


This is social media's first big war. So far, it has failed to make a big difference. Russians remain in the dark about what their country is doing, the victims of state control. National walls are still blocking free press. Whether the Russian people know what their army is doing is one of the big unanswered questions; what they can do about it in a repressive society is another. The revolutions brought about by social media elsewhere seem very far away. How can those walls be broken down?

My grandfather left Kyiv to escape antisemitism a century ago. When he couldn't get into this country, he went to Argentina and later managed to come to Massachusetts. So there but for the grace of God go I. My family managed to escape the Russians and the Germans. My good fortune weighs on me.

Shouldn't we be doing more? But what? You tell me.

Susan Estrich can be reached at .


Opinion by Susan Estrich
Susan Estrich is an American lawyer, professor, author, political operative, and political commentator. She can be reached via
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