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"Do you do this in the United States? There is police action every day in the United States… They don't call in airplanes to bomb the place." — Afghan President Hamid Karzai denouncing U.S. airstrikes on homes in his country, June 12, 2012
It was almost closing time when the siege began at a small Wells Fargo Bank branch in a suburb of San Diego, and it was a nightmare. The three gunmen entered with the intent to rob, but as they herded the 18 customers and bank employees toward a back room, they were spotted by a pedestrian outside who promptly called 911. Within minutes, police cars were pulling up, the bank was surrounded, and back-up was being called in from neighboring communities. The gunmen promptly barricaded themselves inside with their hostages, including women and small children, and refused to let anyone leave.
The police called on the gunmen to surrender, but before negotiations could even begin, shots were fired from within the bank, wounding a police officer. The events that followed — now known to everyone, thanks to 24/7 news coverage — shocked the nation. Declaring the bank robbers “terrorist suspects,” the police requested air support from the Pentagon and, soon after, an F-15 from Vandenberg Air Force Base dropped two GBU-38 bombs on the bank, leaving the building a pile of rubble.
All three gunmen died. Initially, a Pentagon spokesman, who took over messaging from the local police, insisted that “the incident” had ended “successfully” and that all the dead were “suspected terrorists.” The Pentagon press office issued a statement on other casualties, noting only that, “while conducting a follow-on assessment, the security force discovered two women who had sustained non-life-threatening injuries. The security force provided medical assistance and transported both women to a local medical facility for treatment." It added that it was sending an “assessment team” to the site to investigate reports that others had died as well.
Of course, as Americans quickly learned, the dead actually included five women, seven children, and a visiting lawyer from Los Angeles. The aftermath was covered in staggering detail. Relatives of the dead besieged city hall, bitterly complaining about the attack and the deaths of their loved ones. At a news conference the next morning, while scenes of rescuers digging in the rubble were still being flashed across the country, President Obama said: “Such acts are simply unacceptable. They cannot be tolerated.” In response to a question, he added, “Nothing can justify any airstrike which causes harm to the lives and property of civilians.”
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey immediately flew to San Diego to meet with family members of the dead and offer apologies. Heads rolled in the local police department and in the Pentagon. Congress called for hearings as well as a Justice Department investigation of possible criminality, and quickly passed a bill offering millions of dollars to the grieving relatives as “solace.” San Diego began raising money for a memorial to the group already dubbed the Wells Fargo 18.