Is Violence Cultural?

 

As the #YesAllWomen hashtag trended over the weekend, I tweeted out a few of my own. In response to one of my tweets [about having been menaced on 3 separate campuses by male students who were antagonized by the low grades or critical evaluations that I gave], a friendly tweep asked whether my experiences could be ascribed to a culture of violence. It was an important question, and I didn’t respond as 140 characters seemed to be rather limiting. I want to think through one part of that question here. But I want to note: my comments are not a reflection on my friendly interlocutor; rather, I’m trying to explore my concern about the phrase.

I’m always surprised when the words ‘violence’ and ‘culture’ are placed in close proximity. Much like the phrase “social construction of race,” the notion of a “culture of violence” seems to create an artificial stopping point at what should be the beginning of an analysis. These days, the phrase ‘social construction of race’ indicates a moment in the political development of theories of race rather than some meaningful insight in itself. Similarly, the notion of a ‘culture of violence’ is often the description given to explain the pro-gun discourse that marks the US in international lights, or the massacres that seem to be occurring with increasing frequency in the United States. The most recent one to come to public attention was the one that a young man, Elliot Rodgers, carried out a few days ago. The phrase ‘culture of violence,’ seems to be immediately problematic in several ways. First, it obscures the specificity of various kinds of violence (a shooting in cold blood versus a woman who shoots at an ex-lover in self-defense; a serial massacre by a young man versus a military massacre of a village). I’m not suggesting that they are all horrific or heinous. Rather, I want to suggest that the level and quality of (dis)approval in each case is affected by the conditions and institutions which supported that action. The second, closely related, way in which the discussion of a ‘culture of violence’ is problematic is that it elides state-led policies that endorse certain kinds of violent actions—based on who is committing the violence and who the violence is committed against—rather than on the action in question.

Examples of the second would include executive policies such as a memo that authorized the use of drones to kill people who are suspected of terrorism (or having a governmental body vote in favor of a federal judgeship for the lawyer who co-authored that memo); or the actions of federal judges who exculpate police officers who shoot young black men while sentencing a political protestor to prison for elbowing a policeman for a boob grab, or a range of bills that unanimously approve the pre-emptive policing, or potential detention, or profiling and entrapment thousands of people who loosely fall into the same group as the 19 men who flew into the World Trade Center in 2001.

You get my point.

‘Culture,’ like ‘social construction,’ seems to sidestep an assumption that certain traits are permanently embedded, without confessing to that assumption. It seems that culture is most often used in 4 different ways:

1. As a marker of identity: Indian culture, Russian culture, Irish culture, etc.

2. As a comparative descriptor, such as when praising a group of people affiliated with a certain society as having superlative values: French culture, Western culture, progressive culture.

3. To ascribe ‘primitive’ or ‘regressive’ traits to a group of people who are united on the basis of some practices or beliefs or (mutual) recognition of identity: Muslim/Islamic culture, Black culture, Masculine culture, etc.

4. To describe a set of (negative) practices that people abide by or embrace (wittingly or not), and therefore become part of that group: A culture of: consumerism, rape, terrorism, narcissism, violence.

Over a decade ago, at the first philosophy conference I attended after receiving my doctorate, my excitement melted into despair as I heard the keynote speaker, a white feminist philosopher of some renown, painstakingly describe how Palestinians and other Muslim cultures were more prone to a ‘culture of terrorism’ than those in Western societies. It seemed to link violence to a population while avoiding references to biology, ontology, or nature. [Uma Narayan, Talal Asad and Edward Said have challenged such a link in their considerable writings, but to judge from its frequent invocation, it still seems to remain an easy go-to place.] And in forging this link, the keynote speaker indicated that these actions were compulsive, driven by the culture to which said people belong.

This kind of deployment of ‘culture’ is striking for its complete bifurcation from a discussion of historical, (geo)political, economic, social, legal structures: what is the history of Palestine (or Iraq, Afghanistan, Kashmir, etc)? What are the material, geopolitical, social circumstances in which certain men and women engage in certain specific practices? What are the legal structures that punish certain men and women for acts of violence while retaining a blind eye towards others? How do we construe violence or terrorism, when lone individuals or groups associated with non-state entities who blow up cafes become the prime figures of terrorism (and if they survive, will most certainly face punishment at the hands of government or military forces)–while other figures–surrounded by government security personnel as they instruct others to deploy drones against certain persons in Yemen selected by a computer algorithm–are hailed as heroes and voted repeatedly back into positions of power? All this, while those who provide legal validation for such practices are elevated to the nation’s highest courts (the most recent example being, of course, David Barron)?

Such a disarticulation from a discussion of underlying structures entrenches the belief that these practices are inherent – perhaps uniquely so — to the group with whom they are associated. So, to talk of a ‘culture of violence’ suggests that there is a set of violent practices that constitute the fabric of a society, bringing that very society together as a unit, which that society (or some part at least) doesn’t necessarily question, criticize, or challenge.

That may not be the intent of using this phrase, since—in none of the above 4 senses is culture used as a factual descriptor (even when that is the intent of the speaker) but more as a rhetorical descriptor. It is always possible to falsify a statement about culture that presumes that most if not all of its people ascribe to a certain belief. Hindus are not all vegetarian; Not all feminists believe that the hijab is oppressive; Not all Muslims (women or men) believe that the hijab must be worn. The French don’t all believe in republicanism. All of these groups have internal debates about various issues, and it may be impossible without (even with) extensive surveys, to discover which part of the group practices/believes in the belief under question, and whether that part of the group constitutes a majority.

My concern with the above deployment of term ‘culture’, is that the speaker obscures the very structures that s/he claims to take into account by locating violence/narcissism/entitlement/rape in a generic culture. It is true that the phrase ‘culture’ can accurately connote a set of embedded attitudes regarding violence, rape, narcissism or consumerism. But—especially when ascribing these attitudes to a group that is already the subject of criticism—s/he connotes that the actions of these populations are driven by their culture. By ascribing certain events to a ‘culture of violence,’ I wonder if it prevents us from having a more insightful conversation about the specific elements that drive a certain event.

Let me be clear: I do NOT want to exculpate men (or women) who benefit from patriarchy, white supremacy, or other systems validating hierarchies or endorsing oppression against groups on the basis of race, gender or nationality. These are systems—grounded through laws, economic policies, geopolitical history, and social policies of rewards and benefits–which can engender acceptance about the privileges that accrue to some persons on the basis of being – say — male or white (often without regard to class), or to being middle- or upper-class white women. And while it’s possible to talk of a set of beliefs that seem to be shared by those who benefit from patriarchy or white supremacy, I think it’s much more effective and important to prioritize a focus on systems rather than culture.

A useful followup to this rumination might be to problematize the discussion of “privilege”—as in in white privilege, male privilege, etc. That will be for a future post.

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Violence Begets Violence: Turning to Dr. King in the aftermath of the Boston Bombings

This piece is in Salon, under various headlines:

Where does the hate come from?

Amid this tragedy, we ought to remember that violence begets violence, force begets force

By

Yesterday’s news of multiple explosions going off near the end of the Boston Marathon route was heart-stopping. That such a joyous event — attended by tens of thousands of families, of international visitors and athletes — could be so violently disrupted by such heinous evil was unfathomable. The tragedies are made all the worse by the realization that for some, it was a memorial in the name of the children and adults who died in the Newtown massacre. And even as I empathized with yesterday’s victims and their families, I shudder to think that they experienced what countries around the world treat as a fact of their quotidian existence.

That pain and grief was the same as that which occurs whenever I read another report about a U.S.-led drone strike that has killed children, maimed teenagers, destroyed weddings in Pakistan or Yemen or Afghanistan. Yesterday’s news — of a child dead, of the injuries of many a father and mother, of the limbs of exhausted athletes and supportive spectators blown off, of others whose limbs were amputated in the triage for survival — again brought to mind the prophesy of “violence begetting violence.” As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. warns in his “Loving Your Enemies” sermon, delivered in Montgomery, Ala., on Nov. 17, 1957:

Men must see that force begets force, hate begets hate, toughness begets toughness. And it is all a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for all and everybody.

And yet, that cycle of force begetting force, of the increasing permanence of violence that is soaking into every facet of our society, seems to be lost on so many, especially those who are capable of stopping it: our political and military leaders. Again, in the prescient, wise words of Dr. King:

Somebody must have sense enough to dim the lights [of destruction], and that is the trouble, isn’t it? That as all of the civilizations of the world move up the highway of history, so many civilizations, having looked at other civilizations that refused to dim the lights, and they decided to refuse to dim theirs. And Toynbee tells that out of the twenty-two civilizations that have risen up, all but about seven have found themselves in the junkheap of destruction. It is because civilizations fail to have sense enough to dim the lights.

Click through to read the rest….

On the Regulation of Firearms

Robert Prasch thoughtfully unpacks the firearm regulation debate.

Robert E. PraschAlmost two months after the massacre in Newtown, and six months after Aurora and Oak Creek, our political classes show some signs of taking an interest in gun control.  I say some signs as the President has reiterated his deep concern for “rural gun culture” and Senator Harry Reid is on record as being unenthusiastic.  Senator Dianne Feinstein, amazingly, is largely on the correct side of this issue.  I guess there is a first for everything.

To enhance our understanding of the problem, we need to define some terms.  The next step is to consider the several parts of these crimes so as to reveal where intervention may be most effective.  Hopefully, such an exercise gets us away from the fatuous “pro-gun” vs. “anti-gun” narratives that generate more heat than light.

A Definition and a Few Facts

Mass shootings and serial murders are each forms of mass murder. In the United States, mass murders are, statistically speaking, a relatively minor element of the death-by-firearm problem. However, mass shootings are different from serial murders in that the latter occur over a period of time.  Additionally, serial murderers often target a specific type of person or persons (rival mobsters in the case of mafia hit-men, young couples in the case of the Son of Sam, or prostitutes in the case of the Green River killer).  However, though mass shootings are a small part of the problem, they induce the greatest “headlines.”  The reason, besides their intrinsic horror, is that their victims are often drawn from populations that — statistically speaking — are substantially less likely than others to be the victims of gun violence (Newtown, Columbine, Aurora, the Amish of Lancaster County, etc.).

Of the approximately 30,000 people killed by firearms in the United States during any one of the last ten years, just short of 2/3rds have been suicides.  Of the approximately 10,000 people murdered by gunshot, about 2/3rds were killed with a handgun.  Shotguns and rifles account for somewhat less than 10%.  The data on the variety of firearm used in the remaining 25% of murders seems to be unknown or unrecorded.  Some writers have invoked these statistics to suggest that “assault weapons” are too small a part of the overall problem to warrant regulation or an outright ban.  But their conclusion is founded upon the erroneous belief that a handgun cannot be an assault weapon (The Austrian Ministry of Defense clearly thought otherwise in 1980 when it selected Glock as the manufacturer of its semi-automatic pistols).

The Three Components of the Problem

Speaking analytically, mass shootings have three components: a malevolent shooter (or in a very few instances, shooters), one or (typically) more firearms, and a target location.

Examinations of what have by now become a tragically large number of such episodes points to an emerging “profile” of the “typical” mass shooter.  They are overwhelming white, male, between 17 and 35 years of age, and from small towns.  Most of them exhibit a fascination with violent games and movies, combined with little if any prior military experience (Wade Michael Page is an exception, although his poor record resulted in a General Discharge from the US Army, rendering him ineligible for reenlistment).  While, ex post, it has been found that most perpetrators were depressed, few of them had an “official record” at least in part because, being psychopaths rather than psychotic, they had few interactions with mental health professionals, and for that reason were not identified as a threat to society.

Let us turn to the qualities of weapons.  Relative to murderers and even serial murderers, mass shooters are more likely to use firearms that can be described as “assault weapons.”  Now, it must be understood that “assault weapon” is a popular but loose category, one that requires elaboration.  Usually implied in this term are semi- and fully-automatic rifles and handguns with detachable magazines that can hold ten or more rounds.  Precision requires a bit of context.

Soldiers are defenseless unless they can fire their weapon.  It follows that periods when the weapon is being reloaded are moments of vulnerability unless the soldier is being “covered” by companions.  As most mass shooters operate alone, the moments spent reloading are the single best opportunity for bystanders to charge the perpetrator, thereby bringing an end to their rampage.  As an example, the Tuscon shooting came to an end when Jared Lee Loughner attempted to change the 33 round magazine on his Glock semi-automatic pistol, which presented Patricia Maisch with an opportunity to grab it as other bystanders wrestled him to the ground.

In the 18th century, a well-trained soldier needed between 15 and 20 seconds to “prime and load” a musket after firing.  This means that four rounds a minute were his maximum sustainable rate of fire.  The bolt-action rifles that eventually replaced this weapon in the 19th century were not only more accurate, but the expended cartridge could be rapidly discharged and the firing chamber reloaded by merely pulling back and rotating a bolt on the side of the weapon.  This would take only 4-5 seconds depending upon the experience of the rifleman (today’s models, such as the Remington 700, a widely used hunting rifle with a 3 to 5 round internal magazine, are even faster).  The result was a substantial advance in the weapon’s offensive and defensive value.  Offensively, more shots may be fired per minute.  Defensively, there is less “down time” between shots, which reduces the rifleman’s vulnerability.

Let us consider the phrases “semi-automatic,” “fully-automatic,” and “selective fire.”  The quality of being “automatic” is all about reducing the lapse of time between the firing of rounds — an essential quality for any weapon to be useful for military or police purposes.  A semi-automatic weapon, which can be either a rifle (such as the A-15) or a pistol (such as the Glock), has the following quality. Upon pulling the trigger once, the weapon will fire, discharge the spent cartridge, and load a new round in the firing chamber without any further action on the part of the person firing it.

In the case of a fully-automatic weapon (such as the M16), all of the above will occur and the weapon will continue firing until such time as the person operating it releases the trigger, the magazine containing additional rounds empties, or the weapon jams.  The only factor limiting the rate of fire of a semi-automatic weapon is the speed with which one can pull the trigger.  By contrast, the limitation on the rate of fire of a fully automatic weapon is exclusively mechanical.  Consequently, the latter can fire at rates of between 450 and 900 rounds per minute (obviously, a soldier will have nowhere near enough ammunition on hand for this to be a sustainable rate of fire).  Finally, a selective fire weapon, such as the M16 (the military version of the A15), can be switched at will from semi- to fully- automatic.  Its most modern version, the M4, allows for an additional choice, a three round “burst.”

The final factor to consider is the locations favored by mass shooters.  As with their personalities, many factors are present, but the number of recent tragedies allows for the identification of some patterns.  In general and perhaps unsurprisingly, mass shooters are drawn to places where substantial numbers of unarmed persons congregate.  This suggests that these individuals are interested in killing while seeking to avoid a fight.  We do not see them going after “hard targets” such as police stations or border posts.  On the contrary, the locations they select have much in common, perspective-wise, with the violent video games and movies they seem to favor – where the “action figures” can act upon others without themselves being targets in any meaningful sense.  Stated simply, mass shooters are not “tough guys.”  Taken as a whole, they are distinctly cowards.  While they are clearly suicidal, they seem anxious to avoid a painful death.  While they are willing to kill themselves with a bullet to the head, or surrender to authorities, they appear equally anxious to avoid being shot in the course of their crime.  Of course, and most sickeningly, they do appear to take pleasure in imposing pain (and death) upon masses of people whom they have not met or otherwise interacted with.

What Can We Do?

From the above, it seems that there are essentially three “points of entry” for preventive measures.  We may enhance the monitoring and regulation of individuals.  We may enhance the regulation and monitoring of weapons. Or we may enhance the regulation and monitoring of spaces where large numbers of unarmed persons gather for fun, prayer, learning, or shopping.  Let us consider each of these, in rank order of their undesirability.

Greater Monitoring and Regulation of People

 For the past twenty years, there has been a strong and uninterrupted push by governments across the English-speaking world to increase the monitoring and surveillance of the citizenry.  CCTV cameras are ubiquitous in the United Kingdom and rapidly gaining ground across the United States and Australia.  National ID cards were a fascination of the Labour Party in the U.K. and are periodically raised in the United States.  Private data collection, NSA’s massive monitoring of all our communications, the evisceration of FISA under the flimsy guise of reform, data fusion centers, the insidious but persistent push for a national biometric data-base, and other efforts have each and severally been embraced by the political classes.  Whatever happens with firearms regulation, and we are already seeing it in the several Democratic Party proposals for “immigration reform,” we can be sure that increased monitoring of the citizenry will be part of the plan.  We already select whom to kill in Pakistan and elsewhere on the basis of a “disposition matrix,” and those who may or may not board an American flagged commercial aircraft are selected, secretly of course, by the same methods.  You can be certain that many of those who rule over us are itching to extend these information-based technologies to gun ownership for reasons other than the safety of the citizenry.

Just in case you do not know, a disposition matrix determining whether or not you could own a gun would likely draw upon criteria such as the status of your student loan, your credit rating, your employment history and whether or not you change jobs frequently, whether or not you adhere to an unpopular religion, things you have said by email or on your Facebook page, etc.  These and many other criteria could all be factors in the construction of such a matrix.  Again, as with those being barred from commercial aircraft, you would be deemed guilty until proven otherwise, you would not know the rationale for your having been barred, and there would likely be few, if any, grounds for appeal.  Big brother knows best.  As is always the case in these matters, being poor or individualistic are prominent “red flags.”  In short, the program would be just one more form of enforced homogenization of the population and its attitudes.  As mentioned, we have enough of this in the United States already.  Lets not present our government with yet one more rationale to secretly monitor and manage the population.

Securing Places Where the Public Congregates

What about securing more of the locations where innocents congregate?  This has been the “solution” advanced by the National Rifle Association and other self-styled 2nd Amendment protectors.  Their proposal is that more of us should carry weapons, and especially concealed weapons, in the hope that a modification of risk-factors will deter future shooters who, as indicated above, usually do not have any inclination to fight.  Now, if our focus is narrowly and exclusively to address the problem of mass shooters, this is not a completely stupid idea because, as we have seen, these are not “tough guys.”  Being fearful of pain and lacking much military experience, they are not prepared to handle the chaos of a shootout, even if (as would be likely) they had the inherent advantage of superior weaponry over a random civilian who happened to be nearby with a small pistol tucked into their handbag or under their coat.

Where the NRA is mistaken is in their belief that comparative firepower is the only consideration.  We know that suicides and accidental shootings rise sharply in households owning a gun, so it is likely that the total number of firearms deaths would rise.  Also, as fewer and fewer people have had any experience with the military, we have ever-fewer persons with any exposure to combat training.  Among other risks, we face the danger of a teacher’s weapon being grabbed by someone with evil intent, or of a civilian mistakenly shooting an innocent person in a panic.  Training America’s teachers, to say nothing of any substantial portion of civilians, in close-quarters combat, fire-discipline, and gun safety would seem to be both impractical and too expensive to be a serious solution.  Finally, the proposal to hire retired cops to wile away the day snoozing by the doors of our schools simply provides additional targets and the illusion of safety without adding much in the way of a deterrent.  Why?  Because the shooter will always have the element of surprise and it is unrealistic to expect an armed guard to be able to nullify that advantage by remaining at maximum vigilance throughout their shift.

Regulating the Qualities of Legally-Owned Weapons

This brings us to the qualities of the weapons circulating amongst the public.  Now, before we begin, let us be clear that the United States has always regulated the public’s access to weapons.  None of us can own or operate an F-18 fighter jet, a tank, or an artillery piece.  Neither may we own a heavy machine gun with its fully automatic features and light-armor-piercing .50 caliber rounds.  The principle as to whether or not the government may regulate the public’s access to certain classes of weapons has long been settled.  Our contemporary dispute is solely and exclusively about the variety of weapons that we may or may not own.

Let us, then, jump straight to the conclusion.  There is no reason why any law-abiding American civilian would ever need a semi- or fully-automatic weapon.  Rapidity of fire rather than accuracy is the only reason for such features and that quality, in itself, makes such weapons unsuited to our neighborhoods.  Moreover, there is no reason why a civilian would need a magazine that can hold more than seven rounds.  They should be banned.  I will add that the gun legislation recently passed by New York State’s does not “grandfather” large magazines already in the public’s possession, and I believe that any federal legislation would be wise to follow that example.  The problem is not the age of large magazines, it is their existence.  We don’t want them around.  Our police don’t want them around, and they should be illegal.  To ease the burden on those who purchased them in good faith, the government could offer to buy them back, perhaps at a reduced rate over time.  After a fixed period, owners of such magazines should be subject to non-trivial fines and other penalties.

The Counter-Arguments

But what of hunters?  Many people hunt for sport, but we should not ignore the fact that hunting makes a difference in the food budgets of many families.  Moreover, with the United States vigorously renewing its commitment to neoliberalism under Barack Obama, we can expect that the median family wage will to either continue the declines it suffered during his first term or the stagnation of the Bush terms that immediately preceded it.  Happily, the rules proposed above in no way impede hunting.  Hunters have freely selected their weapons for years and, for reasons of weight and accuracy, they overwhelmingly prefer bolt-action rifles.  Unsurprisingly, and for the same reason, the US military’s M24 sniper rifle is modified Remington 700 bolt-action rifle, so we can be confident that it is the superior firearm when accuracy is the primary consideration.

But what of defending our homes?  After all, with neoliberal economic policies, local budgets have been under pressure for decades.  One consequence has been a reduced police presence in the neighborhoods of the poor.  Simultaneously, that most stupid of all American wars – the War on Drugs – is continuing to support the growth of gangs.  For these reasons, many of our poorest citizens have been forced to contend with greater rates of violent crime even as they are increasingly dealing with it on their own. Are they not entitled to weapons with which to protect themselves?  While aggregate statistics support the propositions that increased gun ownership is correlated with increased accidental gun deaths and an increased probability of being the victim of a shooting, it is unreasonable for us to smugly suggest that statistical aggregates should define the choices of every citizen or family.  That said, it is hard to understand why any household would need a Glock semi-automatic pistol with one or more 19 or 33 round magazines for self-defense.  Anyone anticipating the possibility of such a destructive shootout in their home should be asking themselves some questions about what kinds of goods they are storing in that home.  The point is simple.  For most of the past hundred and fifty years, people who have felt the need for an additional level of home or personal protection have been well served by revolvers such as those manufactured by Smith & Wesson.  The ability to fire 5-7 rounds without reloading should be more than enough to deter anyone attempting to break into a home or, failing that, delay their progress until the police arrive.

In light of the above, the only constituency clearly harmed by the rules such as those proposed above would be “gun enthusiasts.”  Some people, as we know, enjoy owning and firing automatic weapons.  And let us be clear, they are not criminals and have no criminal intent.  While others may not share their taste in recreational activities, we should acknowledge that for some Americans laws such as those proposed here would constitute a positive harm.  However, all laws restrain the actions of a few in the interests of society.  This is no exception.  The point is to make such laws only when necessary.  Sadly, we cannot allow the recreational pleasures of a minority keep military-grade “weapons of mass destruction” legally available for anyone who can afford to purchase them.

There is a final point to consider.  A popular bumper sticker observes, “If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.”  This may be true.  But automatic weapons are complicated to use, especially if one is planning a mass shooting.  Potential perpetrators who have not had the benefit of military training will need opportunities to learn to use them and maintain their skills, which will be difficult if such weapons are illegal.  That, in itself would constitute a substantial addition to public safety.

The Deaths of Innocents: How to Understand “Collateral Damage”

Today, TransEx guest blogger Robert Prasch weighs in on the moral debate over the ethics of  US-led drone strikes and “unintended” casualties. He offers a provocative analogy that sheds some insight on the rhetoric of collateral damage.

 

Robert E. Prasch

By Robert E. Prasch

The devastating massacre that took place a few short weeks ago in Newtown moved hearts across the world.  It also rekindled several debates, one of which had  to do with the contrast between the West’s – fully understandable — horror at the mass death of children in Newtown, and the striking absence of an emotional response to the deaths of children “mistakenly” killed in U.S.-directed drone strikes.  This debate has received a significant amount of attention in the blogosphere, and less attention in the overseas press.  It has not been taken up at all by the United States mainstream press.  Moreover, in contrast to gun control, no major political party is interested in curtailing the United States’ several drone wars, despite its highly dubious ethical and legal foundations.

This debate turns, then, on how we in the West perceive the violent deaths of these non-Western children.  Two possible answers emerge.  The first is to maintain that “their” children simply aren’t worth that much anyway.  Hence, their deaths are insufficient grounds for concern.  It is a racist perspective, but it is consistent.  The second answer agrees that the violent death of any child, anywhere, is an equally terrible tragedy, as Falguni Sheth and Glenn Greenwald have argued.  Yet, many holding this view also contend that while they would agree that a tragedy occurred in Newtown, a similar moral status should not be ascribed to the many children who are the “accidental” casualties—even when these are the routine and predictable consequence of drone strikes.  To this line of thinking, the perception that a tragedy has occurred must turn upon the context of the death of the child and the motivation behind the killing.  The mere fact that one or more children have died by violence is insufficient to establish that a tragedy has occurred.  Consequently, the name ‘Adam Lanza’ is reviled for being the perpetrator of the Newtown massacre, but to suggest anything even remotely like a similar condemnation of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate is to associate oneself with a “lunatic fringe.”  Why is that?

The oft-repeated answer is that Adam Lanza intended to massacre children, whereas the approximately 200 children killed by President Barack Obama’s predator drone strikes were inadvertent.  In the military parlance that has been all-too-willingly adopted in this country, the latter were collateral damage (even when the term does not legally describe CIA-led drone strikes).  This answer suggests that the mere fact of a child’s death should have little relevance in our evaluation of the ethics of an action taken if killing a child was not the set priority of the person taking that action.  It just happened.  Bummer.

As an aside, I would, like to believe that even those who support the predator drone program might want the president to apologize, or at least offer condolences, to the families who have lost children in these strikes (Please do not tell me that he has not done so because the program is “secret.” Most people living outside the US know exactly which government is organizing and executing these attacks).

Let’s return to the ethical calculation implicit in the ascription of the deaths of 200 children to collateral damage:  To highlight the salient characteristics, I will draw upon an analogy:  the decision to use a pharmaceutical drug.  We have all been exposed to the advertising of drugs that – we are told — can cure one or more ailments.  We are also aware that each drug advertisement concludes with a list of warnings about known “side-effects.”  However, as a matter of simple biology, drugs do not have “side-effects.”  They only have “effects.”  Calling the positive outcomes “effects,” and the bad outcomes “side effects,” is simply a spin by the drug manufacturer’s marketing department that is designed to appeal to our hopes of a positive result.

In an organism as complex as the human body, the effects of a drug are probabilistic.  That is to say that, after an adequate number of clinical trials, researchers can acquire a defensible estimate that a given drug–let us call it N–will have the effects A, B, and C, with the probabilities x, y, and z.  Let us suppose that effect A, which occurs with probability x, is a highly desirable outcome.  Perhaps it can save a patient from death by heart disease.  However, as mature and informed adults, we also understand that if drug N is used often enough, by enough people, the undesirable effects B and C will occur with probabilities y and z.  This latter reality is the basis for the government-mandated warnings on TV (Obviously, any given person using N might be “lucky” and only experience A, or they might be “unlucky” and only experience B and C without the benefit of A occurring).

Every society and adult considering the use of N must weigh the benefit of A, subject to the probability of it occurring, against the risk-adjusted damage to society and ourselves that may be anticipated in the event that B and/or C occurs.  In some cases, such as curing a heart condition, we may calculate that the risk is worth taking.  But what if A is simply a cure for teenage acne?  We may decide that the risks outweigh the benefits, although we can be sure that teenagers, famously known for undervaluing risks, will protest.

Drawing upon the above, let us return to the matter of missiles launched by predator drones into someone else’s country.  Even if we assume (although we have little reason to do so) that such strikes support good outcomes, it’s still the case that – as with the drug described above – the destruction wreaked by these missiles cannot be nicely codified into intended targets (good) and collateral damage (bad).  On the contrary, they destroy everything and everyone around them upon detonation.  Period.  In a manner parallel to a drug company’s sales pitch, the U.S. government classifies some deaths as “good” if it exclusively kills “targeted terrorists” (how this term has come to encompass all military age males has been much discussed by others).  Anyone else killed, whether a group en route to a wedding party or children who happened to be nearby, are subject to a cover-up or labeled “collateral damage.”

The difficulty with this naïve classification is that we now – for better or worse — have observed an enormous number of missile strikes, so we have a good idea of the likely distribution of effects.  Even if we accept the government’s own classification which, as we know, is overwhelmingly biased against concluding that innocents died (again, assuming that the government has legitimate grounds to conduct these attacks), then we must acknowledge that those ordering further attacks have found the death rate of innocent persons and other people’s children to be within the zone of predictable but tolerable outcomes.  Why tolerable?  Because we have enough information to estimate the rate of innocent deaths to be expected per-missile-launched and the program is still continuing.  It follows that such a calculation has been made, if only implicitly, and the calculus – at least to those making the decision – has been found to be within an acceptable range.

I also want to highlight an important disanalogy with the pharmacological example given above.  If I decide to ingest drug N in the hopes of effect A, but end up suffering from results B and C, the decision and its consequences all accrue to me and those who care about me.  A most notable quality of the drone program is that its benefits (if any) accrue almost exclusively to Americans, while the associated costs and risks (which are known to be substantial) are being borne almost exclusively by “Foreign Others.”  Moreover, it is not a stretch to suppose that these latter persons may not wish to live every minute of every day worrying about the chances that someone very far away – oops! – mistook the “disposition” of themselves or their loved ones to be correlated with actual or potential hostility towards a faraway nation. (Also neglected by the Administration and the mainstream media is any consideration that the hostility of the communities being bombed may grow in tandem with the size and duration of this missile program).

In light of the above, American citizens have a right to know the explicit or implicit formula that validates the “costs” of killing a certain number of other people’s children per-missile-launched as weighed against the (presumptive) “benefits” of killing a certain number of persons who have exhibited a subset of the as-yet-still-secret “dispositions.”  The contours of this calculus are something that should be, at a minimum, the subject of a substantial public discussion and full accounting by the highest echelons of our government.  Are four persons of “bad disposition” worth the life of one innocent child?  Is the break-even number six?  Perhaps it is ten?   We are entitled to this answer and its underlying logic.