An invitation to parse this explanation. or why the humanities matter

The question:  Do these boisterous celebrations – chanting and frat-party revelry – of Osama’s death mean we are just like the terrorists?

The Answer:  No.

The explanation: 

The answer is no, social scientists say: it makes us look like human beings. In an array of research, both inside laboratories and out in the world, psychologists have shown that the appetite for revenge is a sensitive measure of how a society perceives both the seriousness of a crime and any larger threat that its perpetrator may pose.

Revenge is most satisfying when there are strong reasons for exacting it, both practical and emotional.

“Revenge evolved as a deterrent, to impose a cost on people who threaten a community and to reach into the heads of others who may be contemplating similar behavior,” said Michael McCullough, a psychologist at the University of Miami

Perhaps my favorite part:

“Pure existential release,” said Tom Pyszczynski, a social psychologist at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, who has studied reactions to 9/11. “Whether or not the killing makes any difference in the effectiveness of Al Qaeda hardly matters; defeating an enemy who threatens your worldview, the very values you believe are most protective, is the quickest way to calm existential anxiety.”

So we are not like the terrorists, because they are not human? 

Anyone think the author of this article could use a philosophy course?  In feminist ethics?

53 thoughts on “An invitation to parse this explanation. or why the humanities matter

  1. Maybe he could use a course in classical literature.

    The Greeks would have seen celebrating someone’s death as hubris,
    soon to be punished by the gods.

  2. True: this explanation isn’t very good. But isn’t there a moral difference between celebrating the death of a mass murderer and celebrating a mass murder?

  3. Difference between celebrating the death of a mass murderer and celebrating a mass murder? I wonder how the families of the victims of the Haditha Massacre would feel about that statement? Or the families of the several hundred thousand Iraqi civillians–women, children and elderly people listed as “collateral damage” in the war?

    Watching those young things dancing in front of the Whitehouse gave me the same chill I got from watching the people in clown costumes who celebrated Ted Bundy’s execution. Of course Bin Laden and Bundy were monsters. But there’s something truly vile about the thought of letting a monster turn me into the same type of ghoul. Last-resort acts of violence should be carried out from a place of reverence for the humanity of those we’re trying to protect, AND the humanity of the innocents who may be caught in the crossfire, not from a place of perverse glee at the suffering of the guilty.

  4. My deepest respect for President O’s refusal to release the Trophy Shot of Bin Laden. I’m sure he’s painfully aware of the way past generations of Americans “calmed existential anxiety” with these postcards:

    I’ll draw your attention to Slides #27 and 28, one of very few postcards in the gallery where proof of the guilt of the individuals photographed was confirmed. Do any of you philosophers believe that their guilt makes the lynchmob’s behaviour acceptable?

  5. “Difference between celebrating the death of a mass murderer and celebrating a mass murder? I wonder how … the families of the several hundred thousand Iraqi civillians–women, children and elderly people listed as “collateral damage” in the war?”

    Thanks, Xena. I was thinking of just this point.

    I should add that the point of the post wasn’t to say we are like mass murderers, though no doubt in the eyes of many we are. But it was really to look at the argument that celebration at the achievement of revenge is only human and so not so bad. Couldn’t we say the same of envy and greed? Don’t we think controlling human impulses can be better than acting on them?

  6. Yes, JJ. Who is exacting justice, and who is a mass murderer depends a great deal on the worldview of the person judging the act. Likewise with the difference between an entrepreneur and a thief/slavedriver.

    Being human also includes our capacity for foresight and second thought when a rash impulse could damage our own and others’ ability to get along.

  7. I’m not sure I understand the relevance of the death of the Iraqi civilians. Nobody is talking about how we are warranted in celebrating their deaths. This is a distracting point. The reason we are not (and I know of zero examples of anyone celebrating the death of Iraqi civilians) is because they were civilians, as were the people who died in the twin towers.

    All I wanted to point out is that it doesn’t follow that celebrating the death of a person who admitted to, and was proud of, planning the deaths of many is the same as celebrating the deaths of civilians. Granted, some worldviews might have it that people in the offices of the twin towers were murderers, just as some worldviews had it that Jews were vile subhumans who needed to be exterminated. It seems to me perfectly acceptable to think that the death of the person who had that worldview (and who really tried to implement it) was a good thing.

    As to this: “Being human also includes our capacity for foresight and second thought when a rash impulse could damage our own and others’ ability to get along.” Who do you have in mind? Can’t a person who *doesn’t* think that Osama bin Laden’s death is a good thing be criticized by those who do on exactly symmetrical grounds? Why not think that my first impulse would be to not be happy about it, but because I want to get along with my fellow citizens, my considered opinion should be to be happy about it?

    JJ makes a very good point: the original article was terrible because it does not make clear why celebrating is okay because it’s “natural” in some sense. And yes, why wouldn’t that warrant acts of greed, or road rage? It does seem that many people who celebrated Osama bin Laden’s death did so in a rash, impulsive way. But it doesn’t follow that there isn’t a much better reason for celebrating his death.

  8. Finally, as to this: “Who is exacting justice, and who is a mass murderer depends a great deal on the worldview of the person judging the act. Likewise with the difference between an entrepreneur and a thief/slavedriver.”

    Yes, this is true. Some might see the September 11th event as an act of justice being done, others as an act of mass murder, others as both, others as neither. But unless you conflate the killing of Osama bin Laden with the Iraq war, his death is most certainly *not* a mass murder. We can reasonably disagree about whether it was an instance of justice being done, and maybe even if it was a case of murder; but if you insist that his death was an instance of mass murder in the way the deaths of the people in the twin towers was, you are simply wrong (unless you think one bin Laden is worth a few thousand civilians).

    One can absolutely be opposed to the Iraq war in principle and in practice, as I am. That has nothing to do with being glad that bin Laden is dead.

  9. C, I think the relevance of the earlier remark may depend on how one might fill out ” But isn’t there a moral difference between celebrating the death of a mass murderer and celebrating a mass murder?”

    If we added “which we are not doing” then the Iraqi deaths are not relevant, but the whole thing is much weaker than if we filled it out “which we wouldn’t do.”. And now it seems to me relevant, because the fact of our tolerance of civilian deaths puts in question whether we can claim such moral refinement.

  10. To elaborate: the reference to the iraqi death is implying that we may not be any better than those who do celebrate mass murders.

  11. JJ: That’s a good point, but I’m not sure that tolerating is the same as celebrating, particularly given that “tolerating” is rather ambiguous. I’m tolerating the deaths in Iraq the same way that I’m “tolerating” the plight of prisoners in North Korean detention camps: by thinking that it’s morally deplorable, that it would be better for pretty much everybody if the world weren’t that way, and by personally doing very little in the way of direct action to change the situation. But in no way am I celebrating either of these: it seems to me that a necessary condition for “celebrating” is thinking that the thing in question is a good thing.

    Granted, there are some that might have nothing more than a simplistic “America! F-yeah!” attitude when it comes to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Osama bin Laden, lumping it all together. But then the “our” that you’re referring to (“our tolerance of civilian deaths”) is something of a straw person. To be clear, I think such simplistic views should be criticized, and it’s an empirical question (to which I have no answer) how many people actually have such a simplistic view. But that’s a different issue altogether.

    All I really wanted to point out is that I think there’s a real issue about the content of what’s being celebrated. Statements like this: “But there’s something truly vile about the thought of letting a monster turn me into the same type of ghoul.” should, I think, be resisted. In the example given there, to be the “same type” as Ted Bundy would require Ted Bundy being able to turn you into a person who takes pleasure in deceiving and murdering women (because that’s what he did). Maybe one can think that his acts are morally equivalent to taking pleasure in learning about the death of a person who has murdered many people. But I think we really need an argument to that effect. And I think we need an argument to the effect that being happy about civilians dying (and not just tolerating that fact) is morally equivalent to being happy about a self-described murdered dying.

  12. That was, er, creative, C. The whole point of the Iraq war as it was sold to the public was to find terrorists and bring them to justice. Bin Laden, Sadam, whatever, whatever. Their names all run together after a few decades.

    Bin Laden was one man. The number of innocent civillians killed during the search to find him and other terrorists are reported at anywhere from 60 000 to 600 000, depending on which estimate you choose to believe. I’m saying that the number of innocents killed ON THE WAY to Bin Laden’s death is likely to be interpreted by those civilians’ families as a mass murder orchestrated by the Americans. Thus, the Americans may be perceived as celebrating the act of mass murder required to get to Bin Laden.

    I brought up the Haditha Massacre because it’s at least connected with 9/11, the War on Terror and Bin Laden. I could have just as easily used the Canadian soldiers who tortured the Somalian boy to death in 1993. Fair’s fair. Nobody threw a party when they were brought to justice, probably because of those boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

    I used the Lynching Postcard Industry as an example of the way those boundaries often have to be torn down over decades or centuries. Behaviour that used to be a perfectly acceptable night out, a ‘coon barbecue’ (I’m about to heave over the term–most definitely NOT my words) has left wounds in the collective American psyche that may take ANOTHER 145 years to heal. Black or white, the VERY few guilty individuals pictured on those postcards were a threat to their communities, and those communities did need to stop them. But dancing and laughing and bringing children to celebrate even a guilty person’s mild suffering is the callous behaviour of a sore winner. When the guilty person in question is dead, the celebrating is nothing short of ghoulish, ESPECIALLY when hate crimes are committed on the way to justice, or when justice is used as an excuse to commit hate crimes. And people remember that ghoulishness for decades or centuries.

    I’m not conflating Bin Laden’s death with the accidents and hate crimes committed on the way to justice. I’m simply pointing out that people do. And that Sore Winner/Vengeful Loser dynamic is exactly what keeps cycles of INJUSTICE spiraling out of control. Justice is not about power over evildoers. It’s about fairness to the victims of the evildoers. So if y’all are worried about another terrorist attack as revenge for Bin Laden’s death, y’all might want to show a little more respect to the innocents, and quit treating dead people like freakshows, toilets and trampolines. Who am I to tell the Americans anything? Just the granddaughter of a Canadian WWII vet and an Irish Catholic who got disowned for marrying Protestant, if you know what I’m sayin.

    Btw, I pointed out that Bin Laden IS a monster. I don’t like Xtian dichotomizing, but I might even be tempted to use the word evil to describe him. I am relieved that he’s been brought to justice, just as I’m relieved when I finish bleeding every month. But that too is a yucky part of my humanity that I deal with as I have to, and would not hang from a tree to celebrate ;-)

  13. Xena, you make some good points, but they’re largely non sequiturs.

    Yes, people conflate Iraq, Afghanistan, Saddam, bin Laden. That doesn’t mean that we need to.

    And yes, people might perceive celebrating bin Laden’s death as celebrating those things we were told it would take to reach that end. But that’s just bad reasoning on their part, reasoning to which we ought not be beholden.

    If the argument is that we shouldn’t do something (celebrate OBL’s death) because it might have bad consequences (others will get the wrong idea, thinking we’re celebrating Iraqi civilian deaths), fine. But that’s a bad argument. Here’s a similar argument: we shouldn’t do something (allow the practice of Islam) because it might have bad consequences (others will get the wrong idea, because they can’t distinguish the religion of Islam from Al Qaeda). That’s a terrible argument: instead, we should tell others why they’re wrong: they need to distinguish Islam from Al Qaeda, and they need to distinguish being glad that OBL is dead from being glad that Iraqi civilians are dead. I’m glad Hitler’s dead: it doesn’t follow (and somebody would be mistaken in thinking that it did) that I’m glad that *a single other person* is dead, civilian or military, whether they actually had to die in order for him to be dead or not.

    Also, nobody said a thing about “worried about another terrorist attack as revenge for Bin Laden’s death”, so I don’t know who you’re speaking to.

  14. Oh, and C, “the same type of ghoul” imo, is simply somebody who conflates violence and revenge with justice, for the sake of feeling ‘better’ or more powerful than another person. Many of the serial killers and rapists I’ve studied state this as a motivation. Even if the person doesn’t become a serial killer because of that approach to his/her worldview, I can’t think of many people who consistently express that worldview who are pleasant to be around. I most certainly would not want to adopt that worldview for myself.

    *Note, Bundy was not one of the serial killers who stated power or revenge as his motive. If I remember correctly, nobody could figure Bundy out. I do remember that he was a sociopath, and an extremely convincing liar. So I will concede that nothing short of just the right type of head injury could turn me into that particular type of monster.

  15. @C, #15.
    Who’s conflating one thing with another now? I didn’t say “Don’t BE glad.” I said “Don’t dress up in clown costumes, dance around and swing from trees to demonstrate your gladness. And don’t treat the dead like freakshows, toilets or trampolines.” I’m criticizing the rudeness of the spectacle, not the emotion itself.

    I’m pretty sure we’ve all had the urge to engage in offensive behaviours. The point, as I’ve already said, is to control those urges, for the sake of showing courtesy to the traumatized innocents who may be watching.

    Read my comments a little more carefully, please. You ask who I’m addressing. I’m speaking to y’all, as in any and all Americans who may be reading this blog, who may be nervous about all of the news broadcasts about Al Queda/Extremist retaliation. If I were still addressing C, I would have used a different pronoun. Have you ever met a Canadian who uses that expression when addressing a particular individual? Have you ever met a Canadian who uses that expression at all, except when a group of Americans is the focus of the discussion?

    If you, C, are not worried about anymore terrorist attacks, then just say so.

    And if you prefer, I could make this one a deontological argument. Consider yourself lucky you’re witnessing this. I don’t do it very often, but my own rituals and taboos surrounding death are compelling enough that I could invoke the first 2 forms of the CI here:
    Vulgar displays against a felled opponent trample the feelings of the innocents who have lost loved ones in the war. Even Hitler had a mother and a wife. The innocent people in the nations torn apart in the War on Terror are human beings, with the same intrinsic worth that we all share. We dishonour their humanity and our own when we dance and swing from trees over the thought of somebody’s death. I can honestly say that I believe the world would be a better place if I could will everybody to approach death, any death, even a murderer’s death as an event to contemplate quietly, without some vulgar celebration, whether we feel relieved, or not.

  16. So if I’m in favor of restorative justice programs and think punitive systems need to be abolished, does that mean I’m not human because I don’t want revenge?

  17. That’s exactly why I prefer consequentialist arguments, pianycist. I didn’t want to drag that argument with C on all day. Note my disclaimer in #17: “Consider yoursel(ves) lucky you’re witnessing this.” C’s second last paragraph in comment#15 suggested his/her budding preference for Kant. Rather than going on and on about my problems with Kant (see the work of Charles W. Mills), I decided to cut to the root of our disagreement by addressing what I surmised to be the cause of the miscommunication. I thought I’d try rephrasing my statements in C’s preferred lexicon.

    Another issue I have with deontological arguments is that it’s too easy to mistake words like “dishonour”, which point to intangible and highly subjective states, for words like “obliterate”. Dishonouring a person’s humanity is not the same as removing it. Dishonouring as I meant it is “adding insult to injury”, further harming the victims, setting up a dichotomy that could be likened to predator and prey. Does this false dichotomy LITERALLY turn the murderer/punitive justice seeker and the victim into a coyote and a bunny rabbit or other non-human duo? Absolutely not. That’s why I said “dishonour”. It’s vague enough and universal enough to work with diverse reinterpretations. Except one where the word “remove” is substituted for “dishonour.”

    Also, I referred to people who ENACT revenge, engage in ritualized and carnivalesque displays over corpses, murder, maim, etc. as monsters. Again, the behaviour and the emotion ARE NOT the same thing. Whether YOU WANT revenge or not was never a consideration in the point I was trying to make. If YOU TAKE gruesome revenge, yes, I would question your humanity SILENTLY with as little further harm to the people around you as possible.

    If YOU DON’T WANT revenge and favour restorative justice programs, you and I are in agreement. (Though sometimes killing a person IS the minimum force required to stop him.)

    Am I using too many conjunctive clauses and prepositional phrases in my sentences? Or are people just reading me too quickly?

  18. *Note, pianycist, there’s a difference between locking up offenders to prevent further harm to potential victims and locking them up to punish them, so we may only be in partial agreement.

    Unless of course, you’re trying to be funny. Funny’s always good :-)

  19. Nice blog, btw. I couldn’t get in there to comment, tho. Do you allow commenters?

  20. Re the references to Iraqi civilian “collateral damage” from coalition attacks, here’s a link to a recent independent, peer-reviewed study (which should be getting more press than it has):

    Basically, the study concludes that of about 92,000 Iraqi civilian violent deaths from the beginning of the war through 2008, only 12% were perpetrated by coalition forces. The vast majority of violent civilian deaths were due to criminal and/or terroristic acts (kidnap/executions, road bombers, car bombers, suicide bombers and so forth) associated generally with anti-coalition actors. Some deaths were also collateral damage from insurgent military actions.

    This is worth bearing in mind, especially when it’s a received position for many folks that hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians have been felled by U.S. bombs and bullets.

  21. Nemo, the IBC numbers are very controversial. The bbc, following a British company, puts the toll at a million at least. If you google around, you’ll see a lot of scepticism of the I B C.

  22. Jj, I’m aware of that. More important to the study (which simply used the IBC aggregate number data) and my comment is the very low proportion of coalition-inflicted collateral damage (in the conventional sense) – a proportion that also dropped off sharply after the first few weeks according to the study.

    The Wikipedia entry on “Casualties of the Iraq War” has a good overview of the wide-ranging figures proposed. We could reject the IBC number as an outlier, but the million-casualty figure is farther from the median. At any rate, I think far more than a million aggregate civilian deaths by violence would be required for it to be the case that “hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilian casualties could be laid at the feet of coalition military forces. Yet there are many people who uncritically believe just that.

  23. It could take 15 years after a peace treaty to even come close to a reasonable estimate of who killed whom and how. 10 years after the Dayton Accord, forensics experts had only found and identified about half of the people reported missing during the war in the former Yugoslavia.
    They’re still digging up nasties from both world wars.

    I’ve seen enough war footage from the last hundred years to lean toward believing the reports of the uglier numbers and the uglier acts, personally. War brings out some of the most dispicable tendencies in people.

    We can have this discussion in 20 years, if you’d like. They should have more or less complete and somewhat accurate reports available for us by then, I mean, if you want to examine the claims critically.

  24. I think it goes without saying what 12% of a million is. What I don’t understand, Xena, is how seeing any amount of war footage from the last hundred years actually militates in favour of a 1,000,000 figure any more than a 100,000 figure, such that it would incline someone more toward one than another in a particular case.

    That makes about as little sense to me as saying that I favour the IBC figure because it’s closer to the number of civilian casualties from the Boer War, or the 1M figure because it’s closer to the number of civilian casualties from WWII.

    (Going back to what jj said, by the way, the 1M figure (in addition to being the greatest outlier among the calculations presented on Wikipedia) has been subjected to as much criticism as the IBC figure.)

    It’s also not clear to me what relationship you’re suggesting between despicable wartime tendencies and collateral casualties.

    I guess this is a discussion people will be having more fruitfully in years to come. But regardless of what the civilian casualty figures are understood to be at that time, I think we already know enough to have grounds for believing that the Iraq War can be distinguished from just about any previous military conflict by the general solicitude for civilians that one side showed, manifested in everything from the rules of engagement they adopted to the precision munitions they favoured. Would you agree with that?

  25. Here’s another interesting report:

    Our analysis of the WikiLeaks Iraq War Logs suggests that hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed since the invasion of Iraq. The widespread dissemination of a contrary message is a profound testimony of the US media’s inability to digest detailed reports with detailed analysis. It took 10 minutes of initial review of the Iraq War Logs for the study team to realize most events outside of Baghdad did not even have a comparable event in the same Governorate that day in IBC. Thus, while this analysis represents hundreds of hours of work, a brief check of a handful of reports would have shown any reporter writing about the WikiLeaks October releases that most of these killings were previously un-reported.

    They actually present a detailed analysis of source and links to lots of independent documents.

  26. Nemo, what I’m saying is that through watching umpteen hours of war footage, a general pattern starts to emerge. The amount of “collateral damage” estimated during a war is usually less than what is discovered once the war is over, when mass graves are exhumed, POW camps, concentration camps, and sex slavery operations are investigated.

    One *could* also count the deaths due to health problems that survivors suffer generations later, from living in a war ravaged and poisonous environment. The equipment where I’m working isn’t so great, so you’ll have to find the footage for yourself if you’re interested. Look up the Canadian documentary from the National Film Board, Remnants of War. I believe the copyright date is 2001.

    No matter how strict the Rules of Engagement, it only takes a few battle stressed men to commit a massacre and then bury the evidence so deep that it takes another decade to find it. Otherwise heterosexual men have been known to lose their minds during wartime and start raping their male POWs and the male children of civilians, bludgeoning them to death in the process.This was common in concentration camps in Bosnia. Accounts by Chechens living in the smouldering ruins of Grozny mention the temptation to cannibalize the dead, when food shortages struck. Nobody admitted to actually doing so. But I wasn’t there. And for all the WarPorn available, reporters have at least given victims that last shred of their dignity. When/if victims are cannibalized, the media does not discuss it.

    We like to believe that our soldiers are all honourable men and women who bravely sacrifice themselves to protect us. A majority of them probably are. But nobody is immune to battle stress. Americans, Canadians, Swedes, French, Russians, Chechens, Iraqi, Israeli, Hutu, Tutsi…All are just as likely to become war criminals or war heroes given the right combination of stress and opportunity. ‘We’ are no more ‘noble’ than any other group in that respect.

    I’d like to believe that Americans are taking great care to avoid civilian casualties. I love Americans, and I hate this stupid war. The fewer dead, disabled and psychotic Americans come out of this, the better. But like I said, I’ll believe that comparatively few war crimes/stupid accidents were committed by the coalition forces in 20 years or so, when a reasonable amount of forensic evidence is available.

  27. S. Wallerstein, depleted uranium is used in things like cannon rounds. My reference was to guided munitions like smart bombs, which are designed to minimize collateral damage.

    Xena, no one is denying that its possible for such things to occur in secret. But while we don’t have all the information, I think you’re overlooking the fact that we do have a lot of information available – and what we do know is not irrelevant to an assessment of the (im)probability of discovering in future the things you’re talking about on a significant scale.

    We know a great deal about coalition soldiers:

    -their rules of engagement
    -the nature and level of their training
    -the tactics they typically employ
    -the types of weapons they use

    We also know that their activities, generally speaking, are subjected to a degree of scrutiny unthinkable in past conflicts – or even for most other contemporary armed forces. (Not a lot of embedded reporters with the Serb army.)

    Indeed, I would venture to suggest that, while war will always hold back some unpleasant surprises, it is likely that we have more information generally available to us about the Iraq war than about most historical conflicts.

    I could go on. But the point is, while we don’t know everything that’s out there, I think we can draw some reasonable inferences about the likely scope and extent of what we haven’t found. The known factors greatly reduce the likelihood of things like war crimes, atrocities and indiscriminate collateral damage occurring on a large scale, particularly vis-a-vis just about every other military campaign.

    Also, while you’re correct that someone in any armed force could commit war crimes under the right combination of circumstances, I think it is flat-out implausible to say that “All are just as likely to become war criminals”. Don’t you think things like training, tactics, etc. impact this likelihood? To say nothing of things like the civilian culture from which soldiers are drawn and the military institutional culture in which they serve? I don’t know if coalition soldiers are more “noble” than Chechen, Serb or Hutu soldiers, but there is every objective reason to believe that they are substantially less likely to perpetrate atrocities and indiscriminate civilian casualties.

    I think you doth protest too much about wanting to believe that coalition armed forces take care to avoid civilian casualties and war crimes. I expect you want to believe that your neighbour isn’t a serial killer, but would prefer to reserve judgment until they’ve dug up his garden…

  28. Nemo:

    I don’t think that the point is whether U.S. soldiers are less likely to carry out atrocities than Hutu or Serb soldiers (you pick very extreme examples, don’t you?), but whether once the dogs of war are unleashed (to use a classic phrase), horrible things happen to innocent civilians and whether in this case, that is, of Iraq, there were justified ethical and legal reasons to unleash those dogs.

    I myself believe that there were neither justified ethical or legal reasons to invade Iraq and that makes the countless civilian deaths all the more tragic.

    It very well may be that the U.S. invasion of Iraq produces less collateral damage than the U.S. invasion of France in 1944, but somehow I have the impression that in the second case there was a just cause and in Iraq, a very dubious cause.

  29. Yep. I am using too many conjunctive clauses. I said all are just as likely to become war criminals OR war heroes.

  30. And, yeah. What Amos said.

    Excuse me if I’m getting too personal, Amos. Don’t answer this question if it makes you uncomfortable. You’ve lived through war, right?

  31. Xena:

    No, I’ve never been in a war.

    I’ve been in the situation where the Army was shooting bullets in my general direction, but that would be called repression of protest, not war. I was unarmed and I kept close to the ground.

  32. S. Wallerstein, I didn’t pick the examples; they were raised in Xena’s post to which I was responding (only the first paragraph of my previous post was directed to you). I agree that some of them were were extreme, which is part of the reason I was taken aback.

    Xena, regarding #34, I’d like to get clarification as to what you were asserting about Americans, Canadians, Swedes, French, Russians, Chechens, Iraqi, Israeli, Hutu, and Tutsi soldiers. Were you suggesting that each of those groups, when fighting, has a comparable tendency or likelihood of engaging in war crimes? Or that we should expect the proportion of war criminals in each group to be matched by its proportion of war heroes? Or something else?

  33. I was saying that I favour theories of human behaviour that point to our shared biological inheritance as a determinant of extreme cruelty under lengthy exposure to appalling conditions, more so than cultural norms..

    I don’t need to dig up my neighbour’s garden to find out whether or not he’s a serial killer, as long as I’m reasonably certain that my neighbour is living under the conditions required for basic human comfort, dignity, intellectual growth and mutual courtesy.

    I was saying that war is hell, and even the most considerate people among us can make mistakes or get downright vicious when they are under attack and being deprived of food and basic medical attention for months and years at a time.

    Let me revise the typo in comment#30. It only takes a few battle stressed men and/or women to commit a massacre. Women have also committed atrocities during wartime. German women have traditionally revered and honoured their duties to “church, kitchen and children”, yet women committed some thoroughly indecent acts against concentration camp inmates during WWII. Other German men and women went against everything that a thousand years of culturally ingrained antisemitism taught them, and risked their lives to save holocaust victims.

    Here in Canada, the highest rates of wife battering are among police officers and military men. (double check that statistic if you’d like–it came from a social worker and military wife whose expertise I trust–I didn’t cross reference it tho.) That says something to me about constant exposure to violence as a culprit for vicious acts, more so than culture. Our overall murder rate here is only around 600-700/year. Other violent crime rates fluctuate according to a number of factors. Take your pick of explanatory hypotheses. But our overall stats on violent acts at home have been consistently low, compared to other countries.

    And yet Canadian soldiers have committed rape and other war crimes too. It’s the right combination of battle stress and opportunity, not culture that makes a war criminal.

  34. Xena,

    I can agree, so far as it goes, that the “right combination of battle stress and opportunity” can lead to the commission of a war crime (by “right combination”, we mean of course that particular combination that is likely to trigger one in a given case. However, it stands to reason that the “right combination” is not necessarily the same across all armed forces (much less among all soldiers in an armed force), and it seems counterintuitive not to expect culture to influence what the “right combination” will tend to be for soldiers in a particular armed force. That Canadian soldiers may have committed war crimes in no way suggests, by itself, that culture is not a factor here. Perhaps it suggests that you can’t reduce to zero the probability that some set of individuals within a country’s armed forces will commit a war crime at some point – but I think we all knew that already.

    You’ve indicated that you are reluctant to suppose that the coalition forces are likely to have committed “comparatively few war crimes” in Iraq. (Compared, that is, to other armed forces in other armed conflicts.)

    Here’s how I think a detached and rational observer approaches this question. The war in Iraq has been prosecuted by armed forces:

    -who are comparatively well trained (including on the law of war) and experienced
    -who are typically operating under comparatively restrictive rules of engagement designed to minimise loss of innocent life
    -who are known to be comparatively partial to weapons and tactics likewise intended to minimise loss of innocent life
    -who benefit from comparatively high situational awareness, comparatively good communication with each other and with their command chain, and comparatively low susceptibility to the “fog of war”
    -who are comparatively well cared-for, fed, equipped, paid and in contact with their families while serving
    -who are subject to a comparatively well-developed military justice system
    -who come from cultures that (I hope I may say without contradiction) place a comparatively high value on innocent human life
    -who are subject to a comparatively high degree of scrutiny from both military and civilian leadership, as well as from the international public

    Now ask yourself: Would you expect that members of the above-described armed force are:

    (a) likely to commit comparatively few war crimes,
    (b) almost certain to commit comparatively few war crimes (if any)?

    (Apologies to S. Colbert for the multiple choice format.)

  35. @Nemo: I’m not entirely in agreement that US forces deployed in Iraq meet each of the 8 points of your criteria. I will respond point by point, providing links to prove my arguments where I disagree. This will require more than one response, as I will have to post multiple links. feministphilosophers’ spam filter doesn’t allow that.

    1) I agree. The US Armed Forces are right to be proud of their training.

    2) I am mostly in agreement. However, rules are subject to re-interpretation and/or misinterpretation. A small percentage of people blatantly defy the rules.

    3) After reading SW’s link, I remain skeptical about this claim. However, I’ll have to suspend judgement pending more proof. Feel free to post as many links as the site administrators will allow to back up your claim.

    4) WRONG.

  36. The uncontrollable outbursts that go along with PTSD are also completely unpredictable. A truck driver picked me up in Ohio in early 1989, about 6 months before my 17th birthday, and drove a long distance with me. He was polite and offered to let me sleep in his bunk while he drove. Until he asked to lie down beside me. Well, I was worried about him creeping on me. It turns out that was the least of my worries. He spent most of the night jumping around (yes, he had one of those nice aerodyne KW trucks that allow a person to stand up) flinging his arms as if he was either fighting or throwing I don’t even want to know what kind of projectiles. He was screaming “COME ON COME ON COME ON!” swearing, etc. I spent most of the night awake and huddled in the corner of his bunk, hoping he couldn’t see me. Had it been April instead of January, I would not have stayed, but dying of hypothermia didn’t sound very attractive either.

    In the morning, he acted like nothing had happened. I made up an excuse to leave. He was fine with it.

    I’m not qualified to diagnose the man, but he appeared to be about the right age to have served in Viet Nam. And he had a driver’s license that is very difficult for sufferers of other psychiatric disorders to earn. I’m fairly certain, in retrospect, that he was a PTSD sufferer. I’m just glad it didn’t occur to him to look for his gun, if he had one.

  37. 5) I agree. US military personnel are very well fed, well equipped, and offered R&R when appropriate. However, as noted above, the way the US military addresses PTSD symptoms leaves much to be desired. I’ve also heard some debate about compensation for those wounded in the line of duty, tho I haven’t read about enough complaints to warrant serious disagreement on this point.

    Also, there was a post about a year ago on this site pertaining to rape and unfair treatment surrounding abortions among female soldiers serving in Iraq. I’ll see if I can find it for you. The post warrants some skepticism, but not full disagreement with claim#5 as it pertains to the likelihood of atrocities being committed.

    6) I disagree. After the travesty surrounding the Haditha Massacre, I feel that American military courts are severely biased. They also screwed up big time with Omar Khadr, who could have been tried for treason and been found guilty. But they were too busy trying to prosecute terrorism suspects without enough evidence to do so.

    I think Americans who are accused of war crimes should be tried by an independent tribunal like the Hague. To prove that I make that statement in all fairness (tho I haven’t actually had a problem with the decisions made by Canadian military courts) I’d be willing to suggest that ALL OF US hand over personnel suspected of war crimes to an unbiased outside power like the Hague.

    7) That statement smacks of ethnocentrism. However, I’ve already stated that I believe that biology is more of a factor in extreme atrocities than culture. So this point is not worth arguing.

  38. 8a) As noted above, the scrutiny of military leadership means nothing when the courts are biased.

    8b) Under GW’s civilian leadership, I would have stated a strong objection to this statement. President O’s a little more fair, but FoxNews advocates are still on their neverending quest to hamstring him with accusations I don’t want to rehash here. I hope that in light of OBL’s death, he’ll see fit to bring the troops home, rendering a discussion about war crimes that MIGHT happen moot. I hope that under President O’s leadership we can begin referring to the Iraq war in the past tense.

    As SW noted above, I too am highly dubious about GW’s reasons for going to war in the first place. As he stated, that makes ANY civilian casualties all the more tragic.

    8c) Scrutiny from the international public doesn’t do much against a military superpower. Global scrutiny couldn’t stop Russia’s kontraktniki.

  39. Another point pertaining to my objection to claim#5: Though I can’t see getting raped by a colleague as a situation that would traumatize a female soldier to a point where she would lose all self control and go out and start doing heinous things to civilians, this type of situation would damage trust and group cohesion among personnel. Accidents are more likely to happen when some soldiers are being mistreated.

    Wrt your final summation:
    a) If you’re comparing coalition forces to the kontraktniki, the battered group drafted from Russia’s gulags to fight in the Chechen wars, or the second generation of child soldiers fighting in the Congo right now, then possibly. Again, battle stress is more of a factor here than culture. The wartorn regions of the Congo are actually in a state of cultural DIS-integration right now.

    b) We can’t say that American troops won’t commit ANY war crimes, because the marines who committed the Haditha Massacre have already killed 24 unarmed civilians in cold blood, including a group of university students, a disabled elderly man and an 18 month old infant. 19 out of the 24 civilians were killed during a rampage where the marines kicked down the doors of several homes, opening fire on the people inside. They also pitched a grenade into one private residence.

    Military courts called this act an ‘accident’. PFFTT! Maybe the marines mistook the 5 students who were driving by when the IED went off for terrorists. A judgement to that effect would have been forgivable. But murdering children and elderly people in their beds is inexcusable.

    What were you saying about Colbert, Nemo?

  40. My apologies. The youngest fatalities documented in the linked article were 3 years old and 5 years old. The infant, who was 3 months old, not 18 months, was carried to safety, and survived the grenade attack.

    My recollections of the events were fuzzy because of the sheer volume of slaughter and collateral damage described. I suggest you read the article carefully, beginning to end, before trying to argue.

  41. Xena,

    Re #2, your observation applies to any rules of engagement, so its relevance to the analysis is not clear to me. I expect we do not disagree that the content of the standing orders issued to troops about how and when they may engage targets does have some bearing on the likelihood of war crimes. I submit that the coalition rules of engagement are comparatively strict and thus may reasonably be anticipated to exert a downward pressure on the overall incidence of war crimes. I also submit that a military that has comparatively advanced technological means and protocols for communication between individual combatants in the field and their chain of command reduces the likelihood, relative to other armed forces and prior conflicts (Bosnia, Korea, WWI, the First Sino-Japanese War, the Seven Years War – take your pick), of misinterpretation and reinterpretation. Would you agree that #2 both applies to the coalition forces and is a net point in favour of my thesis?

    Re #3, SW’s link in my view has little if any bearing on whether coalition soldiers in Iraq have a greater or lesser likelihood than other armed forces in other conflicts of committing war crimes. However, it is widely understood (i) that precision-guided munitions (PGMs) have changed the way the few militaries that have good access to them fight wars, (ii) that they are specifically intended to reduce the toll of civilian life and property destruction compared to the weaponry PGMs replaced, and (iii) that the prioritization and pursuit of PGMs by the US is a reflection of a desire to lower that toll. (Let me nip in the bud any counterargument based on the fact that PGMs can and do kill a civilian just as dead as any other munition – that’s true but doesn’t undermine my point.) I think #3 exerts at least a small downward pressure on the incidence of civilian losses and moreover betokens an overall attitude in US military institutions that is comparatively favourable to the interests of civilians.

    Re #4 (regarding the “fog of war”, etc.) I don’t see how your comment “WRONG” and your PTSD link relate to it. Perhaps you meant that comment to respond to the first point of my #5, that coalition forces are comparatively well cared for while they are serving. If so, I see absolutely nothing in it that contradicts my assertion. Let’s assume that it’s true that the way the US military addresses PTSD symptoms in veterans leaves much to be desired. This doesn’t suggest to me that the care of US soldiers in the field in Iraq compares unfavorably to that seen in past wars or in other armed forces, I don’t think we need to go any further.

    Re #6, several points here. Even if we assumed that the result of the Haditha judicial proceedings was unjust (though I don’t think your links are sufficient grounds to determine that), it doesn’t follow that the military justice system is biased – and particularly in a way that is more biased than the average historical military justice system. Sometimes an impartial tribunal can reach an unjust result. The fact that serious charges were brought at all, with a non-trivial risk of severe penalties for the defendants, suggests that the system is at least operating in a way that one would expect to exercise some deterrent effect on crimes. As with most of these other points. As for Omar Khadr – not a US soldier accused of war crimes – even granting the assumption that the US military justice system “screwed up”, that seems to have even less relevance. No one asserted the infallibility of any justice system on earth. My point stands.

    Re #7, you’ve said it’s not worth arguing over, though I think your naked suggestion that it’s ethnocentric is unfounded. (Nice to drop a bomb like that and then suggest we move on to something else.) Does your biology theory enable predictions about whether, all other things being equal, the members of one armed force are more likely than the member of another to commit war crimes? If not, why not focus on non-biological factors such as culture (unless you have some specific argument why cultural factors would, albeit counterintuitively, be immaterial)?

    Re #8(a), I find your statement “scrutiny of military leadership means nothing when the courts are biased” incredible. Really? Nothing at all? How well a captain can keep tabs on the whereabouts and activities of the platoons in his company, or whether the captain knows that his colonel is able to know a lot about what the captain has been up to, is going to have no influence on anyone’s compliance with the law of war unless the military courts are bias-free? That’s just implausible.

    Re #8(b), I wasn’t quite sure what your point was, except a gratuitous jab at GWB for real or imagined failings. If you mean to suggest that the US civilian leadership’s scrutiny of military activities in Iraq (including Congressional scrutiny, civilian DoD oversight, etc.) has been below historical levels for other militaries in other wars, I’d like to hear your reasons. Otherwise my point, again, stands.

    Re #8(c), you suggest that public scrutiny “doesn’t do much against a military superpower”, and use the kontraktniki as an example. There are two sub-issues here: first, whether can we expect that public scrutiny had to have, or has had, at least some deterrent effect on war crimes in Iraq. The second is whether the dearth of uncovered incidents that are clearly war crimes *despite* unprecedented scrutiny should lead us to lower our assessment of the probable existence of such incidents.

    With respect to the first point, your example seems flawed and your inference unwarranted. First of all, we’re not talking about the same level of scrutiny (again, just for example, how many journalists have been embedded with the kontraktniki?). Second, there are obvious reasons why public scrutiny would have a limited effect on the conduct of a government like Russia’s compared to those of the major Western democracies. Third, the kontraktniki exemplify several of the factors already identified that have been linked to an increased risk of war crimes: they are generally not well trained, well treated, professional soldiers.

    If you cite an example of a war crime somewhere, well obviously *nothing* was able to stop that particular war crime, since it actually happened. But that’s not my point. My argument in the prior post is about what is likely to influence the probability of the incidence of war crimes, and it simply isn’t susceptible to refutation in that way.

    Re the summation, I agree that we can’t say that American troops won’t commit *ANY* war crimes. But that’s a straw man, so why mention it? For that reason, I’m reluctant to get into Haditha since it is a red herring. However, to say Haditha definitely was a war crime is to assert a fact not in evidence, as they say in court. I guess the presumption of innocence doesn’t go so far as it used to.

    Anyhow, I think my reasoning holds up for why there is good cause to expect a lower (probably significantly lower) than average incidence of war crimes in this conflict – at least on one side – compared to past ones. If there are reasons, other than (for lack of a better term) partisan political ones, for believing otherwise, I’ve yet to come across them. And even if the truth turns out to be otherwise, I think it would be despite that unlikelihood, not because my inference was unwarranted.

  42. Nemo, #49 leaves me suspicious that you didn’t read the linked article, “The Rules of Engagement” very closely. Methinks it’s time to refocus this debate.

    The original question in the post: Does celebrating OBL’s death make us just like the terrorists?

    C’s question: Isn’t there a moral difference between celebrating the death of a mass murderer and celebrating a mass murder?

    Comment#4 I wonder how the families of the victims of Haditha… or the families of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians listed as “collateral damage” would feel about that statement?

    Comment#7 Who is exacting justice and who is a mass murderer depends on the worldview of the person judging the act.

    Comment#11:To elaborate:the reference to the Iraqi death is implying that we may not be any better than those who do celebrate mass murders.

    My comment #13 elaborated on the range of possible civilian deaths: between 60 000 and 600 000 depending on which figure you want to believe.
    (Note: If you like to speed read through these blogs, there is a very important prepositional phrase at the end of that statement.)

    All of this is relevant to the question in the post.
    Then YOU threw out the first red herring with comment#21.

    In comment#26, I tried to take that red herring and throw it back in the water by pointing out that NOBODY will know the extent of the “collateral damage” for at least a decade.
    Note: Up to this point the debate focussed mostly on “collateral damage”, reported or unreported. I understand this term to mean accidental civilian deaths, some of whom are reported missing and not found until much later when investigations turn up piles of dead bodies. Some of those dead are lost combatants, some are accidental deaths, some are victims of war crimes.

    Somewhere after comment #30 the discussion degenerated into one about which cultures are more likely to commit warcrimes. Another of YOUR red herrings.

    In your second last paragraph of comment#49 you say that pointing out that we can’t say they haven’t committed ANY warcrimes is a straw man, so why mention it? Hmm, maybe because YOU mentioned it first, at the end of comment#39. So why did you say it first if you knew your strawman would get burned?

    Methinks you might be baiting me so you can prove to somebody (?)that you can namedrop logical fallacies.

    Your third to last paragraph in comment #49 says that your argument about WHAT MIGHT HAPPEN is irrefutable. To this I must concede. ANY argument about what might happen is irrefutable. So your guess that civilian casualties in Iraq MIGHT only total 12% of 92 000 is as irrefutable as JJ’s argument that civilian casualties in Iraq MIGHT exceed 1000 000 and as irrefutable as my argument that civilian casualties in Iraq MIGHT be on the high side of the 60 000 to 600 000 estimate.

    Again, somewhere after comment#30 you dragged who MIGHT commit a warcrime into this discussion. I stated clearly in comment#43 that the outbursts due to PTSD, [which MIGHT lead to civilian deaths as a direct or indirect result of said outburst] are unpredictable, and that the US military could do more to lessen this likelihood in comment #40 and #41. Since we’re arguing about MIGHT, my argument, again, is as irrefutable as yours.

    Re#7, you ask me if my biology theory can predict which side is MORE likely to commit warcrimes. Again, I’m telling you that warping theories of culture to try to assign blame to make one side the ‘bad guys’ and one side the ‘good guys’ was YOUR intention, YOUR ethnocentric argument, not mine. YOU’RE the one who’s dichotomizing in an attempt to justify an unjust war, here. In my view, the whole durn war is a reprehensible act. Do you walk up to a guy who just spit on you because you didn’t pay him the money you owe, punch him in the face–in keeping with the rules of good duelling of course– and then call him a dirtyfighter for kicking you in the balls? Do you then proceed to try to blame his ballkicking on his culture? My biology theory says this: If you pound enough people, somebody will hit you back before too long. If you continue to pound people, it won’t be much longer before you meet somebody who will seriously mess you up. Biology, more than culture determines the statistical averages. Of course, you *might* meet all of your anomalies in one place, and they *might* all leave in tears to go home and hang themselves after you hit them. Then you MIGHT be able to declare yourself the winner of some pissing–er–irrefutability contest. It worked for Anselm. Just put them in a CIRCULAR room and tell them to piss in the corner. Whoever walks away without wearing piss gets to go to heaven :-P

    And yes, Nemo, that IS bulverism, within a reductio, that MIGHT be within an annoying editing screen, that MIGHT just be perceived as such because of a chemical overload within the biology of an angry cross-eyed old bitch who’s tired of playing with pedantic university brats. Or it MIGHT be a blip in the dreamworld of Berkeley’s crazy god.

    I love how you’ve tried to knock down what I said in #26 before I re-iterate. We’ll know the truth [about who killed whom and how–pertaining mostly to collateral damage–the accidental kind] when forensic evidence is available in another 20 years or so.

    You state that your “reasoning holds up for why…[you] expect [that there MIGHT be] a lower than average incidence of war crimes–at least on one side–compared to…”

    “Even if the truth turns out to be otherwise, it will be despite that unlikelihood [that YOU, Nemo calculated] NOT because [your reasoning is flawed or somehow different from the reasoning your profs taught you(?)]

    Er, Nemo, if all we’re arguing about here is how well constructed Nemo’s arguments are, then you win. You could sell ice to an eskimo, as long as he’s an overeducated eskimo. I’m sure your profs give you straight A’s. Er, I mean the probability that your profs MIGHT give you straight A’s is quite high, according to my Irrefutable Maybe Model.

  43. Xena:

    I too noticed that the discussion had slowly moved from one about collateral damage to one about war crimes, but was too lazy to go back and see where it began to change.

    In rough terms, an Army which fires missiles from computers far from the scene of battle is likely to produce more collateral damage (and fewer war crimes) than one which depends on swords and spears, which has many opportunities to commit war crimes and very few possibilities of producing collateral damage.

  44. And on that note, I will leave it up to the site administrators to swing this discussion back around to whether it’s just or unjust to celebrate death, and whether or not celebrating death makes the partyers just like the terrorists.

    Or they can close the discussion, or ignore the discussion.

    Apparently, my final attempt to address Nemo’s diversionary tactics, and STILL bring the discussion back around with Langewiesche’s opening and closing statements, which mirror the debate we’re having here, was ignored.

    So see comment#47 or don’t. I have to go eat my dinner.

  45. Oops, sorry SW. I was still typing when your comment went up. Yes, the linked article in #47 mentioned the relationship between up close fighting with less collateral damage, more potential for war crimes, vs. computer generated collateral damage, fewer war crimes. But Nemo didn’t bother to read it.

    I still have to eat my dinner. ttfn.

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