Ten years

Ten years ago today, I was in organic chemistry lab when the prof walked in and mentioned, somewhat casually, that an airplane had apparently hit one of the World Trade Center towers in New York. We all assumed it was some accident, and I distinctly remember picturing a small private plane of some sort.

By the time I was done synthesizing and purifying and precipitating, I returned to the dorm to find everyone gathered around CNN, watching looped footage of not one but two full-sized commercial airliners striking the towers.

Ten years later, it seems the entire United States is still gathered around 24-hour cable news, still watching the planes strike the towers. If, like me, you find it easiest to contemplate those ten years in numbers, Wired’s Danger Room has compiled an elegant series of infographics illustrating the costs and consequences of the last decade.

Graphic by Danger Room.

It’s only data. It cannot, of itself, tell us whether the last ten years were well spent. ◼

Pacifism as the conservative position

Via The Dish, which I haven’t read in ages: Bryan Caplan distills pacifism into a comparison of E[benefits of war] and E[costs of war]. That is, we know wars are expensive and awful, but we have much less assurance that they’re going to be worth it:

Of course, “Fight when it’s a good idea, make peace when it’s a good idea” counts as a philosophy. And you might think that this case-by-case approach has to yield better results than pacifism. But that’s only true with perfect foresight. In the real world of uncertainty, case-by-case optimization is often inferior to simple rules.

Which is why I tend to think of pacifism as a small-c conservative position: simple risk-benefit analysis, and a little honest evaluation of history.

… what about the idea of loving our enemies?

Kathryn Schulz interviews a evangelical Christian ex-soldier Josh Stieber about his decision to become a conscientious objector. What he was asked to do on the ground in Iraq didn’t square with what he’d been told about that Christ fellow:

It wasn’t too uncommon to abuse prisoners, but I didn’t feel like it was right, so I asked my friend about the American ideals that we grew up hearing about. I said, “Why would you do that to this guy? Isn’t one of the values that we were raised with is that somebody’s innocent until proven guilty?” My friend said, “No, this guy is Iraqi, he’s part of the problem, he’s guilty, and here’s what I want to do to him.” …

I thought back to all the stuff I’d heard sitting next to this guy in church, and I asked him, “Well, even if he is guilty, what about the idea of loving our enemies and returning evil with good and turning the other cheek? How do you reconcile all those teachings?” My friend said, “I think that Jesus would have turned his cheek once or twice but he never would have let anyone punk him around.” Hearing him say it that way just made it sound so ridiculous. Here we supposedly had faith in this guy who very clearly was punked around, and ended up living and dying with sacrificial love.

Stieber also took inspiration from Gandhi. Go now and read the whole thing.

Close the Washington Monument

Security expert Bruce Schneier thinks that we should close the Washington Monument. The most distinctive part of the D.C. skyline has been a challenge to secure, but that’s not Schneier’s reason.

An empty Washington Monument would serve as a constant reminder to those on Capitol Hill that they are afraid of the terrorists and what they could do. They’re afraid that by speaking honestly about the impossibility of attaining absolute security or the inevitability of terrorism — or that some American ideals are worth maintaining even in the face of adversity — they will be branded as “soft on terror.” And they’re afraid that Americans would vote them out of office if another attack occurred. Perhaps they’re right, but what has happened to leaders who aren’t afraid? What has happened to “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”?

An empty Washington Monument would symbolize our lawmakers’ inability to take that kind of stand — and their inability to truly lead.

Go read the whole thing.

Photo by Scott Ableman.

I need to rewatch Starship Troopers

At the AV Club, Scott Tobias describes in detail how the blockbuster space opera undermines militarism with its own tropes. He also picks up on something I haven’t, embarrassingly enough:

In the scheme of Starship Troopers, it’s important that the actors be pretty and vacuous, and their characters’ romantic dilemmas of the most banal variety imaginable. Hence the casting of Van Dien and Richards in the lead roles, instead of Hollywood stars with more history and substance, who might have torpedoed the film with any hint of self-awareness. (Neil Patrick Harris, as a brainy military intelligence officer who struts around arrogantly in a Gestapo-like trenchcoat, is the only young cast member who seems in on the joke.) … Their shallow conflicts give the film shape and direction, but it’s obvious Verhoeven and Neumeier find them petty and stupid. (One bizarre example: When Van Dien comes to blows with his romantic rival, [director Paul] Verhoeven mutes this grand melodramatic moment by flooding the soundtrack with the dreamy Mazzy Star single “Fade Into You.”)

The propaganda videos interspersed through Troopers are where Verhoeven really tips his hand—they undercut the whiz-bang sci-fi action with moments that should make any thoughtful person squirm. This one uses some imagery that, as Tobias points out, is amazingly prescient for a film made in 1997. (Caution: contains depiction of human-on-alien violence, bitter irony, and Neil Patrick Harris.)

The pacifist prepares his taxes

Todd: Daddy, what do taxes pay for?
Ned: Oh, why, everything! Policemen, trees, sunshine! And let’s not forget the folks who just don’t feel like working, God bless ’em!
— Exchange between Ned Flanders and his son Todd, from The Simpsons episode “The Trouble With Trillions”

I usually send in my tax return as soon as I get all the year-end paperwork, because it’s so insanely easy to do it online these days, and I like to put a refund in the bank. In fact, I’ve already got my refund, and put some of it toward a new camera. The IRS didn’t give me a total refund, though—which leaves me to contemplate what the Feds are doing with the little bit they kept.

In principle, I’m in favor of taxes. There are lots of things that are simply only do-able by lots of people banding together and chipping in, like roads and other infrastructure, the arts, scientific research, or the social safety net. Or national defense. This last gives me pause every tax season for the simple reason that I’m opposed to violence, including the officially-sanctioned kind. Partly this is because I was raised in a pacifist religious tradition, but if my country’s militaristic foreign policy of the previous decade proved anything, it’s that “violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”

Photo by Darren Hester.

I know I’m in a minority among Americans; but it’s a frustrating minority to be in. As the national debate fixates on government spending, everyone is worried about the Federal budget deficit, but no-one seems to be interested in how the Pentagon is contributing to it. The Obama Administration has proposed the biggest military budget since World War II, and while spending associated with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is supposed to end in a couple years (good luck with that), the baseline Pentagon budget will just keep growing, overwhelming savings from the spending freeze the Obama Administration has proposed for select non-military programs. It’s not as though the Pentagon is some paragon of responsible spending—there’s certainly room to cut its budget, if only the Administration would put in the effort.

In short, balancing the budget without cutting military spending will end up cutting non-military Federal programs in support of greater and greater military spending. The Federal spending that’s mostly unproblematic for me threatens to be overwhelmed by the Federal spending that I mostly don’t support.

So what’s a tax-paying pacifist to do?

Some folks who think like me withhold a symbolic portion of their taxes. Many join the campaign for a peace tax fund—the right to request on the tax form that one’s taxes go only toward non-military spending. A very few others make lifestyle choices that let them live on an income below the lowest tax bracket. But each of these options has its own problems.

Withholding taxes implies that the money is used for military spending against my will; but it’s not as though I have any less say in how it’s spent than any other taxpayer. More, in fact, since I vote in off-year elections. I’d object to another American withholding taxes in protest of, say, funding for the National Science Foundation—I can’t very well do the same for military funding.

Similarly with the Peace Tax Fund: I just don’t believe that spending decisions should be made at the level of the individual tax return. Passage of a Peace Tax Fund would imply that there could be an Anti-Medicare Tax Fund, or an Anti-National Endowment for the Arts Tax Fund (under, presumably, less-cumbersome names).

Finally, living below the taxable income threshold is a sacrifice I’ll admit I’m not willing to make. I live pretty simply as a graduate student; I’m frankly not sure how I’d make due with less, even given Northern Idaho costs-of-living.

All of which leaves me to vote for slightly-less-militaristic Democrats, fill out my online 1040EZ, and wait for my refund.

Defense, or Social Security?

Mike Konczal considers the effect of breaking Defense Department spending out as a separate line item on pay stub tax witholding statements, alongside Social Security and Medicare. If citizens saw a number for military alongside social spending, they might make more informed choices about the relative values of each.

How much of your two weeks work cycle would you like to spend working to keep a global military hegemony going? I’d probably want to clock it out around my first coffee break on Monday (which is fairly early), but that’s me.

Some pacifists withhold a portion (or all) of their Federal taxes in protest against military spending, and there’s even a campaign to let people opt out of funding the military on their tax forms. Maybe Konczal’s idea would be a good alternative?

Empirical pacifism?

ResearchBlogging.orgSlogger Charles Mudede points to a new epidemiological study on the effectiveness of carrying a gun for self defense [$-a]. Not only does packing heat fail to help in the event of an armed robbery,

… individuals in possession of a gun were 4.46 (P < 0.05) times more likely to be shot in an assault than those not in possession. Among gun assaults where the victim had at least some chance to resist, this adjusted odds ratio increased to 5.45 (P < 0.05).

That’s right, carrying a gun increases the odds that you’ll be shot by an armed assailant. It also increases the odds that you’ll be shot fatally, by about 4.23 times. The authors interviewed 677 gun assault victims in Philadelphia, from between 2003 and 2006, with 648 interviews drawn from the general population in the same period as a control. (If you can’t get to the paper on the journal website, Mudede links to a ScienceDaily article about the result that gives more detail.)

Here’s empirical evidence that returning violence with violence (or having the ability to do so) doesn’t lead to better outcomes — unless, of course, you’re of the school of thought that it’s better to be shot than to lose your wallet or your pride. I doubt this will have much impact on the U.S. political conversation about guns and gun control, because as I’ve noted before, this is not a subject about which people think rationally. Nevertheless, it’s a statistic I intend to remember for the next time I’m asked to defend the ethics of nonresistance.


Branas, C., Richmond, T., Culhane, D., Ten Have, T., & Wiebe, D. (2009). Investigating the link between gun possession and gun assault American Journal of Public Health DOI: 10.2105/AJPH.2008.143099

Excuses, excuses

Via the Slate Gabfest on Facebook: a great long profile of Andrew Sullivan. I started reading the Daily Dish regularly during the presidential campaign last fall, and I still check it multiple times a week; I can identify with Sullivan’s attempts to reconcile his (apparent) internal contradictions. What struck me, though, was the piece’s account of what you might call Sullivan’s “neoconservative period,” his reaction to the attacks of 11 September, 2001:

“I experienced 9/11 very personally,” he says. “The jihadists attacked my dream, my place—I felt like I had been beaten or raped. I succumbed to the fear a lot of us felt—panic really—about this country being in mortal danger. And neoconservatism seemed like the only ideology on the shelf with a plan for how to react immediately, and I turned to it.”

Having voted for George Bush in 2000, he now became one of his most militant supporters, urging him to invade not just Afghanistan but Iraq, in charged and extreme language. His blog posts from that time are quite startling to read now—more expressions of rage and grief than political analysis.

Sullivan is hardly the only person in American politics who reacted like this. (I recall just about falling out of my chair when a commentator on NPR proposed that a nuclear strike would be a good response to the destruction of the World Trade Center.) And Sullivan has clearly come to his senses and now strongly repudiates the positions he took during that period.

But all that said, I’m tired of this narrative about post-9/11 panic. It feels like excuse-making, and it implies that the near-immediate search for a retaliatory target and the fearmongering push for the invasion of Iraq were natural, understandable responses to the attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon. You know what? They weren’t. Panic and fear and anger may be natural, but acting on them is stupid. If we haven’t learned that lesson from the Bush Administration, then we’ll almost certainly repeat the same mistakes in the aftermath of the next terrorist attack on U.S. soil. And I’ll be frank — the prospect of re-making those mistakes scares me more than whatever that attack may turn out to be.