Wake me up when April ends

In the wake of shootings in Pittsburgh and Binghamton, NY (and Graham, WA and Charlotte, NC), Dahlia Lithwick wonders pointedly when Americans will stop treating gun violence like a force of nature and start thinking about the weapons that make it possible and the unbelievable right-wing vitriol that, in the wake of Barack Obama’s election as President, may be helping to fuel it.

Nobody claims that Glenn Beck is responsible for killing people. Nobody thinks guns are inherently evil. But how can there be an honest national debate over gun violence if we cannot even acknowledge the connections between people who admonish us to become “armed and dangerous” and a citizen’s decision to arm himself and kill?

The guns, and the anger, are symptoms of a sick culture. Certainly, you can treat alcoholism by banning booze, but you haven’t cured it until the alcoholic knows why he cannot — must not — have a drink, and has the spiritual and mental resources to enforce that decision.

(Also on Slate: excerpts of a new book about the Columbine killings.)

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The environmental impacts of war

ResearchBlogging.orgLast year Bioscience published a review article proposing a new discipline in conservation ecology: warfare ecology [PDF]. It’s now making the rounds in the science blogosphere, with good coverage at Conservation Blog and Deep Sea News, where I first happened upon it – and it deserves all the attention it can get.

In the U.S., at any rate, war and preparation for war tend to get priority over everything – especially tree-hugging environmental concerns. Exhibit A is last year’s Supreme Court decision that the Navy’s need to practice with sonar trumps the damage sonar can do to whale populations, to the extent that the Navy could not be required to do an environmental impact assessment before beginning the exercise. War is treated as an emergency, and who worries about environmental impacts during emergencies?

Yet environmental damage caused in the course of war has direct impact on the human aftermath of conflict. Refugees provided with nowhere else to go will often set up camp in protected lands. Materials used in warfare – Agent Orange defoliant used in Southeast Asia, depleted uranium in Iraq – can continue to kill people long after the fighting ends. On the other hand, the review’s authors, Machlis and Hanson, point out that demilitarized zones and military training grounds often serve as (perhaps overly-well protected) accidental preserves.

This is a subject I’ve thought about quite a bit before – way back in my undergraduate days, I won a Mennonite Central Committee oratorical contest with a speech that connected peace theology to environmental concerns. That speech now looks to me like slightly embarrassing juvenalia, but the central idea still holds, and it’s great to see that working ecologists are thinking along similar lines. By laying out a framework for thinking about the environmental impacts of war, Machlis and Hanson’s paper can hopefully help push governments to consider the longer-term environmental, economic, and social consequences of ecological decisions made in the course of preparing for and prosecuting war.


G. Machlis, & T. Hanson (2008). Warfare ecology BioScience, 58 (8), 729-36 DOI: 10.1641/B580809


On overreacting

Crime is on the rise in Bathsheba Monk’s Allentown, PA, neighborhood. So, as she recounts in the New York Times Magazine, she got herself a gun.

Then finally I picked out a Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum, “the gun I started with,” the clerk said. I handed him my driver’s license and filled out the paperwork. He left us to run my license number through a criminal-records system called QuickCheck. Two minutes later I was qualified and, between gun and ammo, $762 poorer.

Photo by xtylerclub.

The brief story arc is sadly conventional. Rumors, then first-hand accounts of burglary spark rising fear in the household; Monk conquers her (very minimal) reservations with a trip to the firing range and finally makes the purchase. But it’s remarkable for what it leaves out: any consideration of efficacy.

How does owning a gun prevent a burglary? It doesn’t. Potential burglars cannot smell a gun secreted in the bedside table, and bypass the house because of it. At best, a gun can only make a burglary unpleasant for the burglar once he’s in the house – and then only if the homeowner is (1) at home, (2) lucky enough to catch the burglar off guard, (3) a good shot. Against this incremental gain in “security” – the ability to retaliate violently in the event of a home invasion – are the increased risk to children in a gun-owning household, and the chance that the gun itself could be stolen. Which – though they may be minuscule – are not mentioned, much less weighed.

So Monk’s piece is a snapshot of a sadly American line of reasoning, or rather lack thereof: a Pavlovian resort to arms in the face of fear. Monk hasn’t bought herself security so much as a deadly security blanket.

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The cost – and benefits – of hostility to strangers

ResearchBlogging.orgBruce Schneier points to an interesting post by Stephen Dubner, who asks why we humans are so prone to fear strangers, given that strangeness is such a poor predictor of dangerousness. Dubner proposes, and Schneier agrees, that it has something to do with our tendency to focus on rare, shocking dangers:

Why do we fear the unknown more than the known? That’s a larger question than I can answer here (not that I’m capable anyway), but it probably has to do with the heuristics — the shortcut guesses — our brains use to solve problems, and the fact that these heuristics rely on the information already stored in our memories.

And what gets stored away? Anomalies — the big, rare, “black swan” events that are so dramatic, so unpredictable, and perhaps world-changing, that they imprint themselves on our memories and con us into thinking of them as typical, or at least likely, whereas in fact they are extraordinarily rare.

That’s probably right. But when I read Dubner’s post, I immediately thought of another factor: hostility toward outsiders is instinctive because it can help communities bond.

This idea actually grew out of an attempt to understand altruism. Altruism is something of a puzzle to evolutionary biologists – the easiest thing to assume, under a “survival of the fittest” framework, is that selfishness is always the winning strategy. Yet again and again in human and nonhuman societies, we see examples of altruism, in which individuals help each other without immediate repayment. Societies in which everyone is altruistic should be able to out-compete societies in which everyone is selfish – but a single selfish person in a mostly altruistic society can out-compete her neighbors, make more selfish babies, and eventually drive altruism to extinction. So, if you can come up with a way to make altruism stable in the long term, you’ve got a good shot at publishing in Science or Nature.

Photo by Lawrence OP.

One such paper was published back in 2007. Co-authors Jung-Kyoo Choi and Samuel Bowles noted that tribal human societies spend a lot of time and blood in inter-tribal wars, and wondered if what they called parochialism – hostility to outsiders – helped stabilize within-tribe altruism [$-a]. They built a mathematical model of competing tribes, in which individuals within those tribes had one of four inheritable personality types: parochial altruists, tolerant altruists, parochial nonaltruists, and tolerant nonaltruists. Parochial altruists were something like the medieval ideal of a knight, willing to fight outsiders and die for the benefit of others in their tribe. Parochial nonaltruists weren’t willing to risk their lives for others; and the two tolerant types were, well, tolerant of others.

As I described above, nonaltruists were favored by within-tribe competition: altruists all contributed toward a common resource pool, which was shared among the whole tribe. So nonaltruists got a share, but didn’t contribute, which benefits them but is ultimately bad for the tribe. Tribes that fought other tribes and won could expand their territories and take the losers’ resources. On the other hand, if tribes interact peacefully, the tolerant individuals – and only the tolerant individuals – received a resource reward. (Is this putting anyone else in mind of certain new-school German board games?)

Choi and Bowles found that their model led to two alternative stable kinds of tribe dominated by either tolerant nonaltruists or parochial altruists. This is almost too tidy, because it looks like a dichotomy between peaceful-but-selfish “moderns” and mutually-aiding, warlike “primitives.” Yet tribal societies really do seem to be more prone to a certain kind of war (more like feuding, really), as Jared Diamond discusses in a 2008 essay for the New Yorker [$-a]. And, even in our modern, globalized society, we are immediately and instinctively suspicious of – hostile to – those different from us. Commenting on Choi and Bowles’s paper in the same issue of Science, Holly Arrow called this the “sharp end of altruism,” [$-a] and wondered how to tease apart the apparent association between altruism to neighbors and hostility to outsiders.

The most obvious option may be to expand our definition of “neighbor.” In a world where an Internet user in Malaysia can see (selected portions of) my ramblings on this ‘blog, maybe I’m less of a stranger than I would be otherwise. That’s not much, really, but it’s a start. The wonderful thing about being human is that, understanding our own tendencies, we can seek to overcome them.


H. Arrow (2007). EVOLUTION: The sharp end of altruism Science, 318 (5850), 581-2 DOI: 10.1126/science.1150316

J.-K. Choi, S. Bowles (2007). The coevolution of parochial altruism and war Science, 318 (5850), 636-40 DOI: 10.1126/science.1144237


Assuming the conculsion

Yesterday I posted this exchange between Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) and Attorney General nominee Eric Holder without comment. Thinking about it since, it occurred to me that, apart from its tremendous satisfaction for those of us in favor of the rule of law, this mini-argument sums up a lot about how we think about violence in general, and not just the kinds that are, technically, illegal. As a starting point, here’s the Cornyn-Holder exchange in summary:

Cornyn: If torture were the only way to prevent a terrorist attack that could kill bajillions of innocents, would it be OK to torture?
Holder: Uh – that never actually happens.
Cornyn: But what if it did?

Cornyn’s logic should be familiar to any of us who believe that violence is unacceptable, because it parallels (or, indeed, directly copies) an argument every pacifist has faced from skeptics at some point. It typically goes something like this:

But what if some guy broke into your house and put a gun to the head of your [pick one: child, wife, grandmother – or really any helpless (usually female) loved one], and there was no way to stop it except to shoot him? Wouldn’t you kill to save her?

Apart from how much this question tends to lean on certain ideas about gender roles (I once had a skeptic directly question my masculinity in the course of a conversation about this scenario), its weakness is that it assumes its own conclusion. That is, it asks whether you’d use violence if there were no other option but to use violence. But those of us who refuse violence do so because we’re convinced that there is never such a condition.

Photo by julianrod.

The best elaboration on this position is John Howard Yoder‘s pamphlet What would you do?, which points out that the grandmother-under-threat scenario assumes you have perfect knowledge of the attacker’s motives and intentions, that negotiation is impossible, and that Grandma has no moral interest in the situation besides her own survival. (Both my grandmothers are pacifists, too.) In other words, it’s nothing like real life.

It is, however, a lot like television. It almost seems facile to say this, but most of the plot of your average cop show, thriller, or other “action” drama is an exercise in creating assumed conclusions of violence. Excuses, that is, for violent, exciting, entertaining stuff. There’s nothing wrong with that as entertainment – how much of, e.g., science fiction is about coming up with a plausible explanation/excuse for why our heroes are, e.g., on another planet? There is something wrong with using the logic of a television show in real life, as a matter of national policy. Fortunately, the era of television-show logic for torture seems likely to end on 20 January, 2009. Here’s hoping it puts the U.S., and the world, a little closer toward ending the use of television-show logic for all violence.


Prayer for the children of Gaza

Jeffrey Goldberg points to Bradley Burston’s prayer for the children of Gaza, published in today’s Haaretz. It’s in the Jewish spiritual idiom, poetic and clearly heartfelt, a direct response to the war prayers famously decried by Mark Twain. But it’s also just a little odd:

Almighty who makes exceptions, which we call miracles, make an exception of the children of Gaza. Shield them from us and from their own. Spare them. Heal them. Let them stand in safety. Deliver them from hunger and horror and fury and grief. Deliver them from us, and from their own.

I can guess the Almighty’s response: “Let Me get this straight – you want Me to shield them from you? Could there be a more direct way to go about this, do you think?” And yet this is the conundrum of any citizen opposed to a war prosecuted by his or her democratically-elected government (as, for example, the last eight years of U.S. foreign policy). “We,” the nation, are responsible for horrors, even as we, the conscience-stricken individuals, look on in horror.


Just war theory and the Gaza crisis

I haven’t posted so far about the latest Israeli-Palestinian shitstorm because it started while I was home for Christmas, and because I didn’t really have anything to post about, besides that it looks like, as I say, a shitstorm. Now, Andrew Sullivan takes a look at the ongoing mess through the lens of just war theory. It’s a good piece, taking a more serious approach to the justice of Israel’s response to Hamas than I’ve seen or heard in my usual Liberal Media mix. (Although NPR did run a very good interview with an Israeli government spokesman Saturday.) Sullivan’s conclusion isn’t a surprise, but it’s good to see in print:

I need to repeat: There is no “just war” excuse for Hamas’ murderous terrorism or for its refusal to acknowledge or peacefully co-exist with Israel. But there’s no reading of traditional just war theory that can defend what Israel is now doing and has done either. Maybe I am missing an element here. Or maybe just war theory cannot account for modern terrorism.

Bingo. Why does just war theory have difficulty with terrorism? Maybe because terrorism isn’t war – it’s crime. Reading this, I immediately thought of something Bruce Schneier wrote back in October, about a study of terrorists’ effectiveness at achieving stated political goals. Which, it turns out, is generally nil. This is because terrorists are more like street gangs than governments:

Individual terrorists often have no prior involvement with a group’s political agenda, and often join multiple terrorist groups with incompatible platforms. Individuals who join terrorist groups are frequently not oppressed in any way, and often can’t describe the political goals of their organizations. People who join terrorist groups most often have friends or relatives who are members of the group, and the great majority of terrorist are socially isolated: unmarried young men or widowed women who weren’t working prior to joining. These things are true for members of terrorist groups as diverse as the IRA and al-Qaida.

This means Israel’s approach to Hamas (and much U.S. anti-terrorism policy) is a little like the government of California dealing with its drug problem by bombing inner-city Los Angeles. No just war theory exists that can support it.

Nearly immediate follow-up: Informed Comment’s recent post (regrettably under-referenced, but recommended by a friend who knows the region) suggests that the present situation is more like the government of California provoking a drive-by shooting as an excuse to bomb downtown L.A.


Hello to all of that

With 2008 nearly over, Mennonite institutions are looking forward to the challenges of the new year. Mennonite Weekly Review has not one but two minor prophecies in their Editorial section. Editor Paul Schrag calls out President-Elect Barack Obama on his promise to escalate the war in Afghanistan:

To keep Afghanistan from becoming another Iraq, the United States must recognize that “we can’t kill our way to victory,” said Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaking to Congress in September. … When a top-ranking military official urges using more “soft power,” those who reject the “war on terror” can join that call.

And Harvey Yoder reminds readers that an economic recovery based on consumption isn’t exactly Biblical:

… to pray for the recovery of a consumer-driven old order is to counter Jesus’ brand of good news. In his upside-down kingdom, where his words about wealth are both law and gospel, it is the world’s hungry who are to be filled with good things, and it is the too-well-to-do who are to be left empty-handed.


Conscientious objection in Israel

All Israelis, men and women, are required to serve in the national military when they turn 18. That’s a hard social background within which to be a conscientious objector, even before you account for the fact that refusal to serve means jail time. Yet there are Israeli COs. On the God’s Politics blog, Howard Zinn introduces a campaign on behalf of one cohort of teenage COs, the Shministim. (That’s Hebrew for “twelfth-grader” – can you imagine going to jail for your beliefs as a high school senior? Yeah, neither can I.) The American-based Jewish Voice for Peace is looking for people to sign a statement calling for the Shminstim to be released, to be delivered to the Israeli Minister of Defense as one big pile of postcards on 18 December. Sign the statement here.


Conservative talk show host worried about “honesty” at Mennonite colleges

Someone attending a sporting event at Mennonite-affiliated Goshen College got his or her panties in a knot because Goshen, doesn’t play the National Anthem before games. (Just as with my alma mater, Eastern Mennonite University, Goshen takes the Mennonite loyalty to Christ over the state very seriously.) So this disgruntled sports fan called conservative radio talk show host Mike Gallagher to berate a liberal arts school with a student body somewhere south of 2,000. MWR reports that, apart from the McCarthyite concern with pledging allegiance to state authority, Gallagher is worried that pacifist Mennonites may not represent war fairly:

On his New York-based The Mike Gallagher Show, eighth in the nation in audience size, Gallagher criticized Goshen in a Nov. 7 broadcast, then invited Bill Born, dean of students, to speak on the show Nov. 10.

In that broadcast, Gallagher said he appreciated “the Christian nature of the Mennonite church,” but was concerned about whether Goshen was teaching against war in U.S. history.

“How would any student get an honest assessment of war at the Goshen College environment?” Gallagher said.

What Gallagher means, of course, is that pacifist history professors can’t be trusted to represent war as useful or necessary. And frankly, he’s right. In eight years of Mennonite private-school education, I took a lot of history classes, and I can’t say I ever got the impression that war was worthwhile. But that wasn’t because my teachers were teaching propaganda – it was because they fully represented the costs and consequences of armed conflict.

My question to Gallagher is, how can a history teacher honestly tell her students that war is useful or necessary?