Thank you, John Horgan, for writing it.
We Americans are justifiably outraged at the attacks in Boston, which killed three innocent people and injured many more. But over the past 12 years our own nation has killed and maimed thousands of innocent people while carrying out military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Estimates of war casualties are notoriously unreliable and should always be viewed with skepticism. But according to the reputable group Iraq Body Count, between 2003 and 2011 U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq killed 14,906 civilians, including at least 1,201 children.
Such killings continue. On April 8, The New York Times reported that an American airstrike in Afghanistan killed at least 10 children and wounded at least five women. The incident was not even major news; it ran not on the front page of the Times but on page eight, because incidents like these are common. How can we condemn the killings in Boston but excuse the killing of civilians by our soldiers in war zones?
One obvious response is that, unlike the Boston bombers, the U.S. pilots did not want to harm civilians. Their target was a Taliban commander. The U.S. military prefers not to kill civilians and often apologizes when it does. Intention matters, morally and legally; intention is what distinguishes murder from manslaughter. But if you keep doing something over and over again, at some point apologizing and saying you didn’t mean it becomes meaningless. Doesn’t it?
The U.S. clearly has a double standard for judging killing of civilians, but it’s not just that we value American lives more than non-American lives. Let’s say the second Boston bomber, who is reportedly from Chechnya, holes up in a house with civilians, including some of his family members. Will law-enforcement agents call in an airstrike to blow up the Bomber along with everyone else in the house? Of course not. The agents will do all they can to protect the lives of the civilians in the building—and even the life of the Bomber!
Police will try to capture alive the Bomber so he can be tried. If he cannot afford a lawyer, the U.S. will give him one. Even mass murderers receive all the benefits of our legal system, which shows what a great civilization, in the best sense of the word, we are. (For the purposes of this essay, I’m going to ignore our unjust detainment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay as an aberration.)
But consider this irony: We treat child killers here in the U.S. with more care than we treat children in Afghanistan and other war zones. We excuse the killing of civilians by U.S. troops by saying that in war bad things happen–as if war is like a plague or natural disaster, for which we are not responsible. Killing innocent people is inexcusable, whether they live in Boston or in Afghanistan. Terrorists and criminals and deranged maniacs kill civilians. A civilized nation doesn’t. Or shouldn’t. Ever.
Yes, probability is a nuisance, and evil loves to exploit the odds, but humans are in perfect control of how we react to the inscrutable mess that is reality. That’s Sandra Steingraber‘s conclusion, to what is called “well-informed futility syndrome” (via Moyers and Company).
Thoughtful but overwhelmed parents correctly perceive a disconnect between the enormity of the problem and the ability of individual acts of vigilance and self-sacrifice to fix it. Awareness without corresponding political change leads to paralyzing despair. And so, eventually, we begin to discount or ignore the latest evidence of harm. We feel helpless in the face of our knowledge, and we’re not sure we want to know anything more. The apt term for this is “well-informed futility syndrome.”
“Well-informed futility” refers to a particular kind of learned helplessness. It’s a term that was coined in 1973 by psychologist Gerhart Wiebe, who was writing in an age when television had brought war into the living rooms of Americans for the first time. Wiebe noticed that a steady onslaught of information about a problem over which people feel little sense of personal agency gives rise to a sense of futility. Ironically, the more we know about such a problem, the more we are filled with a paralyzing sense of futility. That sense, in turn, forestalls action. And yet, action is the cure for paralysis.
Just down the street from well-informed futility resides denial. According to contemporary risk communication expert Peter Sandman, we all instinctively avoid information that triggers intolerable emotions–such as intolerable fear or intolerable guilt. In the face of knowledge too upsetting to bear, there is nothing to do but look away.
Well-informed futility and its inattentive neighbor, denial, especially flourish, says Sandman, when there are discontinuities in the messages we receive, as when we are told that a problem (mass extinctions, melting icecaps) is dire but the proposed solutions (buy new light bulbs) seem trivial. If the problem were really so dire, wouldn’t we all be asked to respond with actions of equivalent magnitude? So … maybe the problem isn’t so dire.
It is such discontinuity that provides the exit doors. And soon enough, we retreat into silent paralysis rather than stand up for abolition now.
Action is the antidote to despair, and by action I do not mean shopping differently.
It’s troubling to speculate, that the United States will respond to the Boston Marathon bombings as it has done in its history, with reprisals and assaults on liberties. Americans, as in the case of the man who punched a Palestinian woman in the face, will not look within, but around us for “others” to condemn. And, I’m not just talking the Middle East – there’s plenty of evil the United States commits in our own hemisphere.
But, we don’t have to. Just that.
And now, live your life as if that conclusion mattered.