Collateral Damage

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Collateral
damage:
the phrase used by the misnamed Department of Defense to describe
lives and property destroyed as a side effect of actions taken in
the War on Terror. It is also a favorite phrase of pro-war pundits
and bloggers because it sounds so much nicer than "wanton destruction
and murder."

Note,
however, that those who use the phrase seriously always apply it
to foreigners — Iraqis and Afghans, for example, whose lives were
snuffed out "inadvertently" when a two-ton bomb was dropped
on a suspected terrorist hideout in their village. Rather than treat
these people as humans victimized by evil actions, simply write
them off as collateral damage, i.e., debris.

No
American or Englishman would even dream of referring to, say, a
fireman killed while attempting to rescue people from the World
Trade Center as "collateral damage," even though that
fireman, too, was an inadvertent victim and not the real target
of the attack. We all recognize that the fireman was a real human
being with a name, face, and family. In fact, all the pertinent
facts about him, including his picture, are likely to have appeared
in newspapers across the country, and his name was probably read
aloud at Ground Zero on September 11, 2002. Meanwhile, the innocent
victims of our government's actions in the War on Terror not only
are dismissed as collateral damage but are not even worthy of becoming
statistics as far as the United States government is concerned.

As
history — and very recent history at that — demonstrates, however,
once you grant government the power to inflict harm on one group
of people, it soon uses that power against other groups, often including
those who supported the power grab in the first place. Grant Uncle
Sam the power to imprison foreigners indefinitely without access
to lawyers and courts (as long as those being held are designated
as "terrorists," of course), and he'll soon be locking
up Americans and throwing away the key as well. Ask Jose
Padilla
.

Similarly,
if you grant the government the power to kill innocent people in
foreign countries and write them off as collateral damage, barely
worthy of acknowledgement, then don't act too surprised when the
government starts classifying you in the same way if you
end up its victim in the War on Terror. That is, in fact, precisely
what the Metropolitan Police of London have established as official
policy in the wake of last Friday's shooting death, by plainclothes
officers, of Jean Charles de Menezes, a completely innocent man.

Menezes,
so the official story originally went, had been under surveillance
as a suspect in last week's attempted bombings of the London Underground
and was acting suspiciously. For example, he was wearing a jacket
on a warm day and then ran onto a subway train when the officers
— who, let us recall, were not in uniform — trained their guns on
him and ordered him to stop.

As
it turns out, very little of this is accurate, and what is
accurate does not help the police force's case very much. In point
of fact, Menezes was staying at someone else's house and was not
himself the target of any surveillance at the time. Wearing a jacket
on a warm day is hardly evidence of terrorist activity. Take a trip
to Orlando in January when the temperature there only reaches 65;
if you're from the north, it will feel balmy to you, but natives
will be bundled up in sweaters and heavy jackets. Menezes, a Brazilian,
might very well have felt chilly on a day that seemed quite warm
to Londoners. On top of that, Menezes was allowed to take a 15-minute
bus ride prior to his attempt to board the Underground, hardly the
kind of activity one would expect the police to permit a suspected
suicide bomber to undertake. Is it any wonder, then, that he might
panic and try to escape when men with guns told him to stop?

As
Tim Hames of the Times of London wrote:

I don't know
about you, but if I found myself minding my own business on the
São Paulo metro and was suddenly confronted by men wearing
no uniforms but wielding weapons, screaming at me in Portuguese,
I too might choose to bolt for it. It was not merely the police
but their victim who had to make a split-second decision.

The
response of the police department has been to express some mild
regret but essentially to blame the victim. As far as they are concerned,
their shoot-to-kill policy, based
on the anti-terrorism policies of the Israeli and Russian governments

— policies which can hardly be called resounding successes, — needs
no modification whatsoever. In fact, not only will they not review
the policy, they will continue it with the announced understanding
that more innocent people are likely to be killed by the cops.

"Everything
is done to make it right," said
Sir Ian Blair
, Metropolitan Police Commissioner, "but you
know this is a terrifying set of circumstances for individuals to
make decisions in."

In
other words, just as we have to give our government's agents leeway
to kill innocent people in foreign countries from time to time in
the War on Terror, so we need to give our government's agents leeway
to kill innocent people at home from time to time in the War on
Terror. It's the fault of the terrorists and the circumstances they've
created, not the way the government has chosen to respond to those
circumstances.

Now
let's suppose a prowler was loose in your neighborhood and had burglarized
several homes nearby. Then one day you shot and killed a man who
was not a prowler. Do you suppose the police would accept this explanation:
"I was just trying to protect my family from the prowler. How
was I to know he was the water meter reader and not a burglar? By
the way, if I see anyone trespassing on my property again, I may
very well do the same thing to him. If some innocent people
get killed, well, that's the price society pays for me to protect
my family."

Obviously
that explanation wouldn't cut the mustard with Joe Friday, and neither
should the government's attempts to explain away as collateral damage
the death of Jean Charles de Menezes or the deaths of tens of thousands
of innocent Iraqis and Afghans, all victims of the War on Terror.
The murder of innocents is the murder of innocents, period.

(Note,
by the way, the irony in the London police department's statements:
In order to protect innocent people from being killed by terrorists,
we may have to kill a few innocent people ourselves. Some protection
that is!)

The
problem here is not merely that the police have a bad policy but
that government police forces exist at all. The nature of the state
is such that it will always invent rules so as to maximize its power
and minimize its accountability. As Murray
Rothbard
and others have pointed out, no private security forces
could get away with this kind of callous disregard for human life,
at least not for long. The state's cops, on the other hand, have
essentially unlimited power to do evil. After all, the only people
who can arrest and prosecute them are other agents of the state,
and they have little incentive to do so. Private forces, on the
other hand, are constrained by both competing security forces and
the free market.

Still,
as long as the state exists, we must constantly be on our guard
against its depredations. One of those depredations is the dehumanizing
of human beings, and one of the ways in which the government does
that is by euphemizing the deaths of innocents as "collateral
damage." First this term was applied to foreign victims of
the War on Terror. Now it has been applied, in spirit if not in
actual phraseology, to domestic victims of that same war in England.
How long will it be until it reaches our shores, and how long after
that until the very people who enthusiastically deny the humanity
of others in foreign lands find that their own humanity has been
denied as well?

July
28, 2005

Michael
Tennant [send him
mail
] is a software developer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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