Collateral Damage

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