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The Expansionist
Saturday, March 31, 2007
 
Recipe for Disaster. In catching up with old email, I found a startling editorial in last Sunday's New York Post that surprised even me, plus a reminder of what the Post used to be.
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The editorial advocated that the United States should summarily execute captured "terrorists" in Iraq.

The capture last week of Shiite insurgent leaders believed responsible for the murder [emphasis supplied] of U.S. soldiers in Karbala last January is good news.

As far as it goes.

But we wonder: Why weren't these savages simply shot on the spot like the rabid dogs they are?

Forget about establishing guilt. To "believe" someone responsible is good enuf. Let's just do away with trials of all criminals, shall we, and dole out punishments, including capital punishment, to people the authority in place at the time "believes" guilty. What fabulous public policy!
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Never mind that treating combatants in a war — any war, be it insurgency, guerrilla war, the clash of uniformed armies — as criminals and killing them summarily would produce perpetual war, since there could never be armistice, never surrender, because the 'moral' need is to kill everyone on the other side or be killed as an inevitability.
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In the context of war, what is "murder" but business-as-usual? The bulk of war is organized murder, by both sides. When we send cruise missiles hundreds of miles to kill 'suspected insurgents', we're not really engaged in a desperate fite in which we have no choice but to kill or be killed. There's no danger to the people who launch a cruise missile, so that's not self-defense. It's murder. When we drop bombs from planes that fly so high that no anti-aircraft gun or missile can reach them, that's not self-defense. It's murder. When we use a cannon or machine gun from inside a tank or send an unmanned drone to shoot at remote targets, that's not self-defense. It's murder. Whenever there is no danger to the individual who kills, that's not self-defense. It's murder. And when you travel 7,000 miles to kill people who never attacked you, that's not self-defense; it's murder. At end, then, the insurgents are more like right than we are in Iraq. So let us not turn up our nose at insurgents as "murderers" but ourselves as "heroes". War makes murderers of us all. As a practical matter, then, can we treat all combatants on both sides as murderers and execute them all?
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What goes around comes around. We kill Iraqi insurgents; they kill us. And whereas we often cannot know, absent some kind of trial, whether people who do not wear uniforms are actual combatants / insurgents / guerrillas / "terrorists" — choose one; they're all the same — the insurgents can know if U.S. troops are combatants / "terrorists" (the same to them), because our soldiers wear uniforms that mark them plainly as The Enemy, and as such, as murderers all of whom deserve to die. So insurgents feel justified in killing them all, every single one. We respond in kind. Round and round we go, and war never stops because the only stop is death to everyone involved. No negotiations. No POWs. No amnesties. Just fite to the death, every time, and war ends only when every "enemy" is dead, on one side or the other — or both.
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What a bunch of morons the editorial board of the New York Post is. It wasn't always so.
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In the very same issue of the Post as that insane editorial appears a book review of a biography of Dolly Schiff, the woman who, in my youth, owned the New York Post and made it the clarion, stentorian voice of liberalism and social justice! That was a Post I was proud of, the New York Post founded by one of the actual heroes of American history, Alexander Hamilton, whose grave I have reverently viewed in Trinity Churchyard at the head of Wall Street. How times change.
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But since times do change, we can hope that the Post will one day be restored to its former glory, as a voice of true civilization, American civilization, which does not shoot captives but renders them into Prisoners of War.
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That does not, however, mean that American civilization cannot designate street gangs as enemy combatants, call out the army, and shoot them down in the streets wholesale if they dare to fite. As long as they've got guns in their hands, we have the right to shoot them. But when they drop those guns and surrender, then the criminal law rather than the law of combat kicks in. There really is a war involving drugs in this country, but not a real war on drugs. The real war has to date been one-sided, a war by druglords and their minions against society, with society refusing to fite back with the force required: military force, against the growers in Afghanistan and Colombia, the meth labs in Mexico and the South, the traffickers in every country. Treat them as active combatants and shoot them, strafe them, napalm them as long as they remain in the field arrayed against us. Only when they surrender and end their warfare do we need to turn generous.
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Savagery begets savagery. Would that it were equally true that civilized behavior begets civilized behavior. But it has always been the case and presumably always will be that it is easier to descend into barbarism than to rise to civilization.
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Maintaining a civilization requires defense, to be sure, but it also requires that we be ever vigilant to temptations to barbarism.
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Moral leaders have their hands full, given the vile nature of the "human" creature. We should hardly be surprised that a predator species, the carnivore Homo sapiens, is often cruel. Carnivores cannot be too sensible of the terror, pain, suffering, and death that they inflict upon prey, or they would be incapable of killing, so would die of starvation. Alas, the distance a carnivore places between itself and its prey is inherently self-generalizing. Only the self is important. The suffering and even death of everything and everyone else is unimportant.
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Empathy has a biological start, close in, including at first only one's procreative mate and progeny. Lack of empathy and care for them would produce auto-extinction. Any such species would not survive. Beyond the immediate family, however, biology takes us only so far in forming identification with and thus extending empathic mercy toward others.
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Sociobiology says that genetic predisposition to bonding that promotes survival will itself survive. In a species each of whose individual members is as relatively weak as 'humans', surrounded by a harsh environment in which larger predators and fast, powerful prey abound, groups of individuals that can cooperate to defend against predators and herd and kill large prey increase the chances for survival of each member. The qualities that enable them to form groups are thus genetically selected for, because more of the individuals who possess them live to reproduce than of individuals who cannot cooperate with others.
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Thus people who can get along with an extended family, then clan, then tribe, then nation survive to pass along the genes that permit empathic groupings. But the genes of bestial, generalized aggression, even against other members of one's own group, also pass, perhaps as recessive traits that are dominant in some individuals. These are the outlaws, the criminals, the deviants who pop up in every large group. They benefit from the protection the group provides, but do not contribute. The group goes on nonetheless, but becomes progressively filled up with these individuals, who in nature would perish but in human societies survive because the mechanisms of survival provided for by the group extend to the bad as well as the good. In a small group, the antisocial deviant would be expelled and have to fend for himself. In a state of nature, many would die without reproducing. As groups get larger, however, expulsion becomes less feasible a way of dealing with violent individuals, and the tenderheartedness that enabled the group to form, self-generalizingly and promiscuously extends compassion to creatures who don't deserve it.
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Society keeps alive predators against the group who should be eliminated, by expulsion or, if they refuse to leave, by death.
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Some ability to attack one's own kind is necessary in tribal societies, as it may be necessary to defend one's territory, and thus your own group's ability to survive, by seeing other human beings as The Enemy and being able to attack or counterattack them. If we can confine those individuals to the military or police, and channel their ability to kill and otherwise inflict violence into a social good, that's fine. What we cannot do is allow them to set social policy. Thus, in the United States, we created the rule that civilian authority is always to be supreme over the military. We are perilously close to abandoning that stance. The United States is becoming progressively militarized every year. The endless blather about our "heroes" and "supporting our troops" is poisonous to our civilization. But not just to our civilization.
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All large societies today have large numbers of biological deviants who do not feel the empathy for other human beings that alone empowered the human species to conquer this planet. Genes that allow them to separate themselves from the group emotionally and view other members of their own group, not just of competing groups, as enemies to be victimized, have spread through the larger group, keeping us ever at the edge of mass barbarism. Thus it is that we are warned by "survivalists" that in a post-apocalyptic age, it isn't the Russians or Chinese we're going to have to worry about, it's our neighbor.
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Seeing the problem is not the same as having a solution. Perhaps there is a partial solution in sterilization of the criminal class. When we find that some 'people' don't have a conscience, an internal compass that tells right from wrong, and everyone is a target of their willfulness and selfishness, we can simply sterilize them so they don't pass on that trait. There is no right to litter the future with children into the infinite future. Even if we don't kill career criminals, the predators in our midst, we can at least reduce the crop of future predators if there is something biologically wrong with them, by using a surgical net to filter such auto-predatory characteristics out of the gene pool.
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We must in any case be ever on guard against the violent beasts among us, and use violence only in retribution for serious wrong. Summary execution of enemy combatants is a terribly dangerous idea that amounts, basically, to tit-for-tat, an eye for an eye for an eye for an eye ... on and on forever. That, as Gandhi warned, would "only end up making the whole world blind".
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When Jesus told us to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, he was speaking to empathy, that biological ability of the human race that permitted us to become a successful species and form complicated societies, cultures, technologies, civilizations. "Do to others before they do to you" is the morality of the mob, those antisocial biological deviants in whom empathy has failed. It is a recipe for endless violence. It is not the American Way.
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(The current U.S. military death toll in Iraq, according to the website "Iraq Coalition Casualties", is 3,246 — for Israel.)

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