I self-identify only as myself but have long been sympathetic with both libertarianism and existentialism. Having dealt throughout 2020 with an array of restrictions on my liberty imposed by local authorities everywhere I have been (Europe, the UK, and now in the US), the primary effects of which have been not to save lives but to control how people behave, I have been thinking about existentialism, which naturally raises questions about the proper scope and role of government, bringing me back, also, to libertarianism. Both outlooks prioritize human liberty, dignity and personal responsibility above all else. I have seen nearly nothing written about existentialism in recent years, perhaps because its most famous adherent in the twentieth century, Jean-Paul Sartre, was politically aligned with socialist and even communist movements. To suggest that existentialism and libertarianism are somehow related might seem prima facie odd because the latter is typically regarded as politically conservative, a right-wing, not a left-wing, view of the proper role of government. The mere mention of the word libertarian may incite ire among progressives of the “social justice warrior” stripe, and some leftists appear to derive untold delight from sardonically ridiculing libertarians as “pot-smoking Republicans”.
Another common stereotype is that libertarians must be white male land owners (why else would they care about protecting private property?!), which is of course just as simpleminded as Joe Biden’s claim that “You ain’t black!” if you have to think about whether to support him. In fact, nothing could be more racist than to assume that “authentic” black people have no real choice but to support the Democratic party. Biden’s claim was all the more disturbing given that he himself helped to author the 1994 crime bill which put thousands of people behind bars for nonviolent offenses, including many African Americans. Biden also rallied vigorously for the disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq, which is relevant not only because a disproportionately high percentage of racial minorities serve in the military, but also because the lives of millions of persons of color were destroyed or degraded as a result of arguably the worst foreign policy blunder in U.S. history. In 2011, the Obama-Biden administration went on to offensively attack the country of Libya, which resulted in a resurgence of African slave markets. In that same year, they used lethal drones to execute brown-skinned U.S. citizens without indictment, much less trial. But who really cares about Biden’s policies? At least he is not Orange Man Bad!
Speaking of labels, Jean-Paul Sartre famously praised Che Guevara as “l’homme le plus complet de notre époque [the most complete human being of our age]” which, again, might lead some readers to scoff at my claim that existentialism and libertarianism have anything whatsoever in common. It would be a mistake, however, to confuse Sartre’s political views with the higher-order philosophical thesis of existentialism, which was most appealingly articulated by nineteenth-century thinkers Friedrich Nietzsche, Søren Kierkegaard and Fyodor Dostoevsky, who are not coincidentally some of my favorite authors. Albert Camus, another twentieth-century intellectual, wrote a number of works which arguably reflect an existentialist outlook—including his most famous novels, L’étranger [The Stranger] and La peste [The Plague]—but Camus himself resisted that label. He certainly wasn’t the first independent thinker throughout history to have refused to accept such labels, for a variety of different reasons. Some among them simply do not like club-like organizations, which do on occasion transmogrify into religious cults of sorts, even when their memberships comprise what to all appearances are intellectuals.
Jean-Paul Sartre followed the lead of his nineteenth-century predecessors in famously propounding that “l’existence précède l’essence,” which is an explicit rejection of the essentialism of ancient Greek thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle. We become what we do, but that is never fully determined by the circumstances of our birth. That said, it was not entirely insane for twentieth-century existentialists to champion left-wing political causes, so long as they were convinced (as they seem to have been) that the conditions for human liberty, dignity and personal responsibility were not available to the vast majority of persons. Sartre rejected not only Aristotle’s essentialism but also his belief (apparently common in ancient Greece) that women and non-Greeks (barbarians!) were not full-fledged persons. As pretty much everyone owns today, individuals denied the opportunity to educate themselves may appear to be illiterate, but that has nothing whatsoever to do with their inherent intellectual capacities. Along those lines, left-wing existentialists may insist that before anyone can make free choices, they need to have not only the potential but also the power, at least in principle, to do so. People who are scrounging around for their next meal or a roof over their head for the night may not have the energy or time to do much else.
As a result of the political activities and fame of Sartre and Camus, the existentialist waters were muddied for decades to follow, with some of those claiming Sartre as a personal hero more or less on a par with the twenty-somethings who wear Che Guevara t-shirts but never bother to read any books about him. Those who adore the iconic stenciled image of “Che”, and the implied “coolness” of anyone who agrees, might be stunned to learn, among other things, that Che Guevara personally oversaw the execution of more than 500 human beings, most of whom had been going along to get along with the Batista regime. Then again, given what might be termed “the authoritarian turn” taken in recent years by leftists keen to impose their values on everyone else, perhaps they would not be bothered in the least by Che’s homicidal creds.
The division between left-leaning and right-leaning existentialists turns most obviously on their interpretation of potential. Few would deny that it can be difficult for a person born into poverty to break out of his conditions, but it is nonetheless possible, as we know from the many people throughout history who have done just that. It is precisely the inherent dignity of human beings which drives some of them to achieve great things, and, although some will roll their eyes or snicker at this, one may with equal reason point out that many a person with a good deal of potential ended up squandering it in part as a result of the privileged conditions into which he was born. Ultimately, in a free society, the answer to the question what persons should do with their lives comes back to themselves, regardless of whether they were disadvantaged or spoiled, encouraged or oppressed.
The philosophical thesis of existentialism has no normative content—even morality is an undecided issue. Libertarianism, in contrast, champions what is sometimes characterized as the non-aggression principle (NAP) as its most fundamental tenet: initiating or threatening forceful interference with individuals and their property is wrong. In existentialism, everything is permitted. In libertarianism, in contrast, everything is permitted except violation of the NAP. Libertarianism, therefore, exemplifies moral absolutism, which existentialism does not. An existentialist may adopt non-aggression as a personal principle, and he may or may not exhort others to do the same. He may or may not find fault with those who neither agree with him nor follow his lead. The existentialist may skeptically regard the NAP as an article of faith, for it must be chosen by an individual himself for himself and for his own reasons. But to claim that normative principles such as NAP are articles of faith is not to deny their importance in how some people choose to shape their own lives.
What should we do? is not a question which can be settled by appeal to the deliverances of science, because science trades only in facts, while normative prescriptions for action are based in values, which cannot be read off of empirical reality. The paradox of morality is that you cannot argue someone into acting morally, if he does not already believe that he should, because what one ought to do can never be deduced from the way things happen to be. Instrumental rationality is a matter of fashioning means to ends, but setting those ends is up to individuals themselves—an idea championed not only by skeptics such as eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume, but also the existentialists.
The open-ended, contentless quality of existentialism is perhaps why much of what has been written by existentialists is literally literature—assuming the standard division between philosophy and literature. (I myself reject that division, but many philosophers do not.) However one distinguishes one type of writing from another, it is up to each person to decide how to interpret everything. If you choose to follow anyone else’s rules (those of your parents, teachers, the state, a religion or other group, a philosophical “school”), that is something which you choose to do—or not. “Ne pas choisir, c’est encore choisir [not to choose is still to choose],” as Sartre famously put it. Common criminals and protagonists such as Raskolnokov (in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment) or Meursault (in Camus’ L’étranger) may be viewed by many as miscreants, but their comportment arises out of their individual decisions to adopt their own principles for living. They are free agents, and no one else is responsible for what they do. Yes, forces of nature and nurture act upon everyone, but we alone choose what to do and bear the primary credit or blame for the consequences which ensue.
Western democracy is generally regarded as the best available system for free persons, for it permits them to carve out their own destinies, based on their own beliefs. Everyone faces obstacles and struggles along the way, but with sufficient initiative, drive and ingenuity, some people manage to make something of themselves. The laws of modern societies prohibiting violence against other people effectively affirm the libertarian’s NAP (which is not however to deny that the state is itself the primary violator of the NAP, above all through war). An individual may lead his life as he wishes, provided that he does not prevent others from doing the same. If your concept of “The Good Life” requires the destruction of other human beings and/or their property, then your liberty will be restricted by the government, if you are caught. Some people do not embrace the NAP, choose to rape and murder, pillage and plunder, and some among them end up in prison next to the nonviolent pot-smokers and others locked up as a result of the 1994 crime bill and related NAP-hostile legislation.
Now that recreational marijuana has been legalized in many of the United States, and medical marijuana in even more, there are plenty of pot smokers roaming free, even while others continue to languish behind bars. We also know that, although some murderers are locked up, others remain at large: one out of every three homicide cases in the United States is never solved. That may seem to be an alarming statistic to some, but it is the price that must be paid for the much worse alternative of judging everyone guilty until proven innocent. The presumption of innocence protects many more innocent than guilty people. No one should be locked up (much less executed) for their mere potential to commit crimes, and anyone who thinks otherwise is a tyrant, tout court. Some of the best works of dystopic fiction underscore the horror of a world in which everyone is constantly under suspicion and subject to arbitrary detention for whatever reason any authority may deem sufficient, solely at his caprice.
In 2020, people are currently being denied the freedom needed to determine their own destinies and to conduct themselves with the dignity which distinguishes them from the members of other species. In this way, COVID-World offers libertarians a glimpse into the twentieth-century existentialists’ concerns about the material prerequisites which must first be satisfied in order for persons to be able to choose what to do with their lives. Before COVID-19, people in Western liberal societies were largely held responsible for their own deficiencies and failure to fashion a good life for themselves. Now, however, people are being denied the opportunity to do what they would choose to do, left to their own devices. Effectively, those being prevented from earning a livelihood and forced to stay home are the equivalent of innocent persons erroneously convicted and sentenced to prison terms. Incarcerated persons are severely hampered in their ability to start and run businesses, and to act in other ways which might prevent them from resorting to crime in the future. They are also strictly limited in their choices of how best to flourish and thrive while inhabiting a cage.
Just as innocent persons should not be incarcerated, healthy people should not be quarantined. From the perspective of both existentialism and libertarianism, this arbitrary detention of innocent persons can be viewed as an affront to humanity. People are being told how they must live by their government, which claims to be acting for the public good but in reality is destroying countless lives. It is not the case that persons are forbidden by the government only from harming other people and their property, as an NAP-based society would prescribe. Citizens are in fact being ordered, effectively, to harm themselves, under the pretext that acting in ordinary ways may lead to the deaths of other people. How so many compliant citizens have come enthusiastically to embrace this Orwellian Covidystopia as “the new normal” is beyond me. Perhaps it is simply the logical consequence of stringent behavioral conditioning initially implemented by appeal to what we now know to have been the false claim that millions of compatriots would otherwise die. Many months later, having already accepted the endless and mercurial decrees of the Covid czars, people still terrified of the virus are willing to do whatever they are told to do without posing any objections whatsoever. Nine months of habits die hard, so when gurus in white lab coats such as Anthony Fauci tell them to jump, they answer “How high?”
Governments allegedly of, by, and for the people have imposed many restrictions on liberty in countries all over the planet, the primary effects of which have been to harm millions of people in the name of the small percentage of those who are vulnerable to COVID-19. It may be tempting to ascribe underhanded or ulterior motives to those who wave their science flags in defense of the new Nurse Ratched state, but there is no real need to do so, for the phenomenon can be more simply explained as fully analogous to the enthusiastic drum-beaters for wars from which they themselves have nothing to gain and, indeed, much to lose. The problem at this point in time is that people reside on one or the other side of the COVID-19 divide, but the policymakers are for the most part aligned, claiming the authority to dictate behaviors for all of society by appeal to the opinions of a few select scientific experts, no matter how many times they have been wrong in the past. Recall that Anthony Fauci sincerely proclaimed in a 60 Minutes program interview that masks were not necessary, and in fact caused more problems than they prevented because people wearing them tend touch their faces more often than they might otherwise do. (And of course it is quite evident by now to any observant person that most people wear the same mask over and over again—pulling it out and putting it into the same pocket or purse, making the exercise purely a matter of show.) We were also told “fifteen days to flatten the curve,” but then the goalposts were changed again and again, until now, nine months later, Pennsylvanians have been ordered to wear masks whenever they leave their home and also within their residence, if anyone should happen to visit. Travel continues to be restricted and has been condemned by government authorities the world over, both at the national and state level, despite the IATA’s (International Air Transport Association’s) calculation that the chances of contracting COVID-19 on a plane this year were one in twenty-seven million. Although some disputed that claim, the U.S. government abandoned its own health screening of persons on incoming flights because the positive cases were so low that the program was deemed cost ineffective.
Citizens stepped onto a slippery slope when, back in March 2020, they agreed to stay home, and, if necessary, not to work. They agreed to wear masks wherever and whenever this was deemed necessary by the authorities that be. But one restriction and rule leads to another, with progressively more absurd implicatios, as is nowhere better illustrated than in the State of Pennsylvania’s requirement that people wear facemasks within their own homes. Who will be enforcing such laws? (Perhaps Amazon’s Alexa can be brought on board, given that she already resides in millions of homes.) This invasion of policymakers into the private lives of their constituents, and the fact that people have not risen up in response, is a dangerous turn in the already surreal series of events constitutive of the COVIDystopic year 2020, and it must be resisted, while it is still possible to do so. Beyond prohibiting domestic violence (which is one instance of enforcing the NAP), the state has no business whatsoever in any private residence. It is not the government’s business to tell human beings how they ought to live or who they should be. People need to take personal responsibility for their own health and well-being. No one denies anyone the right to choose not to smoke or to drink alcohol and eat fatty foods, and no one is preventing anyone afraid of the virus from donning hazmat suits. As for the rest of us, we should be permitted to shoulder the inevitable risks associated with leading what we freely choose to make of our own lives.
With the arrival of COVID-19 on the scene, many people have been seduced into believing that they must “listen to the science” and do whatever the self-proclaimed experts tell them to do. That this is charlatanry pure and simple follows from the fact that science says absolutely nothing about what we should or should not do. Those are questions of value, answers to which are provided by intelligent, conscious, and sentient human beings who thereby advance a perspective and promote their own values. Waving a “Follow The Science” flag distinguishes one not as a person of superior intellect and moral constitution but as someone who is easily duped and slings slogans as a way of covering up a lack of understanding—specifically, of how empirical science actually works. To refuse to wave a “Science” flag in support of political policies put forth by persons with specific value-laden agendas does not mean that one is a Luddite or an ignoramus but that one in fact grasps the fundamentally skeptical nature of the scientific enterprise.
All of the ongoing clamor about “the science” reminds me of what I observed while a graduate student in philosophy at Princeton University, where many of my peers seemed to believe that by specializing in areas such as philosophy of science or logic, they distinguished themselves as intellectually superior to those who wallowed in ethics or other forms of value theory. Having earned my undergraduate degree in biochemistry, conducted a good bit of research in organic chemistry, and taught chemistry at two different universities before pursuing graduate studies in philosophy, I was never vulnerable to the prevailing climate of scientism—the elevation of science as a form of religion—for I already knew what science could and could not do.
Science can tell you about the facts. Not all of them at once, and not immediately, but over time, as data is amassed and theories are proposed and rejected or confirmed. Those facts are always tentative, mere hypotheses covering very specific and limited ranges of reality. A theory of physical chemistry, for example, tells one nothing about botany, for the two types of theory cover completely different strata and phenomena. What are believed to be scientific facts are always subject to disconfirmation as more data is accumulated over time and better theories emerge. Apparently recalcitrant data must be somehow explained away by the best confirmed current theory, and when that proves impossible to do, then the theory must, rationally speaking, be abandoned.
Scientists throughout history have clung religiously to their favorite theories (especially those devised by themselves), but eventually, as new generations of scientists emerge, older theories become amenable to revision and even wholesale rejection by researchers not religiously devoted to them. It is not easy to do such a thing because one risks offending the true believers, some of whom may wield extraordinary institutional power and will vehemently resist suggestions to the effect that they are wrong. No one wants to believe that they have devoted their entire professional career to the elaboration of a theory which was false all along.
Philosopher Thomas Kuhn wrote a gripping book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), about the social and psychological dynamics involved in theory construction and testing, the nuts and bolts of the scientific enterprise, which, like it or not, is conducted by human beings, with all of their foibles. It seems safe to say that the COVID-19 cheerleaders for The ScienceTM have never read the work of Thomas Kuhn. To refuse to subject data to scrutiny, to decline to reevaluate initial hypotheses, naïvely accepting instead the prescriptions of select gurus on faith, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that they were wrong, is to succumb to the charlatanry of scientism, not to champion science.
Not everyone accepts Thomas Kuhn’s rather derogatory depiction of how scientists operate; some prefer to uphold the image of scientists as supremely rational and objective analysts. But even if Kuhn’s picture was an exaggeration—some would say a caricature—even supposing that scientific hypothesis testing were some sort of supremely rational and objective endeavor, what could even the best confirmed and most widely accepted theories of science tell us about what we ought to do? The answer is: absolutely nothing. For a scientific theory’s having survived in tact over a reasonable period of time does not alone dictate anything whatsoever about human action. To suggest otherwise is to commit what is known in philosophy as “the is-ought fallacy,” usually credited to David Hume, an eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher with a skeptical bent. Facts are one thing; normative prescriptions for action are quite another. People blinded by science (who I have noticed tend to be those with no higher education in science), those who, like Milgram’s unwitting experimental subjects, accept the decrees of men in white lab coats and decline to examine the values and interests being promoted by them, have simply been duped. A most stunning aspect of this intellectual submission (which has analogues in foreign policy as well) is when subjects are persuaded to believe that conflict of interest is somehow impossible among scientists—despite being possible in every other realm. Why are scientists supposed to be untainted by worldly temptation? Because they are scientists! As though human beings did not choose to become scientists.
To see the distinction between the deliverances of science and the promotion of values, consider one example of a fact widely considered to be true, based on many decades of data collection. Science tells us that smoking will greatly increase the chances of one’s dying prematurely. One’s decision whether to smoke or not, however, depends on one’s values. If you find the pleasure of smoking great enough, then you may simply not care today that at the terminus of your life some number of years will likely have been shaved off as a result of your insistence on smoking. (No guarantee, of course. There are examples of chain smokers who somehow beat the odds to become nonagenarians or even centurions.) All things considered, you are much more likely to die of a lung-related illness if you smoke than if you do not. In fact, all activities in which human beings engage involve risks along with benefits. Each individual must make his own choices for his own life about which benefits do and do not outweigh the risks incurred in doing those things—driving, drinking, rock climbing, flying, scuba diving, traveling to countries where violent crime is prevalent—the list goes on and on.
What has happened in 2020 is that a few COVID-19 policymakers have decided for all of humanity that the risk of dying from COVID-19 outweighs all other considerations about what we ought to do. This is a value judgment, pure and simple, yet it has been fobbed off as some sort of “expert” wisdom. Those who crafted the initial responses to the virus, beginning with the very labeling of COVID-19 as a pandemic, have rallied the “listen to the science” troops for many months, with the result that their stance has become very difficult to challenge. Few of them seem capable of assessing the new data and revising their theory as the scientific method would require. Despite adamantly claiming that they “listen to The science,” they fail altogether to recognize that science is not a static, eternal totem, but a method used to marshal a dynamic, metamorphosing body of hypotheses. The irony, of course, is that the most vociferous denouncers of anyone who questions the gospel are conducting themselves in the manner of religious fanatics incapable of admitting that mistakes may have been made.
Thus we find that without any evidence whatsoever for the efficacy of lockdowns, and in fact a recent pronouncement by the World Health Organization (WHO) that lockdowns have side effects which vastly outweigh any alleged benefits, the lockdowns of western states, along with border restrictions and quarantine requirements, continue on, with local authorities tweaking their policies only slightly whenever they decide that the latest “case” tally is too high. No matter that different kinds of tests are administered differently and to different groups in different places. No matter that the very accuracy of the tests has been impugned. No matter that there is no other example of a respiratory disease (to my knowledge) for which one may repeatedly test positive as “infected” while manifesting no symptoms. No matter that cases in younger persons are rarely fatal, yet serial, obligatory testing of college students continues on. The COVID-19 gurus have decided that a case is a case. None of the death data matters because these people, who never understood the scientific method in the first place, much less the fact-value dichotomy, continue to claim that The ScienceTM is on their side and that those who disagree are selfish and illiterate ignoramuses. In the United States, the people of California, Michigan, Massachusetts, and other states have had to endure severe restrictions of their liberty and much economic hardship for eight months, with no end in sight. Across the pond, both Wales and Ireland, along with various counties in England, recently re-imposed strict lockdowns as a form of “circuit breaker” after surges of cases in some places where no or nearly no new COVID-19 deaths had been reported.
Proclaiming that we must “listen to the science” has become the worst type of virtue signaling on the part of people many of whom have nothing to lose from the lockdowns (their own financial security being immune to whatever policies are imposed). Shutting down the hospitality and tourism sectors of entire cities, counties and countries causes untold harm to anyone working in the gig economy, and yet the victims are themselves portrayed as immoral for refusing to sing along with the cheery refrain, “We’re all in this together!” Few among the populace have been able effectively to press these points, because the media and tech industries have overwhelmingly joined forces with the COVID-19 policymakers, promoting The ScienceTM company line while silencing those who demur. Needless to say, there is nothing more unscientific than censorship, for the scientific enterprise requires a continual reassessment of the facts. When new hypotheses are forbidden because they conflict with what one believed to be true, then science has come to a screeching halt.
Even more devastating than the effects in Europe, Britain, and the United States are the same policies enacted in third world countries by leaders who emulate western politicians religiously committed to their initial responses. The same lockdown and quarantine “strategies” have been implemented in places where they could never, even in principle, diminish the incidence of COVID-19 death, even if it were true—which is not supported by data—that lockdowns worked in the West. In countries where large populations live in extremely close proximity to one another in open-air shanty towns—places such as Brazil, South Africa, Kenya, India, and many other countries as well—there is no chance that staying in one’s hut is going to prevent transmission of the dreaded disease. Meanwhile, police have ended the lives of persons in violation of emergency laws which in no way serve the people’s interests. But to understand how absurd it is to impose curfews and quarantine requirements on the residents of shared outdoor space, one would have to be familiar with basic concepts of molecular entropy, which we know from the many closed beaches and outdoor mask requirements in the West are altogether beyond the capacity of the COVID-19 gurus to comprehend.
Perhaps the grandest irony of all is that, by focusing exclusively on the hope of minimizing the deaths of the small percentage of the population vulnerable to the dreaded disease, the medical professionals who have been advising the COVID-19 policymakers have violated the most sacred oath of physicians: Do No Harm. Lockdown policies have harmed every person whose risk of death by other causes has been increased by preventing them from doing whatever they would have done, left to their own devices: working, visiting the doctor, and engaging in normal social activities which make life worthwhile, including interacting with family and friends.
With regard to scarce resources and policies which affect entire populations, science is silent about who should and should not be saved. Should limited health resources be dedicated to the mass testing of young people not at serious risk from COVID-19? Should healthy children at nearly no risk of death be used in experimental vaccine trials? These are value judgments about which science has nothing to say. Anyone who suggests otherwise is a shyster or confused, and anyone who believes that men in white lab coats should be the ones to answer such questions has been fooled.
After months of lockdowns, border closures, and inconsistent injunctions issued by local authorities to protect some of their constituents by severely limiting everyone’s freedom not only to move, but also to act, and even to speak, the time has arrived for a robust discussion of the proper scope and role of government. The range of “emergency laws” being imposed by authorities all over the world in order to stem the tide of COVID-19, or to prevent so-called second waves of the illness in countries where it has already taken a steep toll, is amazing to behold. I imagine that more and more of these laws will be overturned in Western liberal democracies as lawsuits force judges soberly to confront the mountain of statistics being amassed. One hopes that they will find ways to objectively assess the real danger of the disease (relative to other causes of death) rather than continue to permit government administrators to base their abrupt and arbitrary policy changes on scary-sounding “case surges,” which have not been followed up by surges in deaths, thankfully. It is unclear to me why anyone would ever have worried about a second wave of deaths to begin with, given what we now know about the discriminate targeting of the disease, which at the outset the hard-hit Italians certainly did not. But, alas, fear acts as a powerful vise on the minds of even intelligent beings.
It is surprising that so much emphasis has been placed on cases, rather than deaths, because nearly everyone now does seem to know that many “infected” persons show only minor or no symptoms at all. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) itself included a text to that effect in all of its early reports on the new coronavirus, back when no one really understood what was going on, and it seemed a matter of simple prudence to do whatever “the experts” decreed. Hardly anyone seemed to wonder at the time why, if COVID-19 was a genuine pandemic, the CDC would be stating, almost in passing, that “most people” would not be adversely affected by it in the least. So is it a pandemic? Or is it not a pandemic? Here is the definition of pandemic in the Merriam Webster dictionary:
pandemic = an outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area (such as multiple countries or continents) and typically affects a significant proportion of the population
In war theaters, those running the show have always hedged their bets, and the same thing is happening today in the theater of COVID-19. Better to err to the side of caution! appears to be the thinking, as at least some politicians must have believed when in October 2002 they granted President George W. Bush the authority to wage war on Iraq whenever he pleased, with no further need to consult the legislature. Once war has already been waged, the citizenry tends to line up behind leaders in a show of solidarity, even when it becomes indisputable that they have no idea what they are doing, as in the cases of Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, to list only a few of the many catastrophes in recent U.S. military history. Sadly, the same seems to be true in the “war” on COVID-19, as some have characterized it, and not without reason.
When authoritarian measures are implemented in the name of national defense, we are right to examine whether those measures actually promote rather than undermine our own interests, as in the case of the twenty-year War on Terror. The summary execution of U.S. citizens without indictment (much less trial) was carried out under the authority of President Barack Obama before the not-so-critical eyes of the populace, most of whom did not even blink. Mass surveillance of all U.S. citizens—and, indeed, anyone, anywhere in the world—was justified in the minds of government leaders because of the danger supposedly posed to “our way of life” by violent terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS. “They hate us for our freedom” became an oft-parroted trope, despite the ample evidence that, in truth, they hate us for our bombs, which leaders continue to this day to lob, killing innocent people while disrupting and degrading societies in lands far away.
The ever-proliferating “emergency laws” penned in response to the COVID-19 virus reflect a similar sense of urgency among bureaucrats. When persons are swabbed and then effectively punished (quarantined) for having “failed” the COVID-19 test, some among them are understandably baffled. One anecdotal case among thousands is that of my uncle, who needed to have surgery for the removal of a painful kidney stone but was forced to wait two weeks as a result of his positive COVID-19 test, despite exhibiting no symptoms whatsoever of the dreaded disease and personally suffering only from his kidney problem. There are much worse cases, of course, which involve potentially fatal illnesses: cancer, stroke, heart attacks, and the like. Nevertheless, asymptomatic patients continue to be denied access to treatment until they have first survived a quarantine intended to protect other people from death.
Making matters worse, there appear to have been many instances of false positive tests for COVID-19. Indeed, by some estimates, a large proportion of those who test positive but do not exhibit symptoms are not even contagious. A bit of inactive COVID-19 debris (or “dust,” as it might be termed) may lead diagnosticians to red-flag patients who are not dangerous in the least. The testing of people varies from place to place, with local authorities determining not only who should be tested but also what the threshold test sensitivity should be. These judgments are made on the basis of whatever strikes them—in consultation with their local “experts”—as relevant at the time. All of this makes it very difficult to know what any of the case surge reports actually mean. Many of the abrupt increases in new cases are obviously accounted for by the implementation of robust testing programs, particularly in places where no or very little testing was being done before. Yet government administrators continue to craft new quarantine, lockdown, mask and social distancing requirements based on The ScienceTM, because they do not know what else to do. Border restrictions on people hailing from countries with unacceptably high infection rates (in England, the magic number is 20 or more cases per 100,000 inhabitants) continue to be used to prevent entire populations from entering other countries. In this way, all people of such nations are being effectively punished as though everyone living there were infected.
The government of Spain, no doubt viewing itself as taking extra precautions to protect its population, has gone one step further, refusing entry even to Americans residing in so-called corridor countries (deemed safe) and who have not been in the United States since the crisis began. So what is the health pretext in that case supposed to be, exactly? It is also worth noting that the tit-for-tat restrictions being implemented by countries (where one slams down a quarantine requirement, and then the other follows suit, preserving reciprocity) would seem to be based purely on politics, not public health. It makes no sense whatsoever for a country with a higher rate of infection to bar entry of people from a country with a lower rate of infection, who, by coming, would lower the host country’s rate of infection, would they not? No, I am afraid that the numbers do not bear this out, for any changes in infection rate would be on the magnitude of rounding errors. If in a given country 21 people out of 100,000 are COVID-19 positive, even assuming that they are contagious (which many may not be), then what is the probability that any one person on a 200 passenger plane originating from that country will be a carrier? I leave this calculation as an exercise for the reader.
Having recently watched a few pandemic movies (Contagion, Outbreak, 93 Days…), I have come to suspect that the primary problem with the new COVID-19 czars is that they are basing their policies on such apocalyptic portrayals, under the assumption that a pandemic is a pandemic. It has become abundantly clear that many of these people are altogether devoid of basic statistical analysis and critical thinking skills. As a result, they are indeed hedging their bets by waving their “Science” flags, under the assumption that anything bad enough to be labeled a “pandemic” by the World Health Organization (WHO) could kill us all. Thus we have, on opposite sides of the planet, the prime minister of Australia and the governor of Michigan proclaiming that emergency measures will be necessary until such time as an effective vaccine is readily available. The hubris of such a pronouncement is awe-inspiring. These leaders seem to believe that by wishing hard enough and pouring enough resources into labs all over the world—whatever it takes!—we can and will eventually defeat The Evil Enemy with a manmade vaccine. Alas, reality does not always conform to our wishes, and hoping for a safe and effective vaccine is one thing, while developing and testing one is quite another. There have, in fact, been attempts in the past few decades to come up with vaccines against other coronavirus and SARS variants, with no success.
The movies in which pandemics are The Evil Enemy present truly existential threats to humanity, unlike COVID-19, which specifically targets the aged and the infirm (usually both at the same time). Proponents of lockdowns and severe restrictions of movement and activity are reacting to COVID-19 as though everyone has a 99% chance of dying if they become infected, when in fact that is much closer to their chance of surviving. So if COVID-19 is nothing like Ebola (which does kill nine out of ten people it infects), then why are policymakers acting as though it is?
Consider Victoria, Australia, where the government has imposed one of the strictest lockdowns on the planet in response to an outbreak of cases in Melbourne. The people in that city are living under martial law, with police storming the homes of “criminals” who “incite” illegal behavior by encouraging others to attend public gatherings in order to protest the lockdown, mask mandate, curfew, and social distancing requirements preventing them from living their lives with any semblance of normality. How did the Australian government know that people were “inciting” such “criminal” behavior? Because the “perpetrators” posted their views on Facebook. In the United States, Northeastern University suspended eleven students for violating social distancing dictates by partying at a nearby hotel (Note: they were not on campus). The recalcitrant students will not be refunded their tuition and fees and are barred from returning for the year.
Some may protest that I am making trivial objections. ‘World travel is a luxury and a leisure activity. Better to stay home and play it safe than to die! College students do not need to party! They should stay in their rooms and hit the books, helping others to survive!’ But many businesses have also been fined or shut down for violating an ever-mutating array of regulations and requirements. Small business owners and contract employees have suffered enormously through the lockdowns in places where they are ineligible for government assistance, and thousands of small businesses will never recover. Perhaps it will seem impolite to point this out, but it is nonetheless true that the individuals laying down the new laws have salaries which will never be disrupted, no matter what they do. They will not be losing their jobs and will not be rendered homeless, no matter how long the lockdowns remain in place, and no matter how often the rules for businesses are changed.
As an indirect result of political measures implemented to combat COVID-19, suicides are on the rise (including among people who are retired), and cancer deaths will soon be, too, thanks to severely restricted access to medical care especially during the first months of the crisis. Some of the measures taken by governments to combat the dreaded disease have directly ended rather than protected their citizens’ lives. Consider the recent raid by Peruvian police of a Lima night club in violation of curfew and social distancing edicts. In the rush to leave the place rather than be arrested, thirteen people were stampeded to death. Assuming that the people at night clubs tend to be on the younger side, their chance of dying from COVID-19 is much less than 1%. There were about 120 people at the nightclub, more than ten percent of whom are now dead.
Six months into the crisis, many of the multi-million dollar facilities constructed to accommodate the expected flood of critically ill patients have been shuttered (some having never been used). Nonetheless, many citizens seem to be thoroughly convinced that the extreme measures which continue to be implemented worldwide—even in places where much of the populace depends on tourism to survive—suffice to demonstrate that the danger is real. Just as in the case of war, the harsher the means being used, the more fervently the people paying those in charge to do whatever they decide to do come to believe. What is the alternative? To accept that one was completely and utterly duped? There is a lot of conspiracy mongering going on, no doubt an effort to understand the massive, concerted, global apparatus erected to combat a disease less dangerous to most people than is the seasonal flu. Conspiracy theories have swept in to fill the epistemological void because, some are convinced, there must be some reason, some agenda, some plan (“Plandemic”) devised by a cabal of evil and mercenary geniuses (think Dick Cheney, the consummate war entrepreneur) who stand to profit and gain control of the ignorant masses at the same time. Otherwise none of this makes any sense.
Certainly there are agents involved (Bill Gates, Anthony Fauci, the CEOs of pharma firms, et al.) who have self-interested financial motives to create, produce, and distribute 9 billion doses of a vaccine. Suppose, further, that COVID-19 mutates, making it impossible for a person’s natural immune system to provide protection for more than a few months at a time. What if, like the common flu, COVID-19 presents new variants each year, and governments decide (as some have hinted) to require everyone everywhere to line up not only for flu shots but also the latest and greatest COVID-19 vaccine? As improbable as that may sound, the State of Massachusetts decreed in August 2020 (amidst a flurry of new “emergency laws”) that all schoolchildren and university students (both undergraduate and graduate) are now required to have seasonal flu vaccinations, despite the fact that the CDC itself reports an efficacy rate of 19% for the 2019 vaccine (the five-year range is from 19% to 48%). Imagine, then, that this requirement were expanded to include a jab for flu and a jab for COVID-19 for everyone. That would obviously be the biggest Big Pharma coup of them all—far surpassing the medicalization of ordinary troubles to which human beings have always been susceptible and which, since the U.S. launch of Prozac in early 1988, have been increasingly addressed through the popping of psychotropic pills. The lockdowns alone are likely to cause a huge surge in patients seeking a bit of help from their doctors to allay anxiety and stress in this ever-more uncertain world, where it has become nearly impossible to make any long-term plans involving anything beyond the perimeters of one’s own home. Or tent.
The reason why conspiracy theories are flourishing is not only that people have too much time on their hands and nowhere to go. The truth is that the experts do not agree. Some maintain that shielding children from all germs will make it difficult for them to develop hardy immune systems; others deny that this is the case. Do lockdowns help, or do they not? (See: Sweden and South Dakota.) Is herd immunity possible, or is it not? If it is not, then why would anyone hold out hope for a safe and effective vaccine to be developed, tested, produced and distributed before the virus, of its own accord, turns into something else or runs out of steam? Does anyone truly believe that the virus is going to exhaust its source of elderly and infirm targets and then mutate, in an unprecedented display of viral intelligence, so as to be able to target toddlers? In a climate of fear stoked over many months, The Evil Enemy comes to seem much bigger and more powerful than it is.
Once again, the case is not unlike recent foreign policy initiatives rationalized on the grounds that we must take the battle to the enemy before they have the chance to come to U.S. shores. I suppose that one positive consequence of COVID-19 is that nearly nobody fear-mongers about terrorism anymore, as there is a new, bigger, badder bogeyman in town. Which is not, however, to say that the Middle East is not being bombed on a regular basis, just that even fewer journalists talk about it than before. In fact, there is not a lot of non-COVID-19 talk going on at all among media pundits. Across social media, people have already picked sides and spend their time denouncing as stupid anyone who happens to disagree. Again, this may have much to do with the fact that, having once invested in something, having been true believers, it becomes very difficult to admit error in the face of even overwhelming evidence to that effect. Politicians will continue to uphold their policies even as they destroy the lives of countless human beings. It happened in Vietnam, and it is happening today. To save the village, must it be destroyed?
There is no question that vulnerable people incapable of protecting themselves should be protected from COVID-19, because vulnerable people incapable of protecting themselves should always be protected by decent societies. But there are rational limits to the forms which that protection can take. Are terminally ill patients being helped by being denied the right to spend the last days and hours of their lives with their loved ones? Are independent seniors forced to live like recluses being helped by policies which prevent them from having any visitors? I think not.
What is being overlooked by policymakers is that there is much more at stake than simple existence. The “village” currently under siege is the social sphere. We are asked to wear masks, stay away from each other (no hugs or kisses!), avoid interacting with people beyond our “bubble,” and not go anywhere unnecessarily. From the perspective of lockdown proponents, all of these measures are minor inconveniences in the face of a much worse consequence, should we fail to comply: death. So we see children in schools wearing masks and sitting at Plexiglas-shielded desks to avoid the horror of anyone’s tiny drop of spittle hitting anyone else in the eye. In fact, hardly any of those children would die, even if all of them were exposed.
‘We will do anything necessary to prevent even one death!’ proclaim some of the COVID-19 czars, apparently oblivious to the fact that human beings die all the time. They want to protect the grandparents of the children, when in fact, the grandparents are perfectly capable of deciding what are and are not acceptable risks to themselves. For some, interacting with grandchildren is a primary source of joy. Being retired, they look forward to nothing more than spending time with their extended family. That is a choice which they can and should be able freely to make. And, lest we forget, children are vulnerable, too, not to the dreaded disease, but to the climate of fear in which they are currently being raised. Schoolchildren forced to wear masks do not see their peers’ smiles and frowns, and hear only their muffled words and laughs. Some of them may avoid socializing at all because it is has become not only so strange but also prohibitively difficult to do. They have less reason than ever before for putting their iphones away.
Before COVID-19, people who washed their hands a hundred times a day and avoided contact with others for fear of contracting diseases were diagnosed as germophobes suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Human beings who scrupulously avoided social gatherings were said to suffer from social anxiety disorders. Now, however, social distancing requirements in venues as banal as grocery stores are causing people to behave as though their fellow shoppers were suffering from the Black Plague. In some places, store clerks upbraid customers for violating one-way arrow requirements when they run back to pick up a forgotten carton of milk before returning to their place on one of the circular floor stickers at the checkout line. (Yes, that happened to me. Yes, I was wearing a mask.)
Many people have accepted all of the new restrictions on behavior as “the new normal,” and two weeks of this sort of thing may not cause lasting harm to anyone. Six months, however, is a significant portion of a child’s life, and we have experts today forecasting that emergency measures will persist well into 2021 or beyond. But should the existence of a virus, which may or may not ever go away, be used as the pretext for dictating how conscious, intelligent, free creatures should live?
The question of killing versus letting die has long been a source of puzzlement to me, particularly as it arises in rallies for so-called “humanitarian” wars abroad. Wealthy nations regularly “allow” people to die all over the world—of disease and starvation, as a result of natural disasters, etc.—so how, I have often wondered, does the professed desire to improve the lot of nonnationals serve to rationalize the dropping of massively destructive bombs upon their homelands? Assuming the most charitable of all possible scenarios (as unrealistic as that may be), even if leaders have the best of intentions, some of the innocent people living in places being bombed will die as a direct result of the military intervention, not the danger allegedly necessitating the use of deadly force abroad. Such deaths are written off as “collateral damage” and the policymakers thereby exonerated in the minds of nearly all of the people who paid for the bombing campaigns.
The case of COVID-19 has begun to raise the question of killing versus letting die, for some of the persons allegedly being protected by the government are being or will be killed not by the disease but by policies enacted to combat the disease. Notwithstanding the stentorian outcry of government interventionists thoroughly convinced of the necessity of lockdowns, closed borders, universal vaccination and face masks, the situation is not at all black-and-white. Indeed, it is quite complex. Everything turns on the contentious concept of “preventable deaths.”
The number one killer in the world, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) is heart disease. No one chooses to die of a heart attack, but is heart disease a case of sometimes preventable death? Obesity is a major contributing factor to heart disease, so one might not unreasonably suppose that if people were permitted to eat only lean proteins, vegetables and fruits, along with whole grains, if they were prevented from consuming fatty foods and highly processed sugar-laden snacks with no nutritive content (beyond calories), then the incidence of death by heart disease would diminish. This could be accomplished most straightforwardly by outlawing the offending foods and imposing government-enforced portion control. No state has to date prohibited or limited the production and consumption of fried foods, ice cream, and doughnuts. Which is not, however, to say that no one has ever tried something along those lines. When former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg attempted to outlaw large volume sodas (defined by his administration as exceeding 16 ounces), the law was struck down as unconstitutional. In free societies, it is up to individuals, not executives, to decide what and how much to eat and whether the risk of dying of complications arising from obesity—not only heart disease but also diabetes and other problems—is worth the freedom to choose what to consume.
One meme circulating around the internet shows a severely obese patient in a wheelchair wearing a mask and lashing out at a young, thin person for not wearing a mask. The meme is intended as a not-so-gentle reproach of those who created the negative health conditions which make them personally vulnerable to COVID-19. The insinuation is that severe lockdown and quarantine measures are problematic in a free society in part because some of the people vulnerable to COVID-19 have health-risk factors to which they themselves contributed. Obviously no one should hold octogenarians and nonagenarians “morally responsible” for the age-induced fragility which makes them more likely to succumb to respiratory infections than are younger, hardier persons. But surely there are also some people who suffer from obesity, diabetes, and other risk factors for which they, too, are not fully responsible, given their backgrounds and, in some cases, genetic predispositions. Bad choices are bad choices, but when they are made in part because of how one was raised, say, by parents who made similarly bad choices (and going back perhaps generations…), then there is some cause for restraint in judgment.
On the flip side, some people should not wear masks; not only young children but also persons with asthmatic and other respiratory conditions. While in the Dublin airport, where I had to fly in order to get to Wales (absurdly enough—because the Austrian government had decreed the United Kingdom a red zone), I noticed placards around the bathrooms pronouncing that “Not all disabilities are visible.” The signs were most likely intended to prevent anyone from upbraiding persons using handicapped bathroom facilities who by all appearances are perfectly normal. But it applies now, too, to people who do not wear masks because of their pre-existing health conditions, to which only they and their doctors are privy. Angry mask-wearers who shout shoppers out of stores for not covering their faces simply assume that they are not doing so because they are selfish or stupid (or evil or ignorant), when in at least some cases those people should not be wearing masks because doing so would be more dangerous to them than is COVID-19.
No matter what people do, death by disease cannot be fully eradicated, but other categories of death would seem to be preventable. Take the obvious example of traffic accidents, which has been discussed quite a bit on social media in recent months. If there were no cars, then there would be no car accidents and, therefore, no fatal car accidents. Make driving illegal, and road traffic injuries, which account for more than a million deaths each year worldwide, would come to a screeching halt. Despite knowing the risks involved, people choose to continue to drive vehicles. Despite the evident perils of motorcycles, which afford no protection in collisions with cars and trucks, people continue to choose to ride them. In some places, seat belts are required by law and motorcyclists must wear helmets (on pain of punishment for refusal to comply). Yet there are people who ignore those laws, unconcerned as they are about the increased risk of death which they will thereby face, and knowing that they will likely be fined if they are caught. Those are the rogues, of course, but even some of the people who do wear seat belts and helmets will be killed in traffic accidents, not to mention the many pedestrians who endanger themselves every time they cross a street. These activities are inherently dangerous to greater or lesser extents, depending upon the place and population density, but rather than outlaw all personal vehicles everywhere, governments permit individuals to assume the risk involved in activities which may tragically end in their deaths.
New Zealand has been heralded by some as a “success story” in the global battle against COVID-19, for the country imposed a complete lockdown of residents and slammed its borders shut with the result that hardly anyone in the country has succumbed to the disease—as of August 19, 2020, the grand total of deaths ascribed to COVID-19 is twenty-two. This makes New Zealand an interesting case to consider in thinking about the analogy to fatal traffic accidents. I say this because, in recent years, debate has raged over fatal auto accidents in New Zealand caused by foreign drivers. Like COVID-19, such cases tend to command a great deal of media air time, contributing to the perception of grave danger to the people of New Zealand. In 2016, there were twenty-six fatal accidents in which foreign drivers appear to have been at fault, and by 2019 the total number of traffic fatalities approached 400. At least some of those deaths were caused by foreign drivers, even if the perceived danger is higher than the reality.
The government of New Zealand might have prevented at least some of the fatal accidents by placing a moratorium on nonnational drivers, preventing them from renting cars and exacting severe penalties upon those who borrow cars from their friends and those residents who furnish cars to visitors. But this has never happened. Before COVID-19 (which we may in the future refer to as “B.C.”), despite knowing that foreign drivers from places where traffic flows down the right-hand side of the street do occasionally drift over the line on the sometimes steep and windy roads of New Zealand, thereby directly causing head-on collisions culminating in preventable deaths, the government of that nation has, at least up until now, permitted foreigners to rent vehicles and drive, even while knowing that some Kiwis (New Zealand nationals) will die as a result.
Now, with the sudden appearance of COVID-19, most foreigners are no longer allowed to drive in New Zealand for the simple reason that they are no longer permitted to travel to New Zealand. There were no doubt visitors around when the borders closed, and some may have decided to hunker down and wait for the virus to go away, but the moratorium on new tourists means a sudden and significant reduction of foreigners renting cars and killing Kiwis in New Zealand. Win-win! Well, except for the thousands of poor souls who are now out of work because twenty-two people in New Zealand died of a virus. The thinking among the powers that be, of course, is that if not for the severe lockdowns and restriction of liberties, many more people would have died there by now. Unfortunately, despite the refusal of Sweden to lockdown, we do not have as a test case any place where elderly care facilities were competently protected while the rest of the populace was allowed to roam free. Note, however, that Sweden’s per capita COVID-19 death rate is still lower than that of some countries which did impose months of severe lockdowns.
After the recent discovery of an outbreak of a few new cases (not deaths, mind you, but cases), the New Zealand government extended its lockdown of Auckland again and went one step further down a slippery slope, adopting as a national policy forcibly to place persons who test positive for COVID-19, along with their families, in quarantine camps. National elections have been postponed for a month as well. Authoritarian habits die hard, and one might surmise that once bureaucrats begin crunching the numbers of actual deaths caused in New Zealand by foreigners, they will eventually conclude that if ever they are permitted to return there for vacations, they should not be permitted to drive. In reality, that would and could happen there—and, frankly, everywhere—if and only if all of the new COVID-19 czars had some sort of consistent principles and worldview, which clearly they do not.
For example, while in Austria for more than half of 2020, I was surprised to find that smokers were permitted to puff away in public places, even though it was impossible to do so while complying with the Mund-Nasen-Schutz (face mask) requirement imposed in response to the arrival of COVID-19. Apparently, then, it is fine with the Austrian government for people today to induce in themselves lung cancer in the years to come, while endangering other residents with both second-hand smoke and COVID-19 simultaneously, but healthy nonsmokers not at significant risk of death from the virus are required by law to don face masks. If the risk aversion demonstrated by government bureaucrats in the face of COVID-19 were applied consistently, then cigarettes and personal automobiles would need to be altogether banned, in order to save people from themselves.
At first glance, smoking might seem to be a more straightforward case than obesity, for no one needs to smoke to survive, while all people must eat. Many human beings succumb to death by lung disease each year, usually as a result of having smoked. The dangers of smoking have been well-documented, and this information is now clearly printed on every pack of cigarettes, along with accompanying photos frightening enough to be screen shots from a horror film. And yet, some people continue to choose to smoke, and many continue to die each year of lung cancer and emphysema induced or exacerbated by smoking. Who is ultimately responsible when citizens die of such preventable deaths? Is it the manufacturers and distributors of cigarettes? Is it the government? Is it the voters who elect the government? Is it those who stand idly by watching others act in ways which endanger their own and in some cases other people’s health? Or are not individuals themselves ultimately responsible for what they do and thereby become?
The truth is that we never really know how and why people became the way that they became, nor why they do what they do. This is equally true for those who choose to smoke, to overeat, to ride motorcycles without helmets, and to drive while intoxicated or on steep mountain roads overhanging cliffs even when the traffic rules are the opposite of those to which they are accustomed. Given the many complex factors involved in our choices, each one of which contributes to who we finally become, the default position is generally regarded as one of personal responsibility, at least in Western liberal societies, where people are free to drink themselves to destruction or to gamble their lives away in other ways, whether literally or figuratively.
Contradictions abound in the Animal Farm-esque world of COVID-19 because different government officials the world over, and within large countries such as the United States, have very different views on what is and is not reasonable to ask of citizens. Quarantine, border restrictions and testing requirements change on a daily basis, and it is difficult to resist the suspicion that much of what is going on since the height of the crisis, in the spring of 2020, is purely the result of opportunistic politicians’ attempts to do something, do anything, so that they can take credit when the virus finally disappears.
In the current terror-tinged global pandemic milieu, where self-proclaimed “experts” are a dime a dozen, I continue to puzzle over why people are not simply being permitted to act on their own beliefs. Is not that the very basis of conscience? If anyone is truly terrified of being in the presence of unmasked persons, I would heartily exhort them to stay at home and do all of their shopping online. Just as in the case of drunk drivers and motorcyclists with no helmets, there will always be people who do not do as they are told—or as you believe that they should. If you decide to interact with those people (for example, by driving), that is a choice which you make. To those who would protest that, in the case of COVID-19, many people are ignorant of the relevant scientific literature, or “The ScienceTM,” I would counter that the very same argument would lead to the conclusion that representative democracy should be abolished. Certainly the manifest ignorance of both voters and elected officials in interpreting statistical data has become undeniable in recent months, with apparently intelligent people reading “death rates” of critically ill persons already in hospital intensive care units as applicable to the population at large.
Plato observed more than two thousand years ago that democracy is the second worse form of government—after tyranny, which is the system under which an executive is free to issue arbitrary edicts at his own caprice. The last bulwark against tyranny today remains a republican constitution—and the insistence of some people to uphold that constitution. The clear and present danger is that of citizens permitting themselves to be transformed into subjects, which can however be achieved through inducing a widespread fear of death—whether warranted by the facts or not.
In thinking about killing versus letting die, the case of COVID-19 is no less complicated than the cases of driving, eating, and smoking, all activities with built-in dangers and which are easy to abuse. Despite the strange, sudden and surprising near-unanimity of federal governments worldwide in deciding to implement a range of draconian policies intended to save the lives of those vulnerable to the disease by restricting the liberty of everyone else, and prohibiting normal activities in which healthy people would otherwise engage, the unsavory truth is that governments are in fact increasing the risk of death for many people who are in nearly no danger of dying from the virus itself.
Among the more drastic policy measures implemented in response to the appearance of COVID-19 is that of restricting access to medical services for anyone who does not exhibit acute symptoms of the dreaded disease. In this way, the new virus has been given a much higher priority than notorious killers such as cancer, heart disease, stroke and suicide. Hospitals all over the world have put “elective” surgeries on hold, postponed cancer treatment and refused admission to anyone not clearly suffering from COVID-19. This is tantamount to claiming that death by COVID-19 is somehow worse than death by cancer, heart disease, stroke, or suicide. But why should anyone believe that to be the case? The answer appears to be that because COVID-19 has been labeled a global pandemic, it is supposed to be worse than every other cause of death taken together. The numbers tell quite a different story.
In Italy, the average age of persons said to have succumbed to COVID-19 has been about eighty. Many people in that age cohort die of the flu every year. Fewer people are dying of the flu in 2020, because some of them are dying, instead, of COVID-19. So the question is not whether death is fully preventable in all of those cases, for it is not. Sometimes one’s number is just up. The question becomes, instead: is the rate of death by othercauses being significantly increased for other age cohorts as a result of efforts to prevent COVID-19 deaths in persons over seventy years of age? It will take some time to sort out the data, which is an ever-shifting sandcastle of poorly reported and misleadingly presented statistics. The United Kingdom, for example, recently reduced its official COVID-19 death toll from 46K to 41K, when it was discovered that people who died of other causes but tested positive for the virus nearly a month earlier had been included in the tally. In New York, critically ill patients sent from nursing homes to hospitals (where many died) were not counted as elderly care facility deaths. In some hospitals, workers were instructed to write “COVID-19” on death reports, even when the patient had never been tested and may well have died of something else.
Amidst all of this murkiness, one thing is clear: from the moment when COVID-19 was christened a “pandemic,” people have been conflating the effects of Covid-19 (illness and death from the disease) with the effects of government policies implemented in response to the disease. COVID-19 did not itself cause the collapse of the tourism and entertainment industries. Healthy people in those sectors stopped working not because they were ill or moribund, but because their governments made it illegal for them to do so. The mass unemployment around the globe of persons prohibited from working during the lockdowns, many of whom will not be returning to their jobs because they have been eliminated as businesses have either permanently shuttered due to insolvency, or jumped on the fast-track to downsizing via automation, will have ramifying health effects, both physical and psychological, in some cases culminating in suicide.
Millions of people in the United States alone are at risk of homelessness as a result of having suddenly lost, through no fault of their own, their source of income. Homelessness will increase the risk of all forms of illness (including COVID-19), to which some of those persons would not otherwise have been vulnerable. Formerly healthy persons may succumb to alcoholism, excessive drug use, and other forms of bodily harm and disease as a direct result of no longer having adequate shelter. None of these effects will have been caused by COVID-19 but by government policies implemented in response to COVID-19. Will the government administrators who created the conditions resulting in excess deaths be held responsible for the sudden spike in suicides, the cancer deaths caused by late-detection and the deaths from strokes and heart attacks which might have been treated? That seems unlikely, for politicians are busy appending immunity clauses to COVID-19 legislation underway.
When it comes to wars fought abroad, the populace tends to accept whatever their leaders say, so long as they profess to be acting with good intentions. We should expect, then, that the concept of “collateral damage”, invoked so often in excusing the inexcusable, the annihilation of innocent people by self-proclaimed good-doers who kill rather than protect them, will be dusted off in the case of COVID-19. Death is death, at the end of the day, and the dead have no interest in the intentions of their killers. But “collateral damage” is a trope devised to absolve those who kill, under the assumption that good intentions wipe the moral slate clean. In this way, the policies being implemented to combat the new virus raise a much more general question about the power of governments to destroy the lives of people whom they claim to be protecting. Now, however, in contrast to bombing campaigns abroad, it’s personal.
Why and how are governments being permitted to enact policies which endanger so many of their constituents in the name of the few? It’s no longer just a barrel of “bad apple” cops who kill some of the very people who summon them for help or are walking unarmed down the street or fall asleep in parked cars. Millions of citizens in countries all over the world are experiencing an unprecedented level of insecurity caused by the very governments whose raison d’ȇtre it is to protect them. Tragically, the people who could and should be protected have not been (see the case of Governor Cuomo in the state of New York), while those who never needed protection have had their lives upended, and some will die as a result. Citizens have no difficulty forgetting about the carnage committed in their name abroad, but what happens when the government wreaks massive havoc in the homeland? We are in the process of finding out.
The ongoing controversies swirling about COVID-19 continue to confound me. Not the fact that questions have been posed and “conspiracies” rejected but, rather, that many parties on both sides of every COVID-19 divide—regarding lockdowns, masks, vaccines, whether children should go to school and healthy people should go to work, etc.—appear to be thoroughly convinced that the truth is on their side and that those who disagree with them are “nut cases.” Of course, the same is true about most any dispute on social media today, but when it comes to COVID-19, the adherents to various “self-evident tenets” have achieved a new and more vicious degree of smug sanctimoniousness.
On the one hand, we have people who seem truly to be convinced that those who don masks are Jesus-like characters who engage in “radical acts of kindness,” as one person on my Facebook timeline characterized them, including, apparently, herself. On the other hand, we have people who guffaw at the sight of face-masked persons sunbathing on a vast expanse of sandy beach or while driving all alone in their cars, windows rolled up. Surely there are facts, grounded in science, to consider, but proponents of masks are so convinced that The ScienceTM is on their side that they facilely (and fallaciously) slide between interpretations according to which those who refuse to wear masks are evil, selfish, stupid and/or ignorant. Common sense would certainly seem to dictate that illnesses can be transmitted through saliva—is that not in fact why restaurants sterilize glassware and eating utensils? But the COVID-19 mask controversy was considerably exacerbated by the government’s own mixed messages on the topic. Even pandemic guru Anthony Fauci appeared in an early 2020 YouTube clip in which he stated that masks were unnecessary and mainly for show, serving to make people feel better psychologically. Later, after the video had already gone viral, Fauci’s claim was clarified as an attempt to mitigate a PPE shortage among health professionals.
I am less interested in questions such as whether masks diminish the incidence of disease (obviously surgeons wear “surgical masks” to prevent sepsis in the persons into whom they slice), or whether molecules do in fact disperse and diffuse rapidly in open volumes of air (see: Chemistry 101), than in why people are so vehement in their disagreement over whether and where masks should be required by law. From the beginning, the characterization of COVID-19 as a “pandemic” seems to have conjured in many people’s minds images of wheelbarrows rolling through the neighborhood to collect corpses. (I suspect that to this day some people continue to check their bodies for oozing boils.) Nothing of the sort has of course occurred, and the risk of death to anyone under fifty years of age is lower than the risk of death associated with all sorts of activities in which we regularly engage. No wonder young people are not worried. They are not being reckless at all when they go out with friends. Are they being selfish, as the mask brigade maintains?
At one point I attempted to reason with some people on Facebook who were denouncing as “evil” (in a refrain reminiscent of ancient Greek tragedy) those who do not wear masks. Among other things, I observed that, in fact, contrary to the apparent beliefs of the pro-mask chorus, not everyone who does not wear a mask lives in the United States and worships Donald Trump, who famously “opted” not to wear a mask for months. This was met with a flurry of denunciatory responses, until I revealed that I myself had in fact been wearing a mask, at which point I became “evil, stupid, ignorant, and/or selfish” for entertaining the possibility that other people might hold slightly different beliefs. RIP civil discourse in the twenty-first century world of social media. Alas, as virtual and physical reality converge, fueled by an amorphous blob of pseudo-information, fake news, propaganda memes, omissive charts, incommensurable data and, above all, emotive outbursts, the verbal violence has been acted upon by some. Mask shaming in the states now takes the form of people attacking people who call out the unmasked and, for their part, mask wearers joining forces to shout people out of stores who dare to enter without what are regarded as appropriate prophylactic coverings.
I was in Austria for more than half of 2020, at the height of the Coronapocalypse, where the incidence of the virus has been quite low and the death toll still hovers just under 700. I know, I know: 700 dead people who need not have died, if only… (If only what? If all men were not mortal, perhaps?) Why was the situation so much less dire in Austria than in Italy, Spain, or France? My best guess is that the powers that be effectively locked down their elderly care facilities and did not, as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo did, send persons infected with COVID-19 into nursing homes to convalesce, thereby directly causing thousands of excess deaths. No one intended to kill those people, of course, but given the precedents in Italy and Spain, where healthcare workers proved to be the primary transmitters of the disease, having not been tested unless they exhibited symptoms, it seems not unreasonable to characterize Cuomo’s action as negligent, at best.
Cuomo is not alone in having imposed government measures which will end by increasing the rate of death of some of the persons supposedly being protected. When for months hospitals refused to admit or treat any patients who did not exhibit acute COVID-19 symptoms, they were turning away thousands of persons with heart problems, minor strokes, and developing cancer whose lives will end earlier than they might have, had they received medical treatment in a timely way. In other words, not all of the excess deaths recorded will be due to COVID-19 itself; some will have been caused by government policies implemented in response to the disease. Small wonder that the latest U.S. stimulus bill will contain broad immunity clauses preventing lawsuits regarding COVID-19.
In Austria, the situation seemed to be largely under control by June, at which point the mask requirement in indoor places was lifted, allowing me to travel happily about the country as a tourist without having to deal with the usual summer mobs, as places of business were open, while the borders remained closed. Masks continued to be required on public transport, but it was plain to see by mid-June that many people in Vienna were not at all concerned about COVID-19, for they often stepped onto trains and trams with no mask anywhere near their face. They might take five minutes fumbling around finding their mask in their bag, then fumble around some more while getting their mask on. In some cases, they would then proceed to remove the mask, in order to eat a piece of pizza or some other snack. They talked and laughed and sometimes coughed with their friends as they entered the closed space (and while munching), with no apparent recognition that the whole purpose of the mask requirement was to prevent their saliva from infecting fellow passengers with the dreaded disease. I must say that I find it somewhat amusing that there were three simple ways legally to evade the mask requirement in Austria while avoiding the risk of a 50 euro fine: always be eating; always be drinking; or, oddly enough, always be smoking. So a non-smoker could always get around the mask requirement by spending time in a smoking area. I’ll leave that one for you to parse.
I also noticed that in the markets, museums, and shopping centers, almost no one actually observed the government’s ongoing recommendation to adhere to social distancing or “Abstand,” despite the brightly colored circles glued on the floor nearly everywhere to indicate how far people were supposed to be staying away from one another. (Does anyone have any idea where and how all of those circular floor stickers were produced and applied, apparently all over the world, during the lockdowns? Just curious.) I noticed the lack of adherence to social distancing guidelines especially on escalators, which are probably the easiest place to gauge whether anyone is making any attempt whatsoever to keep their distance, given that it is so straightforward to do in that case. I tend to mount an escalator two or three steps behind the person in front of me anyway, because I find it rude to breathe down someone’s neck, but in the midst of the “global pandemic” said to necessitate the closure of all European borders, both internal and external, people were there, right behind me on the escalator, unmasked and breathing down my neck. The idea that such persons might be evil, stupid, ignorant and/or selfish never crossed my mind. They simply did not believe that they were in any real danger, nor that they were endangering anyone else.
Even more strident than the “I am Jesus” mask wearers are those agitating for universal vaccination. This is another source of ongoing perplexity to me, as many of those who sing the praises of vaccines as the only solution to the crisis also vociferously maintain, sometimes in the very same breath (filtered through a mask), that herd immunity is not possible with COVID-19, because of its mutating quality. This is conclusively demonstrated, they say, by cases in South Korea where recovered patients became ill again with COVID-19 later on down the line. So let me get this straight: herd immunity is not possible, but the bars in Massachusetts will remain closed until such time as an effective vaccine exists? (Is this some sort of sly backdoor route to reinstating Prohibition, I have to wonder?) In pointing out that vaccines are in effect a fast-track to herd immunity, and so, if the latter is not possible, then the former is a pipe dream, I appear to have upset some people on Twitter, one of whom abruptly announced that he would no longer be continuing our discussion because he disagreed with my view on vaccines. What? Who knew that I had “a view” about vaccines? Is it really all or nothing? May I not express a modicum of skepticism about the prospects for a COVID-19 vaccine while simultaneously affirming that I am indeed glad that I got the yellow fever vaccine before going to Ghana (even though I was quite ill for about five days), because then once in Africa I knew I was safe from that disease? No, apparently a person who raises questions about the feasibility of an experimental vaccine for dealing with a virus for which some claim herd immunity cannot be achieved must be categorically denounced as an anti-vax “nut case.” My aim was not to denounce universally the very idea of vaccines, but to make a much more modest, purely logical, claim: not (p & not-p). Either herd immunity is possible, in which case the surge in cases across the United States suggests that we are well on our way to achieving it, or it is impossible, in which case the prospects for an effective vaccine seem quite dim, no matter how many dozens (hundreds?) of companies may be aggressively recruiting volunteers for experimental trials of what they hope to be the miracle eradicator of the dreaded disease.
In several contexts, I have heard seniors lashing out against “selfish” young people for congregating together in public places—at concerts, on beaches, in clubs and parks, and … at work!—which naturally raises yet another quandary in my skeptical mind. Who is being selfish here, really? My impression is that elderly persons, who are quite right to stay home in order to protect themselves, appear to misunderstand the nature of the world which they have created and are leaving behind for young people. What could be more selfish than to destroy the livelihood of millennials who have been eking out their existence in what has become a piecemeal gig economy—with no house or pension anywhere in sight, and short-term contracts to earn just enough money to survive while whittling slowly away at their quasi-eternal student debt? If all of the people attempting to go back to work had neither rent payments nor student debt, then it might be reasonable to ask them to take even more time off. But when financial insecurity reaches the point where even having a roof over one’s head becomes tentative, when the tent industry becomes a hot stock option, then that is where it seems time to draw the line.
To reiterate: those who are at a substantial risk of death from COVID-19 should, by all means, stay at home (which many of them do in fact own). They can freely decide for themselves whether visiting with young family members is worth the risk of being infected by the disease, given its specific targeting of advanced seniors. But how does preventing young people from living their lives offer any extra protection to those who are already in reclusion, terrified as they are (and in some cases rightly so) to step outside? Answer: it does not. If you are disinfecting everything which comes your way and refusing entry to anyone into your home, then why should you care whether other people go back to school and return to work?
Now it does sound as though I am taking sides. But what I have concluded after a great deal of reflection is that the extreme measures taken by governments the world over to protect a tiny portion of the population fly in the face of the more general ethos of modern-day Western society. For better or for worse, we have found ourselves in a world where people are held responsible for their failures and given credit for their success. We do not live in a communitarian society, where economic equality is imposed and maintained by the state or by mutual agreement of the group. In our liberal capitalist society, when the government itself prevents people from succeeding, by making their only possible source of gainful employment illegal, then those people are doomed to fail, not due to their own moral flaws but because they have been prohibited from doing what they would otherwise have done.
The untenable scenario in which young, healthy people have found themselves is what I take to be the best explanation for the magnitude and range of indiscriminately violent protests across the United States. People are not looting Chanel boutiques in search of bread or criminal justice. Rather, communities all across the United States are literally exploding under pressure. They have nothing to lose and so are striking out in outrage, not so much because of the murder of George Floyd (why did these riots not happen, to this extent, in response to the many African Americans killed by police officers before George Floyd?), but in an expression of frustration and anger and, above all, fear about their uncertain future. Millions of persons (hundreds of thousands in California alone) are at serious risk of being evicted from their homes. While some states have implemented measures which will allow rent and mortgage payments to be postponed, they will have to be paid eventually, which means that those who were only barely getting by will not be able to catch up.
Whose interests matter most, in the end? When the advanced seniors with empty vacation properties decide to share their resources (in “acts of radical kindness”) with the people being impoverished, and in some cases rendered homeless, as a result of government measures designed to protect those most vulnerable to COVID-19 at the expense of everyone else, then they will be practicing the communitarianism which they preach. I don’t see that happening in my lifetime.
One might have thought, with the advent of remote-control killing and combatant-free warfare, that it would be the easiest thing in the world to lure new recruits into the military in the twenty-first century, especially given the rapidity with which entire professions continue to disappear. Where in the world can a young person find a well-paying, salaried position with good benefits, a pension package—and even healthcare? Where else can one find a job guaranteed NEVER to disappear, no matter what future technology may bring?
All of those perks, and the progressive removal of soldierly risk from the war equation, have still not sufficed to fill the ranks, even as the Iraq fiasco fades fast from popular cultural memory. Witness the British Army’s recently launched, bold marketing campaign, which targets, well, anyone! You may be the Class Clown, a Me-Me-Me Millennial, an i-phone Zombie, a Selfie Addict, a Binge Gamer, or even a Snowflake! Sure, the personality traits often corresponding to those types–irresponsibility, narcissism, OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), ADHD (attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder), and excessive sensitivity–may have disqualified prospective enlistees in the twentieth century. But no more!
What used to be vices have become, in the Drone Age, reimagined as virtues!
It comes as no surprise, of course, that military recruiters are targeting gamers and i-phone zombies. What the twenty-first century warrior needs, above all, is the ability to stare at a screen in a small, dark room, for many hours a day. Binge Gamers have the added credential of having already spent thousands of hours of their life attempting to “light up” icons on their computer screens. Why not put this skill to work in lighting up real live human beings????
But there is room in the technologically advanced, twenty-first-century Killing Machine military for Me-Me-Me Millennials and Selfie Addicts, too! Who better to recruit to erase other people–designated by someone somewhere as “evil”–from existence? Why it’s a dream come true for any self-respecting narcissist: you can play God Almighty, possessing the power to wipe other people from the face of the planet with the push of a button!
And it’s always good to have someone on hand with a sense of humor–as “towel heads” and “Hadjis”, “rats”, “mice”, “rabbits”, and “bugs” are systematically snuffed out, or “splashed”–to remind stodgier types present that “This wasn’t a bake sale,” and “You know what’s going on in the BadaBing!” Hooaah!
The surest sign that things are not going so well in the recruitment departments of modern military institutions is that they are now reaching out, improbably, to Snowflakes as well! But there is an explanation for this, too. First, Snowflakes like safe spaces. What could be safer than a hermetically sealed metal shipping container located in a desert thousands of miles away from the battlefield? And should the Snowflake experience any compunction whatsoever about what he or she has done, that will be remedied immediately with a liberal dose of some of the latest and greatest pharmaceutical developments being lavished upon modern soldiers, both on and off “the battlefield”: antidepressants, anti-anxiety antidotes, antipsychotic meds used for off-label conditions such as insomnia, the sky is the limit–the list goes on and on!
I saw reported somewhere that 50% of books purchased are never actually read—at least not to the end. I have also noticed in my own reading of contemporary books that many of them start out strong but eventually fall off a cliff. My best guess is that the authors of such works managed to secure generous advances for agreeing to deliver a finished manuscript according to a strict deadline. With a looming due date, authors hoping to obtain future contracts may be more concerned with retaining good relationships with their agent and publisher than with taking the time necessary to produce a satisfying finish to a book filled with promise, at least judging by the query letter and opening chapter used to woo acquisitions editors. Many writers also know, however, deep down inside, that the best books, the ones which stand the test of time, rather than achieving momentary popularity as a result of dizzying marketing blitz campaigns, are not constrained by deadlines. They are finished when they are finished and not one moment before.
Why, you may be wondering, is any of this relevant to Drone Warrior: An Elite Soldier’s Inside Account of the Hunt for America’s Most Dangerous Enemies, by Brett Velicovich? Primarily because the glowing endorsements of this book by military professionals and administrators of the drone program such as Michael Hayden (who serves on the boards of multiple kill-for-profit companies) suggest that they may never have finished reading the book. Skimming through the opening chapters may well give the impression that Drone Warrior offers a defense of remote-control killing. The epilogue, however, tells a quite different story.
I wanted to read Drone Warrior, despite its endorsement by targeted killing profiteers, because I think that it is important to attempt to understand how anyone (sane) could possibly believe that hunting human beings is a worthy profession, and how, in particular, well-adjusted drone operators, sensors and analysts, those who do not suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), regard what they do. In many interviews over the past several years, we have heard the heart-wrenching testimony of drone program whistleblowers, and we know from a variety of sources that many operators and sensors do not renew their contracts, even when offered enticing bonuses to continue on. But this is not only (as the US military would have us believe) because the job involves long, eye-glazing hours of staring at a screen in a dark room.
Films such as Good Kill (2014) and National Bird (2016) have offered some excellent anti-recruitment advice to would-be enlistees. Eye in the Sky (2015), in contrast, attempts to defend the practice of hunting down and killing even nationals abroad by the British government (though capital punishment is prohibited under UK and EU law), and that film may have succeeded in persuading some young people to believe that contract killing can be a noble profession—or at least that it is not obviously murder.
A number of books, mostly by authors troubled by US foreign policy more generally, have offered scathing critiques of the rebranding of assassination as “targeted killing” and “just war” in places “outside areas of active hostilities” simultaneously (and illogically) deemed by the powers that be “battlefields” because of the perceived threat posed by some (usually a tiny fraction) of the residents. A few books have attempted unsuccessfully to defend the practice of remote-control killing (Brian Glyn Williams’ Predators: The CIA’s Drone War on al Qaeda  leaps to mind), but books written by drone operators, sensors, and analysts themselves have been few in number, no doubt in part because the works must be vetted by military bureaucrats before publication.
Matthew J. Martin’s Predator: The Remote-control Air War over Iraq and Afghanistan (2010), offers eye-opening but extraordinarily disturbing insights into how the people who spend the best hours of the best years of their lives hunting down and incinerating human beings by remote control manage to sleep at night. I discuss Martin’s memoir in some detail in We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, especially in chapter 7, “The Operators,” and Chapter 8, “From Conscience to Oblivion.” Martin killed men in Iraq whom he repeatedly ridicules and refers to in his memoir as rodents:
“Insurgents were like having a house infested with rats; the more of them you killed, it seemed, the more they bred.” (Predator, p. 252)
Martin cultivated a palpable disdain for his targets, even while acknowledging that many of them were “angry poor people” incensed by the invasion and occupation of Iraq by the US military in 2003. At the same time, in diaphanous attempts to rationalize what he was doing, Martin compares himself to the US troops who traveled to France to save its people from the German occupation in the 1940s. In fact, a more nuanced consideration of the two cases (beyond “USA! USA!”) reveals the role of the US invaders of Iraq to be much closer to that of the Germans than to the US troops during World War II.
Drone Warrior opens provocatively, with the author, a drone program analyst, explaining that this memoir has been approved by the US military, which censored some parts prior to publication. To my mind, the most surprising omission is the section where Velicovich briefly describes his encounter with “Mr. White” (not his real name), a recruiter who persuades him to go behind “a black door”. Velicovich proceeds, with an air of mystery, to explain that he is not permitted by those vetting his work to reveal how it was that he was converted to the hunter/killer life. His inability to explain what happened to him cannot help but evoke memories of Jason Bourne’s induction into the class of assassins who kill on command—no questions asked.
Whatever may have happened (if it wasn’t illegal, why in the world should it be classified?), Velicovich accepted the invitation, and from there set off for life in “The Box,” where, fueled by a steady diet of Rip It® energy drinks and Frosted Flakes, he spent long days spying on potential terrorist suspects from afar. He developed “pattern of life” folders on the men he surveilled and, ultimately, gave “his” Delta operators the green light when “a bad guy” had been confirmed as such (found and fixed) by him and his drones. That 90% of his targets were, as he claims, captured rather than killed stretches credulity, to put it mildly, given the near absence of detainees taken prisoner under President Barack Obama during the later years when Velicovich plied this trade.
While working for President George W. Bush, Velicovich, like Matthew J. Martin, never seemed fully to grasp that the ever-intensifying insurgency in Iraq was a direct result of none other than the US troops’ presence, and especially their increasingly brutal raids, interrogations, and executions of persons, some of whom proved to be undeniably innocent—not even being identifiable as military-age males. Perhaps it was a combination of sleep deprivation and excessive consumption of energy drinks and sugar-coated cereal which induced in Velicovich an inability to grasp that many of the able-bodied Iraqi males deemed “fair game” by the US invaders wanted nothing more than for them to leave their land.
Disturbingly, as the occupation of Iraq was winding down, Velicovich and his buddies received an order from on high to eliminate as many people on their hit lists as swiftly as they could—a murderous form of “scorched earth”. This “green light” from (dare I say?) Corporate headquarters inspired something of a killing spree as the hunter-warriors attempted to wipe out “the enemy” while they still had the chance. Even while acknowledging that the military-age men being killed were community members—sons, husbands, fathers and brothers—Velicovich leapt at the chance to eliminate them, having convinced himself that they were “bad guys”.
What I find most interesting about this memoir is that Velicovich openly acknowledges the effect that living as a hunter of human beings had upon his mind, his body, his relationships and, ultimately, his life. He became obsessed with his targets, and when he returned to the United States after a prolonged period in “The Box” abroad, working grueling hours, suffering bouts of insomnia and sleep deprivation, and losing 40 lbs as a result, his girlfriend frankly informed him that he had changed:
“Your eyes, they don’t look the same,” she said. … “They’re like stones. They just sit there.” (Drone Warrior, p. 151)
Velicovich freely owns that as a result of his profession he stopped experiencing emotions at the news of anyone’s death, and his relationship with his girlfriend ultimately fell apart. While working an office job stateside, the analyst wanted to feel the same rush he got from hunting his targets, and he attempted to mimic it through online gambling, but with no success. Velicovich returned to “the battlefield,” this time in Somalia, having found life as a civilian too humdrum. One is certainly reminded here of Staff Sergeant William James, the lead protagonist (played by Jeremy Renner) of Kathryn Bigelow’s 2008 film, The Hurt Locker.
In Somalia, Velicovich shared his “expertise” with locals in a very different context and one in which he himself faced significant danger, given the reigning instability in that land and what he perhaps rightly portrays as an environment ripe for a “Black Hawk Down” redux. His new girlfriend is distressed that he should prefer the hunter-killer life over their relationship, and eventually he renounces his position, though he insists in this memoir that, if given the choice, he would do it all over again.
The epilogue of Drone Warrior is not at all the paean to remote-control killing which one might have expected from a book lauded as “the definitive account of our nation’s capacity and capability for war in the modern age.” In fact, it reads more like a PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) infomercial. Velicovich, who became obsessed with his targets and returned to “the life” after having abandoned it once, finally decided to take a very different path. Inspired by animal rights activists in Kenya, he left the military and embarked on an entirely new career, establishing a company in which his prowess as a drone analyst can be used to stop poachers from destroying endangered species such as elephants and rhinos. Through this new venture, Velicovich appears to have achieved a kind of redemption, but in his own eyes, he is and always was one of the “good guys.” It surely takes some mental gymnastics to believe that elephants and rhinos have more significant rights to life than do human beings in a land under illegal occupation. (What did go on behind that black door?)
To be honest, I am somewhat surprised that this memoir was published, for the undeniable conclusion of the work—to anyone who makes it through the all-important epilogue—is that serving as a hunter-killer of human beings is not a tenable path to The Good Life. While deployed, and throughout his memoir, Velicovich takes great pains to convince himself (as did Matthew J. Martin in Predator) that he is a worthy warrior doing what must be done. The bereft survivors of the raids and drone strikes carried out in Iraq on the basis of his analyses would no doubt beg to differ—particularly in cases where the “bad guy” in question was attempting only to defend his territory from the invaders.
At one point, Velicovich details his benevolent use of drones to help a doctor whose wife had been kidnapped by ISI (the Islamic State in Iraq—before it expanded into Syria). But he declines to offer details on any of the cases where “mistakes were made” and never consciously faces up to the cold, hard, and grisly truth: that had he and his comrades not been in Iraq, then ISI would never have morphed into what became its murderous and virulent form. Following the call of Al Qaeda, Muslim men did indeed flock to Iraq for the opportunity to kill the heathen invaders, but all that the US soldiers needed to do to prevent most of the locals from attempting to kill them was to leave.
The fact that Velicovich needed to find a new profession in order to rehydrate his human capacity to feel emotion strikes me as just as important as the testimony of apostate drone program personnel suffering from PTSD that this frenzy to maximize lethality and to make body counts the be-all and end-all of US foreign policy was a horrendous mistake from the very beginning. As drone killing spreads around the globe, with petty despots following the lead of the self-styled “beacon on the hill,” defining their political enemies as “evil” before summarily executing them with drone-delivered missiles, the normalization of assassination by the sole military superpower must be recognized for what it is: a tragedy for humankind and a hideous assault on not only democracy and the rule of law but also simple decency.
Every two years, the Stimson Center Task Force on U.S. Drone Policy, directed by Rachel Stohl, issues a pamphlet of recommendations to the U.S. government on the use of weaponized UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) or RPAs (remotely piloted aircraft). Over the course of the past six years, it has become all too clear that no one in the government actually reads these reports, and the tone of the latest installment in the series, “An Action Plan on U.S. Drone Policy: Recommendations for the Trump Administration,” understandably conveys frustration.
The first report, issued in 2014, seemed to be filled with optimism and congeniality, and the second report (actually called by the Task Force a “Report Card“), issued in 2016, offered a gentle admonition of the Obama administration for its failure to make its policies and practices transparent or to produce anything even approaching international norms for the use of the new technology.
Now the task force seems to have thrown caution to the wind, recognizing that the Trump administration could not care less what the Stimson Center has to say. Despite the failures of the Obama administration to heed most of the recommendations of the first report, as reflected in that administration’s poor “grades” in the second report, it has become increasingly clear that the Trump administration has no intention even of showing up for school: “U.S. drone policy under the Trump administration has thus far been defined by uncertainty coupled with less oversight and less transparency.”
Critics of the U.S. government’s drone program (myself included), have explained in meticulous detail how the entire institution of premeditated, intentional, extrajudicial assassination of persons (usually able-bodied Muslim males) suspected of possibly plotting possible future terrorist attacks–or simply being potentially capable of doing so–rests upon a lamentable framework of linguistic legerdemain. People may despise President Trump, but no one with any familiarity with the history of the use of lethal drones can deny that the “killing machine” is President Obama’s lasting legacy.
What is good about the 2018 Stimson Center report is that the authors explicitly articulate criticisms diplomatically skirted in the earlier reports, particularly the first one, which was produced under the guidance of a variety of industry and military experts and expressed general agreement with them that the use of lethal drones was morally and legally permissible.
Four years later, perhaps out of exasperation, the Stimson Center has finally decided to voice some serious objections to what has been going on for the past sixteen years. Consider these examples:
Currently, the U.S. drone program rests on indistinct frameworks and an approach to drone strikes based on U.S. exceptionalism. Ambiguity surrounding U.S. drone policy has contributed to enduring questions about the legality, efficacy, and legitimacy of the U.S. drone program.
This one is buried in a footnote (#1), but is noteworthy:
Although not included in this report, the lethal targeting of U.S. citizens is a critical aspect of this conversation. In 2014, the Obama administration released a Justice Department memo articulating its legal justification for targeting an American citizen abroad, Anwar al-Awlaki. The memo, released to the public following lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and The New York Times, argues that U.S. citizenship did not make Anwar al-Awlaki immune from the use of force abroad and that the killing of a U.S. citizen by the U.S. government is authorized by the law of war under a public authority exception to a U.S. statute prohibiting the foreign murder of U.S. nationals.
Or consider this zinger:
By requiring some connection to an imminent threat, a “near certainty” of the presence of the targeted subject, and no perceived risk of civilian casualties, the PPG [Presidential Policy Guidance] was at least intended to minimize civilian harm. Nevertheless, some elements of the PPG — such as the requirement that a threat be both continuing and imminent — seem inherently contradictory, and many critics of U.S. drone strikes have questioned whether strikes outside areas of active hostilities are lawful.
The U.S. government’s refusal to release information about the targets of its drone attacks and the difficulty in accessing the locations where U.S. drone strikes have occurred have made it difficult for third parties to assess the legality of specific attacks.
While there is consensus that the United States is engaged in an armed conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, critics of U.S. policy and practice argue that U.S. drone strikes to conduct targeted killings outside these areas should be governed not by the law of armed conflict but by the stricter requirements of international human rights law, which permits killings of individuals only to prevent an imminent threat to life.
I am not sure why Syria is included in the list as a U.S. war zone, alongside Iraq and Afghanistan, but it is good to know that the Stimson Center is at least considering criticisms brushed aside by everyone in the government and given short shrift in the 2014 report. Better late than never. Perhaps they have been reading some of the critical books which have been rolling out in a steady stream since 2015?
Another possibility is that they no longer feel the need to hold back as they did during the Obama administration because, well, Trump is president. They may as well express all of their concerns so that at least they will seem to have been on the right side of history, even if no one in either administration took seriously anything they ever said. That may sound harsh, but I cannot help thinking that if the 2014 report had been less conciliatory, then perhaps it would have garnered more attention from the press, and there might have been some sort of public debate over the abysmal practice of assassination by remote control.
By now, euphemistically termed “targeted killing” is considered perfectly normal by nearly everyone (save radical book authors, antiwar activists, and libertarians), and rolling back Obama’s radical expansion of executive power will be all but impossible to effect, except, perhaps, if “The Resistance” somehow succeeds in removing Trump from office. But wait: then Mike Pence will be president! Does anyone truly believe that Pence would be more willing than Trump to cede power? No, it is the nature of power-seeking individuals (above all, politicians) to amass power until it is taken from them.
Given that “The Resistance” recently acquiesced in the bestowal upon Commander-in-Chief Trump of a $700+ billion defense budget, I don’t see the practice of drone assassination being curtailed anytime soon. Particularly since the Pentagon produces projections for funding which extend ahead for the next twenty-five years, effectively locking in place what they have done and are doing, thereby ensuring that there will be even more of the same. As missile-equipped UAVs continue to be produced and distributed in a dizzying flurry, and more and more operators are trained to kill, enticed by lucrative salaries and benefits packages, the hit lists will grow longer as well. Given the nature of lethal creep, I predict that some of the unarmed military UAVs already hovering in US skies will be weaponized for use in the homeland. Recall the case of Micah Johnson, who was blown up by the Dallas police using an explosive-equipped robot.
So, yes, things have predictably gone from bad to worse, for lethal creep leads to further lethal creep, with no real end in sight. The 2018 Stimson Center report observes that the Trump administration is currently rolling back “restraints” and “guidelines” said to have been implemented during the Obama administration. Among the changes being considered are:
Expanding the targets of armed strikes by eliminating the requirement that the person pose an “imminent threat,”
Loosening the requirement of “near certainty” that the target is present at the time of the strike to a “reasonable certainty,” and
Revising the process through which strike determinations are made by reducing senior policymaker involvement and oversight in such decisions and delegating more authority to operational commanders.
Hooah! MAGA! USA! USA!
In all seriousness, the Obama administration’s “restraints” were never anything more than an effort to quell criticism. Smile politely and gush about “just war theory,” and people will leave you alone, Obama learned from his targeted killing mentor, John Brennan. “Infeasibility of capture” was always a farce (see the cases of Anwar al-Awlaki and Osama bin Laden). And “near certainty”? Why don’t we ask Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto about that one? Or, for that matter: Abdulrahman al-Awlaki?
The fundamental point cannot be overstated: by redefining “imminent threat” as no longer requiring “immediacy” and asserting the right to kill anyone anywhere deemed dangerous by a secretive committee of bureaucrats using deliberations conducted behind closed doors and never shared with the public (invoking State Secrets Privilege), the Obama administration paved the way to the latest slide down a slippery slope to even more wanton state homicide.
During the first two years of Trump’s presidency, Obama has been reveling in portrayals of himself as some sort of saint by “The Resistance” and the adoration of throngs of people who find him dignified and “presidential” next to his successor. But Obama’s own erection of a U.S. killing machine, and normalization of the insidious policy of summary execution by lethal drone outside areas of active hostilities, even of U.S. citizens, will haunt humanity for decades to come.
It’s probably about time for film makers to stop naming their critiques of drone warfare Drone. But that’s just a quibble—more a piece of practical advice than a substantive criticism. This latest installment in the “movies called Drone” series is directed by Jason Bourque and manages to offer some new twists on the many trenchant works created by thinking people appalled by the “lethal turn” in US foreign policy since September 11, 2001.
Assassination has been normalized as a standard operating procedure, a feat accomplished not by President Trump but by his predecessor, Barack Obama, whose administration mounted and implemented a complex bureaucratic institution of intentional, premeditated homicide of persons (usually of color) who are either suspected of complicity in terrorism, or suspected of association with persons suspected of complicity in terrorism. That’s right: the people being intentionally killed under the auspices of the US drone program outside areas of active hostilities fall into one of two categories: guilty until proven innocent, or guilty by association of being guilty until proven innocent.
Nearly all of the victims of drone strikes have been brown-skinned and of Muslim origin. It’s really quite astonishing that the first black US president could preside over such a flagrant program of racial profiling, which denies persons of color not only their right to life, but also their rights to defend themselves against the charge that they deserve to die, without indictment much less trial, for hypothetical crimes to which only the killers are privy. One can only hope that future historians will be suitably shocked by the total discombobulation of Western administrators in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
In Drone (2017), a recent film version of the We Kill Because We Can story, many aspects of the US killing machine and how it has been used throughout much of the twenty-first century are highlighted, in the hope of provoking the viewer to reflect upon the significance of a paradigm of war which, despite being not only morally and legal but also strategically dubious, has come to be accepted by Western politicians and their voting constituents alike.
Sure, the drone warriors have managed to incinerate thousands of persons, mostly of unknown identity, but what have they really accomplished, beyond mass homicide and the enrichment of war profiteers? The Middle East is in shambles, Al Qaeda franchises have spored and spread, and the United States is fighting wars in at least seven different lands, while threatening others in various ways. Any sober assessment of US foreign policy over the past seventeen years can only conclude that the Global War on Terror (GWOT) has been an unmitigated failure. The primary tool of GWOT has been none other than the weaponized drone, which helped to usher in an era of executive war (formerly known as monarchic depredation, or tyranny) by allowing leaders both to wage war and deny that they are engaged in war at the same time and in the same place (for more on this, see the Libya intervention of 2011—or the bombing of Syria in 2018).
The drone operators whom we have learned about in a variety of films, not only in documentaries such as National Bird (2015) and Drone (2014), but also in works of fiction based on reality, such as Good Kill(2015) and Drone Strike(2013), have for the most part been young people recruited right out of high school or in their early twenties. In Drone (2017), however, the central protagonist, Neil Wistin, is a middle-aged man with a teenage son who spends a good deal of time playing hunt-and-kill video games and would in fact be a prime candidate for recruitment into the military as a drone operator. Instead, it’s his dad who spends his days stalking and snuffing out “bad guys” located on the other side of the planet. Wistin, a civilian, works as a contract killer for the CIA. He is not a soldier; he is an assassin. He is paid to eliminate persons nominated to kill lists by other private contractors based on circumstantial evidence (aka SIGINT) and bribed hearsay (aka HUMINT). His family has believed for years that he works in IT for a nonexistent company, but they eventually come to learn that Wistin spends his days not programming but hunting down and killing human beings in Pakistan at the behest of the CIA.
Along with the intended targets, Wistin has killed some unintended targets, which he and his co-workers perfunctorily label “collateral damage”. But the notion of collateral damage, dubious enough as it is, cannot truly be said to apply to cases of assassination. And no, it does not matter in the least that the implement of homicide is a military weapon. For in genuine combat contexts, where the lives of soldiers on the ground are at stake, collateral damage is said to be permissible because it is unavoidable, given military exigencies. The use of the category of “collateral damage” to excuse the people being mistakenly killed by weaponized drones outside areas of active hostilities is tantamount to asserting the right to kill anyone, anywhere, at any time, for whatever reasons the killers themselves deem sufficient. It is also a categorical denial of human rights.
The utter lawlessness of this paradigm will become more and more apparent as lethal drones spread around the globe and are used by leaders according to their discretion and caprice after kill committee meetings conducted behind closed doors and with neither transparency nor due process, following the example of mentor governments Israel and the United States. The drone killers act with complete impunity, for they are physically protected by their geographic distance from the places they fire on, and the secrecy of the program ensures that they remain anonymous, not only to their victims, but also to their family members and friends, as in the case of private contractor Wistin, who essentially leads a double life like any regular spy.
But is it really true that there are private contractors serving as drone operators and firing missiles upon people? If there were, we would not be told, for the citizens paying for this institution of death know as little as possible about the facts on the ground and the inner workings of the killing machine. This carefully maintained state of ignorance among the very people paying for the drone program is rationalized under State Secrets Privilege.
In a series of carefully plotted scenes, Drone (2017), like other films produced on this controversial topic in recent years, illuminates some of the lesser known and morally unsavory aspects of what has been going on:
Wounded survivors of initial strikes are taken out in double tap strikes, what can only be a violation of the Geneva Conventions. Of course the “quaint” idea that unarmed persons may not be summarily executed is ignored in the first strikes as well.
Persons are being spied on as though they had no rights or dignity whatsoever—whether or not they are suspected of terrorism.
The persons left bereft after strikes mourn the loss of their loved ones, who were, in reality, fathers, brothers, sons and, in the case of collateral damage victims not even suspected of complicity in terrorism: altogether innocuous women and children.
The killers are themselves never at risk of death when they fire on targets thousands of miles away, rendering dubious the rationalization used by combat soldiers throughout the history of warfare: that they must kill or else be killed.
The rebranding of assassination as targeted killing in warfare (dismissing innocent victims as collateral damage) but not really warfare (when it comes to oversight and congressional mandate) makes it nearly impossible for the citizens paying for this institution of premeditated homicide to understand what is going on. They are told that this is all a matter of national defense, and naturally throw their support behind anything carrying that label.
The military-age men killed—whether intentionally or unintentionally—are assumed to be terrorists, while the cases of collateral damage killing of women and children are systematically denied as “unconfirmed”, when not outright dismissed as terrorist propaganda.
These features of the drone program are variously highlighted in the film when a Pakistani businessman, Imir Shaw, whose wife and daughter were destroyed by a drone strike, travels to the United States to confront their killer. The unsavory truths being conveyed in Drone (2017) are easily verified, but the specific scenario devised to press these points is highly implausible for a variety of reasons. First, the Trump administration immigration gatekeepers would be unlikely to admit through the golden arches a military-aged male from Pakistan. Second, the man manages to locate his wife and daughter’s killer through hacking into the drone intelligence network, which, while possible, would be very difficult. Third, the layers of secrecy used to protect the perpetrators, including the very use of private contractors, makes it not at all obvious how such a victim could identify the precise person who pushed the button in any given case. The use of private military companies in the real-life drone program—if not in the acts of killing, at least in the generation of kill lists—makes it improbable that the name of the killers of any given victim will ever be revealed, even if the system is hacked (which is far more likely to be done by a whistleblower within the system than an outsider), and information is shared via an outlet such as Wikileaks.
But Drone (2017) is a work of fiction, which admirably attempts to reveal what is invisible to people in the West: the reality of the drone program for the victims and their bereft survivors. The story explores what could happen if one of the grieving victims ever encountered the person physically responsible for his grief. Imir Shaw shows up at Neil Wistin’s home, feigning interest in the boat with a “for sale” sign in the driveway. He then proceeds to befriend the Wistin family, having been invited to stay for dinner, before explaining that his own family, a wife and daughter, were destroyed by a US drone. As the evening progresses, the conversation becomes strained when Shaw and Wistin begin to wrangle over the US drone program and the war on terror. Eventually, the Pakistani dinner guest spills his guts, explaining that it was Wistin himself who killed Shaw’s wife and daughter.
Shaw also informs Wistin that his wife has been having an affair, which he has learned by spying on her prior to the visit, and that the wife and son have no idea what it is that Wistin does for a living. By pretending that his briefcase contains a bomb which he plans to detonate right then and there, Shaw ultimately drives Wistin to attempt to save his wife and son, which culminates in Shaw’s death.
In some ways, this is a disappointing turn in the story, for it follows the standard Hollywood template according to which the Americans always prevail. But the twist here is that Wistin finally undergoes a conversion to become a whistleblower and make public the true workings of the drone program, including the use of private contractors as assassins. Drone (2017) ably predicts what would in all likelihood be the administration’s response to such a “defection”, which is to denounce Wistin as a traitor, along the lines of the whistleblowers tried and convicted of crimes under the Espionage Act in recent years.
The first half of Drone (2017) runs very slowly and seems a bit meandering, but serves to set the stage for the second half, which becomes more and more suspenseful as the viewer is drawn into the tense conflict between the American drone operator and the grief-stricken Pakistani man. The admittedly heavy-handed points made as the rather contrived plot unfolds are nonetheless important and need to be stressed, which is why I would like to see more people watch this film, despite its cinematic flaws. For the creators of this film are absolutely right about this: Until US taxpayers come to understand the reality of what they are funding under the label of “national defense”, these sorts of abominable crimes will continue to be committed.
The fact that the drone program has been so thoroughly shrouded in secrecy is not, as its administrators claim, itself a matter of national defense, but a means by which to secure compliance when, if presented with the facts, many proponents of drone warfare would withdraw their support. In the case of the US government’s killing machine, the American people have been hoodwinked to the point of coercion, which has undermined the democratic basis for the government’s alleged authority to act on their behalf. The apparent support of a policy or practice which is garnered through the use of deception willfully intended to sow ignorance is devoid of any legitimacy whatsoever. Nearly everyone opposes murder and supports justice, so when people are told by government officials that acts of murder are not acts of murder but instead “just war”, they have been horribly duped, no less than the drone operators seduced to enlist in the military using mythic images of the “noble warrior”, when in fact they will be transformed into contract killers.
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