America’s Culture of Killing: It Doesn’t Begin at Home

Drone, Las Vegas

What if the problem of violence in America is not just the availability of guns, but a strain in US culture that accepts violence and even homicide as a “legitimate” way of solving problems?

According to philosopher, cultural critic and author Laurie Calhoun, Americans seem to consider violence an acceptable form of persuasion.

In this podcast with WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman, Calhoun questions some basic assumptions of US foreign policy. When our leaders say “all options are on the table,” with an emphasis on the use of force as a “last resort,” are we really just setting up an excuse for our inability to persuade others see our point of view?

And is it just one more step then, to using killing as a means of avenging even legitimate grievances?

In articulating her long-held views on drone warfare and targeted killing, Calhoun compares the way we’ve been using drones, even in the Obama administration, to the way terrorists used planes on 9/11.

Listening to her make her case for diplomacy instead of killings, we’re reminded of President Donald Trump’s admonition to Secretary of State Tillerson regarding North Korea last week, that he was “wasting his time talking.”

In the end, Calhoun believes there might be a silver lining to what will surely be the excessive use of force by the Trump administration: it could turn the US into a rogue state, creating enough political pressure to make American citizens wake up and take notice. This is a must-listen if you are troubled by recent events and what they reveal about our culture of violence.

Laurie Calhoun is the author of We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age. (Zed Books, October, 2016)

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As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to resource constraints, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like, and we hope that you will excuse any errors that slipped through.

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman. In the debate about shootings and violence in America, the debate quickly turns to the availability of guns, and of course that may be a factor. But what if there was something else, something that we don’t like to talk about? That there is a strain in the very culture of America, that accepts violence and even homicide as a way of solving problems. After all, didn’t the President tell the Secretary of State just last week, not to waste his time talking, and engaging in diplomacy, and that we have other means? If such an approach is accepted policy for the conduct of governments in foreign affairs, as it often has been, then is it any wonder that it becomes the policy of our streets?
We’re going to talk about this today with my guest Laurie Calhoun. She’s a philosopher and cultural critic, she’s the author of the book, We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age. She’s also published a book on metaphilosophy and dozens of essays. She published one of the first essays critical of targeted killing and she has participated in an international project group sponsored by the Japan Foundation, to develop new approaches to human security and peace building. She holds degrees in chemistry and philosophy from the University of Colorado and Princeton, and it is my pleasure to welcome Laurie Calhoun here to Radio WhoWhatWhy. Laurie, thanks so much for joining us.
Laurie Calhoun: Thank you for having me Jeff.
Jeff Schechtman: While it doesn’t seem so on the surface, you argue that there really is some kind of direct link between how we conduct our foreign policy, and the kind of violence we’re seeing on the streets of America, even as it relates to those incidents of mass shooting as we’ve seen this week.
Laurie Calhoun: Oh, absolutely. I mean I think there’s an explanation for people like Micah Xavier Johnson slaughtering a handful of Dallas policemen. He’s been taught that you kill people. There’s an injustice. Okay, so he was angry about blacks being killed by police, so he goes and kills a bunch of policemen. These people are being taught this, that this is what you do. It’s really not that surprising. In cases like the most recent guy, Steven Paddock, I mean who knows exactly what went on there. But there’s definitely this association of killing with masculinity, and with strength, and this concept of justice as well, which is all intertwined with our view on foreign policy.
Jeff Schechtman: Quite a while ago you got interested in this whole idea of drone warfare, particularly as something that you saw as antithetical to democracy. Let’s talk about that.
Laurie Calhoun: Okay, sure. The very first time I began thinking about this was the first time I learned of a drone strike, which was the November 3, 2002, strike in Yemen. I was shocked when I saw it broadcast on television, because all the pundits seemed to be acting like, “Oh, this is a great thing.” It struck me that in fact, it is the opposite of democracy because it throws all of our notions of procedural justice out the window. These people were said to be suspected terrorists, and they were taken out by drone at the behest of the US government, with no judicial process whatsoever. My immediate reaction was in looking at the aftermath, it was a mangled car, a big pile of metal. The people were incinerated. There was just dust among the sand. You really couldn’t even tell who the people were.
It struck me that this was a very dangerous way for our government to be prosecuting war. We weren’t even at war in Yemen at the time, so it was clearly an act of mass assassination. Yet no one really talked about it much, except in terms of the technology. People were very impressed you can push a button over here, and kill people over there. That seemed like a good thing to military folks, because that way you could supposedly spare the lives of soldiers. But then nothing was much said about drones for a number of years, because as the drone program developed, it was … It became the CIA’s program. Because the CIA’s activities are covert, there was no discussion of it. There was no acknowledgement of the drone strikes, and much less discussion.
As a result there was really no public debate about whether this is something we should be doing. Obama finally revealed in 2012, that in fact he was killing people with drones. After that, there was a little bit more talk about it. But even when Obama killed US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in 2011, there wasn’t that much of an uproar over it, even though it was a clear violation of his civil rights. Even if you want to say that these are tools of war to be used against execrable enemies, al-Awlaki was a US citizen. His civil rights were denied in the strike that took his life.
It shows that we have stepped onto this path where the end goal appears to be the elimination of any sort of threat, at any cost. Even the cost of our civil liberties, which is a very disturbing trend.
Jeff Schechtman: How was the drone strike, in your view, different than targeted bombing for example?
Laurie Calhoun: Well for one thing, the drone strikes have been carried out outside areas of active hostility. That means that the CIA has conducted hundreds of strikes against people in their own civil societies, in places where there are no US soldiers on the ground. What’s happening is, it’s an expansion of the battlefield in one sense, because they want to say that when mistakes are made, it’s collateral damage. But in another sense, it’s just an extension of assassination. It’s rebranding assassination as targeted killing, and calling it an act of war because the implement of homicide is a missile, instead of a pistol, or a poison, or strangulation, whatever assassins usually use to kill people.
It’s a very shocking development because Obama decided that he could eliminate people using missiles anywhere he found them. It didn’t matter if they were in a war zone or not. He did this quite a bit, killed thousands of people using these missiles and claimed that he was able to do it because of the authorization for use of military force, granted to George W. Bush in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks. That was in 2001, and the authorization was to be able to pursue the perpetrators of the attacks on 9/11.
Obama took this as license to be able to kill people anywhere he wanted to. He used drones to kill people in places where, as I said, there were no US soldiers on the ground in Yemen, Somalia, and it has continued to spread.
Jeff Schechtman: Why do you think that there’s been so little relative attention paid to this, and so little pushback to it?
Laurie Calhoun: The primary reason I find is that the program was covert for so long, that no one talked about it. By the time it was made public, people had already come to accept it as a standard operating procedure. By people, I mean all of the quote/unquote, “experts,” in the military and the intelligence agencies. They just viewed this as another tool. There was no public debate. The use of drones to kill suspects is politically palatable because legislatures can say, “Oh, look, we’re keeping the homeland safe, and we’re not sacrificing your sons and daughters.”
It’s very appealing to politicians to be able to say, “Look how strong I am on defense, and yet I’m not harming any of our citizens in doing this. In fact, we’re avoiding this.” The problem is that the risk that is avoided by using drones instead of armed combat aerial vehicles with real pilots, is that the risk is being transferred to the people on the ground. I mean what’s happened is, there’s not an elimination of risk, the risk is transferred from uniformed soldiers, to civilians on the ground who are being killed.
Unfortunately our media don’t cover these cases. What we get in the media, mainstream media for the most part are headlines that say, “Six Suspected Terrorists Slain.” And everyone cheers and says, “Oh good, they’re keeping us safe.” But when you dive into the details of these cases, you find that there is inevitably collateral damage. In many cases the people targeted ended up not being the same people who were killed. Some of the targets sought by the CIA were reportedly killed in the newspaper multiple times. The question is, who are these people who were killed in their stead, with all of these other strikes? Those people were of course human beings, and they’re written off as enemy killed in action, even when their names aren’t known.
The assumption is, “Oh, well they were in the place where we thought that the suspect would be, so they’re obviously an associate, so it’s obviously a bad guy too.” But this is a very, very slippery slope. When you start assassinating people who happen to be in the same vicinity as someone whom you believe to be dangerous, you’ve entered into a very murky territory, both morally and legally.
Jeff Schechtman: Of course part of the argument, the irony in this is that part of the argument is that the drone strikes are supposed to provide less collateral, civilian collateral damage than some kind of aerial bombardment.
Laurie Calhoun: Well they say that, and it is true that a Hellfire Missile is less destructive than Tomahawks. That’s one of the selling points supposedly. But the problem is that these missiles are being fired on people living in civil society. Imagine your own neighborhood, right? Suppose that the powers that be… It would actually be a foreign government. A foreign government decides someone who is their enemy lives in the house next door, and takes out that person. What’s left behind is a crater, so the person used to live there, you had no idea he was an enemy of the other nation, and now he’s gone.
Now the question is, what’s the effect on you? You could say, “Well, I’m a good guy so no one’s ever going to try to kill me.” But the problem is that you have no idea whether you are going to die in these strikes. When you see these lethal drones hovering above your head, you have no idea whether you’re going to be the next one to die because there’s no warning given to these people, so they’re not allowed to surrender. And there’s no evidence ever presented. We really … The data that these strikes are based on include things like cellphone data, SIM card data, and visuals taken from drone footage.
It’s a lot of, “Looks like a terrorist, acts like a terrorist, walks like a terrorist, probably is a terrorist,” but maybe it’s not a terrorist. The problem is we’re … The United States is killing these people on suspicion, and using only really circumstantial evidence. There’s no rigor to this at all. It’s more like, how can we use this data to hunt down and kill people so that we can meet certain quotas? But the fact is that we’ve been given no reason for believing that these people posed direct threats to us way over here.
I think that if any other nation did that on our soil, there would be a huge outcry against it. It would be incredibly stressful to know that missiles flying above you are going to be killing people in your neighborhood. And yet, because Americans have no idea what the reality of this is psychologically, they have just blithely accepted it as a part of the war on terror.
Jeff Schechtman: Not only accepted it, but you argue that there’s kind of a cultural proclivity towards it.
Laurie Calhoun: Well I think it is a big cultural problem, and this brings us back to the question of guns, why people are so shocked when people open fire on crowds. I mean we have an entire culture of killing in this country, where we have video games that in fact people sit and play, and the aim of the games … I’ve never played any of these, but I’ve been invited many times on my Kindle to go play Mobile Strike. People, a pastime of people is hunting down and killing people using these applications. Some of which may have been developed by the DoD to get new recruits for their drone program. In fact, I would be very surprised if they weren’t.
We do have this sort of macho association of killing with strength. This is why leaders always say, “All options are on the table,” whenever there’s any sort of international dispute, which means of course that they’re willing to go to war. Rather than thinking that that’s a sign of weakness, that you’re incapable of persuading the person who disagrees with you, that they need to change their behavior, or do something different, or acknowledge something that is wrong, you’re just going to wipe them off the face of the planet.
This is why I don’t find it that surprising when we have these mass killings, because what people are taught in this country is that’s how to resolve conflict. Now, when you look at the individual cases of these mass killings, for example the most recent one in Las Vegas, there are always other details that come out. For example, this guy was on anti-anxiety meds as were most of the mass shooters in recent history. This sort of factor is brushed aside because the Big Pharma lobby is every bit as strong as the NRA lobby, so you end up with the same old debate about guns. Did the guns cause him to do this? No, of course not. Did the drug alone cause him to do this? No, of course not. But there’s a whole culture apparatus involved as well, which is our view about violence. That this is what we do. We go kill people when there’s a problem.
Jeff Schechtman: Is it your sense that, that culture, that, that sense of looking towards violence as a solution to a problem, is uniquely American in some respects?
Laurie Calhoun: It’s very American. I wouldn’t say that it’s uniquely American, but it has a lot to do with the … I want to say the benefit of the doubt, that people give to the military. For example, as you know many people revile Donald Trump. And yet when the congress is brought to decide whether the AUMF [Authorization for Use of Military Force] for 2001 should stand, they just tabled Senator Ryan Paul’s notion. Said, “No, no, we’ll just leave it standing.” They’re allowing the AUMF to be used by Trump, even though the Democrats say that … In other context they say things like, “He should be impeached,” so they’re giving him these war powers.
Then when he approaches them with an increase in the defense budget from 600 billion to 700 billion, with an 80 billion dollar increase, that passes as well. Even though on the one hand they say, “Oh you know, Trump is a mad man, he can’t be trusted.” And yet they’re giving him these enormous war powers, and even more money to spend in wars. We have this presumption in America, that the military is by definition good, because it’s defending us. But when you look at the actual effects of our military incursions, at least over the course of the 21st century, you see that in fact it doesn’t look like we’re becoming more safe, and the argument for that is that the global war on terror keeps expanding to new countries.
From a handful of radical jihadists at the time of the attacks of September 11, 2001, we now have thousands of these people, and new franchises such as ISIS are always popping up and spreading. When you look at the effects of the actual military practices, and policies — the arming of the moderate rebels in Syria for example, which led to a massive expansion of ISIS across both Syria and Iraq — you find that in reality, though the military may have good intentions to keep us safe, and to defend the home land, it doesn’t look like they’re actually accomplishing that at all. Yet there’s this reflexive presumption on the part of Americans and politicians, to support anything that’s called defense. Rather than examining, is this in fact a case of defense, are we being defended by these policies and practices? You just call it defense, and automatically people will sign onto it.
Jeff Schechtman: I mean I guess the broader philosophical question is how we view warfare itself, whether we view warfare and militarism as a tool of diplomacy, or whether diplomacy becomes an extension of warfare by other means.
Laurie Calhoun: Well that’s a really good point. I mean it used to be thought that you have to exhaust all diplomatic means before resorting to war. The whole paradigm of counter terrorism in the 21st century has thrown a wrench into that view, into the works because it is said that these radical jihadists cannot be negotiated with, there’s no one to negotiate with, there’s no state, you can’t talk to these people, they’re unreasonable. But in reality when you look at what some of these people have said, including Osama Bin Laden, they are protesting US foreign policy. For example, the 1991 Gulf War, and its aftermath in which 500,000 children died as a result of draconian sanctions imposed after the US military had destroyed their water treatment facilities.
They actually have, if you will listen to them, these people have in some cases valid complaints, which is not to condone what they do, or to say that their response is somehow warranted. It’s certainly not. But the point is, they have these grievances, they air them. We ignore them, and we go ahead and do the same thing over again, and then we wonder why the number of terrorists continues to multiply, when they’re all saying the same thing.
Unfortunately under George W. Bush, this sort of trope, “They hate us for our freedom,” became very popular, and that came to be the governing view of why we have to eradicate all these people from the planet, because they’re just so evil intrinsically. But the problem now is we’re killing adolescents, we’re killing teenagers, young men who were small children at the time of 9/11. They had nothing to do with 9/11. They’re reacting to the killing, the slaughter of Muslims in their countries all over the Middle East. These people are popping up all over the place in Western Europe, in the United States, and continuing these drone campaigns, and these mass bombing campaigns throughout the Middle East is doing nothing to … It can’t do anything to stem the tide of angry people in the West who are going to rise up in retaliation.
Jeff Schechtman: In many ways it’s this culture that we were talking about earlier, coming back to haunt us because in many cases this terrorist culture is very much the same as this American culture we talked about earlier.
Laurie Calhoun: That’s absolutely right. It’s the call to jihad is very similar to this call for just war. What I find really ironic about the drone age, is that we’re now using these drones in very similar ways to which the terrorists used airplanes on September 11, right? There’s no warning given, they fire without any sort of indication of who the target is, or why this person has been thought to need to be eliminated. I mean it’s a very similar paradigm. It’s almost as though we’ve been remade in the image of these terrorists because we’re doing precisely what they did. There’s no announcement, there’s no warning, there’s no provision of the possibility of surrender. It’s exactly like the people who died in the twin towers. These people had no idea it was coming, it was awful what was done, and yet we seem to be doing something not unlike that with these drone campaigns in other people’s civil societies.
It’s really unfortunate. I agree with you that in both cases there’s this idea that somehow killing is the way to accomplish something. But in fact, killing is just killing. Homicide is a tactic, it’s not a strategy. It doesn’t achieve anything but the elimination of your enemy, and it doesn’t change anyone’s view. If anything, it causes more people to be radicalized, as we saw in response to all of the war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, and also in Guantanamo Bay. I mean, we know what the reaction to that was. It was anger, it was outrage, and it was a proliferation of terrorism, not its stanching.
Jeff Schechtman: What has happened in your view, to the idea of diplomacy? It is a concept that in so many ways has gotten lost in this cultural landscape that we talked about.
Laurie Calhoun: It’s really unfortunate. People in America seem to think that people think, that voters think, that diplomacy is concessional, it’s a form of weakness, right? It’s a willingness to back down. You have these macho standoffs between Kim Jong-un, and Donald Trump, you know? They’re both willing to fire their muscles … Their missiles, flex their muscles and fire their missiles. The idea that maybe we should just sit down at a table and have a talk, that’s considered weak. It’s really unfortunate, because I believe it’s exactly the opposite. The tyrant is the person who can’t persuade people to see things his way, and so he has to chop off their heads. That’s what we’ve come to at this point.
Instead of trying to bring people around, you know the old idea, “Win hearts and minds, and persuade people.” That’s really gone by the wayside and the excuse is, “Oh, you can’t, again, reason with any of these people.” But this is just false. I mean these people are the ones who are emerging now, the foot soldiers. They’re teenagers one day, they’re proselytized into this ISIS cult the next day. And then suddenly they’re evil enemy number two. I mean the truth is that these people, if they could be persuaded to fight for the ISIS cause, they could be persuaded that they were mistaken in having made that choice. There have been a few people who have unconverted. But most of them aren’t given the choice, they’re just slaughtered.
This is a crisis. I mean, this is really a tragedy for humanity in my view. I mean, we’re killing some of these people who really have morally righteous reasons for rising up against their central government authority, or for being outraged by the invaders of their own land. So they rise up, they join unfortunately a gang, which is what ISIS is, and then they’re killed. I really feel like this is an incredibly nihilistic approach to conflict in the Middle East. I don’t really see how this can end well. I mean, it just seems to keep expanding. The administration never seems to realize that the fact that the global war on terrorism continues to expand reveals that the tactics they’ve been using don’t work.
Instead, they just figure, “We can just keep building more missiles, and drones, and killing more people until the end of time.” This is a very unfortunate turn in history, where diplomacy no longer seems to play a role because we’ve made lethality the be all and end all of our foreign policy, which is very unfortunate.
Jeff Schechtman: Can we find a tipping point for this, when we got to this point where we view diplomacy in the way you’ve been talking about?
Laurie Calhoun: I think it had a lot to do with just the terrorist attacks, okay? It became … I mean I suppose it went a little farther back. In 1991 or 1990, in the build up before Desert Storm, the 1991 Gulf War, George H. W. Bush announced, “We will not negotiate,” right? That was perhaps the turning point where we started having this very muscular view about foreign policy. George H. W. Bush bragged about the fact that he had beaten the Vietnam syndrome. Well, the Vietnam syndrome was a hesitation to go to war, and with good reason. Why would you want to go to war and slaughter millions of people, 50,000 of your own soldiers, for nothing really? In effect is what happened in Vietnam.
But George H. W. Bush, he kind of turned things around in his view, and made us more of a bellicose nation, willing to go out there and fight these wars in the name of justice. That was perhaps the turning point, because it was only after we invaded Iraq in 1991 that Al-Qaeda emerged, and became intent on fighting back. That may have been the turning point. Then when you see these ISIS gang members doing these horrific beheadings, and drowning people in cages, of course that just gets people’s emotions going, and it seems to confirm the idea that they can’t be reasoned with, and that nothing can be done but to erase them from the face of the planet.
But I want to come back again to the fact that the people who join these groups, are becoming younger and younger, and at some point it’s just going to be children. This is just a human tragedy, to be wiping out all of these impressionable children who have been persuaded by gangs to join up, and try to kill people.
Jeff Schechtman: What is it going to take, in your view, for this to begin to even begin to turn around?
Laurie Calhoun: I think we need to have an international outcry, and it may be that the glass half full on the more pro-military approach of Trump, we’ll see how this goes, will be that … The international community will finally rise up and say, “No, we’re not going to be your poodle, we’re not going to go along with this.” Maybe they will finally come to the conclusion that, aligning themselves with the United States wherever they want to kill people, whenever they want to kill people, for whatever reason they say they want to kill people, is no longer a good idea. Once that happens, then the United States will be viewed as an isolated rogue state, rather than the beacon of freedom, and the leader of the free world as it always claims to be.
One example I could give here is, Trump’s calling out Venezuela. This seems to be completely unprovoked, and threatening them in various ways. This sort of behavior could lead to a turning point, where people start to examine our policies and our practices and say, “Hey, wait a minute. Is it really okay for the United States to kill anyone they want, anywhere they want, using missiles?” It’s possible that this could happen.
Unfortunately under Barack Obama, he was so soft spoken and everyone liked him, so no one really thought of him as a dangerous person. But lots of people think that Donald Trump is a dangerous person. Barack Obama’s policies were very dangerous, because all of the executive authority he assumed, for example assassinating US citizens without indictment, much less trial, have been transferred now to Trump. Trump now has all the power that Obama assumed. In Trump’s hands, it may be viewed as more dangerous than it was in the case of Obama. Particularly as he expands the drone program, it looks like they’re going to start delivering missiles to other countries, beyond the seven that are already being bombed.
There will be a point, I believe, where the international community finally says, “Enough is enough. We don’t want any part of this.” I’m not sure when that will happen, but it could be precipitated by the presidency of Donald Trump.
It’s kind of sad that my silver lining on the Trump cloud is that he may actually drive the international community to abandon the United States, but I think that’s actually the only way out. We can’t have more nations agreeing to follow the example of Barack Obama as David Cameron did in the UK, by executing two of his own British compatriots in Syria, even though the death penalty is outlawed in Britain. We can’t have more … We certainly can’t have more people following the example of Donald Trump. I mean, that would be a complete disaster.
What I’m hoping is that there will be some pull back, and that maybe even though we don’t have a very strong anti-war movement in this country, maybe other countries will finally find their own voice, rather than just echoing whatever the United States says. I mean, I really think we’ve expended our political capital from World War Two by now, you know? If you look at everything we’ve done since World War Two, it’s pretty ghastly. I mean look at Vietnam, look at the 1991 Gulf War. It just goes on and on.
Okay, so maybe we were the good guys in some sense in World War Two, but that was a long time ago.
Jeff Schechtman: Laurie Calhoun, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Laurie Calhoun: Well, it’s been a pleasure talking with you. Thank you.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. Thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it, by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to WhoWhatWhy.org/Donate.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from drone (US Air Force) and Baltimore protest (Arash Azizzada / Flickr – CC BY-NC 2.0).

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