A Martian Tries to Understand Why Our Violence is Good
Yesterday, I gave a talk to the San Francisco chapter of the Former Intelligence Officers Association. In front of about a hundred former CIA, FBI, and NSA operatives, including former head of the CIA and NSA Michael Hayden, I talked about bulk surveillance, whistleblowing, and why intelligence professionals need to take especially great care not to let propaganda pervert their intelligence. I think the crowd was initially skeptical, but warmed as I went along. In the end, quite a few people came up afterward to thank me for my candor. The whole thing was fun and a little surreal, and if I got a few people to look at these issues in a somewhat different light, I’m glad. You can read the basis for my remarks at Freedom of the Press Foundation and Boing Boing.
Unfortunately, the format was such that no real debate with Hayden was possible. Which was frustrating, because, for example, at one point during his Q&A, Hayden opined that Iran is the world’s greatest purveyor of terrorism. If I could have responded, I would have wondered aloud, as I like to do from time to time, how I’d explain an assertion like that to a Martian:
Martian: We on Mars are confused by your General Hayden’s comment. He is speaking of Iran, is that correct? A country with the GDP of Finland?
Me: Uh, yes.
Martian: But didn’t your Martin Luther King say almost sixty years ago that the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today is America?
Me: He did say that, yes. In 1967, during the Vietnam war.
Martian: And hasn’t America had innumerable additional wars since then?
Me: It has, yes.
Martian: But then America’s wars must not be terrorism.
Martian: That is fortunate, for our understanding on Mars is that America spends more on its military than the next eight nations on earth combined—five of which are American allies.
Me: Yes, we do have a large military.
Martian: Do you not maintain over 800 military bases—more than any other nation in your planet’s history?
Me: Yes, that’s true.
Martian: Watching from Mars, we have always associated overseas military bases with what you on earth call “empire.”
Me: Americans don’t want an empire.
Martian: Why then do you maintain so many overseas military bases, as empires do?
Me: We just want to keep the peace.
Martian: By making war?
Me: It’s...complicated. But really, America is a peace-loving culture.
Martian: But you have more wars than anyone. On Mars, this does not seem peaceful.
Me: Okay, but it’s not terrorism. Terrorism is when, you know, you terrorize people.
Martian: But did you not, alone among the peoples of your planet, use atomic weapons against your fellow humans, when you bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
Me: Only to end the war.
Martian: Did you not kill at least 600,000 civilians in your war in Vietnam?
Me: We did.
Martian: Did you not kill at least 100,000 civilians in your latest war in Iraq, and turn four million people in that war into refugees?
Me: We did.
Martian: And did not your former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declare that a half million Iraqi children starved to death because of American sanctions was “worth it”?
Me: She did say that, though she took it back afterward.
Martian: And is it not the case that—
Me: Okay, look, I get it. America does more wars and violence than anyone else. But it’s not about terrorizing people, okay?
Martian: But are not the people you kill terrorized? And what about the parents of dead children, the children of dead parents, and the burned, blinded, brain-damaged, crippled, maimed, and mutilated by your weapons? Our understanding of humans is that you are terrorized by such things.
Me: I guess so. But it’s not like we’re trying to terrorize.
Martian: But did you not call your own tactics in your second war in Iraq “Shock and Awe”?
Me: Well, yeah. We were trying to, you know, shock and awe them.
Martian: Perhaps the problem is our imperfect renderings of Earth languages. In Martian, we cannot distinguish between terrorizing with bombs, and shocking and awing with them.
Me: Look, I see where you’re trying to go with this, okay? But we’re not like ISIS and other terrorist groups. I mean, you know what ISIS does? ISIS burns people alive. That’s terrorism.
Martian: But in your war in Vietnam, did you not use an incendiary weapon called Napalm, a kind of jelly gasoline that sticks to human bodies and causes horrific burning?
Me: I guess, but that was a long time ago.
Martian: But do you not currently deploy what your refer to as thermobaric weapons?
Me: I don’t know that word.
Martian: It is derived from two Greek words meaning “heat” and “pressure.” In English, it refers to a type of explosive that produces an exceptionally hot and powerful blast. The lucky victims are obliterated. The less lucky suffer terrible agonies before they die.
Me: Well, I’m sure that isn’t our intent.
Martian: But you have named one such weapon the “Hellfire” missile. Does this not mean you are well aware that the missile burns your fellow humans with fire? Was it not in fact designed to do so?
Me: I guess it just comes down to that terrorists want to kill innocent people. But America doesn’t. When we kill innocent people, we call it “collateral damage.” Do you know that phrase?
Martian: We do, but our translators have struggled with it. For a long time, we failed to understand why a people who are ordinarily so plain-spoken would devise such a vague phrase. Then we realized, you Americans find such a phrase preferable to something like, “the burning to death of innocent human beings, the blowing into tiny scraps of meat and bone ordinary people just trying to live their lives, the ripping asunder of the limbs of children, the blinding and mutilation of baby humans—”
Me: Right, I get it. But, yes, it’s not like we want those things to happen. When we do them, they’re tragic accidents. That’s the difference.
Martian: This is interesting. You mean terrorists want to kill innocents, while you Americans are mere willing to kill innocents.
Me: Something like that, I think. Yes.
Martian: Perhaps we Martians are simply dense. It seems that terrorists have goals for which they will kill. Is that not also true for your country?
Me: Yes, but again, the terrorists want to kill innocent people.
Martian: It is difficult for we Martians to understand the difference. Presumably these people you call terrorists simply want to achieve certain geopolitical goals that they believe require killing innocent people. Presumably if they believed they had another way to achieve these goals, they would not feel the need to kill innocent people.
Me: I don’t understand.
Martian: I mean, perhaps terrorists are killing people pragmatically. In other words, for terrorists, killing people is a means, not an end.
Me: So what?
Martian: I am trying how to understand how it is different for you, given that you are the “good guys,” to use your Earth phrase. Do you not also, in all your wars, kill people as a means?
Me: But we don’t want to.
Martian: In such circumstances, it is sometimes difficult for we Martians to distinguish between the concept of “want” and the concept of “willing.” For in the service of the geopolitical goals you seek to achieve through the means of violence, is it not an empirical and historical fact that inevitably you will kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people, inflict the most horrific injuries on hundreds of thousands more, and turn millions of people into stateless refugees, with all the terrorizing that such events necessarily entail?
Me: I guess.
Martian: But this is not terrorism.
Me: No. Not when we do it.
Martian: I confess I am more perplexed now than when we started. I do not understand how the nation that commits the most violence and causes the most terror can claim other nations are the most terroristic. We Martians will have to study this question more closely.
Well, maybe they’ll invite General Hayden and me back. But we’d probably need a Martian to translate.