Chemical Weapons and the Law

Syria is subject to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which makes the recent use of chemical weapons there a crime.  UN Weapons investigators analyzing evidence collected in Syria need about another week to establish if the weapons were used by Syrian government forces, if Syria’s leader authorized their use or was informed later, if they were instead used by rebel forces, or if more evidence is required to make a judgment.

President Obama says Syria’s leader is responsible for the crime and proposes unilateral retaliatory military action.  Congress is debating whether to authorize that.  Its vote is scheduled for two days hence, before the UN team completes its analysis.  President Obama says he has the authority to take military action even if Congress votes no.

Unfortunately, US governments always have placed their faith exclusively in military power and refused to accept the rule of international law.  President Bush’s UN representative formally excluded the USA from ICC jurisdiction.  President Obama, despite his law degree and Nobel Peace Prize, is acting the same way.

Banning chemical weapons has been a long and tortuous challenge.  The first attempt was the 1925 Geneva Protocol following the use of poison gas in WW1.  Another attempt was initiated following the WW2 Holocaust but was stymied by the Cold War.  In 1962 the US and USSR proposed elimination of all such weapons to the UN but between then and 1971 the US sprayed nearly 20 million gallons of chemical weapons in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia which resulted, according to the Vietnam Red Cross, in as many as 400,000 people killed or maimed, and half a million children with birth defects.

We knew Iraqi troops were routinely using chemical weapons against Iran in the early 1980s, and supplied them with a couple of batches each of anthrax and botulism bacteria in 1986.  The Senate unanimously passed the Prevention of Genocide Act in 1988, which would have banned any military assistance to Iraq and import of Iraqi oil, but it did not pass in the House.  We continued to supply Iraq with equipment we knew was for use in their chemical and nuclear weapons programs until Saddam Hussein misjudged our friendliness and invaded Kuwait.

In 1993, the UN called for destruction of all existing chemical weapons, no more manufacture, and an inspection body.  Congress reluctantly ratified that statute in 1997 but then passed legislation so we could refuse inspections.

At last, the genocide in Yugoslavia and Rwanda sparked the UN in 1998 to initiate creation of an International Criminal Court, an enforcement mechanism.  The court’s independence and jurisdiction were major issues.  Could it be prevented from launching a prosecution by a veto from the US, Russia, China, the UK or France?  Would it require approval to prosecute from the country where a crime was committed?  Could it prosecute if there was already a court proceeding in that nation?   Could it prosecute crimes committed in civil wars?  Could it prosecute crimes committed before it was established?

We said we supported the ICC.  In fact, we worked hard to emasculate it.  We demanded that no US citizen could be indicted without our approval.  We required veto power over any indictment.  We insisted that the ICC could prosecute crimes only in nations that are a party to the ICC Convention.  We said the ICC could have jurisdiction only if national courts failed to act.  We demanded that national security and/or a superior’s orders must be accepted as grounds for defense.

Even though those severe constraints were reluctantly accepted, we voted against creation of the court.  The vote was 120 in favor, 7 opposed and 21 abstentions.  The court would become effective when ratified by the 60th nation.  We worked hard to prevent that.  In 2001, the Senate passed an act that would have prohibited us from cooperating with the ICC in any way, barred military aid to any country supporting the ICC and required us to use any means to release US citizens held by the court.

When in 2002 the 60th nation ratified the ICC and it came into force, we notified the UN that we refused to be a party to the treaty.

At this time 122 nations have ratified the ICC and 31 more, including Russia, have signed but not ratified the Statute, 3 of which, Israel, Sudan and the US, have withdrawn their signatures.  41 other UN member nations have not signed the Statute, including China and India.

Governments of nations that have refused ICC jurisdiction tend to be engaged in activities the ICC might well prosecute, e.g., Israel’s settlements, India and Pakistan’s activities in Kashmir, China’s in Tibet and Xinjiang, ours in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and etc.

The ICC has so far opened investigations only into 8 situations in Africa.  It has indicted 30 people, issued arrest warrants for 21 and has 5 in custody.  The atrocities being committed in Syria should be prosecuted by the ICC and we should be insisting that it do so.  We should consider other options only if the ICC is barred, e.g., by a veto from Russia, from that investigation.

We should stop telling the world we are its judge and executioner and start supporting the international rule of law.


The 2nd Amendment, Revolution and Self-Defense

DaveR sent me a Facebook message:  “Thought you might be interested in the article at this link:  One of our traditions — throwing off the shackles of a government that has overstepped its bounds — is at odds with another, the one that accepts the results of elections.”   We agreed to copy our long and lively discussion here.  It raises important points that I hope will provoke more discussion.

I responded: “I hadn’t thought about this idea in the article: “In a democracy the majority determines what the law is and could, at least theoretically, take away the rights of individuals for the sake of the ‘public good.’  In a republic, majority will is held in check by constitutional guarantees that forbid legislation encroaching on individual rights even if 51 percent or 95 percent of the population favors it.”  It seems more complicated in real life.   The right guaranteed by the 2nd Amendment is “encroached upon” by subsequent legislation that defines what “arms” we the people may and may not “bear” and the circumstances in which we may bear them.  In the same way, the definition of “we the people” has been the opposite of encroached upon, i.e., expanded by civil rights legislation.”

Then I got off track with an ignorant assertion:  “I always come back to the same state of bafflement about the 2nd amendment.  Do the folks who believe they need guns to overthrow the government really believe their weapons would make that possible?  Or are they like those in the South who knew in their hearts they would fail but went ahead with the War of Northern Aggression, anyway?”

Correcting my mistake led to the important topic of revolution.  Dave responded:  “Well, the South most certainly did not think it was going to lose the Civil War.  In fact, it very nearly won in the first few years.  Many also truly believed that they would receive political, if not military support from Britain (whose textile industry was utterly dependent on southern cotton in 1860).  Interestingly, part of the reason why they did as well as they did despite the North’s superiority in industry, manpower and infrastructure, was precisely because of their cultural military tradition.  Many in the Southern Armies used their own weapons, horses, and the like for the entire war, which is interesting considering this 2nd amendment debate.  I think the 2nd amendment is actually pretty important, but I am for regulation, background checks, etc.  I most certainly do not support repeal. And as I’ve said before, I choose not to avail myself of this right at the moment, but that doesn’t mean I want to get rid of it.  As for your last question – it’s a good one.  In the event of a true, justified revolution in this country, would gun ownership make the difference?  I think, yes, it absolutely would.  Partly, because I think a plausible revolution (not just a bunch of 2nd amendment nuts) would engage a broad enough selection of the populace that we’d see a split in the military.  Think about well-documented revolutions and civil wars – the American or the Spanish Civil Wars, for instance, and you see that the arms used were piecemeal at first, but became more professional as time went on.  Do you think the Syrian rebels wouldn’t love to have some AR-15’s?  Have you seen the improvised weapons they’ve been using?  Some are literally held together with duct tape.  And yet, despite air superiority, tanks and chemical weapons, they seem to be slowly gaining ground.  Civil war these days is an urban war, and small-arms make plenty of difference in city streets.  It scares the hell out of me, but I really do sometimes think I’m going to see a 2nd Civil War of some kind in my lifetime.”

I replied:  “The only thing I’m certain about is, I should actually study US history.  My small patchwork of knowledge means I’ll be mistaken if I believe any theories that occur to me.  I try to discard them and usually don’t believe I understand anything about the Civil War.  Thanks for the correction!  I’ll think more about “true, justified revolution” and respond later.  Thanks for making me think, Dave!”

Dave responded:  “The US Civil War was something of an obsession for me growing up.  I’m probably a bit TOO certain about my “facts” about it, though.  Ken Burns’ documentary is always a good place to start, if you’re really interested (and if you have like 12 hours to kill). And thank YOU.”

After giving more thought to the 2nd Amendment and the Constitution in general, I wrote:  “I want legislation and enforcement to reflect our evolving democratically made decisions about what firearm technologies folks in our society can have.  That requires definition of the purpose.  For example, although I do not hunt I do not want to prevent it, so I’d favor legislation that explicitly approved hunting along with what kinds of hunting firearms are authorized.  I would not expect automatic rifles to be authorized for that purpose, for example, or any kind of handguns.  I would favor background checks for all purchasers of such firearms in every market.   I’m not trying to define the legislation here, just the guiding principal.  Starting from that viewpoint, I’d prefer the existing 2nd amendment to be replaced with one corresponding to today’s society and its needs, not the situation almost two and a half centuries ago.  The amendment now reads:  “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”  We no longer expect to defend our nation by raising an army of civilians supplying their own firearms.  We still have uses for firearms that we want to authorize, but not that one.  You make an excellent point about guerilla warfare. Having thought about it more, I agree that an armed uprising might possibly succeed. That makes me think replacing the 2nd amendment is more important, not just something that would theoretically be good.  I want our society to be made better by the working of democracy.  I don’t want there to be a Plan B where we don’t engage in the democratic process but start a Civil War if things don’t turn out the way we want.  If we were writing our Constitution now, and not even thinking about the one we already have, we probably would not include bearing arms as a fundamental human right.   We would probably also draft the 4th amendment in a different way to make explicit some right to privacy.  Search and seizure was the only relevant technology a couple of centuries ago. No phone, internet, satellite or security cameras, etc.  Or maybe we’d decide that in the interest of public safety, we would forgo any and all privacy.  In the real world, I think we should just keep doing what we’ve been doing about the 2nd amendment all along, ignoring the “shall not be infringed”.  We already don’t allow “the people” to have most weapons used by our military forces.”

Dave responded:  “Again, I largely agree with you.  But I have to ask a question you haven’t addressed yet: When is revolution justified? Is it ever?”

It had been taking me quite a while to figure out what I think about that.  I replied:  “Revolution can become inevitable.  Oppression can become too extreme and too prolonged.  It could happen here.  Our tax and spending policies are making hardship from technology-enabled structural change in the economy a lot more painful.  Wealth is being transferred to the already uber-rich from all others.  I expect we will change direction but there’s no guarantee.  It’s not impossible, for example, that unrest could grow severe enough that some “strong man” could use the moment to seize dictatorial control.  “President Cheney declares martial law in response to ongoing riots in cities throughout the land”.  It seems unreasonable to say revolution in such a case would be unjustified.  But if I interpret “justifiable” to mean I would be willing to kill, I can’t use the word.  In a democracy we get what we deserve.  We could have seen that our government’s actions would, if not altered, lead to revolution and we did not make the necessary effort so, shame on us.  It’s not an exact parallel but my grandfather and his five brothers all refused to fight in WW1.  My grandfather’s objection was philosophical.  I’m more moved by what one of his younger brothers said: “I thought, what would I say to his mother if I killed a German boy, or what would he say to mine if he killed me? Nothing could make it right.”  That doesn’t mean I’m absolutely a pacifist.  Maybe there could be a war or revolution where I’d feel I had to participate.  But what I believe I’d do if I saw revolution coming is try to leave and join some other society, one I could feel better about being part of.”

Dave replied:  “Thank you.  I sometimes wonder what I’d do as well.  I suppose it would really depend on what was happening at the time.  But I do think that the idea that our government is getting away from us is part of what drives the 2nd amendment types, and it makes me less supportive of any effort to repeal the amendment.  You say “If we were writing our Constitution now, and not even thinking about the one we already have, we probably would not include bearing arms as a fundamental human right.”  I wonder: isn’t the right to defend one’s self a fundamental human right?  I feel like I have the inalienable right to defend myself from anyone who tries to interfere with my free will.  I’m not interested in fighting, weapons, or anything like that.  I don’t think I’m particularly paranoid, and I don’t see any immediate threats to my freedom (to my health is another story), but I do see my right to privacy and to not be wrongfully seized being whittled away.  Anyway, if it came down to it, I’d probably choose exile as well. Maybe we’re more cosmopolitans than patriots, Martin?”

I responded:  “Yeah, we must work to stop our government from getting away from us.  I’ve started emailing my Representatives about issues I see as especially important and I intend to pester them increasingly more actively.  It’s a cop-out to tell myself one voice won’t make any difference.  I started my original blog because I felt I didn’t understand enough to give them good feedback.  I feel quite a bit closer now to understanding at least which are the most important issues.  Self-defense is confusing.  The way one expects to go about it may be the key factor.  We’re less likely to be attacked if we project confidence, more likely if we project fearfulness.  We need to learn how to project confidence in a way that is non-threatening.  The confusing part is I really do believe non-violence is the right aspiration.  Ahimsa.  I hope I never find myself in a situation where it would be rational, for example, to wear a handgun in order to deter violence.  I’m really not sure what I would do if my everyday life put me in that kind of situation.  I try never to get into such a place.  It was not my intent but it should have been, for example, to avoid a cool project management gig in Mexico City.  The guy I’d have worked most closely with was shot coming out of his office soon after.  But what if I couldn’t avoid it?  I can say, well, if we hadn’t allowed all those guns to be purchased there wouldn’t be nearly so many in the hands of bad folks and our world would be less dangerous, but it’s too late now. The guns are already out there.”

Topics worthy of more discussion include:

  • When is revolution justified? Is it ever?
  • What are the limits on our right to self-defense?  Are there any?

Armed Revolution and Gun Control

Fairleigh Dickinson University just published the stupefying results of their recent national survey about armed revolution and gun control.  Asked for their opinion about this question: “In the next few years, an armed revolution might be necessary in order to protect our liberties”, 29% said an armed revolution may be necessary.  That’s three in ten of my fellow citizens.  Three in ten!

The survey also shows how belief in the potential need for armed revolution against our government correlates with beliefs about gun control.  Only four in ten (38%) who believe a revolution might be necessary support additional gun control legislation.  Additional legislation is supported by over six in ten (62%) who do not think armed revolt will be needed.

The results also differ by party, with two in ten (18%) Democrats thinking an armed revolution may be necessary versus more than four in ten (44%) Republicans.  That’s a lot of Republicans!  It’s also a lot of Democrats.

The survey also asked if respondents believe that: “Some people are hiding the truth about the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in order to advance a political agenda.”  I feel naive to be shocked that a quarter of us does believe facts about the shooting are being hidden.

One of the poll analysts said: “The differences in views of gun legislation are really a function of differences in what people believe guns are for.  If you truly believe an armed revolution is possible in the near future, you need weapons and you’re going to be wary about government efforts to take them away.”  That sounds accurate.

As I wrote here, I once owned a .22 rifle, but not in case I needed to overthrow my government, and I didn’t get rid of it because it would be outmatched by my government’s weaponry.  I always thought democracy was the least bad of all possible arrangements for a large society.  That’s why I vote.

It’s very disturbing that three in ten Americans believe our democratic form of government may have to be overthrown.   It’s downright peculiar that they also believe their firearms could do the job.

The Life of a Tortoise

A wild tortoise who lives near the cabin where we were staying in the high desert above Yucca Valley, CA has learned that people will give him lettuce.


He comes out when he hears people because he likes lettuce.  There’s only just enough plant life for survival in those parts so it’s easy to see why he’d be tempted.


He’s been living there for at least 30 years and has a female consort who we didn’t see.  Maybe she didn’t come out because she’s shy, more likely because the weather wasn’t really hot enough yet, or perhaps it was because he told her not to.  He has a rival, a bigger fellow, with whom he battles for control of the territory and access to the female.  The way battle works for tortoises is they try to flip each other over.  An upside-down tortoise has no way to right itself and soon dies.

These battles must be noisy.  The tortoise hissed loudly if we did not give him the next piece of lettuce as fast as he wanted.  I expect he’d look even more menacing if the issue was survival.


He usually loses the battles because he’s smaller than the interloper, but not always.  Our landlady once found both of them on their backs.  She checks on them many times a day when the weather is hotter and had to right the home tortoise five times one day.  She has repeatedly taken the interloper several miles away in her car but he always comes back.

Opposing Senate Resolution 65 re Iran & Israel

Please, everyone, join me in urging your Senators to defeat Senate Resolution 65 which would commit us to a disastrous war with Iran that would not even be entered into by our own decision.  Use my letter below as a base if it helps.  I’m sending a slightly different version to my other Senator, Angus King, because he has not sponsored the Resolution.

With these links you can get your Senators’ email address and if they sponsor S.Res.65 as well as its text.

Dear Senator Collins,

With utmost seriousness I urge you to withdraw your support for, and in fact work to defeat Senate Resolution 65.

S.Res. 65’s conclusion, “if the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in self-defense, the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel” would commit us to war with Iran whenever Israel decides.  It  would not be our Government but Israel’s that decides whether or not to invade Iran.

Although S.Res.65 ends: “Nothing in this resolution shall be construed as an authorization for the use of force or a declaration of war”,  that is exactly what it is.  If the Government of Israel decides to strike Iran, S.Res.65 would commit us, too.

War on Iran is very much against our interests.    As former Secretary of Defense (2006-2011) Robert Gates, said in a speech on October 3 last year: “The results of an American or Israeli military strike on Iran could, in my view, prove catastrophic, haunting us for generations … An attack would make a nuclear-armed Iran inevitable.  They would just bury the program deeper and make it more covert.” 

Just like the claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, the claim that Iran is making nuclear weapons is false.  US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate on March 12 this year: “We do not know if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons”.  He said Iran is not enriching to weapons grade and we could quickly detect it if they do.  Inspectors at the International Atomic Energy Agency who monitor Iran’s nuclear sites say the same thing.

I care deeply about this both as an American and a parent.  I proudly support our son’s service in the military.  I believe you care about him, too.  Do not blindly commit him to a war that is against our interests and would not even be entered into by our own decision.


Why I Feel Like an Extraterrestrial

Maybe it’s because I don’t watch TV.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I’m lying in the dentist chair.  The TV on the ceiling is tuned to CNBC.  The technician asks, “Would you like me to turn the TV off or shall I leave it on?”  I tell her it’s OK either way.  I think I don’t care and most of the time I am indifferent but every so often the moving images and voices attract my attention.  “Look,” says an intelligent looking young man, “if we eliminated the entire defense budget it still wouldn’t fix the deficit.”

The voices were being processed by my brain all the time.  Recognizing “defense budget”, something said, “heh, pay attention” and presented the entire sentence the man had spoken.  The interviewer thanked the young Congressman.  Nobody broke out howling with laughter.

We can’t know everything so maybe the Congressman didn’t know how much we spend on defense.  Maybe he didn’t know what he said was factually incorrect.  Perhaps he’s too busy to investigate what took me only a short time to learn (see this ) but can he really be a stranger to logic?

Let’s say it was true we would still have a deficit if we entirely eliminated defense spending.  Does that mean we have no choice but to continue defense spending at the same rate?  If those we elect can say such things and be treated as wise and suitable leaders, I must be an extraterrestrial.  Why isn’t anyone laughing?

The technician continues to chip away.  I try to relax, telling myself, “you’re over-reacting.  He probably knows what he said is nonsense and that many people like to hear such things.”  It doesn’t make me feel better but you can’t expect to feel all that great in a dentist chair, anyway.

The pattern recognizer alerts me again: “If we make enough laws, we can all be criminals”.  It remembers I was interested when I heard that before.  The speaker is another thoughtful looking man who also seems to be an elected representative.  He’s being asked about the President’s push for stronger gun control legislation.  He says new legislation will only make things worse.  Again, my hopes for a raucous laugh track are disappointed.

In the decade since 9/11 when 3,000 were killed, there were no additional terrorist killings on the USA mainland.  In that same ten years, 340,000 of us killed ourselves and others with firearms (40% homicides, 60% suicides).

We took action to avert more terrorist attacks.  We took too much of the wrong kind but we also took some that was both appropriate and effective.  Pretty much all of us are pleased by the results of the effective action.  Why, then, would it be impossible to take effective action to avert more firearm deaths?  Isn’t that why we elect representatives – so they will establish effective legislation?

Maybe I’ve forgotten my extraterrestrial childhood but I remember and never regretted choosing to become an American.  So what if I feel like an extraterrestrial when I watch TV or read things like this ?.  I’m committed to this society and I will keep doing everything I can to help it grow ever better.

Evaluation of War on Terror Strategy

Our War on Terror strategy (see this) implies readiness for large and small scale action in multiple theaters throughout Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and Northern and Western South America.  How likely is its success, how long will it take, can we afford the cost, and is there a better approach?

The goal of the strategy is to eliminate Islamic “holy war” terrorists who might attack us from anywhere in the world.  It is unachievable.  That kind of threat can not be ended, only mitigated and endured.  Military action is in fact counter-productive because the collateral destruction creates more terrorists and strengthens their support.  Even if we could utterly destroy al Qaeda, we could not declare victory because we declared war on all Muslim terrorists.  Since there are over a billion Muslims, there will always be a few Muslim extremists just as there will always be some who are Christian.

Response to aggression should always be proportional to the threat, and it must be able to succeed.  Our response is massively disproportional and it can never succeed.

A strategy of unending military engagement everywhere would exhaust any nation.  That strategy for the USA predates the War on Terror.  We spend more on military activities than the next 20 nations combined, which is half our total expected Federal tax revenue.  The cost of our already high Federal debt must become unaffordable when our spending is persistently so much higher than revenue.  No nation can afford war that is permanent.  We cannot afford this strategy’s cost.

And the strategy will make us permanently less free.  When we go to war to preserve our liberty, we willingly forgo some of the freedoms we enjoy in everyday life, expecting them to be restored when victory is achieved.  If victory never can be won, those freedoms never will be regained.

Finally, the strategy creates unwarranted suffering for our own people.  Enormously more of our troops are killed than the number of US citizens threatened by terrorists and enormously more of them suffer physical and/or psychological damage from which they will never recover.  Caring for them has a high dollar cost.  Far more important, we are wrong to demand their sacrifice.

So, we are forcing future generations to pay for a war that cannot succeed and which limits the very freedoms we claim it will preserve.  How did this happen?

For the first half century after we emerged as a great power early in the 20th century, we acted overseas only after deliberation and then with decisive power.  The great good fortune of our geography gave us time to prepare and sufficient resources to do so.  We entered WW1 and WW2 when we were ready and we brought about rapid victory.

We radically changed strategy following WW2.  We began managing the world whether or not our immediate interests were threatened in any particular situation.  We took the lead in Korea, which the Allies had split into two nations at the end of WW2.  Then we initiated a long, bloody and fruitless war in Vietnam that spilled over into Laos and Cambodia.  And we established a nuclear strategy of “mutually assured destruction” which we did not change after Soviet Russia, our only military rival, collapsed and we no longer faced any existential threat.

In response to the 9/11 attack on two mainland USA targets by al Queda terrorists, we initiated not just detective work but war, as if we had been attacked by a nation.  We invaded Iraq even though we knew there was no Iraqi involvement in the attacks.  We heavily bombed Afghanistan where al Queda’s leaders were based and inserted ground forces there.  After Al Queda’s command cell relocated to Pakistan, we greatly increased our activities in Afghanistan.  By about 2004 we had lost focus on what our War on Terror was intended to achieve.

No satisfactory reason for our invasion of Iraq emerged, civil war broke out, and opposition to us was so strong by 2004 that we could only maintain our presence by allying with our enemies.  Furthermore, by destroying Iraq’s power we had eliminated the only regional balance against Iran, which we now view as our enemy.  After entering Afghanistan to disrupt al Qaeda’s leadership, we drifted into fighting the Taliban, a different and far more costly objective that required massive force.  We then, as in Iraq, set a far longer term objective, building a democratic society.  When we installed the Karzai government, the Taliban retreated to the mountains to wait us out.  We are now downsizing our presence but the end of our war in Afghanistan is indefinitely far distant.

Meanwhile, we began to capture and monitor all electronic communications to identify terrorists.   Believing we were threatened by potentially massive new attacks, we could only hope to avert them by monitoring all communications between everyone, and storing everything so we could monitor earlier communications of new suspects.  We partially suspended habeas corpus so suspects could be jailed indefinitely without trial.  We began torturing them, illegal in the USA even in wartime, in camps overseas.  We began killing suspects without due process.  The President can now direct even US citizens to be killed.

In the past 10 years we have killed around 3,000 terrorists and civilians with drones in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere, i.e., inside nations on which we have not declared war, and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which killed bin Laden, has established commando teams in Africa for operations throughout NE Africa and the Middle East.  Attorney General Holder asserts: “Our legal authority is not limited to the battlefield in Afghanistan… We are at war with a stateless enemy, prone to shifting operations from country to country.”  That authority extends, he says, to killing US citizens without regard to geography or due process.

War changes society by limiting citizens’ rights.  Inspecting the private communications of citizens is routine during war, habeas corpus and due process are routinely suspended, and what would be assassination in time of peace becomes legal.  But if our war on terror never ends, our civil liberties and peacetime rules of law will never be restored.  They will be further eroded.

We are now, 12 years into this war, committing massive resources to missions that are not even clearly connected with preventing Islamist terrorism and we are making permanent what were introduced as emergency overrides on the Bill of Rights, e.g., the need to obtain a warrant for certain actions.

No nation can afford the dollar cost of permanent war or the spiritual cost of war that can never be won.  When we do take military action it should be with clear goals and sufficient force applied in a way that will achieve the goals.  Our present strategy has none of these attributes.

The 2nd and 3rd Amendments

We should periodically review assumptions that direct our beliefs.  The world may have changed so they are no longer accurate.  We may need to make structural changes to direct new behavior.

Businesses that don’t update their assumptions fail.  My 1980s minicomputer consulting clients no longer exist.  They were ex-pioneers who imagined their competition was still each other.  They were aware of networked microprocessor-based systems but not the implications of a competing technology with a cost advantage that was already tenfold.  Their customers were little harmed because they could simply switch to new suppliers.

A nation’s customers, its citizens, can be greatly harmed, however, because it’s not easy to switch to a new one.  Nations keep going where they’re headed like giant cruise ships whose passengers were happy enough for long enough so the captain assumes they always will be happy.  He’s still happy.  He doesn’t notice the passengers’ distress now they’re in Antarctic waters in summer clothes.

Just as businesses degenerate slowly then collapse when their structure is not kept up to date, so it is with nations and empires.  The structure of GM, for example, where each brand (Chevy, Buick, Cadillac, etc) was targeted to a distinct market segment within which it battled competitors later ossified into baronies whose leaders fought each other.  Our Congress in the USA has similarly degenerated into warring factions whose eyes are closed to new realities.

The problem is in part institutional.  Our direction is governed by a Constitution established two and a half centuries ago with no requirement for periodic update.  Let’s consider two Constitutional Amendments to illustrate this issue.

The 3rd Amendment decrees that: “No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.”  That is just about as useful today as prohibiting an elephant from being quartered in our house without our consent.  Citizens once needed such protection.  We no longer do.  This Amendment is now so completely irrelevant that must people are unaware it even exists.

The USA 3rd Amendment echoed the English Bill of Rights 1689 that prohibited the monarch from “raising and keeping a standing army within this kingdom in time of peace without consent of Parliament, and quartering soldiers contrary to law”  and was in response to 1760s and ’70s British Quartering Acts that required American colonies to pay the costs of British soldiers here and colonists to provide space for them to live.

The English Bill of Rights was passed when Protestant William and Mary were invited by parliament to replace Roman Catholic King James II and become joint sovereigns of England.  It set limits on the powers of the crown and among other things reestablished the right of Protestants to own firearms.  James II had tried to disarm Protestants and maintain a standing army.  Civilians were at that time required to help suppress riots.

So the English Bill of Rights was also the basis for the 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution as one of our Bill of Rights which decrees that: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”  It was adopted on December 15, 1791, along with the rest of the Bill of Rights and, interestingly, is the only amendment to the Constitution that states a purpose.

There was at that time substantial public opposition to a standing army from both Anti-Federalists and Federalists.  On May 8, 1792, Congress passed an Act decreeing that:  “every free able-bodied white male citizen of the respective States, resident therein, who is or shall be of age of eighteen years, and under the age of forty-five years […] shall severally and respectively be enrolled in the militia…[and] every citizen so enrolled and notified, shall, within six months thereafter, provide himself with a good musket or firelock, a sufficient bayonet and belt, two spare flints, and a knapsack, a pouch with a box therein to contain not less than twenty-four cartridges [and etc] and shall appear, so armed, accoutred and provided, when called out to exercise, or into service”.

The purpose of the 2nd Amendment, to provide for “the security of a free state“, has for many years been met in a different way.  We now have a standing militia armed with weapons whose power could never have been imagined in the days of muskets and firelocks.  Unlike the 3rd Amendment, however, its provisions are still relevant but are applied to a different purpose.

It would be better to retire both the 2nd and 3rd Amendments and draft new legislation suited to the purpose today.

People still want successors to muskets and firelocks for some of the same reasons left unstated in the 2nd Amendment, to hunt animals for food, defend themselves if police are unavailable, or just recreation.  It would be far easier to establish broadly acceptable legislation specifying who could own what firearms if we were now drafting legislation specifically for that purpose.

“A Flash of Light, a Clink of Steel,

two pounds of potatoes and a small brown loaf.”  Maybe this line from “The Goon Show” was heralding democratization of the aristocratic warrior code.  The glint of sunlight on a knight’s armor and the clink of his trusty sword were now on the grocery list along with bread and potatoes.  Or maybe it’s not because we have such romantic ideas.  Whatever, we do have a lot of guns, and they do a lot of harm.

We 315M Americans who already possess 310M firearms spend on average $20 a year on firearms and ammunition, a total annual spend of $6B.  That’s much less than we spend on bread and potatoes but it adds up.  Much of the ammo is consumed but the firearms bought in previous years remain in service.  In 1994 we owned 192M guns, one for every two people.  Today’s average is almost one to one.  Some of us have several guns, 47% of us have at least one gun in our home.

The total economic impact of the firearms industry including gun shop rent, utilities and wages, sales taxes and etc. is around $32B but that’s still only $100 per person per year.  Maybe we should also consider a different cost.  In 2009, the latest for which we have CDC statistics, we had a total of 31,347 firearm deaths.  Our overall rate of deaths by firearm was 10.2 per 100K.  Homicides were 40% of that total, suicides 60%.

First and foremost, then, firearms are used for suicide.  Looking inside the 6.1 overall rate for firearm suicide rates and 5.9 by other means, we find 12.3 per 100K for firearm suicide by white males, 4.8 for black males and 7.6 for male American Indian or Alaska Natives.   The suicide rate by other means was 9.3 for white males and 3.8 for black males. That says white males are significantly the most likely to commit suicide and their preferred method is a firearm.  The next highest suicide rate is 10.3 for American Indian or Alaska Natives using other means.

Turning to homicides, inside the 3.7 per 100K overall rate for firearm homicides and 1.7 by other means, we find the firearm homicide rate was 3.1 for white males, 0.9 for white females, 28.4 for black males and 5.2 for American Indian or Alaska Natives.  The homicide rate by other means was 1.8 for white males and 5.8 for both black males and American Indian or Alaska Natives.

Black males are almost eight times more likely than average to be killed by firearm homicide.  White males and females are less likely than average to be killed by firearm homicide.  So, if you’re black you are right to fear being killed by a firearm, if you’re white you have much less to fear.  These statistics do not indicate the demographics of who shot the black males or any other group.

Why do people want guns?  In answer to a recent survey, 67% said for self-defense, 58% for hunting and 66% for target shooting.  Nobody said because guns are cool.  Nobody said for suicide.

Do people think society would be safer if fewer guns were around?  In the wake of the Newtown massacre, 58% of those surveyed in the most recent Gallup Poll said they favor stricter gun control laws.  That’s up significantly from 43% in October 2011.  What surprised me, however, is 51% are against any law making it illegal to manufacture, sell, or possess “semi-automatic guns known as assault rifles” vs 44% who favor such a restriction.  I was only a little less surprised that a very large majority, 74%, opposes any greater restrictions on the possession of handguns vs 24% who do favor more restrictions.

I cannot fathom why the majority of those polled want more people to have “semi-automatic guns known as assault rifles”?

What restrictions are favored?  Background checks?  The number of firearms manufactured in the US is 5.5M per year, the number of gun registrations is 3.2M.  That means a very large number of guns are sold every year to people we don’t want to have them.  And remember, the guns used in the Newtown massacre were purchased legally.  The owner whose son killed her with one of them bought those guns at least in part for self-defense, a tragic mistake.

I once bought a gun.  It was when we were raising our forty sheep and a pair of dogs leaped the fence one day and attacked our prize rams.  I heard their barking and, flooded with adrenalin, managed to chase them off before they did any lasting harm.  It was very hard, I was very scared for my sheep, and I was very angry.  “Next time,” I raged, “I’ll shoot the bastards!”  So I bought a .22 rifle and did some target practice.  As it happened, the story ended happily because we sold all the sheep a few years later before any more dogs came.  I’m lucky I was never in a situation where I’d have used the gun.  It could only have led to suffering.

So what should we do?  First, what we should not do.  Killing other beings for pleasure harms us but I don’t want to ban it because some people do it for food and, anyway, I have no right to dictate other folks’ pleasures.  I have no objection to target shooting and have had fun doing it myself.  Although having firearms for self-defense is a mistake because few of us could disable an attacker who was already set to fire, and a firearm in the house is more likely to be used for suicide or cause accidental death, I wouldn’t ban them because gun ownership is part of our culture.  I hope that will change but in that hope I’m in the minority.

What I would do is make civilian possession of semi-automatic and other such weapons illegal and enforce it rigorously with heavy penalties.  I would buy and destroy those weapons.  Mark, in a comment on “The Massacre in My Home Town”, writes more about what weapons are OK and not OK to own.  Defining that has some challenges but so do all laws.  We’re capable of writing good ones.

Background checks are good but gun shows too often evade them and too many weapons I would ban are already in the hands of criminals. That’s why I would rigorously enforce possession.  I would also mount a campaign like the one against smoking to make everyone aware of the real dangers of gun ownership.

It would take many years to remove even 80% of the banned weapons from civilian ownership.  It would take many years before significant numbers voluntarily gave up guns the law allowed them to keep but whose danger they had come to recognize. So?  There is, pardon the expression, no silver bullet in this case.  The fact that there’s no immediate fix is unfortunate.  We need to accept that and get started.

Our culture is different from nations with tighter gun control and correspondingly lower firearm death rates.  We can learn a little from their experience but our path will be different.  As practical people, we need not explore the cultural origins of our very high rate of gun ownership.  We only need to recognize it results in too many preventable deaths.  Then we can take positive action.

The Massacre in My Home Town

Twenty young children were shot to death last week in Newtown CT where I lived for 35 years.  Setting aside the emotion, why do these things happen and what can we do?  The NRA says we should place armed guards in every school.  Others say we should ban guns, we need more religion, we should ban violent video games.   What do the statistics suggest?

The following table of UN data shows our results in the context of  some other countries for the past decade.  We average around 5 homicides (intentional killings) per one hundred thousand people per year.   Because there are more than 300 million of us that means we have around 15,000 homicides per year.  Because Canada’s 35 million population is only about a tenth of ours and their homicide rate is one third of ours, they have only 550 homicides per year.  Our other neighbor, Mexico, has a population of 115 million.  Because their homicide rate was twice as high as ours at the start of the decade and is now over four times as high, they have over twice as many homicides as we do, 27,000 last year.

Homicide Statistics

The rate in the UK was one third as high as ours, about the same as Canada’s, at the start of the decade and is now only a quarter.  China’s rate is about the same as the UK’s and has dropped in the same way.  Switzerland has a much lower rate, around one seventh of ours.  Japan has by far the lowest.  It is stable at around one tenth of ours per capita.

How about homicides specifically by firearms?  Are the rates of  those homicides correlated with gun ownership, religious practice or video game spending?  The following table combines statistics from several well respected sources.  The data are not all from the same year (the range is 2007 to 2011) and the number who practice religion is self-reported census data so it should be taken with a grain of salt.  Nonetheless, the data are dependable enough to support some conclusions.  One thing that stands out is our very high rate of homicides by firearm, almost 300 times as high as the rate in Japan.

Firearm Homicides

Our rate of firearm ownership is also by far the highest.  Our 270,000 thousand firearms in civilian possession means we have almost 90% as many firearms as people.  The most interesting statistic in this column is Switzerland’s 46% rate.  Switzerland has no standing army, only a peoples’ militia for its national defense, the vast majority of men between the ages of 20 and 30 undergo military training, including weapons training, and their weapons are kept at home as part of their military obligations.  Their gun ownership rate is half ours, their percentage of homicides by firearm is similar to ours, but their firearm homicide rate is one quarter of ours.  Even so, it is twice as high as Canada’s and enormously higher than the rates in the UK and Japan.

These firearm-related statistics show that a higher rate of gun ownership is correlated with a higher percentage of homicides by firearm and that tighter gun control legislation, e.g., Switzerland’s vs ours, leads to a relatively lower rate.  The first table shows that there is from country to country a much wider range of homicides by all causes.  The rate in Mexico, for example, is 40 to 50 times as high as in Japan while ours is 10 times as high.   Those big differences must result from a combination of situational and cultural factors.  Criminalization of our insatiable appetite for drugs, for example, which makes smuggling so profitable, is one cause of Mexico’s violence.

Is religious instruction a way to reduce violence?  The statistics say otherwise.  Two thirds of Americans report themselves as religious practitioners, significantly more than other countries.  Only 29% of Japanese identify themselves as followers of a religion despite their very low homicide rate.

Violent video games and movies are also blamed but again the statistics say otherwise.  The nations with the lowest firearm homicide rates, Japan and the UK, are among the highest spenders on video games.

So what does the data suggest we should do?  While the data tells us we cannot eliminate homicide, we know we can eliminate the kind of homicide in my home town last week by banning civilian possession of automatic weapons, the only weapons making that kind of massacre possible.  As noted in my previous post, the writers of the 2nd Amendment gave us the right to bear the arms of their time, single shot firearms.  They did not intend for civilians to have grenades or automatic firearms.  We don’t claim a right to bear grenades.  We should not claim a right to bear other such weaponry.

The second table shows a clear correlation between the number of firearms in civilian hands and the rate of homicides by firearms.  While Switzerland’s overall homicide rate is lower than relatively peaceful China, Canada and the UK, a high percentage of them is by firearms.  Only Japan has a significantly lower overall homicide rate than Switzerland.  This says we could significantly cut our overall homicide rate by implementing tougher gun control as Switzerland does, and cut it even more with stricter control as in Japan.  More religion or less video games are not indicated.  Better mental healthcare is indicated although I have not assembled the stats.

Statistics alone can not show us how to cut our homicide rate tenfold or even further.  They give us a first answer to “why do these things happen and what can we do?” but shed no light on the root cause of homicide.  Why, for example, do so many of us feel the need for weapons?  My Swedish classmate Peter asks us about Buddhist practitioners who, when they go alone deep into the jungle to meditate, take a weapon.  “What if I’m attacked by a robber or a bear” they think?  They hope their meditation practice will in the end remove the cause of their fears.  They expect their fear of attack while meditating will make it less effective and hope a weapon in the meantime will help them focus.  More dramatically, my American friend Sean pretends to propose a Federal program to arm every schoolchild with an automatic weapon for self-defense.  We can (I hope)  all agree that would be a crazy response to our fears.  Maybe we can reflect and find some of our own crazy ideas that make us all vulnerable to causing violence.

But we can in any case see what to do to make an immediate big difference.  We must update our approach to gun control.  With well written and well enforced legislation we could eliminate the Newtown type of massacre altogether and cut our overall homicide rate by at least half.  There is no benefit to society in not doing that.