I do hate how guttersnipes mistake self-righteous cynicism for irony – but I suppose everything looks palatable from the sewers. In today’s Observer, Henry Porter argues that gun-flared violence in the United States is so rampant that it must forfeit its national sovereignty to the international community – if, of course, it is justified in Syria. He informs us:
After the celebrated Liebeck v McDonald’s case in 1994, involving a woman who suffered third-degree burns to her thighs, Starbucks complies with the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s recommendation that drinks should be served at a maximum temperature of 82C.
Although it was brave of Howard Schultz, the company’s chief executive, to go even this far in a country where people are better armed and only slightly less nervy than rebel fighters in Syria, we should note that dealing with the risks of scalding and secondary smoke came well before addressing the problem of people who go armed to buy a latte. There can be no weirder order of priorities on this planet.
That’s America, we say, as news of the latest massacre breaks – last week it was the slaughter of 12 people by Aaron Alexis at Washington DC’s navy yard – and move on. But what if we no longer thought of this as just a problem for America and, instead, viewed it as an international humanitarian crisis – a quasi civil war, if you like, that calls for outside intervention? As citizens of the world, perhaps we should demand an end to the unimaginable suffering of victims and their families – the maiming and killing of children – just as America does in every new civil conflict around the globe.
A few trivial points of interest:
- On the figures: the current annual death toll from firearms is indeed 32,000, but just under 20,000 are suicides with a further number whose cause is either undetermined or unintentional. That makes for 11,000 firearm-caused homicides or about a fiftieth of the rate in Syria.
- The murders share no ideology in the US; in Syria, they are designed to prop up a crime family.
- The US has the resources to end its violence. Its federal government spends around $69 billion on domestic security to prevent and punish these crimes; the Syrian regime commits them on a scale as great as its resources will allow.
- Consequently that crime family gasses children; the US, for all its previous faults, is condemned by the likes of Porter for slowly seeking to extend justice to Assad’s regime.
But Porter’s comparison is a bit of sick narcissism, uninterested in the most blatant of facts. Deaths only matter if in attacking them he can cater to the tale of British cultural sophistication and its sense of moral superiority, betraying as he does so its most celebrated pretense: an understanding of irony. Orwell knows it just a tad better: “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”
Gun control laws are severely needed in the US. Since the Second Amendment does not – and cannot – specify the type of weapons that civilians can own, and that short of missiles there would be no way that they could seriously fight back to a potential US government or a force capable of overthrowing it, there’s logic to controls that would reduce the homicide rate without threatening the principle to self-defence. And it could work – following the tepid rules introduced in 1996, it declined by a third.
If there is cause for “intervention”, a term which Porter dryly mocks, this is it: force of argument, reason and persuasion. Unlike Syria, the US has a democratic process, however flawed – which means that, ultimately, these are decisions for the American people and its political representatives. If Porter does not see the moral and intellectual importance of such a distinction, his career is a waste.
One does not need to agree with intervention in Syria to see that the days of Cowboys and Indians are rather long gone.
In his plea to look serious, Obama has would-a-been Presidents rallying to his cause. First, McCain appears on Fox News to put down its obligatory anti-Muslim bigotry currently masquerading as counter-jihadism:
(With thanks to Harry’s Place.)
Second, John Kerry has been speaking – some words so blunt one has to question whether Obama approved them – against what he feared to be the lingering political undercurrent of “armchair isolationism”:
“This is not the time for armchair isolationism. This is not the time to be spectators to a slaughter,” Mr Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“Neither our country nor our conscience can afford the cost of silence.
“We have spoken up against unspeakable horror. Now we must stand up and act.”
Mr Kerry made an impassioned case for punitive strikes against Syria over its alleged use of chemical weapons after President Barack Obama put off military action to first ask Congress for approval.
What Kerry calls “armchair isolationism” is quite important: it requires no effort on the part of the person sitting in the armchair, making it much more effective than the “armchair general” metaphor that reactionaries like to jump on.
It goes rather well with what Daniel Finkelstein has called in his blog the tendency of an “omission bias” where we instinctively presume that doing nothing is better than doing something, if the outcomes are uncertain:
Basketball referees are taught that there are four types of calls — correct calls, incorrect calls, correct non-calls and incorrect non-calls. It is better to make a correct call than an incorrect one, obviously. And if you fail to call an infringement when you should, you will be criticised.
But every referee knows that it is far better to make such an omission than to make a call in the dying moments of a game and be wrong. So what happens? In sport after sport, the referees blow their whistles far more in the earlier parts of the game than in the closing stages, thus penalising those infringed against. Omission bias.
Yesterday morning the Conservative MP Adam Holloway, opposed to taking action in Syria, provided as his chief argument that the outcome of intervention was impossible to predict. And he is quite right. In fact, he pierced to the heart of almost every foreign policy dilemma. The outcome of action is always hard to predict.
Kerry has had a morally dubious edge in his history, of course, having once boasted for shooting a member of the Viet Cong from the riverbank. As if that were not rather distasteful in itself, this would feature in the same presidency campaign he ran based on a platform of opposition to the Iraq war. I have seen people oppose both wars; I have seen others support the overthrow of Saddam but remain horrified at the prospect of napalm in the jungle. Kerry’s revisionism was more the twisting of rotten carcass than a breath of fresh air, his trade-off between principle and populism outperforming even Ed Miliband.
All the same – swiftly navigating away from that tangent – it’s encouraging to see that both the left and right of American politics seem willing to confront Assad. It seems that McCain will have advised the President on more than he did to the Senate, whom he recommended vote for action principally to maintain American credibility. Elsewhere, he has been more willing to emphases the need for a Syrian policy against Assad as necessarily being concomitant with an active one to support the more moderate rebels facing off terrorist groups.
In a way, it’s a long overdue slap down to the old Kissinger-esque assumption that a foreign policy of humanitarianism cannot also be one of realpolitik pragmatism. McCain, and to a lesser extent Kerry, have recognised that a war against sectarian jihadists satisfies both outlooks.