The routine acceptance of killing

There was yet another mass killing a few days ago, this time on a small community college campus in a small town in Oregon.[1] President Obama, noting he’d given many speeches on mass killings since becoming president, lamented “the [routine] response of those who oppose any kind of common-sense gun legislation. Right now,” Obama said, he “can imagine the press releases being cranked out: We need more guns, they’ll argue. Fewer gun safety laws.”[2]

A couple days later, it was almost certainly Obama’s forces in Afghanistan who bombed a hospital.[3] Medecins Sans Frontieres, which ran the hospital “demanded an independent international inquiry into . . . [the] strike that killed 22 people, branding the attack a ‘war crime’.” “President Barack Obama offered condolences on Saturday to the victims of what he called ‘the tragic incident’,”[4] but the U.S. military, which was conducting air attacks in the immediate area, has not accepted responsibility.[5] (Update, October 7, 2015: The United States has now accepted responsibility for the strike, with Obama apologizing to the president of Medecins Sans Frontieres[6] and the U.S. commander in Afghanistan reported to “believ[e] that United States troops probably did not follow their own rules in calling in the airstrike.”[7])

The Times of Israel reports that unspecified Palestinian sources say “[a] 13-year-old Palestinian was killed Monday [October 5] afternoon during a clash between protesters and Israeli security forces in the Aida refugee camp near the West Bank town of Bethlehem.” The Israel Defense Forces, which enjoy substantial backing in multiple forms from the United States, “said troops were attacked by Palestinian stone throwers in a violent demonstration. A second Palestinian was reported moderately injured in the same clash.” We might notice how the Times shifts blame onto the boy for his own death with an implication that he may have been involved in apparently widespread Palestinian rioting—which it casually dubs ‘terrorism’: “Thousands of Israelis were expected to protest outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem . . . against what they believe is insufficient government action in the face of rising terrorism.”[8]

Also today, California governor Jerry Brown “signed a measure [into law] allowing physicians to prescribe lethal doses of drugs to terminally ill patients who want to hasten their deaths.” The Los Angeles Times describes the governor as “[c]aught between conflicting moral arguments” and as having made what “appeared to be a gut-wrenching decision”[9]

All of these stories are about death. Three of them are about entirely routine violence and the deprivation of personal autonomy. In two of these stories, governments are directly responsible for the violence, and in another, the U.S. government’s failure to pass what Obama called “any kind of common-sense gun legislation” might be taken as complicity. Indeed, as Obama noted, “[t]his is a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America.”[10] Whatever. We can safely expect that little or no substantial action will be taken to stop the violence in any of these three stories.

Only one of these stories is about the affirmation of personal autonomy, a dying patient’s desire to end his or her agony. Brown signed a bill that had to overcome considerable institutional opposition and which passed only “after 29-year-old Californian Brittany Maynard, who was dying of brain cancer, moved to Oregon so she could take her own life as allowed by that state’s end-of-life law.” The irony is that the state had to act in order to grant patients even this narrowly constricted autonomy—”physicians [will be allowed] to provide lethal prescriptions to mentally competent adults who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness and face the expectation that they will die within six months”—that it had previously withheld.[11]

Except that it isn’t so ironic. Politicians explicitly or implicitly claim ownership over human lives and may or may not act to take those lives or to protect them. This was explicit with the military draft, for which young men must still register over forty years after the draft itself was ended. It is also explicit when the state asserts control over women’s bodies, limiting their access to abortions in the name of protecting zygotes—so-called unborn “children.” Finally, it is explicit with the profoundly flawed criminal injustice system, with its death penalty and its individually and socially devastating practices of incarceration.[12] Which is to say that in no account should the U.S. political system be considered to act out of respect for life. It acts rather in authoritarian control of life.

Economic authority does this as well, devaluing—and remaining unchallenged in its authority to devalue—the vast majority of lives with low pay and often abysmal working conditions in favor of a few very wealthy, highly-valued lives.[13] Yet apparently, it’s something of a surprise that a considerable segment of the U.S. public is fed up and refusing to support ‘safe’ establishment candidates such as Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton.[14] Apparently, Bush’s support has now dropped to four percent.[15] Clinton has taken notice, but in addition to her email scandal, can’t extricate herself from her reliance on Wall Street support,[16] even as Bernie Sanders begins to match her in fundraising.[17]

Of course, the establishment has nothing really to fear as long as voters continue to succumb to the two-party system, which constrains debate[18] even as governments fail to anywhere nearly adequately address existential threats to human survival.[19] It might just be that our extinction follows because we don’t even sufficiently value our own lives.

  1. [1]Sara Sidner et al., “Oregon shooting: Gunman was student in class where he killed 9,” CNN, October 2, 2015,
  2. [2]Barack Obama, “Statement by the President on the Shootings at Umpqua Community College, Roseburg, Oregon,” White House, October 1, 2015,
  3. [3]Alissa J. Rubin, “Airstrike Hits Doctors Without Borders Hospital in Afghanistan,” New York Times, October 3, 2015,
  4. [4]Mirwais Harooni and Andrew MacAskill, “Medical charity MSF demands independent probe into strike on Afghan hospital,” Reuters, October 4, 2015,
  5. [5]Alissa J. Rubin, “Airstrike Hits Doctors Without Borders Hospital in Afghanistan,” New York Times, October 3, 2015,
  6. [6]Michael D. Shear, “Obama Apologizes for Bombing of Doctors Without Borders Hospital in Afghanistan,” New York Times, October 7, 2015,
  7. [7]Eric Schmitt and Matthew Rosenberg, “General Is Said to Think Afghan Hospital Airstrike Broke U.S. Rules,” New York Times, October 6, 2015,
  8. [8]Times of Israel, “Palestinian boy said killed in latest West Bank clashes,” October 5, 2015,
  9. [9]Patrick McGreevy, “Gov. Brown signs controversial assisted-suicide bill,” Los Angeles Times, October 5, 2015,
  10. [10]Barack Obama, “Statement by the President on the Shootings at Umpqua Community College, Roseburg, Oregon,” White House, October 1, 2015,
  11. [11]Patrick McGreevy, “Gov. Brown signs controversial assisted-suicide bill,” Los Angeles Times, October 5, 2015,
  12. [12]Ernest Drucker, A Plague of Prisons: The Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration in America (New York: New, 2011); Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004); Dan Simon, In Doubt: The Psychology of the Criminal Justice Process (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2012).
  13. [13]David Benfell, “An ‘advanced’ economic system,” Not Housebroken, September 10, 2015,; David Benfell, “Positivist and capitalist moral hazard,” Not Housebroken, September 16, 2015,
  14. [14]Chris Cillizza, “Democrats are WAY angrier than Republicans about the political system,” Washington Post, September 29, 2015,; Patrick Healy, “Democrats Find That Anti-Establishment Isn’t Just a G.O.P. Theme,” New York Times, October 3, 2015,; Janet Hook, “Voters’ Mood: Surly Side Up, With a Side of Optimism, Poll Shows,” Wall Street Journal, October 1, 2015,; Robert Reich, “The Revolt Against the Ruling Class,” August 2, 2015,
  15. [15]Caitlin Cruz, “Jeb Tumbles To 4 Percent And Trump Holds Big Lead In Pew Research Poll,” Talking Points Memo, October 2, 2015,
  16. [16]Jesse Hamilton and Cheyenne Hopkins, “Hillary Clinton Lets Big Banks Off the Hook for Financial Crisis,” Bloomberg, October 2, 2015,
  17. [17]Eugene Robinson, “The rock-star appeal of Bernie Sanders,” Washington Post, October 1, 2015,
  18. [18]Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present (New York: HarperPerennial, 2005).
  19. [19]Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “‘Doomsday Clock’ minute hand to move again?” January 21, 2015,; Edward “Rocky” Kolb et al., “Three minutes and counting,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 19, 2015,; Mark McDonald, “U.N. Report from Rio on Environment a ‘Suicide Note’,” New York Times, June 24, 2012,; Arthur Neslen and Karl Mathiesen, “Paris climate pledges ‘will only delay dangerous warming by two years’,” Guardian, June 3, 2015,; Eugene Robinson, “Our politicians are flunking the vision test,” Washington Post, November 3, 2014,; Rachel Roubein, “Doomsday Clock one minute closer to doom,” McClatchy, January 10, 2012,; Roberto Savio, “The Future of the Planet and the Irresponsibility of Governments,” InterPress Service, November 21, 2014,; Roberto Savio, “The Sad Future of Our Planet,” InterPress Service, December 15, 2014,; Robert Socolow et al., “An open letter to President Obama: The time on the Doomsday Clock is five minutes to midnight,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 14, 2013,

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.