Killing is our business

Correction, June 13, 2016, 08:22: There is apparently some uncertainty surrounding the precise toll in the Orlando attack. I originally drew a death toll of 51 from the Wall Street Journal headline; the story has since been quietly modified to reflect a toll of 49.[1] This post has been modified accordingly.

Update, June 13, 2016: 09:06: A CNN story clarifies that a previously reported death toll of 50 “had included the gunman.”[2]


Reacting to yet another mass shooting, this time at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, which the dominant narrative has labeled “[t]he deadliest shooting attack in U.S. history,”[3] Lauren Chief Elk posted on Twitter,

The mass shooting in Orlando claimed at least 49 lives.[5] Of the massacre of already-captured American Indians at Wounded Knee, “[o]ne estimate placed the final total of dead at very nearly three hundred of the original 350 men, women, and children.”[6] In another massacre, at Sand Creek of Indians who had already surrendered, “105 Indian women and children and 28 men were dead.”[7] These killings barely scratch the surface of a 500-year long (some say it is still ongoing) war on American Indians that was (and is) surely genocidal.[8] So, yes, I have to wonder what American Indians think of the Orlando killing being labeled the worst in U.S. history.[9]

But of course, when we count what we’ve done in other countries, the story gets much worse. We killed at least a half million people in the Iraq War,[10] and at least 100,000 more, especially children, in the sanctions that preceded it.[11] The latter deaths came back to haunt us: In rationalizing the 9/11 attacks, Osama bin Laden told an interviewer that “[m]ore than 1 million children, more than 1 million children died in Iraq and others are still dying.”[12] And yet the killing goes on; our drone attacks kill many more civilians than we admit[13] and these attacks are almost certainly war crimes.[14]

For all it’s high-sounding words, the United States remains “the only country that ever used their nuclear weapons.”[15] Juan Cole criticizes the U.S. for its hypocrisy in “imposing sanctions on Iran for a civilian energy program when it [the U.S.] is the only country to have dropped atomic bombs on cities full of innocent non-combatants.”[16]

We should not be surprised, then, that the gunman in the Orlando shooting, “Omar S. Mateen, claimed allegiance to Islamic State in a phone call to 911.”[17] But of course we are. We have lived by the sword, we refuse even to be remotely sensible about guns within the country,[18] the mass shootings are good for business,[19] and even a series of mass shootings[20] has failed to change our policies. As of August of last year (2015), the Fatal Encounters web site counts 11,447 deaths in encounters with law enforcement since 2000—and there may be many more.[21] As the Reverend Jeremiah Wright said of the 9/11 attacks, “America’s chickens are coming home to roost.”[22]

But even this is insufficient to describe our orgy of violence:

Structural violence usually has the effect of denying people important rights, such as economic well-being; social, political, and sexual equality; a sense of personal fulfillment and self-worth; and so on. When people starve to death, or even go hungry, a kind of violence is taking place. Similarly, when humans suffer from diseases that are preventable, when they are denied decent education, affordable housing, opportunities to work, play, raise a family, and freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, a kind of violence is occurring, even if no bullets are shot or clubs wielded. A society commits violence against its members when it forcibly stunts their development and undermines their well-being, whether because of religion, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual preference, or some other social reason. Structural violence is a serious form of social oppression. And it is regrettably widespread and often unacknowledged.[23]

It is impossible to know how many people the neoliberal economic policy we advocate (it’s called the “Washington Consensus”) has killed. That it has driven people to such desperation that they commit suicide, however, is beyond doubt.[24] As David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu write, “The correlation between unemployment and suicide has been observed since the 19th century. People looking for work are about twice as likely to end their lives as those who have jobs.”[25] Further, they write,

To test our hypothesis that austerity is deadly, we’ve analyzed data from other regions and eras. After the Soviet Union dissolved, in 1991, Russia’s economy collapsed. Poverty soared and life expectancy dropped, particularly among young, working-age men. But this did not occur everywhere in the former Soviet sphere. Russia, Kazakhstan and the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) — which adopted economic “shock therapy” programs advocated by economists like Jeffrey D. Sachs and Lawrence H. Summers — experienced the worst rises in suicides, heart attacks and alcohol-related deaths.[26]

In another article, Stuckler and Basu tell the story of a British man who “had a stroke, which left him paralyzed on his left side, blind in one eye, and unable to speak.” He signed up for disability but the neoliberal regime found him “fit for work” the day before “he collapsed and died.”[27]

Of course we claim to value human life. We express outrage when, as with the Orlando mass shooting, people are so visibly killed. But we continue about our business as people die less visibly in vast numbers. And whether the deaths are visible or not, policy remains unchanged; the killing goes on.

  1. [1]Valerie Bauerlein, Cameron McWhirter, and Scott Calvert, “Terror Shooting at Gay Nightclub in Orlando Leaves at Least 49 Dead, 53 Wounded,” Wall Street Journal, June 12, 2016, http://www.wsj.com/articles/orlando-nightclub-hit-by-shooting-causing-multiple-injuries-1465720691
  2. [2]Ashley Fantz, Faith Karimi, Eliott C. McLaughlin, and Tim Hume, “Orlando shooting: All but one victim identified, officials say,” CNN, June 13, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/06/13/us/orlando-nightclub-shooting/index.html
  3. [3]Valerie Bauerlein, Cameron McWhirter, and Scott Calvert, “Terror Shooting at Gay Nightclub in Orlando Leaves 51 Dead, 53 Wounded,” Wall Street Journal, June 12, 2016, http://www.wsj.com/articles/orlando-nightclub-hit-by-shooting-causing-multiple-injuries-1465720691
  4. [4]Lauren Chief Elk, [microblog post], Twitter, June 12, 2016,
  5. [5]Valerie Bauerlein, Cameron McWhirter, and Scott Calvert, “Terror Shooting at Gay Nightclub in Orlando Leaves 51 Dead, 53 Wounded,” Wall Street Journal, June 12, 2016, http://www.wsj.com/articles/orlando-nightclub-hit-by-shooting-causing-multiple-injuries-1465720691
  6. [6]Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, (New York: Henry Holt, 2001), 444.
  7. [7]Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, (New York: Henry Holt, 2001), 91.
  8. [8]Colleen Flaherty, “Not Up for Debate?” Inside Higher Ed, September 15, 2015, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/09/15/sacramento-state-student-says-she-was-kicked-out-class-arguing-native-americans-were
  9. [9]Valerie Bauerlein, Cameron McWhirter, and Scott Calvert, “Terror Shooting at Gay Nightclub in Orlando Leaves 51 Dead, 53 Wounded,” Wall Street Journal, June 12, 2016, http://www.wsj.com/articles/orlando-nightclub-hit-by-shooting-causing-multiple-injuries-1465720691
  10. [10]Joseph Brownstein, “Iraq war claimed half a million lives, study finds,” Al Jazeera, October 15, 2013, http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2013/10/15/iraq-war-civiliandeathtoll500knewstudyestimates.html; Les Roberts, Riyadh Lafta, Richard Garfield, Jamal Khudhairi, and Gilbert Burnham, “Mortality before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: cluster sample survey,” Lancet 364, no. 9448, doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(04)17441-2
  11. [11]Mohamed M. Ali and Iqbal H. Shah, “Sanctions and childhood mortality in Iraq,” Lancet 355, no. 9218, doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(00)02289-3
  12. [12]CNN, “Transcript of Bin Laden’s October interview,” February 5, 2002, http://archives.cnn.com/2002/WORLD/asiapcf/south/02/05/binladen.transcript/index.html
  13. [13]Rupert Cornwell, “Pakistani family gives Congress an unprecedented account of effect of CIA drone attacks on their community,” Independent, October 29, 2013, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/pakistani-family-gives-congress-an-unprecedented-account-of-effect-of-cia-drone-attacks-on-their-8911587.htm; Michael Isikoff, “US has killed far more civilians with drones than it admits, says UN,” NBC News, October 17, 2013, http://investigations.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/10/17/21009870-us-has-killed-far-more-civilians-with-drones-than-it-admits-says-un; Rania Khalek, “Drone Victims Tell Empty US House Their Story; Is America Listening?” Truthout, November 1, 2013, http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/19751-drone-strike-victims-tell-their-story-but-is-america-listening; Jonathan S. Landay, “Obama’s drone war kills ‘others,’ not just al Qaida leaders,” McClatchy, April 9, 2013, http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2013/04/09/188062/obamas-drone-war-kills-others.html; Heather Linebaugh, “I worked on the US drone program. The public should know what really goes on,” Guardian, December 29, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/29/drones-us-military; Mark Schone, “White House admits killing civilians with drone strikes, denies breaking law,” NBC News, October 22, 2013, http://investigations.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/10/22/21065224-white-house-admits-killing-civilians-with-drone-strikes-denies-breaking-law; Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Ben Emmerson, United Nations Human Rights Council Rep. No. A/HRC/25/59 (link is external) (2014); Declan Walsh and Ihsanullah Tipu Mehsud, “Civilian Deaths in Drone Strikes Cited in Report,” New York Times, October 22, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/22/world/asia/civilian-deaths-in-drone-strikes-cited-in-report.html
  14. [14]Jon Boone, “US drone strikes could be classed as war crimes, says Amnesty International,” Guardian, October 21, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/22/amnesty-us-officials-war-crimes-drones
  15. [15]Democracy Now! “Obama Promised a “World Without Nuclear Weapons,” But May Now Spend $1 Trillion on Upgrades,” October 26, 2014, http://www.democracynow.org/2014/10/24/obama_promised_a_world_without_nuclear
  16. [16]Juan Cole, “CNN, John Kerry falsely try to tie Iran to North Korea Nuclear Crisis,” Informed Comment, April 11, 2013, http://www.juancole.com/2013/04/falsely-nuclear-crisis.html
  17. [17]Valerie Bauerlein, Cameron McWhirter, and Scott Calvert, “Terror Shooting at Gay Nightclub in Orlando Leaves 51 Dead, 53 Wounded,” Wall Street Journal, June 12, 2016, http://www.wsj.com/articles/orlando-nightclub-hit-by-shooting-causing-multiple-injuries-1465720691
  18. [18]John Dickerson, “Why Obama Couldn’t Turn 90 Percent Into 60 Votes,” Slate, April 22, 2013, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2013/04/barack_obama_s_gun_bill_failure_no_president_could_have_passed_gun_control.html; Charles Simic, “Shooting Our Way to Safety,” New York Review of Books, May 15, 2013, http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2013/may/15/shooting-our-way-to-safety/; Adam Weinstein, “How the NRA and Its Allies Helped Spread a Radical Gun Law Nationwide,” Mother Jones, June 7, 2012, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/06/nra-alec-stand-your-ground
  19. [19]Lee Fang, “Gun Industry Executives Say Mass Shootings Are Good for Business,” Intercept, December 3, 2015, https://theintercept.com/2015/12/03/mass-shooting-wall-st/
  20. [20]German Lopez, “Gun violence in America, in 17 maps and charts,” Vox, June 12, 2016, http://www.vox.com/2015/8/24/9183525/gun-violence-statistics
  21. [21]Fatal Encounters, “Visualizations,” August 16, 2015, http://www.fatalencounters.org/our-visualizations/
  22. [22]Jeremiah Wright, quoted in Lynn Sweet, “Wright at the National Press Club, April 28, 2008. Transcript,” Chicago Sun-Times, April 28, 2008, http://blogs.suntimes.com/sweet/2008/04/wright_at_the_national_press_c.html
  23. [23]David P. Barash and Charles P. Webel, Peace and Conflict Studies (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2002), 7.
  24. [24]Nikolia Apostolou, “Athens suicide: a cry for dignity from downtrodden,” Christian Science Monitor, April 5, 2012, http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Europe/2012/0405/Athens-suicide-a-cry-for-dignity-from-downtrodden-video; Teo Kermeliotis, “Austerity drives up suicide rate in debt-ridden Greece,” CNN, April 6, 2012, http://www.cnn.com/2012/04/06/world/europe/greece-austerity-suicide/index.html; Nigel Morris, “Spike in suicide rate in Europe and US linked to financial crisis,” Independent, September 18, 2013, http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/spike-in-suicide-rate-in-europe-and-us-linked-to-financial-crisis-8822729.html; Barbie Latza Nadeau, “Debt Most Deadly: Recession and Austerity Fuel Suicide in Italy,” Newsweek, June 18, 2012, http://mag.newsweek.com/2012/06/17/debt-most-deadly-recession-and-austerity-fuel-suicide-in-italy.html; Lynn Stuart Parramore, “Crisis to Suicide: How Many Have to Die Before We Kill the False Religion of Austerity?” Alternet, April 16, 2012, http://www.alternet.org/story/155012/crisis_to_suicide%3A_how_many_have_to_die_before_we_kill_the_false_religion_of_austerity; Yves Smith [Susan Webber], “Austerity Kills: Economic Distress Seen as Culprit in Sharp Rise in Suicide Rate Among Middle Aged,” Naked Capitalism, March 1, 2015, http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2015/03/austerity-kills-economic-distress-seen-culprit-sharp-rise-suicide-rate-among-middle-aged.html
  25. [25]David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu, “How Austerity Kills,” New York Times, May 12, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/13/opinion/how-austerity-kills.html
  26. [26]David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu, “How Austerity Kills,” New York Times, May 12, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/13/opinion/how-austerity-kills.html
  27. [27]David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu, “Paul Krugman’s right: Austerity kills,” Salon, May 19, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/05/19/paul_krugmans_right_austerity_kills/

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