Feb 08

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2015: Police Shootings", please click here.

Also, we have a ton of thoughts on Lt. Col. David Grossman’s “Sheep, Sheepdogs and Wolves” analogy. To read the entire series, please click here.)

Before we started writing this series, I thought about the cops that I knew. For me--probably not Michael C--writing about cops felt a lot more personal than writing about soldiers. Our family knows a lot of police officers. Yes, obviously Michael and I know a lot of soldiers, but usually with the military, you can blame policy, politicians or officers for most problems. Writing about police shootings--or more accurately, blaming the police for excessive force, unaccountable killings and unjust practices that encourage and promote racial disparity--feels more personal. It feels like we’re blaming them personally.

So I got to thinking about the cops I knew. They’re good people, right? I believe they are. But as the police shootings kept mounting--or for me personally, seeing the video of the Walter Scott shooting--I couldn’t escape the conclusion: some cops are bad cops.

And then it hit me. I was getting close to reusing Grossman’s analogy about “wolves, sheep and sheepdogs” that we spent a lot of time on last year. (Click here and here for some background on this misleading analogy.) Basically, this simplistic analysis is used by some police officers and soldiers to divide the world into three groups: bad people like terrorists and criminals (“wolves”), the good people  who use violence to stop the wolves (glowingly described as “sheepdogs”), and those good people who disdain violence (insultingly dubbed “sheep”).

Unlike last year, I don’t want to keep bashing Grossman’s illogical analogy. In fact, I think it is actually instructive (in a few limited ways) in understanding and stopping police shootings.

Obviously there are some bad cops. (Unlike Grossman, we don’t believe joining the military or police automatically makes you a good person or a “sheepdog”.) So, if you assume that some police officers are sheepdogs (good cops) and some are wolves (bad cops), how do you tell them apart? Easy. Look at their behavior. In far too many police shootings, the shooters had dismal records of over-using force:

- Look at the Laquan McDonald shooting. Officer Van Dyke--the officer who shot McDonald and now faces murder charges--had 18 complaints filed against him.

- Or the shooting of John Crawford III at a WalMart. According to CNN and a federal lawsuit by Crawford’s family, “...Officer Sean C. Williams, who is also ‘involved in the only other fatal police shooting in the history of the Beavercreek Police Department,’ according to the lawsuit.” So one police officer accounts for both shootings in one police department’s history? Unlikely.

- Or Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer who choked Eric Garner to death using an illegal police tactic, had been sued three times for misconduct.

- Michael Slager, who shot and then lied about shooting Walter Scott, had three complaints for use of excessive force.

- The city of Cleveland had to settle an excessive force lawsuit brought by citizens against Frank Garmback, one of the police officers who shot Tamir Rice.

Not all cops are bad, but some are. We can look at their records and dismiss the bad cops (wolves) preemptively. Even Grossman agrees with this, as he wrote, “the sheepdog must not, cannot and will not ever harm the sheep. Any sheepdog who intentionally harms the lowliest little lamb will be punished and removed. The world cannot work any other way, at least not in a representative democracy or a republic such as ours.”

Alas, this is not what happens.

How do too many good cops (sheepdogs) deal with bad cops? By doing nothing. Police officers are almost never convicted of killing civilians. We pointed out five different examples in a post last year of DAs and police departments ignoring allegations of abuse.

Of the police officers above, the officers who killed Tamir Rice, John Crawford III and Eric Garner received no punishment, as grand juries declined to indict the officers. The police officer who shot Tamir Rice wasn’t questioned until over six months after the shooting, and only had charges filed after video of the shooting became public. If Michael Slager is convicted, he’d be the first officer in five years in South Carolina.

Even worse than all of this looking the other way--for both excessive force complaints and questionable shootings--is when sheepdogs also cover up the crimes of the wolves in their midst.

In the case of Laquan McDonald, the Chicago Police Department intimidated witnesses into silence, according to reports from the family. And police officers lied, “...In reports to internal investigators, the other officers either corroborated his story or said that they hadn’t seen what happened. One said that she had been looking down and missed the whole thing.” And then the police department refused to release the tape of the shooting to the public to conceal what had happened.

The good sheepdogs of Chicago tried to specifically protect a wolf in their midst. So much for sheepdogs being “punished and removed” for the sake of our democracy.

I don’t believe all cops are evil. I don’t believe they should be vilified. But I do believe they need to be criticized for working in and protecting a system that shields all cops from punishment, without differentiating the good cops from the bad, or at least trying to. It’s the police officers in New York who, feeling like they’re under attack, protest after their fellow officers choke a man to death for selling loose cigarettes.

The problem, hate to paraphrase a quote-behaving-badly, is sheepdogs doing nothing about the wolves in their midst, who let a broken system remain broken. I would hope that the police officers I know can at least agree on that.

Aug 20

(Though many don’t want to believe it, the world is getting safer. There will be an end to war, someday, if the world works towards it. To read the rest of our posts on “The World is Getting Safer”, click here.)

After two vigorous opening arguments to our debate, “Does America Make the World Safer?”, we have our rebuttals.

Eric C Rebuttal

The main argument Michael C put forth is that a wide variety of traditionally liberal (in foreign policy terms) policies have made the world safer, including establishing international norms and treaties, a rise in the number of democracies around the world, and free trade. And yes, America has traditionally supported those developments, if not outright invented them in the modern era. Or as he wrote “[America] has been the single largest supporter for international relations liberalism.”

Actually, that’s not the case.

Those changes would probably have happened independent of America. Even China, leading its fellow BRIC nations, is creating its own version of the International Monetary Fund. Instead, America pushes back against these trends, supporting dictatorships and opposing treaties. Outside of encouraging free trade--for all the wrong reasons, I might add--America does not make the world safer.

Most importantly, Americans believe they are above international norms. We flouted the Geneva conventions after 9/11. Our politicians bash the UN. We support dictators, when convenient. We barely approve treaties. This doesn’t mean we can’t get better, but it doesn’t mean we are making the world safer.

And he didn’t address the other huge issues I brought up: America is the most violent developed country in the world. Our murder rate is an embarrassment, and this is directly connected to our domestic issues like gun rights, a punitive not rehabilitative justice system, and economic inequality.

Internationally and domestically, right now, America is not making the world a safer place because we reject the policies that make it safer.

Michael C Rebuttal

Eric C and I looked at the data for the last 15 years--the massive decline in war--and drew the conclusion that the world is indeed getting safer.

But how can you look at those 15 years and not see the U.S. as widely involved in all the factors causing that decline? The collapse of the Soviet Union and the consequent victory of the Western (mostly United States) vision of modern civilization helped drive that decline. Yes, the world would be less violent if the U.S. hadn’t started a war in Iraq, but that doesn’t make the world less safe because the U.S. is in it.

Further, this motion isn’t, “Could America be even better?” because of course it could. The motion isn’t, “Has America caused violence around the world?” If Eric C just had to point out a single bad American action, then yes he would win in a landslide. But Eric C has created an impossible standard. For America to win, under his terms, it would have to be perfect.

But the debate is about the balance. On the whole, adding up all the good and subtracting all the bad, does America make the world a safer place? I would say it absolutely does. It spends money to help developing nations, its economy drives the world closer together, and even its military has fought dictators. So yes, America is making the world safer.

If you would like to respond to the prompt, send us an email at info at On Violence dot com.

Jul 29

(Though many don’t want to believe it, the world is getting safer. There will be an end to war, someday, if the world works towards it. To read the rest of our posts on “The World is Getting Safer”, click here.

This week and next, we’re debating the motion: America Makes the World a Safer Place. Below is Michael C’s argument for the motion.)

Let me get a counter-argument out of the way. I don’t think that American military expenditures make the world safer because America provides global security “for a dangerous world”. The idea that American hegemony provides security just doesn’t jive with the evidence. We aren’t making the world safer through military expenditure or military invasions.


But I still think America makes the world safer, on the whole, because it has been the single largest supporter for international relations liberalism. If you’re an international relations liberal (which we are) then you have to agree with the motion. America supports all three pillars of international liberalism: international institutions, democracy and free trade.

Let’s start with the last in that list, free-trade.

America has the world’s largest economy, and is the largest financial contributor to both the World Bank and the IMF, huge benefactors for global trade and economics. America also supports and helped found the World Trade Organization, the most important promoter of global trade and economics. I can already hear the critics of all three of those institutions. I admit, they aren’t perfect, but they promote free trade.

A more interconnected world, with more trade, and more movement of people, decreases the likelihood of war. Is America alone in supporting free trade? Of course not. But as the biggest economy, this goes along way to helping prevent world wars.

America also furthers economic growth through aid to the tune of $31 billion dollars last year. US donors drive this up further, mainly through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Is this enough? No. Would I like to see it even higher? Of course, but it still helps make the world a safer place.

And on the whole America supports democratic movements. Is America perfect? No. We oppose a dictatorship in Venezuela and a theocracy in Iran, but ally with a monarchy in Saudi Arabia and a dictatorship in Egypt. On the whole, America still supports UN democracy movements and funds democracy watch groups to support legitimate elections. (And yes, Iraq and Afghanistan were disasters, but we tried to promote democracy.)

And we don’t go it alone; we leverage international institutions that provide international legitimacy. America funds the United Nations. Yes, for a time period the U.S. shorted the U.N. bill under a Republican president under conservative pressure. In 2009, though, the United States paid back its past debts, and now provides more funding for the U.N. than any other country and more funding for peacekeeping operations than any other country.

But it’s not just the UN. America is also key force in many multi-national organizations--from NATO to ASEAN to OAS--that help prevent wars. (An easy rule of thumb: medieval Europe and feudal China didn’t have lots of international organizations, and fought plenty of wars. Modern countries have tons of international organizations and don’t fight a lot of wars.)

I can hear the critics. For all the big trends America either created or encourages, every so often we choose to go off the rails in something else. Historically, America spent the Cold War doing what it takes to stop the Russians, and it frequently backfired. The Cold War also caused the Vietnam War for America and the Afghanistan War for Russia. And the conflict in Afghanistan never really died down. We also executed democratically elected leaders and tried to put in our own proxies. This can still haunt us today. (Exhibit: Iran.)

And yes, America is involved in another decade long war in the “War on Terror”. Drone strikes provoke violence and extremism, providing the raison d’etre for terrorists around the world. Our national security establishment doesn’t even realize this. We need to fix that.

But during the Cold War and through to today, America led the world by creating the very concept international relations liberalism. We started the first international institution--the League of Nations--created the biggest free trade initiative in history--The Marshall Plan--and made the world’s first constitution. America basically invented the values that make the world a better place.

A world without any America might be safer, but it’s hard to see the evidence for that.

Jul 27

(Though many don’t want to believe it, the world is getting safer. There will be an end to war, someday, if the world works towards it. To read the rest of our posts on “The World is Getting Safer”, click here.

This week and next, we’re debating the motion: America Makes the World a Safer Place. Below is Eric C’s argument against the motion.)

Before we begin, let me frame my argument for why I oppose the motion. (This is, unfortunately, necessary; many people don’t understand the basic concept that “the world getting safer” does not equal “violence doesn’t exist”.)

I believe America’s policies--foreign and domestic--have caused violence, which keeps the world from being EVEN safer than it is now. In some ways, this is a counter-factual: if America had done things differently over the last twenty years, the world would be safer and less violent than it is today. I’m aware this is a high bar to hurdle over, but I think I can do it.

Let’s get into the specifics. First, foreign affairs.

America’s Overreaction to 9/11

Check out the “List of Ongoing Conflicts” page on Wikipedia (as of July 2015) and you’ll notice two things:

1. War really is on the decline.

2. Of the four deadliest wars right now, America is to blame for two of them. Moreover, America is involved--mostly unproductively--in five of the fifteen deadliest wars happening today.

So two things are true: war is less deadly than it’s ever been, but America has needlessly inflated the overall number of wars by choosing to fight and get involved in so many of them.

Our extended stay in Afghanistan could be justified ethically for the first few years, but repeated mismanagement of that war turned it into a quagmire. Iraq, on the other hand, was a war of choice that destabilized the region. If America hadn’t invaded Iraq, hundreds of thousands of people (Iraqis mainly) would still be alive. (Who knows what would have happened in Syria without the Iraq war. Certainly couldn’t be worse than the situation today.) And our drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen have angered millions of people, creating more violent extremists and increasing instability.

The American Military Doesn’t Care Enough About Limiting Civilian Casualties

My second biggest disagreement with American foreign policy--after starting so many wars--is with how poorly we’ve fought them. And by poorly, I don’t mean “failing to close with and destroy the enemy”. Actually, I mean the opposite. This means detaining less Iraqis and Afghans. It means limiting civilian casualties. It means sacrificing more of our own soldiers to protect others. If we’d have gone into Afghanistan seeking to rebuild a war-torn nation, developing roads and infrastructure and providing medicine, I believe we could have won.

But the American military hates that. And they’re so immune to criticism by the American populace that the military won’t be forced to change its approach.

Michael C and I started the blog mainly to write about population-centric counter-insurgency. We haven’t written about it much recently, mainly because the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan sort of ended. Still, it matters. The American military‘s failure to embrace the future of war has prolonged our wars...and artificially increased war deaths across the globe.

Republicans Hate Treaties

International norms help make the world a safer and better place. But Michael C has written recently about how Republicans hate treaties. Due to the anti-treaty stance of Republicans in the Senate, this means America leads the world in preventing international norms from being established. Treaties make the world a safer place and the U.S. Senate leads the world in opposing them.

America Hypocritically Loves Dictators

As we’ve written about before, America hates some dictators, but not all. For example, Iran is our mortal enemy, but Saudi Arabia is not. This has made the world less democratic and, by extension, more dangerous. We don’t do enough to oppose all of the regimes that torture and violate human rights.

On to domestic policy....

Gun Rights

Years ago, Michael C and I decided that we weren’t ready to discuss gun control on the blog. We didn’t feel--as we wrote about here--that the facts were in. Studying the academic literature, we no longer think that’s the case. More guns equals more gun deaths.

America has lots of guns. As most statistics show, if you own a gun, someone is more likely to be shot by that gun, either through suicide, spousal abuse or accidental shooting. Many of the major statistics cited by gun rights advocates have been debunked. By owning so many guns, America is more violent than it should be.

Our Judicial System

As I pointed out a few weeks ago, America’s judicial system, which locks up way too many young men, doesn’t mean the world is more violent than 50, 100 or 500 years ago.

But it is a huge problem.

Our country’s views on crime, punishment, prisons and rehabilitation have created a permanent underclass of citizens. Business don’t hire people with criminal records, worsening the problem. Our drug laws--though getting better recently--are insanely punitive. And we see how police departments across the country harass minorities. The reason I’m adding this into the debate is that America has failed to adopt the policies Europe has embraced, and increased violence is the result. Thus, America’s massive homicide rate compared to Europe is, well, America’s fault.

In closing, America has, like other nations, adopted a number of policies that have made the world safer. But compared to other nations, too many of our foreign and domestic policies have perpetuated violence both in our country and across the world. And that’s why you should oppose the motion.

Jul 21

(Though many don’t want to believe it, the world is getting safer. There will be an end to war, someday, if the world works towards it. To read the rest of our posts on “The World is Getting Safer”, click here.)

In fiction, conflict is the heart of good drama. Does the same thing apply to non-fiction political writing?

We’ve been writing a lot recently about how the world is getting safer. We mean a lot. Michael and I, like most every topic on the blog, agree on this point. The conflict comes from us disproving the people who don’t believe this. (Eric C wrote a whole series of posts debunking those opinions.) But another conflict arose discussing this issue. Inspired by this John Horgan post, and assuming you want the world to keep getting safer and believe us that it is getting safer, it begs a simple question:

Is America making the world a safer place?

Michael C knew the answer pretty easily, yes. Eric C knew his answer, no. Michael C mentioned supporting democracies. Eric C mentioned supporting dictatorships. Michael C said international aid. Eric C said Iraq. So it looks like we had the making for a good old-fashioned On V debate. So let’s have it. The motion is:

America Makes the World a Safer Place.

The debate will go in three parts. First Eric C will argue against the motion. Then Michael C will argue for the motion. Finally, we will have rebuttals.

Jul 14

(Though many don’t want to believe it, the world is getting safer. There will be an end to war, someday, if the world works towards it. To read the rest of our posts on “The World is Getting Safer”, click here.)

Two months ago, we gave seven answers to an unasked criticism: why are we writing so much about how the world is getting better and safer?

Our first point was “the vast majority of people still don’t know this fact” and today’s post explains why: way too many people, pundits and politicians say the world is a “dangerous place” or “as dangerous as it has been since World War II”. Politicians running for president make this claim and, outside of a handful of liberal bloggers, few media members refute it. In other words, the people who don’t believe the world is getting better and safer have a microphone to amplify their incorrect beliefs.

Marco Rubio inspired us to write this post. Go to his website and find his taglines. “The world has never been more dangerous than it is today” and “Nothing matters if we aren’t safe”. (H/T Jonathan Chait, who correctly debunks Rubio by citing Pinker and pointing out that this is “insanely wrong”.) Frankly, every reporter covering Rubio needs to point this out. Claiming that the world isn’t safer is global-warming-denialist level wrong.

One of the most difficult tasks with writing this post is that people keep making this claim, so we have had to keep updating the article. (Expect future On V updates.) Cue Marco Rubio releasing an op-ed for Time, a slight variation on his original theme, “Sen. Marco Rubio: Under Obama the World Has Become a More Dangerous Place” Except that, overall, the world is so much less dangerous than ever before. And it’s hard to argue that Obama’s foreign policy has made America less safe than the Bush administration’s foreign policy.

For another great example, Michael Fallon, UK Senior Secretary for Defence, believes that ISIS and Russia make the world as dangerous as any time since WWII. That’s flat wrong. But we’re just scratching the surface of fear-mongering. Stephen Walt summarizes some other fear-mongers:

“Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations thinks “the question is not whether the world will continue to unravel but how fast and how far.” The outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, told Congress last year that “[the world is] more dangerous than it has ever been.” (Someone really ought to tell the general about the Cold War, the Cuban missile crisis, and a little episode known as World War II.) Not to be outdone, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger believes the United States “has not faced a more diverse and complex array of crises since the end of the Second World War.”

In a few weeks, Michael C and I are going to write about the policies we believe will make the world safer, answering the “How?” question. Oddly, if you made a Venn diagram, very few of those policies intersect with Republican/Rubio’s policies. But Republicans don’t have a monopoly on fear-mongering. Glenn Greenwald cites both Republican Lindsey Graham (“We have never seen more threats against our nation and its citizens than we do today.”) and Democrat Dianne Feinstein (“I have never seen a time of greater potential danger than right now.”) both making the case that we live in a dangerous world. Zach Beauchamp details not just the fear, but the often odd--and unrealistic--statements of GOP candidates for President.

This isn’t limited to politicians, though. Two of the arguably most culturally-influential people of the last decade have made this incorrect assertion. The first comes from Jon Stewart, universally beloved culture and comedy icon, who said after the Charlie Hebdo attack, “2014 was not a great year for people.” (Actually, it was.) George R. R. Martin--creator of the most famous fantasy series on TV--told an interviewer, “I think people no longer believe the world is going to be a good place.”

But just because people don’t believe the world is getting safer, doesn’t make it true.

Jul 06

With the passage of another Fourth of July weekend, Americans can breathe a sigh of relief now that the threat has passed.

Oh, did you think we were scared of an impending ISIS or ISIS-inspired attack? Unlike local police departments, the media and the FBI, we’re not scared of terror attacks. We’re afraid of the true danger over fourth of July weekend: fireworks.

(Actually, we’re not. Like terrorism generally, fireworks don’t kill that many Americans per capita.)

But compared to terrorists--who didn’t strike America this weekend--fireworks did cause quite a bit of damage. A drunk man tried to detonate a firework from his head. It didn’t work and he died at the scene, the first death since Maine legalized fireworks two years ago. Over 800 acres and one home burned in Washington state after fireworks started a fire. Two more homes were damaged in Sacramento, California. And 9 people were injured in Vail, Colorado. Oh yeah, and a New York football Giant hurt his hands in a firework accident.

Want to find more? Search the word “fireworks” on Google News the day after the Fourth of July. These were from the first page alone.

So, be aware, fireworks are the new al Qaeda.

More accurately, they’re as deadly to Americans as terrorism. According to an article on the National Fire Protection Association, “in 2011, fireworks caused an estimated 17,800 reported fires, including 1,200 total structure fires, 400 vehicle fires, and 16,300 outside and other fires. These fires resulted in an estimated eight reported civilian deaths, 40 civilian injuries and $32 million in direct property damage.” An additional 15,000 people were injured.

Now, you should always take statistics from an interest group with a grain of salt. But other groups support this finding. The Consumer Products Safety Commission reported that six people died in 2012 and eight more in 2013 from fireworks. The reports also detail exactly who and how they died. The CPSC found more deaths, 11 total, in 2011 than the NFPA.

Since 9/11, using low estimates, about eighty to one hundred people have died from fireworks. In the same time, 74 people have died from terrorism. So you’re more likely to die from fireworks than terrorism. (We should note out that Islamic extremists were only responsible for one third of domestic terrorist attacks.) That’s not even mentioning injuries and property damage.

Honestly, I think terrorists would be more successful if they lobbied for securing gun rights, selling more fireworks, and increasing the speed limit. Who needs terrorists when Americans are content with killing themselves? (For anyone about to make a “fireworks equal freedom” argument, tell that to my neighbors who’ve been popping fireworks until one in the morning all week.)

Being serious, it just seems a shame that dozens of people across the country are now homeless because people set off fireworks unsafely, while the country’s news channels and politicians worry needlessly about terrorism.

Jun 24

(Though many don’t want to believe it, the world is getting safer. There will be an end to war, someday, if the world works towards it. To read the rest of our posts on “The World is Getting Safer”, click here.)

Some critics of the “world is getting safer” theory (I call them “anti-Pollyannas”) make what appears to be a very convincing argument: why use per capita statistics? Isn’t that unethical? From a Scientific American review of the The Better Angels of Our Nature:

“Of greater concern is the assumption on which Pinker's entire case rests: that we look at relative numbers instead of absolute numbers in assessing human violence. But why should we be content with only a relative decrease?”

This Foreign Affairs review makes the same argument:

“But ask yourself: Is it preferable for ten people in a group of 1,000 to die violent deaths or for ten million in a group of one billion? For Pinker, the two scenarios are exactly the same, since in both, an individual person has a 99 percent chance of dying peacefully. Yet in making a moral estimate about the two outcomes, one might also consider the extinction of more individual lives, one after another, and the grief of more families of mourners, one after another.”

Or from David Bentley Hart at the website First Things:

“Pinker’s method for assessing the relative ferocity of different centuries is to calculate the total of violent deaths not as an absolute quantity, but as a percentage of global population...Population sample sizes can vary by billions, but a single life remains a static sum, so the smaller the sample the larger the percentage each life represents.”

It’s a seductive ethical argument, but there are two problems with it.

First, for most categories of human violence, you can use either per capita or absolute measures, violence has gone down. Actually, since the end of World war II, absolute deaths in war have gone down. Not per capita, absolute numbers, which coupled with exponential population growth, represents an absolutely remarkable transformation for the better.

Same with homicides, at least in England’s case. According to The Better Angels of Our Nature, 14th century England had a murder rate that was 95% greater than it is today, despite having only 1/50th the population. The pattern holds for slavery, torture, public executions, and so on.    

Humanity isn’t just getting better, it’s becoming so much better that despite exponential population growth, violence in absolute terms is still going down.

Second, this is still a very bad philosophical argument. Here’s the counter-argument from a comment on the Scientific American review. Honestly, I can’t say it any better:

“...how did this statement make it into the review? To take the counter argument, presumably you'd rather live in a world of 20 people where 9 are murdered every year than a world of a million peole [sic] where 10 are. Come on.”

Just, wow. Sort of says it all. And that’s why you use per capita statistics. If you approached someone independent of this debate and asked, “How should society track change for violence through the ages?” I can’t imagine anyone saying, “absolute terms instead of per capita”. Do these people watch news reports about the crime rate and shout at the television, “A single life remains a static sum!”

Have criminologists fundamentally based their discipline on an immoral metric?

Of course not.

(MC Comment: I would say that this is Eric C’s attempt to handle one minor statistical squabble in the realm of the “declinist” theory versus the world. Nassim Taleb and Bear Braumoeller have both posted lengthy academic articles critiquing the statistical methods used by Pinker, using much more advanced techniques to rebut the theory of the long peace. We’ll try to handle those in a later article, though it is tough without access to their data/code.)