Apostles of Violence
“Ukrainian events have demonstrated,” writes Maria Snegovaya in The New Republic, “that control of violence is still at the very essence of the state.” She says Vladimir Putin’s aggression proves that Max Weber’s definition of the state — an entity with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force — is still relevant, even though we in the West “tend to think of the ‘monopoly on violence’ as a metaphor.”
We do? That would be news to the relatives of Kelly Thomas, a homeless California man beaten to death last year by police officers (who were later acquitted). And to the relatives of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed man who was shot to death by New York City police officers (who were also acquitted). It would be news to a lot of black and Hispanic men who have been stopped and frisked in the streets of New York — or bent over the hood of a squad car anywhere in America.
The idea that governmental violence is merely metaphorical would be news to the employees at a gold mine in Chicken, Alaska, who were stunned last year when armed and armored agents from the EPA swooped in to search for violations of the Clean Water Act.
It would be news to Gibson Guitar Corp., subject to an armed federal raid for using the wrong tariff code on imported wood. It would be news to Audrey Hudson, a reporter whose home was raided in October by armed federal agents who seized her files and notes. And it would be news to countless others whose property was seized through eminent domain.
Governmental violence is not a metaphor. It is not even an aberration. It is a daily occurrence. Often it is entirely justified: If a bank robber would rather shoot it out with the cops than surrender peacefully, his death will bring no loss to the world. If Osama bin Laden starts a fight with the U.S., then America should end it.
Still, Putin’s aggression does draw attention to the prevalence of state violence — and the often incoherent attitude toward it on both sides of the American political divide.
During the Bush years, progressives spent a great deal of time lamenting American militarism. They found the promotion of American values through brute force misguided and cruel. The neoconservative project of reshaping the wider world through hard power was, progressives said, arrogant. Abusive. Bullying. As a piece in The Nation explained: “U.S. involvement abroad, even when well-intentioned, is perceived on the receiving end as heavy-handed meddling.”
“For eight years we have paid the price for a foreign policy that lectures without listening,” Barack Obama said in a 2008 speech at the Ronald Reagan building in Washington. In that speech, he said the U.S. needed to try a different approach — engagement. Development assistance. “Now is the time for a new era of international cooperation,” he declared.
Conservatives — at least the interventionists, which is still most of them — scoff at this. They say the world is full of bad actors — actors who prey upon the weak, who have no conscience, and who must be contained by more enlightened nations willing to use force to do it.
But then turn the discussion to domestic affairs. Suddenly progressives are more than happy to use the coercive power of state violence to make the world a better place, as they define it.
Economic inequality? Redistribute wealth. Obesity? Tax the Twinkie and ban the Big Gulp. Health care? Make everyone buy insurance – and dictate what kind. Concepts common to foreign policy — such as sovereignty, autonomy, and self-determination — go right out the window, replaced by heavy-handed meddling. After all: The country is full of bad actors who prey upon the weak, who have no conscience, and who must be contained by more enlightened parties willing to use force to do it.
Many conservatives display no more consistency. For years, voices on the right have ridiculed the federal government’s utter inability to get anything right. The standard conservative critique holds that government is inept, corrupt, and grotesquely wasteful; peopled by incompetent bureaucrats whose only concern is in expanding their fiefdoms; and completely blind to the law of unintended consequences. Government, say conservatives, has no business telling a company what benefits it must provide and no business telling families how to raise their children. Butt. Out.
Until the discussion turns to foreign affairs. Then all those concepts common to domestic policy — individual sovereignty, autonomy, and self-determination — go right out the window. Suddenly it is perfectly fine for the United States to order the rest of the world around. And when it does so, there will be no incompetence, no corruption, no self-interest, no unintended consequences. When the U.S. marches off to war, the federal government can do no wrong. And if you don’t stand behind the troops, pal, feel free to stand in front of them.
Both sides are half-right. The state might have a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, but that doesn’t mean it should be prodigal with the stuff, either at home or abroad.
Who Should Have Basic Rights?
Thought experiment: In a remote region of the Amazon, explorers stumble across a tribe of people heretofore unknown. Clearly they are very primitive – living out of doors and off the land, without clothes or agriculture or the other usual hallmarks of civilization. But after months of observation, scientists conclude that the tribespeople are, nevertheless, highly intelligent.
They use tools. They understand numbers. They have a “theory of mind,” meaning they understand that others have minds of their own and know things they don’t know themselves. They engage in metacognition, meaning they can think about their own thoughts. They engage in “mental time travel,” meaning they can remember the past and plan for the future. They use symbolic language to discuss past and future events. They demonstrate concern for the emotional welfare of others — for instance, by consoling the victim of aggression. They show grief and compassion in the face of death.
Would it be morally acceptable to capture some of those tribesmen and bring them back to the U.S. so they could be used in medical experiments and displayed in exhibits for public entertainment? Or would that be a violation of their rights?
This is the question posed by recent habeas corpus claims filed on behalf of several chimpanzees by the Nonhuman Rights Project. The suits, relying on statutory and common law, argue that Tommy, Merlin, Reba, and other chimps currently being held in captivity deserve to be recognized as legal persons with certain fundamental rights: liberty and bodily integrity. The suits are backed up by the testimony of numerous experts in primatology, whose affidavits affirm that chimps have the cognitive abilities described above.
Last week three New York courts quickly dispatched the lawsuits. The Nonhuman Rights Project expected that to happen, and plans to appeal. Convincing a court to recognize the legal personhood of chimpanzees would be a landmark victory.
Even to broach the idea strikes some as terribly threatening. “Animal rights is an ideology that perceives animals as having the same right not to be owned as humans,” wrote Wesley J. Smith recently in The Weekly Standard. Should the Nonhuman Rights Project prevail, “the deleterious cultural and economic consequences would be staggering.”
Smith is a senior fellow with the Discovery Institute, which advocates for intelligent design and opposes the idea that humans “descended from apes.” The Institute is the prime mover behind the campaign to “teach the controversy” of evolution vs. creationism — even though there is no such controversy. Not among scientists, anyway.
Like evolution, the recognition of animal rights has the potential to undermine biblical literalism. So it is not particularly surprising that the Institute treats even limited recognition of some rights for chimpanzees as the first step on a slippery slope.
The ultimate goal, Smith writes, is “to prohibit all domestication of animals” and “destroy human exceptionalism.”
Wrong. The panic over the possibility of safeguarding not merely animal welfare, but legal animal rights, fails to recognize that we already do just that. Humans, after all, are animals too. When we respect human rights, we therefore respect the rights of (some) animals. And if we respect the rights of some animals, then there is no reason in principle not to respect the rights of certain others.
But just as not all humans have the same rights, recognizing certain rights for chimps would not require attributing those same rights to pigs, bluejays, and earthworms. Children enjoy no right to enter into contracts, for example, because they are deemed to lack the capacity for it. Adults generally may enter into contracts — but not all of them. We make exceptions for the mentally incompetent.
To conclude that chimpanzees’ cognitive abilities justify the right not to be imprisoned or experimented upon, therefore, does not mean those same rights must be conferred upon animals without those cognitive abilities.
Why do people have rights in the first place? Suppose future space exploration discovers a planet populated by highly intelligent beings, with an exquisitely rich culture dating back several millennia, who look not at all human. Wouldn’t it make sense to recognize them as rights-bearing creatures anyway? And wouldn’t that make more sense than attributing human rights to mannequins — which look very much like humans, but have no human capacities?
A question like that might seem too fanciful. But the advance of computing science is leading to another one. Well before long-distance space travel becomes feasible, the day will arrive when computers become both self-aware and vastly smarter than the smart people who made them. At that point, we will have to consider whether thinking machines have rights.
Moreover — and more apposite to the chimpanzee question: The thinking machines will have to consider whether we do.