A retrospective glance

The New Yorker, as you may have heard, has redesigned its website, and is making all articles published since 2007 free, for the summer, in hopes of addicting you as a reader. Once you’re hooked, they’ll winch up the drawbridge, and you’ll have to pay, pay, pay. But for the moment let’s not think about either the metaphor I just mixed or its consequences, shall we?

A self-publicist’s work is never done, and it seemed to behoove me to take advantage of the occasion. So I googled myself. It turns out that I’ve been writing for the New Yorker since 2005 and that ten articles of mine have appeared in the print magazine over the years. All seem to be on the free side of the paywall as of this writing (though a glitch appears to have put several of the early articles almost entirely into italics). Enjoy!

“Rail-Splitting,” 7 November 2005: Was Lincoln depressed? Was he a team player?
“The Terror Last Time,” 13 March 2006: How much evidence did you need to hang a terrorist in 1887?
“Surveillance Society,” 11 September 2006: In the 1930s, a group of British intellectuals tried to record the texture of everyday life
“Bad Precedent,” 29 January 2007: Andrew Jackson declares martial law
“There She Blew,” 23 July 2007: The history of whaling
“Twilight of the Books,” 24 December 2007: This is your brain on reading
“There Was Blood,” 19 January 2009: A fossil-fueled massacre
“Bootylicious,” 7 September 2009: The economics of piracy
“It Happened One Decade,” 21 September 2009: The books and movies that buoyed America during the Great Depression
“Tea and Antipathy,” 20 December 2010: Was the Tea Party such a good idea the first time around?
Unfortunate Events, 22 October 2012: What was the War of 1812 even about?
“Four Legs Good,” 28 October 2013: Jack London goes to the dogs
“The Red and the Scarlet,” 30 June 2014: Where the pursuit of experience took Stephen Crane

Do we need to be policed if we’re our own historians? Godwin didn’t think so

At the New Yorker‘s blog, I have an essay about utopianism, self-narration, and the history of policing.

Another thing that occurred to me while watching “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”

Being intelligent inside an ape is like being human inside a car. You’re saddled with a prognathous mask for a face. You’re incapable of words and must resort to loud, alarming noises. Your every motion is absurdly powerful—a dangerous state of affairs because you’re subject to sudden accesses of rage.

Blowup

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011
The American government has released a photograph taken on Sunday of President Obama, Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Clinton, Defense Secretary Gates, and other high-ranking officials sitting in the White House’s Situation Room. According to the government-authored caption, the officials are shown receiving “an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden.” The fixity of their attention, however, suggests that the word “update” is an understatement. Almost certainly they were watching moving images on a screen. The New York Times has reported that “The president and his advisers watched Leon E. Panetta, the C.I.A. director, on a video screen, narrating from his agency’s headquarters across the Potomac River what was happening in faraway Pakistan.” An early report, however, claimed that Obama was able to watch a live video feed of the attack, and there has been speculation, without evidence, that such a feed might have come from a camera mounted on the helmet of one of the Navy Seals involved. When PBS asked Panetta himself what the people in the Situation Room were seeing, he gave an equivocal answer, denying that Obama and his team were able to see the shots fired at Bin Laden, but admitting that “I think they were viewing some of the real-time aspects of this as well in terms of the intelligence that we were getting.” Since so many details of the killing have been revised by the government in the past forty-eight hours, and since there are as yet no sources other than the government itself, the safest thing to say is we don’t know what was on the screen, except through what we can see reflected in the watchers’ faces.

At a minimum, then, the people in the Situation Room were watching Panetta describe in real time how three men and one woman were shot. “This was a kill operation,” an official has told Reuters. In its newly released “Narrative of Events,” the Department of Defense now admits that Bin Laden was unarmed and that Bin Laden did not use a woman as a human shield, despite earlier government claims to the contrary. The shootings were probably at close range. “The encounter with bin Laden,” Politico reports, “ended with a kill shot to his face,” and White House spokesperson Jay Carney says that the photograph of Bin Laden taken by the Seals is so “gruesome” that the White House is hesitating to release it. ABC News writes of the photograph that “The insides of his head are visible.”

Photography of the killed seems to be standard operating procedure these days for American special forces. (When the American Raymond A. Davis was arrested in Lahore in February for having shot two Pakistanis, he claimed to be a consular official defending himself against a robbery attempt. A consular official who, after shooting two men through his windshield, got out of his car and photographed the corpses with his digital camera? Davis turned out, of course, to be a CIA security officer.) Perhaps such a photograph of Bin Laden was being displayed on the screen in the Situation Room at the moment that the picture was taken.

Gates A book could probably be written about the expressions in the photograph. It’s possible to download a 1.6-megabyte version; the ambivalences of its revelations become even finer upon magnification. At first, for example, I thought that the look on Gates’s face was one of pride and satisfaction, maybe even smugness. Heh heh, Gates seemed to be saying; this is going well. But in an enlargement of the photo, it is possible to see fear in the outer, lower corners of his eyes, anxiety in the set of his chin, and sorrow in the sagging corner of his mouth. What I at first mistook for smugness turns out, on a closer look, to be a mask of confidence. He’s a warrior; he’s not supposed to mind what he’s looking at; he’s supposed to convey to his subordinates that the violence of war is necessary and lawful. But even he doesn’t like to look at such an image, whatever it is, despite having seen images like it before.

Biden Biden’s face has a similar ambiguity. His left eyelid droops; he’s tired. He has widened his eyes in compensation, making an effort to look alert. Probably in order to reassure others, he’s also making an effort to look as if he’s equal to what he’s seeing—as if it’s all right that the leaders of America are watching a killing in which they are complicit. It is probably legal, he may be telling himself. By any definition, Osama Bin Laden is an enemy of the United States, actively plotting its harm. Perhaps Biden is reminding himself that Harold Koh, a legal adviser to the Obama administration, has justified America’s program of targeted killings abroad as acts of national self-defense. Even the ACLU approves of targeted killings if they take place in a theater of war against an imminent threat. The United States is not at war with Pakistan, but it is at war next door in Afghanistan, and Bin Laden certainly posed an ongoing danger. What’s happening is reasonable, is the thought that Biden seems to be projecting; reason led us here, at any rate.

Obama Two faces in the picture do not seem composed for view by others. The first is Obama’s. After a glance at it, there can be no question that it is his will driving the mission: the grim mouth, the hungry eyes. There’s an uncanny stillness to Obama’s features. One senses that he has been holding himself in one pose for some time, like a hunter. There is no acceptance in his face. What he is watching is awful to him, too, but he has chosen it. He’s not going to let himself out of any of it. He has to see all of it.

Clinton The other naïve face, of course, is that of Hillary Clinton. Her eyes are widened; she has unconsciously covered her mouth with her hand. Her grandmotherly hand. Her expression is one of pure horror. When I first saw this photograph, I thought, Thank God, there was at least one human being in the room. I find the image of her strangely beautiful, even though I’ve never been drawn to her as a politician. It makes me want to cry.

Why shouldn’t I? What else should I do when I see my country’s leaders watching a killing that they have ordered? It is legal for the United States to kill its enemies in war; maybe it’s also legal for us to kill those enemies far from any battlefield, unarmed, in the middle of the night. But America didn’t use to think of itself as the sort of nation that did things that way. Now it is proud of such actions? In his speech on Sunday night, Obama compared the killing of Bin Laden to other triumphs by America:

Tonight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to. That is the story of our history, whether it’s the pursuit of prosperity for our people, or the struggle for equality for all our citizens; our commitment to stand up for our values abroad, and our sacrifices to make the world a safer place.

Let us remember that we can do these things not just because of wealth or power, but because of who we are.

These words are false. A killing is not comparable to the Apollo space program or the War on Poverty. It is not a moral achievement, let alone a technological one. If the Navy Seals had brought Bin Laden to the United States and we had then put him on trial, that would have been a moral achievement. But a nation need not be a democracy in order to kill its enemies. Revenge is not special. We can take it no matter who we are, and no matter who we become.

Is drone war just?

On Monday, December 13, I attended a panel discussion on “Drones and Targeted Killings Abroad: What is Legal and Who Decides?” It was hosted by the Federalist Society, at the Cornell Club in Manhattan, and the panelists were Ben Wizner of the ACLU and Michael W. Lewis of Ohio Northern University Law School. The moderator was P. Kevin Castel, a U.S. district court judge.

I was led there by my having complained to my friend Wesley Yang that there has been alarmingly little debate in America about whether killing by remote-controlled drones is ethical—whether it’s philosophically consistent with just-war doctrine. Wesley has been researching and writing about the high-stakes legal debates associated with the war on terror—see his recent profile in New York Magazine of Evan Kohlmann, the government’s most prolific terrorism expert—and he invited me—challenged me?—to come along with him to the panel.

The debate took place in a mustard yellow conference room. The Federalist Society is well-known as a conservative, strict-constructionist legal group, so it wasn’t too surprising to find a fair number of older white men in dark suits, flag pins in their lapels. While I was raiding the cheese-and-crackers table, one such attendee, observing a pile of knives and an absence of forks, volunteered that “The caterer must be a lefty.” It transpired that the quiet man sitting beside me during the discussion was Michael Mukasey, George W. Bush’s second attorney general; his identity was revealed to me at the end of the evening when people of the left and of the right converged to have their pictures taken with him.

Introduction by Judge Castel

Jane Mayer outlined the facts about America’s drone program and raised important ethical questions about it in “The Predator War,” published in The New Yorker on October 26, 2009. In his introductory remarks, Judge Castel seemed to draw on Mayer’s article. He noted that the U.S. has two drone programs. The first, run by the military, augments the work of troops on the ground. Castel suggested that the drones were controlled remotely with joysticks and monitored on flat-screen televisions, as the New York Times has also reported. The second program, Castel continued, “is said—I don’t know—to be run out of Langley, Virginia, by the C.I.A.” (Castel was careful throughout the evening to specify that the information he was presenting was secondhand, acquired by him from journalistic reports only, and that any opinions he might voice were to be understood not as representations of his personal judgment but merely as provocations, potentially fictional, intended only to stir up debate. As it happens, in a recent Guardian article about the recall from Pakistan of the CIA’s station chief, whose cover was blown last week by a Pakistani man angry over drone strikes that killed his father and brother, Declan Walsh reports that the CIA now manages its drones out of its Islamabad office rather than Langley.) Castel added that “It’s been said that some of the personnel will wear flight suits” while operating the drones. (This may not be true, however; Charlie Savage has reported for the Times that CIA drone operators do not wear military uniforms, in apparent contravention of the Geneva conventions, an awkward state of affairs that not long ago obliged the Obama administration to rewrite its military commission rules at the last minute while negotiating a plea bargain with Omar Khadr, a former child soldier and Guantanamo Bay detainee, downgrading the charge against Khadr from war crime to a domestic law offense, in order “to avoid seeming to implicitly concede that the C.I.A. is committing war crimes.”) Castel repeated the vignette that begins Mayer’s New Yorker article—the story of the August 2009 remote killing of Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Taliban in Pakistan, while he was reclining on his roof receiving an intravenous drip. The United States and Pakistan are happy to have got rid of Mehsud, but Castel noted that the killing is thought by some to have taken place on the CIA’s sixteenth attempt to strike Taliban leader. (“During this hunt,” Mayer wrote, “between two hundred and seven and three hundred and twenty-one additional people were killed, depending on which news accounts you rely upon.”) Given such a high rate of collateral damage, can the killing be considered a success?

Castel cited data provided to Mayer by the New America Foundation, according to which Obama in his first nine months ordered as many drone strikes as Bush had during his last three years. (More up-to-date statistics are available on the New America Foundation’s website and in its February 2010 report on drone warfare; New America now claims that 45 drones strikes were ordered by the Bush administration and that the Obama administration, by contrast, ordered 51 strikes in 2009 and another 113 so far in 2010.)

Castel raised a number of questions: Do drone bombings reduce casualties of innocents by allowing operators to wait for certain identification of their target and a minimum number of bystanders? Are they a necessary means of war? Do they change the nature of war in an undesirable way, such that war no longer requires the virtues of courage and honor? (A June 2010 United Nations report warned that the U.S. drone program licensed a “‘PlayStation’ mentality to killing.”) Are any laws broken if the individual targeted by a drone is a United States citizen? If judges have to sign warrants before the government can eavesdrop on U.S. citizens, why don’t they have to vet the government’s requests to assassinate them? Are any laws being broken when the drones kill people outside of Afghanistan—that is, outside the theater of war as conventionally understood? As a closing sally, Castel raised the prospect of “nanodrones”—remote-controlled killing devices small enough to slip into a window—which reminded me of Neil Stephenson’s sci-fi novel The Diamond Age.

Castel then introduced Ben Wizner of the ACLU’s National Security Project, who helped to represent Nasser al-Aulaqi in a recent lawsuit against the Obama administration, which in April 2010 listed as an approved target for killing al-Aulaqi’s son, Anwar al-Awlaki, a cleric with dual U.S. and Yemeni citizenship alleged to have incited terrorist attacks. The al-Aulaqi/al-Awlaki case was dismissed earlier this month, when federal district court judge John W. Bates declared that the father lacked sufficient legal standing to challenge the government’s targeting of his son. Castel then proceeded to introduce Michael W. Lewis, a law professor at Ohio Northern University, who before taking up law served as a pilot for the U.S. Navy during the First Gulf War and the run-up to it.

Ben Wizner’s remarks

“In what circumstances can Barack Obama order the death of U.S. citizens?” Wizner began. He noted that the ACLU chose to assist al-Awlaki’s father in his lawsuit because the Obama administration had provided a legal opportunity by leaking to the media earlier this year its decision to target al-Awlaki for killing—a moment of transparency that the administration later backpedaled from in court, when it invoked the privilege of state secrecy in efforts to have the case dismissed. Wizner asserted that the recent dismissal of the case had been on standing rather than merits—that is, the judge ruled only that al-Awlaki’s father did not have an interest in his son’s welfare strong enough to give him the right to bring the matter to court; the judge did not say anything about the conditions that might give the U.S. government the right to kill one of its citizens. In fact, Wizner continued, the judge noted that the case raised “stark, and perplexing, questions,” such as

Can the Executive order the assassination of a U.S. citizen without first affording him any form of judicial process whatsoever, based on the mere assertion that he is a dangerous member of a terrorist organization?

Torture, Wizner said, is always illegal, but targeted killing is sometimes legal. According to Wizner, the ACLU does not contend that the government needs to obtain warrants before conducting targeted killings, nor does the ACLU believe that courts should be involved in real-time decision-making. Their contention is merely that such killings are only lawful in a theater of war and against an imminent danger. The Obama administration hasn’t disclosed its definition of lawful killings, but since it has placed individuals on its target list for months at a time, its standards must be more permissive than those proposed by the ACLU. Wizner observed that unsupervised powers are almost always abused in the long run, and that a policy of taking the government’s word for the prudence and wisdom of its actions hasn’t always worked out: the Bush administration claimed that it was only detaining dangerous terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, but the majority, it turns out, are far less scary than advertised.

Through the al-Awlaki lawsuit, the ACLU was asking the government to disclose its standards for remote killing. “Due process,” Wizner said, “requires at a minimum that citizens be put on notice as to when they could be put to death.” He noted that the Israeli government’s targeted-killing program had been challenged in court by human rights groups there, and that the Israeli Supreme Court had ruled that lethal force could be used by the government against individuals, but not for retribution, not if arrest or another lesser intervention could solve the problem, and not merely on the basis of membership in a group. The Israeli Supreme Court required that every instance of targeted killing be followed by a post-hoc investigation.

Why, Wizner asked, can’t the U.S. also make explicit its legal standards? The Obama administration has set no limits so far to its power to kill specific individuals, he maintained. The administration has not said whether the killings are permissible only when a threat is imminent, and if so, how imminent. Wizner suggested that the lack of clarity about the U.S. policy might help to legitimize targeted killings by other nations, whose ethical standards and target lists might not be palatable to Americans. In March 2010, Harold Koh, legal adviser to the State Department, defended the Obama administration’s targeted-killing program as justifiable as a matter of national self-defense; Koh claimed that the killings by drone were being conducted in accordance with the just-war principles of distinction (that is, they target only military personnel and equipment, not civilian ones) and proportionality (that is, they don’t kill more civilians incidentally than the military target is worth). Wizner granted that Koh’s argument might hold in its broad outlines, but Wizner insisted that Koh had not revealed enough details to enable anyone outside the Obama administration’s inner circle to judge whether the policy was in fact justifiable.

What limits, if any, can be put to the use of military force? Wizner asked. Can a U.S. citizen be killed in Yemen, with which the United States is not at war, as well as in Afghanistan, where the United States has acknowledged it is waging war? Is an organization like Al Qaeda in the Arabic Peninsula (AQAP) covered by the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists (AUMF), the declaration of war passed by Congress a week after 11 September 2001, even though AQAP did not exist at the time and had nothing to do with the September 11 attacks? In closing, Wizner quoted the Israeli Supreme Court: “It is when the cannons roar that we especially need the laws” (a flip of the more familiar, much-abused Ciceronian tag).

Michael W. Lewis’s remarks

Lewis began by differentiating what he called the “law enforcement standard” from the “law of armed conflict standard.” In law enforcement, you’re only allowed to kill someone who poses an imminent threat. In war, however, you’re allowed to kill your enemies whether or not they pose an immediate threat. In the al-Awlaki lawsuit, Lewis averred, the ACLU was attempting to apply a law-enforcement standard to an armed-conflict situation. Furthermore, Lewis continued, the laws of war don’t recognize geopolitical borders as limits to military endeavor, and the ACLU’s advocated position would create sanctuaries behind international borders where none had originally existed.

The laws of war, Lewis summarized, distinguish civilians and combatants. Combatants are only recognized as such if they belong to an organization that enforces the laws of war; in the American army, for example, a soldier who gratuitously kills an Iraqi civilian may be tried by an American court martial and imprisoned. Balancing this liability is something called the combatant’s privilege: so long as combatants do not violate the laws of war, they are immune from prosecution for arson, murder, or damage to private property.

Anyone not a combatant is a civilian, and according to the Geneva Conventions, civilians may never be targeted in a military operation. But civilians also may never take part in armed conflict; if they do, they become targetable. By directing the actions of Nidal Malik Hasan (the Fort Hood shooter) and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (the attempted underwear bomber of Christmas 2009), al-Awlaki crossed the line, Lewis said, and rendered himself a legitimate target of lethal force.

What’s more, Lewis continued, crossing borders in pursuit of an enemy has traditionally been an accepted practice during wartime. In pursuit of FARC, the Colombian military has crossed into Ecuador; in pursuit of Hezbollah, the Israeli military has crossed into Lebanon. Neither incursion is considered a violation of the laws of war. (Asked during the question-and-answer period later about the controversy over American forces moving into Cambodia during the Vietnam War, Lewis argued that the scandal was not on account of the border crossing, but because the facts of the war were being kept secret from the American public.)

If a neutral country finds itself the host of a person engaged in hostilities with the United States, Lewis maintained, the country need not grant the United States permission to enter its territories in pursuit of him. But if the country wishes to maintain its neutrality, it must deny that person harbor. Yemen, where al-Awlaki is thought to reside, has in fact chosen to act as an ally, Lewis noted—referring, with a smile, to a State Department cable recently released by Wikileaks, which reveals that Yemen’s president promised the head of U.S. Central Command in January 2010 that he would keep his people in the dark about the American bombing missions against AQAP. (“We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,” said Yemen’s president.)

As a matter of strategy, Lewis argued, granting terrorists political sanctuary was tantamount to giving them the initiative—allowing them to choose the next battlefield. It was, he insisted, to turn international law upside-down. (Lewis has further elaborated his support of the Obama administration’s targeted-killing policy in a paper posted on the Federalist Society’s website.)

Discussion

In the questions and answers that followed, the discussants made further interesting points, but this post is already rather long, and perhaps I should limit myself to relating a few of them in the course of sorting through some of my own thoughts.

When in the past I have read about the Geneva Convention’s definition of combatants, the emphasis has always seemed to be on the requirement that combatants wear an identifiable uniform—a requirement that has always seemed a little arbitrary to me, especially when used to justify the indefinite detention of people who were volunteer fighters from impoverished regions, where the purchase of a uniform may have been a relative luxury. I found more ethically convincing Lewis’s emphasis on the requirement that combatants belong to an organization that enforces distinction and proportionality in the waging of war. That said, unless I’m missing something, I’m not sure the difference between a lawful and an unlawful combatant is pertinent here. Lewis is arguing for the government’s right to kill combatants of either kind, and the legal point at issue seems to be whether the killings may take place in territory outside the theater of war. It doesn’t seem relevant that someone like al-Awlaki, by failing to belong to an armed force that obeys the laws of war, may have forfeited his right to the protections afforded by the Geneva Convention to prisoners of war.

Toward the end of the debate, Lewis said, almost as an aside, “I don’t see any difference, by the way, between a drone and a manned aircraft.” To my surprise, Wizner nodded. (For the record, I don’t know for certain whether he nodded in agreement or merely to express something like, ‘I recognize that argument,’ but it seemed to me that Wizner was signaling agreement.) I see now that Koh made a similar claim in his March 2010 remarks:

There is no prohibition under the laws of war on the use of technologically advanced weapons systems in armed conflict—such as pilotless aircraft or so-called smart bombs—so long as they are employed in conformity with applicable laws of war.

I see the force of the claim. It no doubt seemed unchivalric when swords were first superseded by gunpowder, but the point of war is to defeat the enemy while suffering as little injury oneself as possible. So the problem with drone killing isn’t the cocoon of safety around the person holding the joystick. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem with drone killing, but it does mean that some of my horror over the technology may be a little sentimental.

I was also surprised, during the question-and-answer period, to hear Lewis concede that he was comfortable with the proposal of “some form of post-action review” of targeted killings. It surprised me even further when he said that “the guys in Langley bother me, because they’re in Langley. Whether there’s law-of-war training in the CIA, I don’t know.” In other words, Lewis was worrying whether the CIA’s operators might themselves be unlawful combatants—a question that concerns me rather more than the question of whether al-Awlaki is one. When an American soldier goes rogue, he is court-martialed. What happens to a rogue CIA officer? No doubt it’s something unpleasant, or so one hopes, but the secrecy of the organization may make it all but impossible to verify whether CIA killings are in compliance with the laws of war. Given the CIA’s propensity in recent years for kidnapping and torture—of the innocent as well as the probably guilty—one isn’t disposed to take their good behavior on trust.

Lewis welcomed post-action review and was concerned by the secrecy shrouding the CIA’s involvement; Wizner did not object to targeted killings without prior judicial review. If the two of them were representative of informed political opinion, I found myself wondering, might it be possible for Congress to agree on some legislation? Surely the soldiers operating these devices would prefer to know for certain when they were and when they weren’t committing war crimes.

On further consideration, this fantasy began to seem a little overoptimistic on my part. The trouble is the chasm between the law-enforcement model and the armed-conflict model. Should terrorists be treated as criminals or as enemy soldiers? The great difference between these paradigms may be related to my niggling sense that there is something wrong with drone killing, even if it’s not the remoteness of the attack. Maybe killer drones upset the balance of power between individuals and governments by making it easier to kill a specific person—by making war microlocal. It is accepted that in war a certain number of innocent bystanders are killed. In law enforcement, however, any death of an innocent is an outrage. Why do we allow soldiers to kill the “wrong” people in relatively high numbers but not police officers? Perhaps it’s because we distinguish between peace and war, and we understand war to be a temporary state marked by conflict and chaos, in which a government uses force to accomplish broad aims such as taking control of a region. Under such conditions, we are willing to accept that the use of force may be imprecise. We understand that being at war is different from being at peace. Lewis’s concern about crossing borders is, I think, a red herring. If FARC’s soldiers move into Ecuador, then I think we understand that in their retreat, FARC’s soldiers trail the boundaries of the theater of war after them. The trouble is, what happens if a few of FARC’s leaders abruptly surface in Madrid? If, in such a case, the Colombian military were to start blowing up the FARC leaders’ apartments, it would be reasonable of Madrid’s citizens to object.

One of the benefits that people expect from government is personal security from attacks by government itself. (And protection from other governments; Madrileños expect that Spain will not attack them and that Spain will protect them from Colombia if Colombia tries to—and from FARC, for that matter.) The social contract is understood, at least in some strains of political philosophy, to be a haven from the state of war. If an individual may be killed by his government on its say-so, without judicial review before or after his killing, there is no haven from the state of war. In fact, security from such attack is so fundamental to well-being that a person vulnerable to it might be thought of as lacking a government at all. It is no remedy if a government merely promises that it will only execute dangerous enemies to social order. Citizens need to be able to feel confident about the government’s epistemology; they need to be able to challenge the government’s identification of enemies before the fact, or (less reassuringly) they need to be able to punish after the fact government officials who turn out to have been in error. A case as celebrated as al-Awlaki’s is not where the trouble is likely to lie; given the stir about him, the governments of the United States and Yemen have probably been obliged to think long and hard about the certitude of the evidence against him. (Still, to say a word for the criminal model: if Yemen’s president is willing to wink while the U.S. bombs terrorists within Yemen’s borders, can’t he bring himself to extradite a single terrorist for us? Does his tenure in power really depend to that extent on duplicity?) The possibility for injustice, however, will increase the further down one goes on the government’s target list. What if some individuals lower down are listed because the CIA has misidentified them, as it misidentified Khalid El-Masri, an innocent German citizen whom the CIA kidnapped and tortured in 2003 and 2004 because they mistook him for a terrorist with a similar name? What if the culpability of some individuals lower down on the list has been grossly exaggerated, as was the case with the Uighurs in Guantanamo Bay? Without the protections afforded to suspects under the criminal law model, such errors would never be redressed, and might not ever even be discovered.

I’m offering these thoughts with the caveat that I’m still thinking through these issues myself. I don’t feel that I’ve gotten to the bottom of them.

The divine inhumanity of barbecue

Cain offered God vegetables, Abel offered meat, and God liked meat better. Byron was a sometime vegetarian, and in Byron’s play Cain, the hero scorns meat-eating with heretical, high-Romantic passion. He threatens to knock over Abel’s altar, “with its blood of lambs and kids, / Which fed on milk, to be destroyed in blood.”

When Abel protests that God has found pleasure “in his acceptance of the victims,” Cain bitterly replies:

His pleasure! what was his high pleasure in
The fumes of scorching flesh and smoking blood,
To the pain of the bleating mothers, which
Still yearn for their dead offspring? or the pangs
Of the sad ignorant victims underneath
Thy pious knife?

The first militant vegetarian?

Notebook: The Golden Age of Piracy

Gladys Hulette, New York Tribune, 22 October 1916

"Bootylicious," my review of Peter T. Leeson's The Invisible Hook, appears in the 7 September 2009 issue of the New Yorker.

As in the past, I'd like to offer on this blog some description of the sources that were useful to me in writing the article. The customary caveat: this post won't make much sense if you haven't yet read the article in question first. My first thanks, as usual, are for the book under review, Leeson's Invisible Hook, which is dapper and brisk besides being very well researched.

The best descriptions of pirates come from people taken captive by them. Captain William Snelgrave, whom I use to start my article, tells his story in A New Account of Some Parts of Guinea, and the Slave-Trade, which, though published in 1734, is mysteriously unavailable in Google Books. The only physical copy I can find for sale is a 1971 reprint—for $430. Talk about piracy! Within the scholarly world, Snelgrave's narrative is also famous for his observations of Africa and of slave-trading, which he defends. Another captive, Captain George Roberts, describes having been seized near the Cape Verde Islands in 1722 in The Four Years' Voyages of Capt. George Roberts. "You Dog! You Son of a Bitch! you Speckled-Shirt Dog!" one of his captors curses him. Asked who he thinks his captors are, Roberts submissively answers that "I believed they were Gentlemen of Fortune belonging to the Sea," only to be told off once more: "You lie by God, we are Pirates, by God." Roberts tells a good yarn, so good that some have wondered whether it might be fiction, but I think it's too good for that. When, for example, one of the pirates maroons Roberts on the high seas in a boat with no sail and no provisions, the pirate bestows on Roberts, in parting, a musket with a small amount of powder, calling it a special gift. The gift puzzles Roberts. In fact, though Roberts never figures it out, a loaded gun was traditionally given by one pirate to another when he marooned him—so the marooned man could shoot himself instead of starving to death slowly. It would take a subtle novelist to resist writing the scene where it dawns on Roberts what the musket is for; it seems more likely to me that Roberts's experience and ignorance were both genuine.

Two more captives tell their stories in the General History of the Pyrates, a book I'll describe in a moment. One of them, Captain Evans of the Greyhound, is quoted in my article saying he prefers to keep his hand and lose his gold. At the moment when another captive, Captain Macrae, is afraid that he's going to lose his life, "a Fellow with a terrible Pair of Whiskers, and a wooden leg, being stuck round with Pistols, like the Man in the Almanack with Darts, comes swearing and vapouring upon the Quarter-Deck." To Macrae's surprise, the blustering fellow acclaims him "an honest Fellow," and the testimony saves him. (After reading this story, I wasted a fair amount of time trying to figure out who "the Man in the Almanack with Darts" was, and here's the answer, courtesy of Notes and Queries, 13 June 1908: "The reference . . . is evidently an allusion to the woodcuts in the ephemerides of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries illustrating the supposed effects of the planets, &c., on the diseases in various parts of man's body. . . . The arrows are merely lines pointing to the head, heart, breast, legs, feet, &c., of a small naked figure."

The Pirates' Ruse (detail), February 1896: Male pirates, dressed as ladies and gentlemen, lure a merchant ship closer, while their mates hide with their weapons below the bulwarks Several buccaneers left narratives. The most famous is The Buccaneers of America (first English edition, 1684) by A. O. Exquemelin, a Frenchman who served with Henry Morgan and later became a surgeon in Holland. Exquemelin has some nice observations of life in the New World—flamingo meat and crocodile eggs are very tasty, he reports, and one of the few drawbacks of Caribbean life are these insects known as mosquitoes ("most vexing of all is the noise they make in one's ears")—but there's so much torture in his story that it's quite grim and grisly. I read Alexis Brown's translation, but there's an older translation available for download on Google Books. The Library of Congress offers an online display of the illustrations to the 1678 Dutch edition. Another buccaneer, Basil Ringrose, wrote an account of further depredations that picks up where Exquemelin left off, and it has often been reprinted as the second half of Exquemelin's book.

Pirates (as opposed to buccaneers) left few first-hand documents. The General History reprints a few fragments from what it claims was Blackbeard's diary: "rum all out:—our Company somewhat sober:—A damn’d Confusion amongst us!" And there is the occasional threatening letter, such as the one from Henry Every that I quote, which is reprinted in J. Franklin Jameson, Privateering and Piracy in the Colonial Period (1923), a collection of letters, reports, and legal documents, glossed with very helpful footnotes. There is also the testimony that pirates gave in court, the amplest source of which may be the four volumes (well, two of the four volumes) of Joel H. Baer's British Piracy in the Golden Age.

And then there's Charles Johnson's A General History of the Pyrates (1724), which is droll and vivid. You want the version edited by Manuel Schonhorn, because it's the most meticulous, even though Schonhorn thought that "Charles Johnson" was a pseudonym for Daniel Defoe. In fact, Arne Bialuschewski has shown that it was almost certainly a pseudonym for the journalist Nathaniel Mist.

Between them, Exquemelin's Buccaneers and Johnson/Mist's General History are the source of almost all the great stories about pirates. Given the standards of historiography of their era, they're considered to be remarkably accurate. Still, they do contain instances of embroidery, including, in the case of Johnson/Mist, a long Voltairean (in style though maybe not spirit, depending on the level of irony you choose to read it at) fantasy about a pirate utopia in Madagascar called "Libertalia." Another problem: Johnson/Mist's book is a jumble, chronologically speaking. Only modern history will help you sort wheat from chaff. C. R. Pennell has written an excellent bibliographic essay about pirate scholarship, which appears at the start of his collection Bandits at Sea: A Pirates Reader, which itself contains a broad sample of historical essays, including several on pirates other than the English-speaking ones. To speak very generally, pirate history comes in two sorts: those that describe piracy as a system, and those that describe it as a series of events. (I'm speaking crudely, of course; all do both, to some extent.) Leeson's book falls into the first category, as do such works as Christopher Hill's essay "Radical Pirates?" (1984) and Marcus Rediker's wonderful Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age. (Rediker's pioneering effort on pirates was a chapter in his Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700 – 1750.) Villains of All Nations is lively and astute, and in many ways Rediker's Marxian analysis of pirates anticipates Leeson's. Rediker also seems to have read every pirate-related document ever created. Somewhat lighter in spirit, but also very responsible, is David Cordingly's Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates, which overlays pirate sociology with a tour of the literature and film created out of pirate lore in later centuries.

As for books that offer a more narrative history of pirates, English-speaking pirates did so much dastardy that it's hard to fit the whole story between two covers. One book that manages to tell the full tale is Patrick Pringle's Jolly Roger: The Story of the Great Age of Piracy (Norton, 1953), which covers it all—Elizabethan privateers, colonial-era buccaneers, and Enlightenment-age pirates. Pringle was a sedulous researcher, but new facts have come to light in the half-century since he wrote, so he can't always be relied on as a final authority. His felicitous style more than compensates, though; he's something of a wit. On the matter of pirate governance, he, too, anticipates Leeson's arguments:

Those seamen, mostly illiterate and uneducated, freed from moral and legal restraints, would to-day be regarded as unfit for self-government. . . . Where discipline is removed, self-discipline emerges in the most unlikely places. . . . It worked. Anarchism on a small scale usually does, if it is left in peace. Anarchism on a large scale has not yet been tried.

For in-depth and fully end-noted history, three relatively recent accounts are as riveting as adventure tales: Peter Earle's The Sack of Panamá: Captain Morgan and the Battle for the Caribbean (1981) describes the buccaneer Henry Morgan's opportunistic but (in English eyes) legal raids on Spanish territories in the 1660s and 1670s; Robert C. Ritchie's Captain Kidd and the War against the Pirates (1986) lucidly narrates Kidd's late-seventeenth-century plundering against a background of political intrigue between Whigs and Tories; and Colin Woodard's The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down (2007) tells the story of the last generation of Golden Age pirates, those of the early eighteenth century, including Blackbeard, Charles Vane, and Samuel Bellamy, and the role played in their demise by Bahamas governor Woodes Rogers.

A note on pirate sex: B. R. Burg argued in Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition (1983) that pirates practiced homosexuality more freely than their contemporaries. The circumstances do suggest that this might be likely, as do Bartholomew Roberts's pirate articles, which forbade the presence of any "boy or woman" on board. I'm reluctant to rule it out, knowing what one knows about the British Navy, the original employer of most pirates, and about the propensity of modern-day historians to sweep such matters under the rug. (In Under the Black Flag, for instance, Cordingly quotes Roberts's articles, including the diktat against "boy or woman," and then writes, "There is no mention in this code . . . of homosexuality." Argh, as the pirates say.) But there's not enough evidence to make any positive assertion. The ultimate source of a number of supposed accounts of pirate homosexuality is Louis Le Golif's Memoirs of a Buccaneer, widely suspected of being a twentieth-century fiction. When Le Golif's tales are excluded, very little evidence of pirate sodomy remains. Ringrose's narrative is the source of the anecdote in my article of the servant who claims to have been buggered by his buccaneer master. (Confusingly, the relevant passage does not appear in the reprint linked to above, but only in the original 1685 edition.) The servant confesses, however, just as his master is losing a power struggle with other buccaneers, so his confession might be true, might be part of a smear campaign, or might be both, but in any case it isn't a happy moment of love and liberation. Also intriguing is the testimony given in a court case involving a pirate named Powell, who told a sailor, "I wish you and I were both ashore here stark naked." Rediker reports the line as possibly containing an erotic charge, but when read in its original context (the line appears at vol. 3, page 186 of Baer's British Piracy in the Golden Age), it seems more likely that the statement was recalled in court as evidence of the extremity of Powell's wish to be off the pirate ship, not as evidence of sexual interest.

Pirates, you will not be surprised to hear, are all over the internet. In conclusion, as a representative sampling, here are American soldiers flying Jolly Roger in Afghanistan, a Victorian toy theater for rehearsing the adventures of Blackbeard in your pinafore at home, and an early episode of the exceedingly goofy "Auto-Tune the News" featuring both pirates and gay marriage.

Does media violence lead to real violence, and do video games impair academic performance?

Cross-posted from the University of Michigan Press blog.

"Twilight of the Books," an essay of mine published in The New Yorker on 24 December 2007, has been honored by inclusion in The Best of Technology Writing 2008, edited by Clive Thompson. When The New Yorker published my essay, I posted on my blog a series of mini-bibliographies, for anyone who wanted to dig into the research behind my article and try to answer for themselves whether television impaired intellect or whether literary was declining (here's an index/overview to all these research posts). A month or so ago, when the University of Michigan Press, the publisher of The Best of Technology Writing 2008, invited me to write about my essay for their blog, I was afraid I didn't have any more to say. Also, alas, I was under deadline. But I have a breather now, and looking over my year-old notes, I realize that there were a couple of categories of research that I never posted about at the time, because the topics didn't happen to make it into my article's final draft.

This research tried to answer the questions, Does exposure to violence on television or in video games lead to aggressive behavior in the real world? and Do video games impair academic performance? I still think the questions are very interesting, though I must now offer my summaries with the caveat that they are somewhat dated. In fact, I know of some very interesting research recently published on the first question, some of which you can read about on the blog On Fiction. I'm afraid I haven't kept up with video games as closely, but I'm sure there's more research on them, too. I hope there is, at any rate, because when I looked, I found very little. (By research, in all cases, I meant peer-reviewed studies based on experimental or survey data, and not popular treatments.)

A few words of introduction. The historian Lynn Hunt has suggested in her book Inventing Human Rights that in the eighteenth century, the novel helped to change Europe's mind about torture by encouraging people to imagine suffering from the inside. As if in corroboration, some of the research summarized below suggests that the brain responds less sympathetically when it is perceives violence through electronic media. As you'll see, however, there is some ambiguity in the evidence, and the field is highly contested.

1. Does exposure to violence on television or in video games lead to aggressive behavior in the real world?

  • In a summary of pre-2006 research, John P. Murray pointed to experiments in the 1960s by Albert Bandura, showing that children tend to mimic violent behavior they have just seen on screen and to a number of studies in the early 1970s that found correlations between watching violence and participating in aggressive behavior or showing an increased willingness to harm others. In 1982, a panel commissioned by the Surgeon General to survey existing research asserted that "violence on television does lead to aggressive behavior," and in 1992, a similar panel commissioned by the American Psychological Association reported "clear evidence that television violence can cause aggressive behavior." One mechanism may be through television's ability to convince people that the world is dangerous and cruel, in what is known as the "mean world syndrome." Murray claims that a twenty-two-year longitudinal study in Columbia County, New York, run by Huesmann and Eron, which was begun under the auspices of the Surgeon General's office, has linked boys' exposure to television violence at age eight to aggressive and antisocial behavior at age eighteen and to involvement in violent crime by age thirty; in fact, a 1972 study by Huesmann et al. did link boys' exposure at eight to aggressive behavior at eighteen, but the 1984 study cited by Murray linked violent crime at age thirty to aggressive behavior at age eight and said nothing about exposure to televised violence. In an unrelated study, when television was introduced in Canada, children's levels of aggression increased. [John P. Murray, "TV Violence: Research and Controversy," Children and Television: Fifty Years of Research, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2007. L. Rowell Huesmann, Leonard D. Eron, Monroe M. Lefkowitz, and Leopold O. Walder, "Stability of Aggression Over Time and Generations," Developmental Psychology 1984. For a synopsis of Huesmann's 1972 study, see Steven J. Kirsh, Children, Adolescents, and Media Violence: A Critical Look at the Research, Sage Publications, 2006, p. 208.]
  • A longitudinal study of 450 Chicago-area children was begun in 1977 when the children were between six and eight years old, and continued in 1992-1995, when they were between twenty-one and twenty-three years old. As children, the subjects were asked about their favorite television programs, whether they identified with the characters, and how true-to-life they thought the shows were. Fifteen years later, it emerged that watching violent shows, identifying with aggressive characters of the same sex, and believing that the shows were realistic correlated with adult aggression, including physical aggression. The effect was present even after controlling for such factors as initial childhood aggression, intellectual capacity, socioeconomic status, and parents' level of emotional support. (Note that in the opinion of the researchers, the Six Million Dollar Man was considered a "very violent" show, and that the heroine of the Bionic Woman was considered an aggressive character.) [L. Rowell Huesmann, Jessica Moise-Titus, Cheryl-Lynn Podolski, and Leonard D. Eron, "Longitudinal Relations between Children's Exposure to TV Violence and Their Aggressive and Violent Behavior in Young Adulthood, 1977-1992," Developmental Psychology, 2003. Cf. Kirsh , p. 209.]
  • In a 2006 textbook about the relation between media violence and aggressive behavior, author Steven J. Kirsh notes that a 1994 meta-analysis of the link between television violence and aggression estimated the size of the effect to be r = .31. "The effect sizes for media violence and aggression are stronger than the effect sizes for condom use and sexually transmitted HIV, passive smoking and lung cancer at work, exposure to lead and IQ scores in children, nicotine patch and smoking cessation, and calcium intake and bone mass," Kirsh wrote. A 2004 meta-analysis found that the correlation between video game violence and aggressive behavior was r = .26. To put the effect sizes in perspective, Kirsh notes that they are greater than the link between testosterone levels and aggression, but weaker than the link between having antisocial peers and delinquency. In surveying the research on video games, Kirsh makes the point that there is little research as yet, and that most of it was done in what he calls the "Atari age," when the games were fairly innocuous; almost no one has experimentally tested the effects on children and teens of the new-generation, highly realistic and gory first-person shooter games. [Steven J. Kirsh, Children, Adolescents, and Media Violence: A Critical Look at the Research, Sage Publications, 2006.]
  • In a 2007 summary of research, three scientists asserted that there was "unequivocal evidence that media violence increases the likelihood of aggressive and violent behavior in both immediate and long-term contexts," and noted that the link between television violence and aggression had been proved by studies in both the laboratory and the field, and by both cross-sectional and longitudinal studies. Video games were not as well documented, but in the opinion of the scientists, the preliminary evidence suggested that their effect would be similar. Playing violent video games has been shown to increase physiological arousal. Measurements of skin conductance and heart rate show that people have less of an aversion to images of real violence, if they have previously been exposed to violent television or violent video games. Measurements of event-related brain potentials (ERPs) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fRMI) allow researchers to look with new precision at the magnitude of brain processes that occur at particular times and at the activation of specific regions of the brain. A 2006 study by Bartholow et al., for example, showed that exposure to violent video games reduces aversion to scenes of real violence, as measured by a blip of voltage that typically occurs 300 milliseconds after sight of a gory image. A 2006 study by Murray et al. (see below) showed that violent scenes of television activated parts of the brain associated with emotion, memory, and motor activity. Yet another 2006 study, by Weber et al., showed that while players were engaged in violence during a video game, a brain region associated with emotional processing was suppressed, and one associated with cognitive processing was aroused, perhaps in order to reduce empathy and thereby improve game performance. In a 2005 study by Matthews et al., chronic adolescent players of violent video games scored the same as adolescents with disruptive behavior disorders on a test designed to assess a brain region responsible for inhibition and error correction. Attempting to explain the results of the various studies under review, the authors write: "Initial results suggest that, although video-game players are aware that they are engaging in fictitious actions, preconscious neural mechanisms might not differentiate fantasy from reality." [Nicholas L. Carnagey, Craig A. Anderson, and Bruce D. Bartholow, "Media Violence and Social Neuroscience," Currents Directions in Psychological Science, 2007.]
  • While a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) device monitored their brain activity, eight children watched a video montage that included boxing scenes from Rocky IV and part of a National Geographic animal program for children, among other clips. The violent scenes activated many brain regions that the nonviolent scenes did not, mostly in the right hemisphere. These regions have been associated by other researchers with emotion, attention and arousal, detection of threat, episodic memory, and fight or flight response. The authors of the study speculate that "though the child may not be aware of the threat posed by TV violence at a conscious level . . . a more primitive system within his or her brain (amygdala, pulvinar) may not discriminate between real violence and entertainment fictional violence." In the activation of regions associated with long-term memory, the researchers saw a suggestion that the television violence might have long-term effects on the viewer. [John P. Murray, etal. "Children's Brain Activations While Viewing Televised Violence Revealed by fMRI," Media Psychology, 2006.]
  • In a 2005 study, 213 video-game novices with an average age of twenty-eight were divided into two groups, and one group spent a month playing an average of 56 hours of a violent multi-player fantasy role-playing video game. Participants completed questionnaires to assess their aggression-related beliefs before and after the test month, and were asked before and after whether they had argued with a friend and whether they had argued with a romantic partner. The data showed no significant correlation between hours of game play and the measures of aggression, once the results were controlled for age, gender, and pre-test aggression scores. The authors note that there might be an effect too small for their study to detect, and that adults might be less sensitive to the exposure than children or adolescents. [Dmitri Williams and Marko Skoric, "Internet Fantasy Violence: A Test of Aggression in an Online Game," Communication Monographs, June 2005. Andrea Lynn, "No Strong Link Seen Between Violent Video Games and Aggression," News Bureau, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 9 August 2005.]
  • A 2007 book presented three studies of video-game violence's effect on school-age children. In the first study, 161 nine- to twelve-year-olds and 354 college students were asked to play one of several video games—either a nonviolent game, a violent game with a happy and cartoonish presentation, or a violent game with a gory presentation—and then to play a second game, during which they were told they could punish other player with blasts of noise (the blasts were not, in fact, delivered). Those who played violent games, whether cartoonish or gory, were more likely to administer punishments during the second game; playing violent games at home also raised the likelihood of punishing others. Children and college students behaved similarly. In the second study, 189 high school students were given questionnaires designed to assess their media usage and personality. The more often the students reported playing violent video games, the more likely they were to have hostile personalities, to believe that violence was normal, and to behave aggressively, and the less likely they were to feel forgiving toward others. The correlation between game playing and violent behavior held even when the researchers controlled for gender and aggressive beliefs and attitudes. The more time that students spent in front of screens (whether televisions or video games), the lower their grades. In the third study, 430 elementary school children were surveyed twice, at a five-month interval, about their exposure to violent media, beliefs about the world, and whether they had been in fights. Students were asked to rate one another's sociability and aggressiveness, and teachers were asked to comment on these traits and on academic performance. In just five months, children who played more video games darkened in their outlook on the world, and peers and teachers noticed that they became more aggressive and less amiable. The effect was independent of gender and of the children's level of aggression at the first measurement. Screen time impaired the academic performance of these students, too; they only became more aggressive, however, when the content they saw during the screen time was violent. [Craig A. Anderson, Douglas A. Gentile, and Katherine E. Buckley, Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents: Theory, Research, and Public Policy, Oxford University Press, 2007.]

2. Do video games impair academic performance?

  • In a 2004 survey of 2,032 school-age children, there were statistically significant differences in print and video-game use between students earning As and Bs and those earning Cs and below. On average, A-B students had read for pleasure 46 minutes and played video games for 48 minutes the previous day; C-and-below students had read for pleasure 29 minutes and played video games for 1 hour 9 minutes. Television watching seemed constant between the groups. [Donald F. Roberts, Ulla G. Foehr, and Victoria Rideout, Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year-Olds, The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, March 2005, page 47.]
  • A 2007 book presented results of a study in which 189 high school students were given questionnaires designed to assess their media usage and personality. The more time that students spent in front of screens (whether televisions or video games), the lower their grades. In a related and similar study, 430 elementary school children were surveyed twice, at a five-month interval, and screen time impaired the academic performance of these students, too. [Craig A. Anderson, Douglas A. Gentile, and Katherine E. Buckley, Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents: Theory, Research, and Public Policy, Oxford University Press, 2007.]

UPDATE (27 Feb. 2009): For ease in navigating, here's a list of all the blog posts I wrote to supplement my New Yorker article "Twilight of the Books":

Notebook: "Twilight of the Books" (overview)
Are Americans Reading Less?
Are Americans Spending Less on Reading?
Is Literacy Declining?
Does Television Impair Intellect?
Does Internet Use Compromise Reading Time?
Is Reading Online Worse Than Reading Print?
I also later talked about the article on WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show and on KUER's Radio West.
And, as a bonus round: Does media violence lead to real violence, and do video games impair academic performance?

Kaboom

“The Terror Last Time,” my article about the 1886 trial of Chicago’s Haymarket anarchists, which is in part a review of James Green’s new book Death in the Haymarket, is published in the 13 March 2006 New Yorker. As it happens, there are many Haymarket resources on the web, so I thought I’d link to a few of them. What follows will seem a little scattered unless you read my article first (ahem), but if you’ve done that, then . . .

If you want to read the witnesses’ testimony yourself, the Chicago Historical Society has published the trial transcript in the Haymarket Affair Digital Collection. The collection has all sorts of neat tidbits. If you thought my description of Louis Lingg’s beauty was a bit too breathless, for example, you can judge for yourself here. If you want to see exactly how nut and bolt screwed together to make a bomb, look here, for a bomb allegedly Lingg’s. The historical society also collaborated with Northwestern University to create Dramas of the Haymarket, a sort of online guided tour of the archival holdings.

The 2003 re-analysis of the Haymarket bomb fragments and evidence was described in this article by Timothy Messer-Kruse, James O. Eckert Jr., Pannee Burckel, and Jeffrey Dunn in a 2005 issue of the journal Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas.

The night before Parsons, Spies, Engel, and Fischer were hanged, Parsons sang the Scotch ballad “Annie Laurie.” There’s no recording of Parsons himself singing it, but there’s a period recording of the song by the Edison Male Quartette in the UC Santa Barbara Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project. As I mention in the article, the next morning, just a few hours before they were hanged, the men sang the “Workers’ Marseillaise” together. The three German speakers may well have sung in German, and I strongly suspect that that’s what’s being sung in this period recording. I’m not sure, though, because my German comprehension is extremely poor; it’s the right tune, certainly, and someone has catalogued it under the title Arbeiter, i.e., “workers.”

Neither new nor rare

Historians have debated at length the question of when certain ideas about homosexuality came into currency. Here’s a piece of evidence, not previously reported to my knowledge:

In the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts on 11 December 1868, a young man named Samuel M. Andrews was tried for murder. He pleaded not guilty by reason of “transitory insanity.” He was driven mad, he said, by Cornelius Holmes’s attempt to have sex with him.

It was a strange, sad case. According to the prosecuting attorney, Cornelius Holmes was not like other men. He was fifty-three years old at the time of his death and weighed 225 pounds. A bachelor, he lived alone in a boarding house. Though he had no occupation, he was said to be worth $20,000. The prosecution claimed that “The only person with whom he was at all intimate was the prisoner,” Andrews, who had killed him. The defense more or less agreed with this characterization of their relationship. Andrews “was almost the first young man Cornelius Holmes had ever met, who had not slurred him, & hooted at him,” Andrews’s attorney said. He added that Holmes “was not an idiot; . . . He was rather slow; played in childhood with children younger than himself.”

How intimate were they? The lawyers tried to bring this out. There was a telling exchange during the examination of a witness named Lysander Bartlett, a ship’s carpenter:

Question. Were Cornelius & Andrews intimate friends?

Witness. Mr. Andrews can tell you better than I can.

Chief Justice. You should not say to counsel that Andrews can tell you that better than I can. It is improper.

Witness. ‘Tis, eh? I knew they were intimate. . .

After Andrews was arrested for the murder, witnesses saw him kiss Holmes’s body.

In court, Andrews had a difficult task: he had to establish the nature of Holmes’s interest in him, and he had to make it sound plausible that he had resisted Holmes’s advances despite their persistence. He didn’t quite manage. He testified that “about nine years ago one stormy evening,” he and Holmes had shared a bed. “After talking awhile he turned towards me, & tried to put a part of his person between my legs, behind. I left the bed.” Though Holmes made other advances, the friendship continued. In fact there were hints that Holmes had thought of leaving his money to Andrews.

The murder came about one day when Holmes beckoned Andrews to follow him off the road and into the forest. Once they were alone, Holmes threw him down, tore open his pantaloons, put his hand in a relevant place, and said, “Now I’m going to have some, this time.” In a panic, Andrews grabbed a stone . . . That, at any rate, is what Andrews claimed in court, though he also claimed, confusedly, that he was “entirely unconscious of what took place.”

In summing up, the defense stressed how common Holmes’s tendency was:

Nor, gentlemen, is this any new crime. Go to our soldiers & sailors, inquire of our naval officers & see whether it is a new crime. The government would have you believe that this is an improbable story, because the crime is rare; gentlemen, this story is more than probable, for it is a crime which has always existed.

The prosecution, on the other hand, stressed how unlikely it was that Andrews would have had to kill Holmes in order to defend himself from rape. “Rape,” the prosecution insisted, wasn’t even the right word; in fact, the proper word didn’t exist, because the thing was impossible. The whole question of sex between men, the prosecution suggested, was probably a red herring: “There was in the present case no adequate evidence of any voluntary acts of indecency between the parties,” the prosecution argued, “but even if such existed, these had no tendency to prove an attempt to commit this act by force.”

In his instructions to the jury, the judge observed that Andrews had taken Holmes’s earlier advances quite calmly and had remained his close friend despite them. Taking the hint, the jury found Andrews guilty of manslaughter, and he was sentenced to twenty years.

(Source: Report of the Trial of Samuel M. Andrews, Indicted for the Murder of Cornelius Holmes, before the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, December 11, 1868, including the Rulings of the Court upon Many Questions of the Law, and a Full Statement of Authorities upon the Subject of Transitory Insanity. By Charles G. Davis, of Counsel for the Prisoner. New York: Hurd & Houghton. Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1869.)