An interesting analogy connects a number of the disagreements over topics like the shooting of the Iranian airliner. Some people want to stick to the technical details and leave politics out of it; others reply that the distinction is untenable since politics is part of the reality in which products of technology operate. Likewise, some people want to discuss the conduct of war as if it occurred in a reality free of politics. The latter was once possible but now it isn't. But why? Roughly speaking, because the world is a smaller place. For one thing, the efficiency of modern communications media make it possible to conduct a `political war'. For another thing, great increases in the velocities and ranges of both weapons and civilian transportation make it much harder for civilian activities to stay out of the way of `war zones'. Yet the model of `pure war' continues to inform the design of most computerized weapons systems. All of the doctrines, indeed all the vocabulary, of Western warfare were developed in the context of such well-defined, all-out wars as the major modern European wars. These wars started and ended at definite times, opposed clearly defined alliances in which all relevant parties felt the need of choosing sides, and were conducted by militaries whose only political constraint was the necessity of winning. Everyone understood that civilian life simply came to a complete halt during these wars. These episodes serve as our prototypes of a `war', a category about which one makes generalizations by consulting a historiography of warfare, written by modern Westerners, that concentrates on episodes that fit this pattern. The concept of `civilian' is simply the flip side of the concept of `war'. This concept of warfare is just as much a part of the models implemented by the computers on the Vincennes as the concepts of physics used to describe signals, trajectories, and explosions. As we well know, when the models underlying a computer system are wrong, the computer will make mistakes. Most of the systematic organized violent conflicts in the world today are not `pure wars' but rather drawn-out low-level conflicts in which the smallest details of military operations are political actions organized by political considerations. The inappropriateness of the `pure war' model explains many recurring themes in interviews, long before the Iran Air incident, with the military people running the US operations in the Gulf, both the sailors on the ships and the admirals back in Washington. They complain bitterly, for example, of having to ``fight a war in a lake'' and of the narrow margins placed on their decisions by the presence of non-military planes and boats, many of which (especially the boats) do not own or competently operate the radio systems that permit ready discrimination in peacetime traffic control. Thus the naval battle that was occurring at the precise moment when the Air Iran plane approached the `war zone' was not at all a prerequisite for such an incident. The ultimate questions are: As warfare and politics blur, what should be call what's happening in the Gulf (and two dozen other places in the world) if not a `war'? And then, as technical practice and politics blur, what should we call what happens in laboratories and factories if not `technology'?
It is true (as Henry Spencer points out) that you would have to be "misinformed or crazy" get on that flight as if it were a normal peacetime flight. On the other hand, the fact that we do not judge such people wise should not affect the way we judge those who caused their deaths. If a woman takes a risk (say, walking home from work through a suspect neighborhood) that leads to her being raped, we may question her judgement in taking the risk, but we in no way reduce the burden of responsibility on the man who actually did the raping. We may suggest that she avoid walking in the area, but we know that it is not right to expect women to limit their lives because of a danger some criminals have decided to threaten them with. The desired situation (in fact the moral situation) would be no risk to women of rape. There would have been no risk of rape (and no rape) had not some man decided to create one. One must not fall into the trap of transferring responsibility from the perpetrator onto the victim. Likewise, there would be no real risk of an airliner being shot down by a missile had not some group of people decided to create that risk. Yes, we can question the judgement of a group of people who decide to expose themselves to that risk, but we cannot lessen the moral responsibility of the people who created the risk and who performed the action. By having a shoot-first-ask-questions-later policy, in a zone where both military and peacetime activities co-exist (and, as I'm sure we all agree, where only peacetime activities should be), a military that is executing policy places the risk of executing that policy squarely on the shoulders of potentially innocent people. Given the fact the the U.S. chose to conduct military operations where there were innocent bystanders I feel strongly that they should also be willing to accept any attendant risks. Anything less than that amounts to sticking other people with the bad results of their decisions. The Navy has a moral obligation to decide whether or not a blip on their screen is an attacking aircraft and not an airliner, if there is a significant chance that it could be an airliner. If they cannot, they should not place the risk of misidentification on some innocent passengers. I feel this especially in this case, where the U.S. Navy is not fighting a war for U.S. survival against unprovoked attack, but is implementing a peacetime foreign policy decision. It's too bad the Iranian airline passengers had to learn the facts of life the hard way, but the people who fired those missiles cannot really be blamed for it. - Henry Spencer I think this statement has a profound lack of empathy, but I find the last part of it, "the people who fired those missiles cannot really be blamed for it," to be completely absurd and dangerous. Any atrocity can be justified using very similar words: "it's too bad she had to learn the facts of life the hard way, but the man who raped her cannot really be blamed for it." (After all, she really caused the crime, by placing herself in the position where it could happen, right?) The people who died in the airliner did not kill themselves. Captain Rogers killed them. A sidereal examination of the facts of the incident shows this clearly. At most, the passengers are guilty of stupidity, optimism and bad judgement. Captain Rogers is guilty of their deaths. The problem with man-made risks in general is not so much detecting them, but trying to find someone or some group to actually be responsible for them. If the responsibility for a risk (and its consequences) is diffuse, or state sanctioned, or complicated by the fact that the victims apparently chose to accept the risk; then people are all to quick to deny any blame. This is a moral failing. Many technological risks (from the design of user interfaces to the existence of nuclear weapons) are orphans in this sense. Tracy William Lewis Tims
I've had _numerous_ private messages & some RISKS postings responding to my submission to RISKS 7.15 ("The target is destroyed"). A few warranted replies, so I have tried to draw up same here. (I have not responded to Gary Chapman's posting in RISKS 7.17, since I agree emphatically with everything he says.) (1) Michael Mauldin (RISKS 7.15) taxes me with getting the facts wrong. I plead guilty. If you note the header of my message you will see that it was — well, 'fired off' I guess is the right phrase — at 11:15 on Mon 04 July, at which time even the most elementary facts were in dispute. For that matter, several of the 'facts' Mr Mauldin and others report have since been, uh, revised. My main points, however, rely (I hope) less on facts than on possibilities. I would be tempted to call them 'philosophical' did that not open them to the usual (and deserved) snorts of derision 'hard science' types reserve for contemporary so-called 'philosophy.' Similarly, Sue McPherson charges from Down Under "that the papers have told him that technology has fouled up again." I can assure her that I never believe what the papers tell me. I grew up in Louisiana. As for technology doing what it ought in this case, well, 290 dead civilians indicates otherwise to ME. Her words radiate the confidence of technolatry: if we can get the facts straight & keep the media & the pols out of the control room we can fix this sucker right now so it'll never happen again. But whether, in this instance, Capt Rogers made the 'right' call or not, whether the EW gear 'worked' or not, we still have to ask some very fundamental questions about technology. Let's not be under any illusions about whether we will ever get the "real facts," the nitty-gritty technical details, of the Flight 655 tragedy. (Perhaps 12 months from now one of you reading this will get hired by the Pentagon to write some code for the AEGIS system to prevent such-and-such a, purely hypothetical you understand, 'problem' from occurring. I would like to think you would do the right thing and tell us, but doubtless you will be sworn to infinite secrecy.) In Montreal, where I used to live, complaints against the Police de la Communaute Urbaine de Montreal were investigated by — the Police de la Communaute Urbaine de Montreal. Needless to say, such complaints were unexceptionally dismissed as groundless. With the stakes stupendously higher, what reason have we to believe that the US government (to say nothing of our lickspittle press) will behave in any less self-serving a fashion? 290 dead innocent airline passengers, 66 children among them, is, to put it crudely, one hell of a spin-control problem. (2) Bob Estell (RISKS 7.15) knew Capt Will Rogers before the Navy & finds it hard to believe he (Rogers) would have behaved in any other way save the honorable. Given the alternative, I hope for Capt Rogers's sake he is right. But military training of any sort changes a person, in my thin experience in the matter; it is intended to; and the results are for the 'good' only when that 'good' is evalued from the standpoint of the profession of arms. At any rate, Capt Rogers either made a bad judgment on the basis of good evidence, a good judgment on the basis of bad evidence, or a bad judgment on the basis of bad evidence. I cannot bring myself to believe Capt Rogers, any more than Capt Brindel before him, was capable of the first, and I hope none of us can. (That may not keep him from being scapegoated.) If versions 2 or 3 are correct, then the particular technology, to quote George Bush, is "in deep doodoo." And in any event technology in the broadest sense is what gave us the "Roger-willco" attitude that got us embroiled in this hellacious war in the first place. (3) Jim Anderson (RISKS 7.16) faults Iran Air for its imprudence, at best, in sending a commercial airliner over a combat-engaged US AEGIS cruiser. IF indeed the facts are as my government represents them (I am, by the way, a native-born US citizen and a landed immigrant in Canada), then I might fault the people at Iran Air for poor judgment; perhaps I might even go so far as to hold them technically liable at law for criminal negligence indirectly causing death. As to the true facts of the engagement, well, as of today (9 July) the US has, ahem, changed its story a few times. As a highly interested party its account will always be suspect. But even if the facts are as we represent them, since the US is not officially at war with Iran (at least as far as Congress, which under the Constitution has the exclusive power to declare war, is concerned) we had and have no right to be where we are in the first place, under strict interpretation of international law and maritime convention, to say nothing of good old practical political reasoning. (Henry Spencer, RISKS 7.17, please take note. This is not 'our' war.) Let me pose the following 'scenario', as the gamers say: suppose you are a citizen of, say, France, in the year 2000. Margaret Thatcher, now in her 18th term of office, declares war on your country. The USSR, for 10 years thanks to _perestroika_ engorged on Western high technology and a big consumer of oil from the North Sea, decides to protect its supply by sending in a huge naval tactical group, some of which stays outside the North Sea & English Channel, but much of which goes in to reflag tankers with the Soviet standard & generally harass & fire on French vessels while ignoring English ships. In short order their EW technology, still at US 1988 levels, leads them to shoot down an Airbus A920. The Soviets say the French were to blame; some Russians claim fanatical French deconstructionists had sent the airliner on a deliberate kamikaze mission, or had tucked a MiG-99 behind it, or AT BEST just should have known better than to tempt the wrath of the Bear. Describe your feelings, as a French citizen. (For fun, imagine what the Pentagon would be thinking.) This was my point: we are in the the Gulf only partly because of greed and the normal, predictable imperialist tendencies we have exhibited for over a century. REAL prudence would counsel us not to be there, and statesmen of an earlier day would probably have heeded that counsel. But the Mephistopheles of technology, to whom we have sold our soul, remember, whispers: "We _can_ do it. If we _can_ do it, we _should_ do it. If we _should_ do it, we _must_ do it." Technology is much more than just a tool. It is a world, a universe of discourse, a mythology (as PGN put it elsewhere in the issue), a devil of a weirdly affectless sort, but persuasive as any tempter. He has entered into us like the demon into the Gadarene swine, and driven us headlong, not this time into the Sea of Galilee, but into the Persian Gulf. Mr Anderson's final point is thus the most disturbing, the more so for its offhanded, sensible flavor. "Let's get the forum back to technical risks," he urges, "and off of the political beat." Again, this is my point: the two are as inseparable as the faces of Janus. The flashpoint of their union is the armed forces of the US and NATO, and to a much lesser extent those of the Soviet Union, the Warsaw Pact, and other nations. Technology, or rather its apologists, dissembles this; part of the hoodwink consists in its claiming to be just a means, completely separate from any consideration of ends. We are more than happy to go along, to let ourselves be deceived, for the sake of the lovely, tangible, short- term amenities and conveniences it supplies. (Anyone who has doubts about America's capacity for self-deception must have been on Mars for the past 8 years.) Technology is, rather, for us, an end in itself as well as the means thereto, THE end-in-itself _par excellence_. (The end, PERIOD, I'm tempted to say.) This, to my mind, is where a more fundamental consideration of the "RISKS" posed by technology must begin. Such a reconsideration, it seems to me, would have to go far beyond the received wisdom. It would have to question what we take completely for granted, and when one does this one always runs the risk of being deemed insane, reactionary, or Luddite, no matter how much one loves one's children & the future. Is, for instance, the entire modern project of unlimited progress through the conquest of nature, of which technology is the articulation, the Unqualified Good we assume it to be? The project of the conquest of nature seems itself founded upon still deeper assumptions, such as the mechanical character of human and nonhuman nature, the total freedom of human cognition and valuation, the denial of transcendence, etc. But the most important such assumption seems to be that compassion for the lot of one's suffering fellow human beings must override all other practical and theoretical considerations. In Feuerbach's words, "compassion must precede thought." Are we prepared, in the light of the chaos into which our 'compassionate' and 'thoughtful' technology is about to precipitate us, to rethink even these assumptions? Turning back to bits and bytes (permanently) is tuning out to the deeper issues. I can play with the details as well as anybody, I suppose, but just as in a corporation you'll never get promoted to CEO if all you want to do is sit at a terminal all day and code, so we cannot be free men and women, "The People" to whom our Constitution makes constant reference, if we do not undertake to THINK about What Gives Here Anyway? If I may be permitted a personal point, at the risk of making this sound like some maudlin Lance Morrow "Time Essay": Someone may object, "Well, for an anti-technologist you seem to have no problems with the computer, the pre-eminent technology." All right. But with me the issue of technology is much more painful to think through than whether or not I am prepared to go back to the typewriter or even the quill pen. My adorable one-year-old recently underwent a balloon valvoplasty for a blocked heart valve. Without the operation the prognosis was death by heart attack or congestive heart failure by six months of age. Today he is well and will lead an utterly normal life, provided he does not fly on an Iranian airliner near an AEGIS ship. For me, to think about technology at a fundamental level means to come face to face with the bitter possibility of my own son's certain death. Unless we are prepared to think at that level we will go on killing, puzzled, wishing we didn't have to, but hopelessly going on and on. The great English poet Stevie Smith, writing about theology in her poem "How Do You See?" has words that the priests and priestesses of the new religion of technology would do well to heed: I do not think we shall be able to bear much longer the dishonesty Of clinging for comfort to beliefs we do not believe in, For comfort, and to be comfortably free of the fear Of diminishing good, as if truth were a convenience. I think if we do not learn quickly, and learn to teach children, To be good without enchantment, without the help Of beautiful painted fairy stories pretending to be true, Then I think it will be too much for us, the dishonesty, And, armed as we are now, we shall kill everybody, It will be too much for us, we shall kill everybody. Questioning technology as profoundly as we must is so painful and vertiginous I doubt we can do it. I hope we can; but I doubt it. That's all for now. Hugh Miller University of Toronto (416)536-4441 <HUGH@UTORONTO.BITNET>
Please report problems with the web pages to the maintainer