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Tomgram: Rick Shenkman, How We Learned to Stop Worrying About People and Love the Bombing

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Torturers, rapists, murderers: for more than a decade as I researched my history of the Vietnam War, Kill Anything That Moves, I spent a good deal of time talking to them, thinking about them, reading about them, writing about them. They all had much in common. At a relatively young age, these men had traveled thousands of miles to kill people they didn't know on the say-so of men they didn't know, and for a mere pittance -- all of it done in the name of America.

I also spent time talking to another group of men, a much larger contingent who stood by and watched as those beside them tortured or raped or murdered. Some heartily endorsed these acts, some seemed ambivalent about them, some were appalled by them, but none did much of anything about them.

Then there was a third contingent of men: those who witnessed the torture, rapes, or murders and couldn't -- wouldn't -- abide by that conduct. This tiny group spoke out about what they had seen, often at the risk of their own welfare, sometimes their very lives.

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What differentiated these men from each other? They had all been raised in the same country, had been subject to the same laws and norms, including prohibitions against torture, rape, and murder. Many, if not most, had grown up in similar socio-economic circumstances, received comparable educations, and at least nominally belonged to churches with strict moral codes and an emphasis on doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. Why then did so many of them commit horrendous acts or stand by while others did? Why did so few speak up?

I never came up with satisfactory answers to these questions. What I learned instead was that almost any man might be a torturer or a rapist or a murderer if given the chance. I learned that most men will look the other way if at all possible. And I learned that shockingly few men are capable of the courage and the empathy necessary to stand up for those that their brothers-in-arms would just as soon kill.

Today, Rick Shenkman -- head honcho at the History News Network and author of the just-published Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics -- explores the biological phenomena that may well underpin our appalling lack of empathy, the animal instincts that allow so many of us to stand by in the face of unspeakable acts. While the science may still be in its early stages and the means of measuring our motivations still crude and inexact, Shenkman (whose new book Scientific American calls "a timely look into psychological patterns that drive political behavior") analyzes a raft of studies that offer new ways of thinking about why so many humans tend to be so utterly inhumane, and explores how the stories we tell ourselves and others might offer us a path to overcome our utterly human inhumanity. Nick Turse

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Ted Cruz's Stone-Age Brain and Yours
Why "Collateral Damage" Elicits So Little Empathy Among Americans
By Rick Shenkman

After Senator Ted Cruz suggested that the United States begin carpet bombing Islamic State (IS) forces in Syria, the reaction was swift. Hillary Clinton mocked candidates who use "bluster and bigotry." Jeb Bush insisted the idea was "foolish." Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, tweeted: "You can't carpet bomb an insurgency out of existence. This is just silly."

When CNN's Wolf Blitzer objected that Cruz's proposal would lead to lots of civilian casualties, the senator retorted somewhat incoherently: "You would carpet bomb where ISIS is -- not a city, but the location of the troops. You use air power directed -- and you have embedded special forces to direction the air power. But the object isn't to level a city. The object is to kill the ISIS terrorists." PolitiFact drily noted that Cruz apparently didn't understand what the process of carpet (or "saturation") bombing entails. By definition, it means bombing a wide area regardless of the human cost.

By almost any standard Cruz's proposal was laughable and his rivals and the media called him on it. What happened next? By all rights after such a mixture of inanity and ruthlessness, not to say bloody-mindedness against civilian populations, his poll numbers should have begun to sag. After all, he'd just flunked the commander-in-chief test and what might have seemed like a test of his humanity as well. In fact, his poll numbers actually crept up. The week before the imbroglio, an ABC opinion poll had registered him at 15% nationally. By the following week, he was up to 18% and one poll even had him at a resounding 24%.

How to explain this? While many factors can affect a candidate's polling numbers, one uncomfortable conclusion can't be overlooked when it comes to reactions to Cruz's comments: by and large, Americans don't think or care much about the real-world consequences of the unleashing of American air power or that of our allies. The other day, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that, in September and October, a Saudi Arabian coalition backed by the United States "carried out at least six apparently unlawful airstrikes in residential areas of the [Yemeni] capital," Sana'a. The attacks resulted in the deaths of 60 civilians. Just about no one in the United States took notice, nor was it given significant media coverage. More than likely, this is the first time you've heard about the HRW findings.

You might think that this is because the conflict in Yemen is off our national radar screen. But how much attention have Americans paid to U.S. air strikes and bombing runs in Iraq? Washington has literally been bombing Iraq on and off for twelve years and yet few have taken much notice. That helps explain why bombing is such an attractive option for Washington any time trouble breaks out in the world. Americans don't seem to care much what goes on when our bombs or missiles hit the ground. As pollsters found recently, a surprising number of Americans even want to bomb places that can't be found on a map. When Public Policy Polling asked GOP voters in mid-December if they favored bombing Agrabah, 30% said they did (as did 19% of Democrats), while only 13% opposed the idea. Agrabah is the fictional city featured in the Disney movie Aladdin.

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Would you support or oppose bombing Agrabah?
Support bombing Agrabah.......................... 30%
Oppose bombing Agrabah........................... 13%
Not sure......................................................... 57%

That 57% were "not sure" might be considered at least modestly (but not wildly) reassuring.

Why Cruz's Numbers Went Up

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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