JOANNE MYERS: Good afternoon, everyone. I'm Joanne Myers, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council, I would like to thank you all for joining us.
As today is Human Rights Day, the day on which, in 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is most fitting that we host a widely respected member of the human rights community, John Sifton. John is the Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, and he will be discussing his book, Violence All Around, a book that has come out of his extensive experiences as a human rights monitor.
While violence has always been a part of the human condition, violence appears to be more savage, more pervasive today than in times past. For John, the atrocities he saw in Afghanistan, beginning in the spring and summer of 2001, this seemed to be especially true. Although he had been in other alarming places, in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, this time, he writes, something was different, something more disturbing than any time before. Finding himself mired in researching the aftermath of the Taliban and later the impact of the 9/11 attacks, he himself came very close to being shot in the head by a Taliban gunman.
This proximity to personal violence had to be numbing. Combined with civilian casualties you saw, it is understandable why you wrote that the violence you witnessed and your closeness to it was the provocation and the embryo for this book. It also had to be very cathartic in writing about your feelings, I would think.
In the next 25 to 30 minutes or so, John will help us to understand what violence is, how we think and speak about it. Then we will turn the floor to you, our audience, so that you can ask any questions you have been thinking about.
JOANNE MYERS: As a way of just beginning the conversation, perhaps you could just describe what it was like being a human rights worker in the field.
JOHN SIFTON: First of all, thank you for inviting me. I really want to thank the Carnegie Council for having me and for hosting the event. It's great to see so many friends and colleagues coming out to see me.
I don't know why I ended up in Afghanistan. I don't even know why I got into human rights. My memory doesn't really seem to call it up anymore. I just do remember that I found myself working in the Balkans and Afghanistan and being forced by the circumstances I was in to start thinking about what was going on around me.
The phenomenon of unfettered violence—violence that isn't the police coming to enforce the law or the military using its tactics to go against an enemy and neutralize the enemy, but rather just unfettered violence where it was warlords and gunmen and militias doing whatever it is they wanted to do—I think was what first forced me to start thinking about what violence was. What I began to realize—and I later saw this in the writings of the great military historian, John Keegan, whom I quote at some points in this book—is that, strangely, even though there are all these people who focus on violence, like counterterrorism officials and military strategists and military historians and criminologists—weirdly, a lot of people don't really bear down and look at exactly what violence is and how it works and the physicalities of it and the technology of it.
So one thing that I started to do was think a lot about the physicalities of violence. And that is the first thing I thought I would talk about tonight.
Just to be clear, those were the embryos of the book. The questions were: What is violence, and what motivates people to be violent or not be violent? What are the distinctions between the types of violence: the domestic violence in the home; the criminal violence of criminals; the violence of the state, the police, whether legal or illegal; and the more unfettered violence of war and terrorism and warlordism?
And what is terrorism, and how is it different from other ordinary violence? When we say that terrorism is in part theatrical—which is another subject I want to get to—what does that mean? What does it mean that there is such a thing as theatrical violence? Theater is not real, but violence is very real, so what would it mean to have theatrical violence?
Then—what I want to start with—how do weapons and technology fit into the picture, the availability and specific characteristics of weapons and explosives and the technologies that are used to render violence unto people? Can violence be prevented or mitigated by control over that technology?
These are the questions that I started to get into. I ended up thinking even about theories of nonviolence. There is a chapter about that as well.
Now, there is no chance that I can do justice to all or even half of those topics tonight. So you could buy the book. (The kids need braces.)
I am going to focus on two issues: the physicality—and then we can go into some other issues—the theatricality would be another.
This issue of technology and the physicality of violence: I talk a lot about weapons and guns and explosives and the psychology of violence. One of the things I discuss early in the book is how it is actually quite difficult for humans to engage in the most extreme types of violence—homicide and torture. It's difficult, especially when people are in close proximity to their victims. I spend two chapters in my book discussing this role of proximity and how it is easier to kill from a distance than at close quarters. I note in the book that even battle-hardened U.S. Marines have said this themselves. I quote a Special Forces soldier who fought in Vietnam describing the difficulty of killing Viet Cong in hand-to-hand combat. "When you get up close and personal," he said, "when you can hear them scream and hear them die, it's a bitch."
I also discuss in the book how soldiers and police engaged in torture often suffer from mental health problems themselves and suffer posttraumatic stress disorder from torturing people.
Obviously, a key method for avoiding some of these stresses from being a perpetrator of violence is to create some distance. That, of course, is good for your mental health as a violent person, but it is also good for your safety. It's kind of two birds with one stone. In some ways, the history of military technology is the history of getting farther and farther away from your victim. Cain struck Abel hand to hand and now we have drones which can be operated from over 6,000 miles from where the violence actually hits home. Intercontinental ballistic missiles, not that they are used, the same result.
But that is not the whole story of violent technology. Technology is about more than distance. The current issues of the day today, which go beyond what I discuss in the book, show this. The rise of ISIS, Daesh (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), these violent attacks pulling out transnationally from the source, the safe havens in Iraq and Syria; to Beirut and then Paris and then San Bernardino; and the bombings of these hospitals, MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders) hospitals, in Yemen and Afghanistan—all this is linked to some technological issues that I would like to discuss.
Whether it is car bombings or IEDs [improvised explosive device], airstrikes, automatic weapons in the streets of Paris or California, the issues of gun control, science and technology play a role here. The fact of the matter is, technology makes violence easier, or it makes mass killing easier. This isn't really debatable. We are not talking about hand-to-hand killing these days when we are wringing our hands about how violent the world is. We are not talking about Cain hitting Abel with a rock in a field. We are not talking about artisanal violence. We are talking about manufactured high explosives. We are talking about sophisticated IEDs, drones, sophisticated assault rifles, theatrically filmed beheadings edited with Silicon Valley software, uploaded onto a trillion-dollar file-sharing platform, the Internet.
JOANNE MYERS: Is this what you mean by the theatricality of violence, the staging of these beheadings? Also it becomes a little bit more anonymous now with drone strikes, so people aren't directly involved in the same way.
JOHN SIFTON: Right. The key point I want to make is that it is not just about distance. It is also about the capacity. The technology increases the capacity. This links into the debate about gun control. People talk about the availability of guns making violence more likely.
We live in a world where most of the violence we see—not all of it, but most of it—is carried out with explosive material. If you are the victim of a mass shooting or police shooting or other gun-related death, you are probably killed by metal that has been propelled by explosives. If you are an MSF health worker in Afghanistan, the same thing.
But do we think about that? Do we think about the fact that the ready availability of explosives has made it so much more likely that that violence takes place? It used to be that explosives were made from chemicals that were hard to get your hands on. You had to go to remote areas of India and dig them out of the ground, or Chile or wherever. But chemistry changed that. Now you can create high explosives from some nitrates produced in a factory combined with petroleum products. All you need is some pretty simple—the DuPont factory in New Jersey can do it with chemicals that are readily available as commodities in the market here, but an insurgent in Iraq can do it in the basement of his house with fertilizer and diesel fuel. These things are just more available than they used to be, and it is the chemistry that got us there.
By the way, I should mention, tonight my stepfather, Fritz Stern, is here, renowned historian at Columbia University. Fritz is named for the German chemist, Fritz Haber, his godfather, who perfected the scientific method of creating ammonium nitrates from air, which changed the world. It made artificial fertilizer possible, which made a population of 7 billion possible. Without the Haber process, we couldn't possibly have 7 billion people in the world. But it also created the capacity to create explosives from thin air, literally. From the nitrogen in the air, you can create ammonium nitrate, which can be combined with charcoal, which is readily available, and you have explosives.
JOANNE MYERS: Also, today is the day of the Nobel Peace Prize. Who was Alfred Nobel?
JOHN SIFTON: That's a good point.
So on this physicality, I don't think there is much more to say about why I started thinking about it, other than to say I think it helps to think about the physicalities. When you start realizing that the technology has an effect on the capacity, it leads you to these other discussions of how military policy and military strategy and military tactics are debated.
The national security apparatus of the United States often doesn't think anymore in terms of what is strategically intelligent; they think more about what their capacities are. The president is presented with a problem—the rise of ISIS, pirates taking ships as hostage off the coast Somalia, whatever—and the discussion, instead of a strategic one, is very much about, what can we do here? What kind of weapon systems do we have? And it becomes very much about what the capabilities are as opposed to what the right thing to do is. I think that is driven in part by the availability of so many different military technologies—or, I should say, violent technologies.
JOANNE MYERS: But that also goes to the way we talk about war and violence today too. You also have a chapter where you talk about how, since the war on terror, we use different words to describe what is happening in terms of violence. Maybe you could talk about that as well.
JOHN SIFTON: There is a chapter in this book where I talk about how the language of violence is so filled with euphemisms—pejoratives as well, but mainly euphemisms—and Orwellian-type elliptic language—frankly, just to use the word that Princeton philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt would use, which is a lot of bullshit—when it comes to war. The literature of war is filled with this, whether you are talking about Mister Roberts or Catch-22 or MASH.
One of the things you notice the more you go to the Pentagon and you visit with people in the Pentagon or PACOM (United States Pacific Command) or CENTCOM (United States Central Command) is that this military itself knows this better than the civilians who control them, that there is just so much BS when it comes to how we talk about violence. That is one of the issues.
The other is about terrorism and the way that terrorism and counterinsurgency just go so conflated and mashed up, to the point where, from 2001 to, I don't know, maybe 2007, it's like we literally, as country—the United States, the national security apparatus—we just couldn't think clearly because we were so befuddled by fuzzy language. If you look at the 2003 National Security Strategy put out by the National Security Council, it's a joke. It has, literally, grammatical and stylistic sentences that make no sense. At one point it says something along the lines of "we're fighting a war against violence." I remember reading that. "War against violence?" So that is one of the things I discuss in my book.
Another chapter in the book is about theater. That was the second big topic I wanted to get to. There are these weird mystical connections between war and theater. It is just very strange when you start thinking about it. I talk about it in the book. There are so many similarities between the way theater is carried out and the way a military campaign is carried out, everything from camouflage ruses, the kinetic hermeneutics, as a friend of mine put it, the way that you sort of project force. There are attempts to change the emotive state of the enemy that are theatrical in nature. But most of all, the whole thing can just feel like a show sometimes.
But that is just a diving-off point. The bigger issue—
JOANNE MYERS: But ISIS today is also very much involved in theater. I have read where they stage these beheadings and they look at the camera angles and they do the run over and over again. It has taken that to the far extreme.
JOHN SIFTON: Exactly. But with terrorism, which I will get to in a second, there is a very specific reason why it has to be theatrical. But it is just important to recognize that in military campaigns the projection of force is a big part.
Yes, there are wars of attrition. World War I—you have to fight until you have literally debilitated your enemy to the point where they have to sign an armistice. It is a fight to the last man. But there are other instances where projection of force, projection of meaning through military operations is absolutely necessary. Arguably, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are such an event, where President Truman is essentially communicating, "We can keep doing this as long as you want or you can sign the terms of surrender now." In some respects, it is communicative.
At the same time, tens of thousands of people are being killed. So it is a very strange paradox, to call it theatrical but also real violence.
I talk about the Cuban Missile Crisis and the way the blockades were set up and about how at one point Robert McNamara was yelling at the chief of the Navy, who really thought they were actually running a blockade of Cuba. He said, "You don't understand. We're not running a blockade of Cuba. This is President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev talking to each other, communicating. You don't understand. They are actually trying to do something else, which is not have a nuclear war. They are trying to stand down each of their own militaries."
Anyway, there are these theatrical events within the military structure.
But in terrorism it is a whole different thing. There is a point in my book where I mention that it is clichéd and note that terrorism is theater. Yet that is exactly what it is. Terrorists don't usually have the capacity—terrorist groups, which I separate from armed groups that use terrorism (we can get into that whole discussion)—a terrorist group often does not really have a very robust military capacity. They can't take over a city. They can't threaten the national security of a country, in a really fundamental way anyway. They might be able to hit your stock market pretty hard and cause all kinds of problems, but they are not going to threaten the very territorial integrity of your state through their theatrical use of force.
Terrorists seek to terrorize, and it seems like everybody always obliges. This is true even when we face greater dangers from other sources, even when we face greater dangers from climbing into our cars, which, when crashing into each other, kill far more of us than terrorism ever will or ever has. We face greater dangers from ordinary gun violence. The figures, now that we are talking about these things more recently, are staggering—tens of thousands of people killed every year. And only recently have we begun to recognize the almost absurd discrepancies about worrying about ISIS-inspired attacks that have killed dozens of people, tragically, in Paris and San Bernardino, when tens of thousands of Americans are killed every year by fellow Americans—angry men filled with toxic masculinity, mentally ill people, angry drug dealers who are fighting with each other, rival criminals. And I am not even getting to the accidental shootings.
Of course, what made so much of that killing possible was the availability of guns, the issue I was talking about before. But how is it that that discrepancy is even possible? It has to be through the theatricality of this. You terrorize; it catapults the violence into a new stratosphere where your fear level is completely out of proportion with the actual risk. That is how it works. How do you do that? By playing the same trick that an actor or a director plays on the stage. I love theater, don't get me wrong, but at the end of the day, we have to admit it is a trick. You are fooled and befuddled into thinking that these actors on the stage are real, and you are transcended into their plot.
A friend of mine noted recently that there is so much misplaced fear around the potential arrival of Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Meanwhile, more Americans are killing each other in gun violence. Misplaced fear is exactly what the issue is. As my friend noted, really, we should be more afraid of ourselves and our inability to come together to make change.
That is the problem with all this theatricality. It messes everything up. People are constantly fooled, confused. It is like the true measure of violence is consistently concealed by its own theatricalities.
So that brought me to another issue—in my mind, anyway, which works very strangely—which is the theatricality of a different issue, which is not like terrorism, and that is the nonviolent theory of people like Martin Luther King and Gandhi, which is another topic in the book.
JOANNE MYERS: I would like to ask you, is pure nonviolence ever possible? You bring up your grandfather and neighbor, who talks about Christian Realism and Christian terrorism and the way—so maybe you could address that in the few minutes we have left.
JOHN SIFTON: Real quickly, the curious thing about this is that terrorists use theater. The other folks who use theater are people who use the methodologies of King and Gandhi. Let's talk about nonviolent theory for a second. How does it work? What is the theory, in a nutshell? You challenge a regime peacefully by doing something ostensibly illegal but not violent, like, you march somewhere you are not supposed to march. The regime comes, uses violence against you and, in the process, makes itself look horrible and terrible in front of the whole world community and its own people. Thus, you weaken them. So Indians on the Salt March being beaten by the police, protesters in Montgomery attacked with police dogs, water cannons—pictures of this violence are what create the crises that then lead to the negotiations or the interventions that solve whatever the problem is.
That is the theory. But that is theater. Gandhi and King's methods don't work unless the New York Times correspondent is there to file a story from Calcutta or Selma or wherever. The pressure is created by the exposure. That was Orwell's complaint about Gandhi vis-à-vis Soviet Russia. If there is a Gandhi alive in Soviet Russia, what is he accomplishing? Anyway, there needs to be exposure.
So theater has a central part in nonviolent change kind of analogous—well, no, not analogous. But theater has a role in nonviolent methodologies.
My grandfather would correspond with Martin Luther King from time to time. Although a lot of people associate my grandfather, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Christian Realism, with a sort of a rejection of pure pacifism, King himself didn't feel that way. He once told Andrew Young, another civil rights leader, referring to his methods of nonviolent change—he referred to my grandfather's repeated insistence that unjust governments can never be convinced to change their ways through moral suasion or arguments; they have to be forced. They have to be compelled to change. King said to Andrew Young that is what he was doing. He was creating crises in places like Montgomery and Selma that were forcing the federal government to intervene, and then forcing state authorities to change—force.
King, in fact, called his methods "Niebuhrian stratagems of power." He was manipulating power. He was taking the violence of the perpetrators, turning it against them, and using violence against itself.
I would draw this all together and link it in some ways to the mandate of this institution, ethical issues, by saying that this thing about nonviolent theory—it doesn't just have a home in the kinds of situations where nonviolent methods have a home; it also has a role when you are thinking about ISIS and thinking about Iraq.
Martin Luther King wasn't weak. He wasn't bashful. He actually believed in power and force. He didn't condemn violence in the abstract. He understood that even his method needed violence, violence by the state against African Americans and the violence of the government enforcing the law. Federal agents, after all, had to walk African Americans into schools when they were being desegregated, armed federal agents with guns.
That is how I would leave it there, basically saying the biggest discovery—Martin Luther King's idea, Gandhi's idea, was that violence could be turned against itself, digested, and turned into something in the service of the good. That is kind of an amazing alchemy, to make a government's abuses a source of its own weakness. King figured out a way to make the government hurt itself and he presented a new formula for how a government could exercise its violent powers in the service of the good, by intervening for the good.
In a speech in 1967, King said, "There's nothing wrong with power, if power is used correctly. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love."
This is Martin Luther King talking about power, you could say violence—police force, even, in some of those instances. But violence of justice is okay if you are correcting forces that stand against injustice—against love.
This alchemy—this is where I will leave you—this alchemy, as I called it, is new in the actual practicalities of dealing with violence. Sure, artists and novelists have been exercising alchemy with respect to war and violence for decades. We could list everything from The Iliad to The Naked and the Dead. We could talk about El Greco painting the Spanish wars in the 16th century or we could talk about Picasso's Guernica. Artists already figured out how to make beauty out of the horrors of war. But this is actually doing it in real life. Art doesn't save lives. Gandhi and King actually did it. They figured out a methodology for turning violence against itself and brought it into the service of the good.
But none of this helps with ISIS. It doesn't seem to help with ISIS or Assad or the Taliban. It is not going to help pass gun control legislation. But—and this is my last point—I think it reminds us partially of what violence can be, what is possible in taming it. Human rights workers—and some of them are in the audience here—they go to Aleppo, they go to Kandahar. We write down these stories about human rights abuses and we tell them back here. We write reports. It is an important issue. Why would you support Human Rights Watch? All we are doing is writing down these stories and then advocating, collecting stories, using words.
I realize now that that is a part of the alchemy that King and Gandhi figured out. We are also these agents of this theatricality that lies at the heart of nonviolent theory. We are taking stories. We are bearing witness to the violence. Those narratives are then helping weaken people like Assad, weaken ISIS, and things like that. So we are trying to make something positive rise out of violence. It doesn't work the same way it does for Gandhi and King, but that is what I realized.
In some respects, that is what saved me from becoming cynical. And that is in some ways what this book is all about, how I learned to stop worrying and work for Human Rights Watch.
JOANNE MYERS: You write, as you talked about, that it is about stories, about the victim. Why don't you write the stories about the perpetrators and maybe change the dynamic of the conversation, and the weapons they use? Why has that not been a part of the human rights dialogue?
JOHN SIFTON: It's funny you mention that. When this book was reviewed by The New Yorker, George Packer, I think, faulted me for not talking enough about perpetrators, in particular about terrorists. I shook my head. When in doubt—my mother is here too; she is an editor and publisher—when in doubt, you blame your editor. My editor cut out two chapters of this book, which probably made it better. But those two chapters dealt a lot with perpetrators, and Taliban perpetrators in particular.
JOANNE MYERS: They almost killed you, right? In an opening chapter you talk about—
JOHN SIFTON: Well, yes. But I also met with them and they served me tea. When the Taliban was in power, they were a lot nicer.
JOANNE MYERS: Please continue.
JOHN SIFTON: As actual research methodology, it is better to interview perpetrators than victims. First of all, their testimony is airtight. They are speaking against themselves. If you interview a Sri Lankan army officer who is basically telling you about extrajudicially executing prisoners, it is great. Victim testimony, they can say, "Well, they're lying. They're making it up." But who is going to make up that they are committing a crime? If he is admitting it, it is airtight testimony. So it's great.
But also it is great to talk—recently within Human Rights Watch we talked a lot about how we need to interview recruits who go to Syria and other people who fight with Daesh, and learn more about what is motivating them, because it helps—
JOANNE MYERS: Have you been able to do that yet?
JOHN SIFTON: We have started to interview people in detention. There are people coming back from Syria and Iraq who can be interviewed. It is just beginning. But there is a lot of virtue in that. You learn a lot from talking to the perpetrators of violence.
But at the end of the day, the way Human Rights Watch advocacy works is—it is not that people just feel sad because they hear these sad stories. You actually have to do something a little bit more. You have to create some kind of sentimentality in the story, some kind of narrative, that makes it impossible for the perpetrators to kind of slip the hook.
At the end of the day, perpetrators of human rights abuses refrain or mitigate their violence for all kinds of different reasons. Some of them tell people down the line of command, "Can you get your troops under control? Stop the pillaging and the raping, please, because it's embarrassing. I have to go on BBC and they yell at me. Please." So it is an embarrassment thing. For others, it is more financial. Maybe a government that funds them comes down on them.
There is a big problem in the Philippines with extrajudicial killings, the paramilitaries fighting communist insurgency in various parts of the country. They kill people extrajudicially a lot. The U.S. government gives them a large amount of military assistance. You get that military assistance restricted; all of a sudden you have created an incentive for the Philippines government to say, "Ah, jeez, we've really got to deal with this problem with the military killing people." So that works. There is a different methodology in all these different cases.
But at the end of the day, we need to document the abuses, first and foremost. In some cases it involves the telling of sentimental stories. I think the hardest cases are the ones involving ethnic conflict, when you have people who are committing abuses against people whom they view as subhuman. That is what we have in Burma. The Rohingya Muslims in western Burma are viewed by most other Burmese citizens as non-citizens, less than human. That is a huge problem.
JOANNE MYERS: Do you try in any way to influence their judgment?
JOHN SIFTON: This humanization work is probably the hardest thing human rights groups can do.
Some of you may have seen these films by Joshua Oppenheimer about the killings in 1965 and 1966 in Indonesia. [For more on Oppenheimer's film, The Act of Killing, check out the Carnegie Council's Ethics on Film review.] It is amazing the extent to which perpetrators can be confronted with the incredibly devastating personal, sentimental stories of the victims and yet not be shamed in any way. They seem to feel no shame. But other people are.
At the end of the day, we don't have a great winning percentage, but it's all we've got. I think my grandfather was right. People don't stop committing human rights abuses or stop being unjust because of moral suasion or an argument convinces them. You can't make a Kantian philosophical argument to convince Robert Mugabe to step down from power. That is absurd. But you can box him in. You can make some of his agents who commit abuses less likely to do it if they are embarrassed. You can make ordinary Zimbabweans who don't care, care because they hear the stories of his victims and they say, "Wow, actually this guy is a monster."
So it is kind of a toolbox—a little bit of shaming, a little bit of boxing people in, and a little bit of discrediting a person by showing the very real-world effects of their injustices.
QUESTION: Good evening. My name is Ryan Torres, from the United States Merchant Marine Academy.
Sir, I read your book and I was very intrigued by it. One of the things you talk about is Balkh, the city, with the fortress with the walls. I thought that was very interesting when you were talking about barriers. From a leadership and ethical standpoint, starting small and obviously you have been working outward from that, how do you influence your people, how do you influence people in general, to break down those mental barriers of dehumanizing people and thinking of them as the enemy and that they are nothing like me?
JOHN SIFTON: Don't know. I really enjoyed writing that chapter about barriers, because it was so interesting to think about the weird way in which militaries, from approximately the 15th century to the 18th century, very roughly, were just obsessed—obsessed—with building fortifications. You had these intricate forts with star designs. Countries' best scientists and architects were put into the service of creating these incredibly intricate forts to defend countries from attack. Yet, every time, increasingly powerful artillery or dynamic military strategies like Napoleon's just rendered it all pointless.
It tells you something about the human dynamic to try to create safety and just getting it wrong every time. You see that after 9/11—"Oh my god, we got attacked. We've got to do this, we've got to do that," and we just get it wrong, get it totally wrong. That is one thing.
It was also fun to write that chapter because there were—I talk a lot about a book by W. G. Sebald called Austerlitz, because that book is about somebody who has created huge mental blocks in his head because he was an orphan from Nazi Germany and sort of suppressed his past. But in that book he discusses this same issue.
It's like violence makes people stupid, especially terrorist violence. It causes your brain to atrophy or stop thinking correctly. As a result, you grasp at military strategies or defensive strategies that just don't make any sense. Why? I don't know.
But to answer your question, which wasn't about that, that was what I was just trying to answer. I don't really know. I think there are lost causes. I have interviewed people, and I know there are people in the audience who have interviewed people, who are just never, ever going to feel empathy or compassion for the people they think are subhuman or animals or whatever. It is never going to happen. Those people are gone. So sometimes you have to write certain people off. So that is one thing.
The other thing is—and I didn't talk about this—at the end of the day, for all this talk of changing people's thought processes and making them think more intelligently about military strategy or other strategy or counterterrorism or convincing people to be more empathetic or all this stuff, there is another big methodology in the human rights community's toolbox, which is just the simple pressure on governments to create systems of accountability. In all my work at Human Rights Watch over the last 15 years, and other organizations, the one thing that really just is annoying to hear is when you hear a government talk about how their troops or their police or whatever need training in human rights, as if, if you get training in human rights law and human rights standards and training in what is right and wrong, you will then be ethical and moral. It is absurd.
Security officials—police, military—for the most part refrain from committing abuses not because they are honorable—although that helps. If you recruit from good, intelligent people and train them and make them intelligent by giving them a good education, you are going to get a correlation where those people are going to be less brutal and sadistic than if you just pulled people out and gave them a Kalashnikov.
But at the end of the day, people refrain from committing horrible abuses because they know that if they do, they will be held accountable or, at the very least, they won't be promoted or whatever. They will suffer consequences if they do that. And that is in the back of their heads. That is what I have learned in 15 years.
So the accountability is probably the biggest thing. Convincing governments to create working systems of accountability is probably the most important thing we do. But this business of trying to convince people not to be evil and things like that and make them more moral, that is probably the least effective effort that we make. That is where we fail the most.
JOANNE MYERS: Do you think you can create sympathy in the strong for the weak?
JOHN SIFTON: A little bit.
JOANNE MYERS: Only by holding them accountable, is what you are saying.
JOHN SIFTON: No. It is more—
JOANNE MYERS: Making them feel guilty?
JOHN SIFTON: You can, but it doesn't always work in the way you think. Sometimes I think that the prime minister of Bangladesh goes on BBC's HARDtalk—you know that program where you really get grilled by the person?—or Christiane Amanpour is yelling at them and stuff—that sort of thing helps, because they say to themselves, "Is it really worth it to lock people up and torture them when then I go to Davos for the World Economic Forum and nobody talks to me because I'm a pariah?"
That shame, which doesn't really stem from a moral shame but sort of a more vain type of shame, is useful. But it is not really moral suasion. It is just shame in the more traditional sense.
So there is that. But as far as individuals go, like a whole society—let's take Europe right now. Getting the narrative out that refugees are not terrorists, whether it is in Europe or the United States—refugees are fleeing terrorism; they are not terrorists—explaining things like that is important, because the society itself is going to drive the leadership to adopt its policies. So our role there is very much to tell sentimental stories about who these people are and say, "Oh, you think they are potential terrorists. But, actually, look at this woman. She was a schoolteacher and a handball champion in the Olympics, and now she is on a train in Hungary." "Look at this woman. She has a six-year-old child. She's a mathematics teacher from Aleppo." And people suddenly realize, "Oh, wow, these aren't terrorists. They're just people like my daughter or my sister." They begin to second-guess the crazier things that are being floated in terms of refugee policy.
JOANNE MYERS: Do you think the violence we see in terrorism today is different than ordinary criminal violence?
JOHN SIFTON: It's weird. There are distinctions between the terrorism that you are seeing around the world—we had a joke about how nobody should ever say, "Well, it can't get worse." "It can't get worse, because we have the Taliban. Oh my god, the Taliban is so bad." But now we have ISIS, which is worse. Maybe a year from now, ISIS will look moderate compared to the next most horrible thing.
We have a distinction now. There's terrorism and then there is terrorism. We have armed groups that use the legal methods of attack. That is the Taliban. The Taliban isn't really out to get ordinary civilians and terrorize the Afghan population. They are trying to hit the government, the U.S. military, NATO, and people who work with the Afghan government—
JOANNE MYERS: Then they have changed their direction, because originally, in the 1990s, they were out to get the population.
JOHN SIFTON: They were out to control the population, let's put it that way.
JOANNE MYERS: Right, but with the beheadings and—
JOHN SIFTON: They were out to instill fear and create—
JOANNE MYERS: So they have changed direction and now—
JOHN SIFTON: They are still doing that, but what I mean is—the bombings, it's not like al-Nusra Front or ISIS or some of the Shia and Sunni fighting in Iraq, where you just blow up a whole bunch of civilians who are of a different sect of Islam or a different ethnicity. It is more like, we are out to get the United States, NATO, the Afghan government, and we use methods and means of attack which are disproportionate, indiscriminate, and as a result, we kill civilians too. So we blow up a NATO convoy as it is driving through a market in Kandahar. We get the NATO convoy, but we also kill 26 civilians in the marketplace.
Is that terrorism or is it an indiscriminate—is it a war crime, basically? You can go back and forth and debate that.
So you have that. That is the Taliban. But then you have groups that are out to get people and instill terror, which is what you saw very much in Iraq in 2004, 2005, 2006—hitting civilians in order to instill terror.
Then you have the international terrorism, which is a whole different kettle of fish, this whole business of launching an attack in Paris or Madrid or—
JOANNE MYERS: San Bernardino.
JOHN SIFTON: Well, that was obviously not at the direction of ISIS. Another phenomenon is this homegrown, self-motivating cell thing, which is what it is.
Al-Shabaab, the group in Somalia, carrying out an attack in Kenya—these are efforts to instill terror in a government which is fighting them. That is not the norm. I feel like if you look at the raw numbers of civilians who are getting killed in what we broadly call terrorism, a lot of it ends up not actually being terrorism, I guess is what I'm saying. It is like a startling number of the attacks are really insurgency-related, quasi-military attacks which are not legal—in other words, war crimes. They are indiscriminate or disproportionate military strikes that kill civilians. Yet we call them terrorism all the time.
I shouldn't say "we," because not Human Rights Watch. The world calls them terrorism—NATO, the United States.
It is very unfortunate. It is a loose language, and it conflates and it confuses the issues. You have an attack in Kabul and people say it is a terrorist attack.
Or think about 9/11 for a second. You hit these two buildings. "Terrorist attack" makes a lot of sense. What about hitting the Pentagon? Sure, it is a war crime to engage in perfidy by pretending to be a civilian when you are actually, say, a combatant—although I wouldn't even say that. But let's just go with the flow for a second and argue that al-Qaeda are combatants. You engage in perfidy, yes. You kill a whole bunch of civilians on the airplane, which is arguably disproportionate to your military objective. But is it really terrorism at its heart? Really, actually you are hitting the Pentagon, a military target. It is not a civilian target.
I am not saying the attack on the Pentagon wasn't terrorism, but I am saying you begin to realize that there are these ways in which what we call terrorist attacks aren't always terrorism.
So, yes, I think it is changing in the sense that we used to have a very sort of curtailed sense—Achille Lauro, Munich, hijacking an airplane. But now, since it has morphed into the context of insurgencies and wars, and because of the militarization of counterterrorism—that was the whole Bush Doctrine—we have gotten very confused about what terrorism is.
JOANNE MYERS: So you are saying that because they were hitting the Pentagon, they wanted to start a war?
JOHN SIFTON: I am just saying that you hit civilian targets intentionally in order to instill terrorism; okay, it is terrorism, although the legal definition is still hazy. But when you start hitting military targets, you start to confuse the issue. I have seen what are legitimate military strikes be labeled as terrorism by NATO and by the U.S. government, even pure ones. For instance, you will see a strike on a military operation against a military target in Afghanistan get labeled terrorism. How is it terrorism? Who is terrified? It can't have been the military, because they are fair game, so to speak. Just because you committed a war crime in carrying out the attack doesn't make it terrorism.
That is what I am getting at. We have begun to label things terrorism which aren't terrorism.
QUESTION: I am a colleague from Human Rights Watch, Joe Saunders. I also used to work here for a few months, many years ago.
Could you say something about distance and how that contributes to the title of your book, "Violence All Around" and maybe drones and the next generation of warfare and how you see that playing out?
JOHN SIFTON: I alluded to the distance issue and the proximity issue at the beginning. I didn't get to drones because it is such a big topic. As far as drones go—I said before this notion that if you get very far away from your target, it makes it a little bit easier to kill. It makes it a lot easier to kill, although there have been these strange studies that show that even drone operators suffer stresses from their work. Obviously it doesn't remove all the stresses of killing.
But at the end of the day, the thing about drones, which is kind of extraordinary, which is different from artillery which can be fired from 30 kilometers, is that it is not just the remoteness and the alienation from the victim, but also that the weapon platform circles around, sort of waiting, ready to kill. It is kind of an extraordinary—I don't know how to put it. Actually, why don't I just read the last paragraph of that chapter? That would probably be the best way to explain it. There is no specific thing that is weird about drones. That is basically what I was getting at. You remove the risk of loss, of pilot loss. It makes it easier to just keep the thing over the target, which makes it more likely that you are going to use the weapon, which was my point earlier. So that is one thing.
It is not the case that drones are more terrible than other weapons. Artillery is bad. An attack with an AC-130 gunship is horrible. It is not like drones are some kind of horrible weapon compared to other weapons. In fact, I would go with a drone over an AC-130 gunship any day. The MSF compound was hit by an AC-130 gunship firing indiscriminately from chain guns with exploding bullets and 105-millimeter exploding shells into this hospital. I wouldn't want to be in that hospital. But if a drone was firing a single Hellfire, it is actually not as bad. It is more discriminate.
So it is not that. It is not that they are more selective.
This is what I said in the last paragraph: "There is nothing singular about drones that make them so terrible. What makes drones disturbing is an unusual combination of characteristics: the distance between the killer and killed, the asymmetry, the prospects of automation"—the notion that you could one day create drones which target on their own initiative, what we call killer robots, fully autonomous weapon systems that make decisions on targeting without human intervention. They haven't gotten there yet, but the Pentagon is trying to get there.
So "the prospects of automation, the minimization of pilot risk, and the minimization of political risk."
If your plane goes down, you don't have to go find the pilot in Pakistan, because there is no pilot.
"The merging of these characteristics is what draws the attention of journalists, military analysts, human rights researchers, and propagandists for al-Qaeda or ISIS. Drones suggest something disturbing about the future of human violence. Technology has allowed the mundane and regular violence of military force to become removed from human emotion. Drones foreshadow the possibility that brutality might become entirely detached from humanity and yield violence that is, as it were, unconscious."
In that sense, drones foretell a future that is very dark.
JOANNE MYERS: On that note, it seems safe to say that acts of terrorism and violence aren't going away anytime soon. But we thank you for making us reflect on violence and what it means.
I invite you all to continue the conversation. Thank you very much for coming today.