When Humanitarianism Prolongs the Inhumane

Humane: How The United States Lost Peace and Reinvented War by Samuel Moyn Farrar Straus and Gilbert, 400 pages. $30

A technology exists that can dramatically reduce or eliminate incarceration. It could make the entire world a prison.

GPS technology is used to allow authorities monitor individuals in real time. An ankle bracelet is used to secure a criminal in place. The satellite monitors him and allows him to travel to the workplace or other authorized locations. A portion of every paycheck goes to his victims. As such sentences become more common, there could come a time when only those convicts who pose an actual physical risk to others would be confined in a more traditional way—and even that might be accomplished in a manner more decentralized than those big, brutal penal institutions.

It would work better and be more humane that the current system. Victims would receive actual restitution, not a vague statement about “closure”. That sounds great, doesn’t it?

The same system which could grant greater liberty to prisoners could result in less freedom for those currently unincarcerated. Consider all of the victimsless crimes already in the law. Then imagine what the future might look like if there was no new legislation. Do you think you have the right to lock people up for this? Ever-larger groups of offenders could be put under ever-more-intrusive sorts of surveillance and restriction, walking the streets but not walking them freely.

There are two options: you can choose to spin the scenario where the first version is available but the second one is not; or, spin the scenario where the second option is offered but the first does not. There is also the possibility that we will get the first option. Allow the second, with the state’s hand clasping us more tightly in some ways even as it loosens its grip in others. Samuel Moyn, in HumaneAccording to him, there is not one arc in the moral universe which guarantees progress without any regress. One can facilitate another.”

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Moyn’s book focuses on wars and not prisons. However, the problem he describes is strikingly identical. Humane tells the tale of two struggles, the fight to end war and the fight to humanize it, and how one gradually came to supplant the other.

When Moyn writes about humanizing war, he doesn’t mean “humanitarian interventions” launched with promises to end a genocide or spread democracy—though the same people often embrace both ideas. Moyn means to make warfare more humane by protecting the lives and freedoms of civilians as well as outlawing torture for POWs. Yale history and law teacher Moyn provides a comprehensive guide that explains how the laws were developed and how these teeth grew. Despite having very few teeth as a baby, they still have teeth.

But his account begins elsewhere, with an assortment of 19th century anarcho-pacifists—Leo Tolstoy, Adin Ballou, William Lloyd Garrison—who saw war itself as an atrocity. Garrison finally made his peace through warfare and supported the Civil War to bring an end to slavery. Tolstoy, however, reaffirmed the conclusion reached by the abolishment of chattel slavery. He believed that it demonstrated that an old, almost permanent inequalities was possible to be overcome and that the war could possibly end one day. Moyn points out that not all reformers fought to abolish slavery, but rather to make it bearable. “A project that coexisted comfortably alongside the strengthening of plantation control.” Tolstoy refused to accept this type of reform.

This era was driven by individuals who didn’t care about ending war altogether. The first attempts at writing their ideas into law made little difference to how warfare was carried out. More momentum was given to the peace movement, which inspired a number of disarmament and arbitration treaties. In 1928, however, there was the Kellogg-Briand Pact. This agreement, although well-intentioned, saw a variety of countries agreeing to end war.

These arbitration agreements are very popular. Moyn explained that “the idea” was to force or encourage states into an arbitration system, where outsiders could decide all or a portion of their disputes. This actually worked. “More than 150 cases of actual arbitrated compromise among states” were recorded in 19th-century circumstances, that could otherwise have lead to violence. This was an alternative, more decentralized model of the later United Nations or League of Nations. Moyn says that “it was generally believed that a system for arbitration between states would prevent the hassle of setting up a formal international organization.

Many pacifists also believed in the League of Nations and the larger concept of creating a global federation. However, this idea was not universally accepted. Moyn mentions that William Borah was a progressive Republican senator from Idaho who backed Kellogg-Briand Pact and opposed the League. Borah was undoubtedly the most consistent anti-war position. If you scratch those world-federalist dream, then you will often see calls for an international policing unit that maintains peace through force. The United Nations certainly hasn’t been a very pacific organization—and while many world federalists would attribute that to its dominance by a well-armed superpower, a more egalitarian U.N. would still have those blue-hatted troops at its command.

The old peace movement was left with less space after World War II. However, the dream of a peaceful world remained alive. While there is an evident overlap between the desire for peace and the desire of ending war, there are areas where these paths diverge. As the U.S. escalated the Vietnam War—not exactly a conflict free of civilian carnage—it nonetheless announced that it would follow “the humanitarian principles enunciated in the Geneva conventions.” Anti-war activists remained focused on the fact that war was inherently illegal.

With their often quite creative interpretations, the latter sounded more like lawyers pursuing long-shot cases than Tolstoyan extremists. (The law treated a war between countries differently than a civil war, for example—and so, Moyn reports, the anti-war Lawyers Committee Concerning American Policy in Vietnam “spent most of its time arguing that South Vietnam was not truly a state.”) Even though the 1968 My Lai massacre placed war crimes at the heart of Vietnam’s debate, protesters still wanted to stop the intervention and not humanize it.

Moyn compares the response to the massacre at My Lai with that to 2004’s Abu Ghraib scandal, which may have done more to mobilise resistance to war crimes than the opposition to them. This is the effect it had on Washington. Barack Obama was widely perceived as an antiwar insurgent at the time he ran for office. But Moyn writes that Obama’s lawyers asserted authority to keep war going indefinitely, across both space and in time, while establishing formal legal structures for targeted killings. This war would have a less brutal but more pervasive side effect.

Today, the resulting synthesis remains essentially unchanged. Trump’s former president, who was known for his public statements about terror attacks on terrorists’ families and other misdemeanors, did not dislodge the synthesis.

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It is obvious that modern warfare is far less humane than the words of war-makers. Many drone strikes hit wrong targets and can even have terrible secondary effects. Even if NATO had not killed civilians in Libyan airstrikes, it would still have exacerbated an already gruesome conflict. Moyn suggests that we imagine a world in which autonomous drones are programmed to avoid hitting the wrong person. He argues that even then we wouldn’t have “eternal peace” but would be able to control the situation.

These drones would be restricted to stopping terrorist attacks. The control system could also use their automated surveillance and violence to stop terrorist attacks by targeting smugglers, migrants or leaders of rebel movements in allied states. This new, eternal war could be just as easily applied to a growing list of criminals like a GPS carceral system. Both systems might even converge.

Today’s wars are less deadly and more peaceful than those of the past century. This is a positive thing. It is much better for civilians not to be bombarded and for prisoners to give up torture. The shifts that are more humane should be celebrated.

We can’t allow such reforms to define our goals. Moyn says that a future without bloodless global discipline would be a frightening thing, even though bloody global discipline might seem chillier. We need to “project of challenging hierarchy, in all forms” to avoid this fate. A change that makes hierarchies less violent could make the planet a battlefield with no frontiers or a prison without walls.