Yes, enabling violence IS violence, but morality depends on purpose: in this case, Empire
In April 2018 thousands of employees of the tech giant Google placed their careers in jeopardy by signing a public protest letter to their CEO. Citing the company motto, “Don’t Be Evil,” the letter argued that “Google should not be in the business of war.” It demanded that Google cancel a contract with the Pentagon to develop “Artificial Intelligence” (AI) computer programs that teach themselves to identify targets from drone footage. The employees further asked that Google ban all future work on “warfare technology.”
In June Google caved in, announcing that while it would fulfill its Pentagon AI contract, it would not seek to renew it. It released a statement of AI principles, including seven “objectives” that are so broad and written so incomprehensibly in modern corporate mealy-mouth that they provide the dissidents no assurances. There is a pledge in it that is a little easier to interpret, although it still contains enough loopholes to justify the original contract: Google will not “design or deploy AI” for weapons or other technologies that “cause injury,” and will not provide AI to aid “surveillance violating internationally accepted norms.”
The statement also made it clear that Google would “continue to work with governments and the military in many other areas.” It will compete for multi-billion dollar Pentagon contracts in “Cloud” service for data storage, which is at the core of effective military operations.
And lest we forget in the flood of propaganda with which we are inundated -- about freedom, courage, sacrifice, global stability, protecting other nations, free trade, and humanitarian relief -- the primary goal of our trillion dollar military budget, as Defense Secretary James Mattis has properly said, is to make our armed forces “more lethal.” One of my graduate assistants in a university statistics course, a Green Beret, put it this way when asked during a presentation on probability for artillery targeting why his charts showed overlapping circles: “because we want to kill them all.” No matter the specifics of their work, this is what contractors for the Pentagon support.
Let’s take a look at the issues raised by this entire incident, and see why the letter deserves one cheer now, and opens the way for another two cheers farther on down the road.
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The letter by the Google dissidents calls out the disingenuous practice, so prevalent in American public life and particularly in the maintenance of our empire, of making a moral distinction between engaging in violent acts and participating in the infrastructure that enables them. It recounts how Google tried to placate initial complaints by calling its work “non-offensive” and saying that it would not be used to “launch weapons.” The employees’ response? That any product for the military “could easily be used to assist in (its violent) tasks.” The AI improvements, they noted, would “assist in surveillance – and potentially lethal outcomes…”
We see Google’s dodge, the claim that providing the infrastructure for violence in not itself violence, everywhere in our culture:
· In June 2018 reality TV star Kim Kardashian West talked reality TV president Donald Trump into pardoning Alice Johnson, who for three years managed operations in the Memphis area for the Cali drug cartel. Johnson had served 22 years of a life sentence. Media reports uniformly adopted the language of Johnson’s supporters: she was a “first-time” offender convicted of the “non-violent” crimes of laundering money and moving product. The American Civil Liberties Union hailed the decision because it could pave the way to ending the “senseless punishments” of tens of thousands of prisoners serving time for “non-violent” drug offenses.
· Also in 2018 Harriet Clark, the daughter of the get-away driver on a Black Liberation Army robbery team that murdered two police officers and a Brink’s guard in 1981, argued that her mother should be paroled because she “did not kill anyone.”
· In 2013 over a hundred governments signed an Arms Trade Treaty that committed them not to export particular weapons to a regime if they have “knowledge at the time” that those weapons “would be used” to attack civilians or commit other war crimes. But they could export other weapons to the regime that would enable it to stay in power and continue engaging in these illegal acts.
· When trying to win congressional approval of assistance to the rebel “contras” trying to overthrow the Sandinista government of Nicaragua in the 1980’s, the Reagan administration gained the necessary votes by agreeing to make the assistance “non-lethal aid” such as boots, uniforms, and radios, or even “humanitarian aid” such as food and medicine.
· Similarly, the Reagan administration argued that cash and food assistance to the Government of El Salvador was not war-related and so should not be subject to human rights conditions that Congress had placed on military assistance. El Salvador was using the aid to cover its entire non-military budget, freeing up its own funds to pay the salaries of its rapidly-expanding armed forces. It also integrated the aid directly into its counter-insurgency campaigns in contested villages.
· In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson was perplexed and angered when the Government of North Viet Nam rejected his offer to create a Mekong Valley Authority to provide electricity and raise living standards, as the Tennessee Valley Authority had in America during the Depression. Johnson made the offer as the U.S. invasion of Viet Nam raged, and the enemy was already routinely attacking economic aid projects that were part of the U.S. counter-insurgency strategy.
· In 2003 American University professors who opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq nonetheless took a contract during the Pentagon’s armed occupation to help manage Iraq’s schools. In their perspective, refusing to assist the occupation would mean that the Iraqi people would be “denied the assistance they desperately require.”
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What these examples have in common is that violence is presented as a separate action rather than as the product of a system of actions. U.S. law properly makes no distinction between the actions of the members of a group carrying out a criminal act: they’re all implicated in the crime. Indeed, prosecutors often treat the “intellectual authors” of a crime as being more culpable than the worker-bees. For example, they will typically reduce a hit-man’s sentence in exchange for testimony implicating the person who ordered the hit. Nobody questioned that approach when it was used to convict Charles Manson for the murder of Sharon Tate and her friends. In his Inferno, Dante properly punished crimes that required thought and deviousness in a lower, hence hotter circle of hell than crimes of passion and pure violence.
· Think about the Cali Cartel, and how it murdered competitors and how its customers devastated the Memphis area with robberies to finance their habits during the three years that Alice Johnson ran marketing operations. There was nothing non-violent about the gang she was helping, or indeed about any drug-dealing operation.
· Similarly, Judy Clark took part in the planning and carrying out of an armed robbery, and so under felony murder laws of course was held responsible for the three murders. This was not her first involvement with the BLA in armed robbery, and when she was arrested she had a gun under her seat and an ammunition clip in her pocketbook. In contrast to her daughter’s argument, after many years Clark herself accepted responsibility for the loss of life. Ironically for someone who was part of the Weatherman bombing campaign in the 1970’s, she has become a trainer for the “Puppies Behind Bars” that teaches police dogs to detect explosives!
· The Arms Trade Treaty exempts from its ban weapons that keep dictators in power, from aircraft and tanks down to machine guns and pistols, as long as their use against civilians is simply threatened. The pathetic prohibition only on specific items of weaponry that an exporter somehow knows in advance will be fired at civilians was all that survived of a robust initiative in the 1990’s, the Nobel Peace Laureates’ Arms Trade Code of Conduct. That Code called for a ban on all arms exports to governments that had not been chosen by their people in fair and free elections, and so survived on a system of violence and threat.
· And as for the use of “non-lethal” means to back up a violent system of control, be it in Nicaragua, El Savador, Vietnam, or Iraq, this is a distinction without a difference. The support system for aggression is part of the aggression, as Nazi civilian bureaucrats, media figures, and lawyers learned when they were condemned to hang after the Nuremberg trials.
Mentioning Nuremberg brings us to the motivation for the Google letter: the natural human, moral need not to be complicit in something bad. This is a laudable need, although it is inherently symbolic. Somebody will buy the product you boycott; a dissident person or company will be replaced by another; divested stock -- be it in corporations operating in apartheid South Africa (a campaign I vigorously supported) or producing life-giving fossil fuels (a campaign I vigorously oppose) -- will be bought by somebody else. And Science is like Stormy Daniels, beautiful but amoral. Everything discovered about calculus, quantum physics, nuclear energy, probability, AI, or computer processing ends up being used in peace and war.
But symbolic campaigns, from Thoreau going to jail to protest the invasion of Mexico to draft resisters during the Viet Nam war, have been spurs to policy changes by bringing issues to a broader audience and putting pressure on leaders. Without courageous people speaking out against the errors they see around them, we’d never see change. Let’s hope that the Google employees are the first swell in a coming wave of opposition to collaboration with imperialism.
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By reminding us that non-violent acts can support violent ones, the Google dissidents have done a public service. So one cheer for them. And the other two cheers? One more will come when they move past the violence being done by the United States with drone attacks, and come to a judgment about its purpose: winning what the Pentagon calls “the long war” for control of the Middle East and North Africa.
The primary flaw in the Google letter is that it too misunderstands the nature of violence. Violence is not necessarily bad. Sometimes it’s needed to achieve something good. Sometimes John Lennon and Beatles-killer Yoko Ono’s apolitical song “Give Peace a Chance” just doesn’t get it done. It took the U.S. Army, bayonets drawn, to integrate Southern schools and colleges. Nelson Mandela had to turn to terrorism, as leader of the ANC’s Spear of the Nation, to fight the totalitarian apartheid government. Even the two most famous American pacifists of the 20th century, Albert Einstein and Martin Luther King Jr., supported the military effort to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. If we were facing those enemies, most of the Google signers would surely want to make their AI work as effective as possible in finding and bombing targets.
After all, the nuclear scientists who flocked to Los Alamos to build nuclear weapons to deter German use didn’t give the morality of their work much thought until Germany fell. Then the suicidal Japanese resistance on the outer island of Okinawa, where U.S. casualties were about one in five, made it obvious that the new weapons would be used to force Japanese surrender before a similarly costly invasion. The horrific bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were in any event a continuation of the conventional bombing campaign that had killed far more Japanese civilians. They may well have saved Japanese lives, let alone American, when compared to an invasion.
So the next step for the Google dissidents, and for all of us opposed to the drone killings that started in earnest under President Obama and have continued apace under President Trump, is to make our opposition to the long war clear. If we want to be protected from terrorism, which is the Pentagon’s justification for the long war, the best way is to leave the Middle East alone, and let it pick its own governments and sort out its own issues. To do that, we have to renounce our right to the oil of the region, which is what has been behind our interference since the discovery of extractable oil there in the 1930’s.
The final cheer for the Googlers will be when they see that the long war itself is just the latest in the over-arching policy of empire that has been at the core of the American experience:
· seizing land from East Coast Indian nations in the 17th century, and buying 400,000 slaves seized from Africa to improve the land,
· shaking off the British constraints that held settlers behind the Appalachian Mountains in the late 18th century (also known as the American Revolution),
· seizing land and power from Mexico and Indian nations across the continent in the middle of the 19th century,
· moving across the Pacific in the late 19th century to take Hawaii and the Philippines,
· ruling Central and South America in the first half of the 20th century through “our bastards,” as President Franklin Roosevelt called the regimes we placed and maintained in power,
· and finally, replacing the exhausted colonial overlords after World War II as the guarantor of Western military and economic domination by propping up a new set of cooperative regimes across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia – a role that continues today.
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