Sunday, August 16, 2015

The killing of Cecil the Lion

When I was a young man, many years ago, a few of us pretend-intellectuals used to kick around this ethical conundrum. “Suppose that by hitting a button, some random Chinaman would die and you would receive a million pounds. Would you do it?"

Probably, one of us would quote the story attributed to George Bernard Shaw, in which he asks a society lady at the dinner table if she would go to bed with him for a million pounds. After some hesitation she says, Yes she would. “Unfortunately, I don’t have a million pounds,” he says; “Would you do it for ten shillings?” Certainly not! What do you think I am? “Madam, we’ve already established that. Now, we’re just haggling over the price.”

In recent times, science has brought the conundrum of the random Chinaman into the realm of the practical. Now, it’s available to all – or all who volunteer to be a drone-pilot in the NATO army, at least. A few weeks training is all that’s required to zap an anonymous family in a faraway village. Not a random family, no, but close enough. Some anonymous military bureaucrat chooses the family on the authority of some anonymous political commissar whose future pension depends on the perpetual war that emanates from the killing of anonymous foreign villagers.

Anonymity is the general theme, in the West’s slaughter of foreign civilians. The button-jockeys and their superiors are never publicly named. Their identities are as hidden as those of ISIS soldiers’ in their hoods, and for much the same reason: their deeds are too shameful to bear exposure. Nobody ever brags about being a drone-pilot – any more than they do about being a torturer in some CIA prison-camp.

Like a notional killer of the random Chinaman, each armchair pilot receives his promised reward. Salary, performance bonuses, medical cover, guaranteed pension – those add up to a million pounds, over a lifetime. What a deal! Many of them seem to enjoy a high level of job satisfaction.

Not all of them, though. There is a downside to the job, for sensitive souls. PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) is more common than it is among, say, infantry soldiers. Maybe it’s just not enough of a challenge. Nobody is shooting back. After all, a villager in Afghanistan is in no position to defend himself. He’s a sitting duck. Press the button, and it’s game over. Villager and family die in a cloud of dust, as do their nearest neighbours.

What in the trade are called “double-tap” engagements, are more fun, but no more demanding. Those require the button to be pressed a second time, after an interval just long enough to permit other villagers to assemble and begin rescue efforts. Wham! Bam! And thank you, ma’am! With any luck another dozen families can be killed or mutilated, all in complete anonymity. (I don’t think the pilots’ bounty or bonuses increase according to the number of dead or mutilated; it’s not piece-work, to that extent.)

Job satisfaction or not, it’s hard to imagine the work as being socially acceptable: hence all the anonymity, of course. Morally corrupt though it be, by most people’s standards, it is actually more socially acceptable than hunting wild animals. Remember the recent hoo-hah when some fellow shot a wild lion in Africa?

Animal-hunters tend not to be anonymous. Indeed, they post photos of themselves and their victims on Facebook – and, sometimes, newspapers publish the names of the victims. That almost never happens in the case of drone-killings. The name of the dead lion was Eric. No, it was Cecil, of all innocuous names. Eric was the name of his brother. It’s hard to keep up with the names of wild lions. Cecil, King of the Jungle, anyway.

It seems bizarre – and rather unfair – for one wild lion to become famous for being shot, when Afghan and Syrian and Iraqi villagers remain anonymous. I think the difference in treatment must be because lions are fine-looking creatures, whereas villagers in the Middle East are not, in general. Our Western leaders dismiss the villagers as a humanoid sub-species – like monkeys, but not as cute.

Until they are given Western names like Cecil or Eric, they will remain where they are now – with no claim to sympathy, or even dignity. I mean – Abdul, Fatima… What kind of names are those? Huh. Not cute, that’s for sure!