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What Social Animals Owe to Each Other

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Kyle and Lanza: The Comparison

Kyle and Lanza
My article on Chris Kyle, “The American Sniper Was No Hero,” understandably upset many people, especially the penultimate sentence:
Excuse me, but I have trouble seeing an essential difference between what Kyle did in Iraq and what Adam Lanza did at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
I can see a case for omitting that sentence. The strongest argument, which is strategic not substantive, is that it might anger readers so much that they would forget everything else I said in the article. I grant that could be so, although I’m inclined to believe that people whose anger moved them to answer me in the crudest possible manner would have been just as angry at the mere words “the American sniper was no hero.” We’ll never know.

My article was written as an op-ed suitable for publishing in a newspaper; that means I was limited to 700 words. So if I have a regret about the controversial sentence, it’s that I did not have the space to explain it. I will do that here, but I don’t expect to persuade my most vitriolic critics.
I acknowledge that on the surface Kyle’s and Lanza’s actions differed significantly. That’s why I put the word essential in the sentence. I did not say there is no difference. I said there is no essential difference. Words have meanings, and I try to pick mine carefully.
We could spend hours listing the differences between the men’s actions. Kyle and Lanza were different ages. They had different upbringings. Obviously Kyle, unlike Lanza, was in the military. Their victims were very different in age, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, nationality, and so on ad infinitum.
So how can their actions possibly be comparable? Here’s how:
Kyle and Lanza both invaded a place, heavily armed and with lethal intentions, in which they had no right to be. Both shot down human beings who had not previously threatened them. In both cases their victims were defenseless.
Everyone will agree with these statements about Lanza. How do they apply to Kyle? My original article discusses the invasion aspect, so I won’t repeat it. Let me just say that I understated the matter by not explaining that the illegal, unprovoked 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, which Kyle participated in, followed more than a decade of devastation inflicted on secular Iraqi society by the U.S. government through “shock and awe,” regular postwar bombings, and debilitating and life-threatening economic sanctions. In the 1991 U.S. war against Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, airpower laid waste to the Iraqi water and sewerage infrastructure, among other things, resulting in the deaths of an estimated half a million children. Afterwards, importation of food, medicine, and sanitation equipment was subject to strict American control. The means of paying for imports -- oil exports -- was at first prohibited and then tightly restrained. The U.S. government could veto or delay any imports the Iraqi government sought to obtain. (See details here.)
Appreciating the enormity of the American offense against the Iraqi people enables us to understand more fully how Iraqis felt about the subsequent U.S. invasion and occupation. Kyle’s defenders say he was shooting bad people, but it is clear that these people are called “bad” solely because they resisted the U.S. invasion and occupation. (If Americans resisted an Iraqi invasion, they would be good.) Obviously, Kyle did not take time to find out -- or even care -- if the Iraqis in his sights were former henchmen of Saddam Hussein or average Iraqis who objected to their country’s long brutalization by the United States. Kyle said he did not care about the Iraqis.
My original article also explained the related point that Kyle’s victims had not threatened him (or other Americans) before he (they) invaded Iraq. Many of Kyle’s defenders say he was simply protecting his fellow American troops from Iraqis who wished them harm. But this cannot work as a defense of Kyle because his fellow troops were invaders too.
Finally, and I’m sure most controversially, I claim that Kyle’s victims were defenseless. How can that be? Remember that sniper Kyle drew a bead from far enough away that his victims could not have known they were in his sights. (Had they known, they would have taken cover.) That means Kyle’s victims were defenseless. Even if they had known they were in danger, they could not have repelled it by firing at Kyle.
Some of my detractors have made much of the claim that Lanza was “mentally ill while Kyle was following orders. (Yes, they say that without irony.) I make no comparison of Kyle’s and Lanza’s “mental health,” a concept (to say the least) about which I am highly dubious. Suffice it to say that many people assume Lanza lacked free will and could not control himself. Sometimes mass murderers say they heard a voice ordering them to kill. I always wonder why they didn’t just refuse to obey. I ask the same thing about Kyle with respect to his orders from his commanders. I agree with my critics that Kyle did not make the policy committing the United States to war against Iraq. Politicians did that. But Kyle and other military participants carried out the policy. Without them, there would have been no policy. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney would have been making idle declarations. (What if they gave a war and nobody came?)
Kyle (and the others) could have refused their orders. Had he done so, his commanders could not have forced him to shoot Iraqis. They would not have placed his finger on the trigger and ordered him at gunpoint to squeeze. They couldn’t have used mind control to compel him to kill. The worst they would have done was imprison him. That means he did not have to follow orders. He chose to do so and was free to refuse. That doesn’t mean he would not have faced serious consequences. Of course he would have. But he was still free to refuse, so he was responsible for his choices. 

And by the way, what possessed Kyle to put himself in a position where he felt he had no choice but to kill whomever a bunch of politicians decided he should kill?

(For a passionate defense of individual responsibility in wartime, see Leonard E. Read’s “Conscience on the Battlefield.”)
Thus Kyle and Lanza essentially committed the same kind of atrocities.


Ray said...

May I ask in all seriousness: does the Libertarian Left still subscribe to the Rothbardian-Tannehill Private-Defense-Firm model of national defense?

Sheldon Richman said...

It goes back to Gustave de Molinari, the 19th-century classical-liberal economist. But it's not just the "libertarian left." Hoppe and Kinsella, and the entire Mises Institute, embrace that model. They would not regard themselves as left libertarians.

alanstorm said...

"Let me just say that I understated the matter by not explaining that the illegal, unprovoked 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, which Kyle participated in, followed more than a decade of devastation inflicted on secular Iraqi society by the U.S. government through “shock and awe,” regular postwar bombings, and debilitating and life-threatening economic sanctions."

So you posted another article to further demonstrate your ignorance?

Did nothing happen before 2003? IIRC, there was a war in Iraq in 1990. Saddam signed an agreement at the close of the campaign, which terms he continually violated. On top of that, he was funding terrorism around the world, in addition to the horrors inflicted on his own people.

The 2003 invasion wasn't some unprovoked event.

Articles like his are why no one takes libertarians seriously.

martin said...


Did nothing happen before 2003?

Try reading the whole article.

Ray said...

Yes, I've read the Production of Security, and I'm familiar with both Molinari and also the Mises.org crowd.

I meant specifically the Libertarian Left now -- today -- with their growing antipathy toward "corporations," the acme of which, it strikes many of us, private defense firms, in control of chemical, biological, nuclear and other weapons, would, for all intents and purposes, embody.

You answered my question. Thank you.

Ned Netterville said...

Great article Sheldon Richman. Your detractor's arguments don't meet the test of logic.

I perceive another connection between Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook murderer of young school children, and the American sniper that no one has made here or over at Liberty.me. They are both the product of a violent American culture doing what comes naturally because violence inevitably begets violence, and how it germinates, mutates and reproduces its evil spawn is completely unpredictable. Thus, when an Adam Lanza or an American sniper strikes their target-victims, the perpetrators' violence may well have been precipitated by the violent actions of their government agents at sometime in the past, including such seemingly "benign" violence as IRS agents collecting taxes by force rather than employing persuasion, cooperation and exchange to obtain their wants and needs.

Sheldon Richman said...

Ray, the matter of private defense can be separated from the problems of the corporate form as we know it. If corporate personhood and limited tort liability disappeared, people-based defense would still be a feasible idea.

Sheldon Richman said...

Alanstorm, if you think history began on 9/11, it's hard to know what to say to you at this late date. I've written at length on how ridiculous that claim is. The US government has been violently intervening and underwriting oppression in the Middle East at least since the end of WWII. (Britain and France did it before that.) Does that hold no significance for you?

Sheldon Richman said...

Thank you, Ned. Regarding the culture of violence: This gets overshadowed in the movie because of the regrettable murder of Chris Kyle, which occurred while the movie was being made. Had Kyle not been murdered, the movie presumably would have ended with the scene in which he teaches his son to hunt deer -- a scene that echoes the one near the beginning in which Kyle's father teaches him how to hunt. If that scene had closed the movie the message would have been, "Well, here we go again. Another sniper is born." (Which is not the say that ever deer hunter is a would-be sniper.)

Kyle's murder was unfortunate at several levels.

Juice said...

In both cases their victims were defenseless.

But that's not true of most of the people killed by Kyle.

I agree with your general premise that Kyle is not really a hero (which is highly subjective).

It's just that comparing him to Adam Lanza is also comparing Iraqis who are fighting an invasion force to innocent 6 year old children at school. That's mainly why the whole analogy is just plain dumb.