A seeming paradox that safety conscious people have to deal with is that safety measures aren’t always the best method for achieving actual safety. Airbags, cameras for backing out of parking spaces, crumble zones around the engines and so on are typical in modern automobiles. We applaud these features because we believe that they makes us safer. But are they really? A problem with safety features is that they can lull us into a false sense of security and encourage risk taking. Excessive risk taking is a consequence, due to the perceived minimization of the consequences or “penalties” if you will caused by risk taking going wrong. You might drive faster than you otherwise would have, you might ride your bicycle faster due to your helmet. This false sense of security might negate the safety bonuses that safety equipment provides through increased risk taking behavior.
Imagine if all automobiles by law had to have a huge spike in the middle of the steering wheel. In this thought experiment the spike is equipped with sensors to detect foam or other methods for covering it up. All other safety features like seatbelts are removed. How fast or how dangerously would you feel comfortable driving your car? Unless you’re a pathological adrenaline junkie or a young teenager without the mental maturity necessary to operate vehicles properly, you would drive really, really slowly and make darn sure that you take in your surroundings. Thus, we see that an anti-safety feature might be the best promoter of safety at all.
This can also be seen when it comes to playgrounds. Any potential risk is negated, padding is everywhere, all screws, nails and such are hidden by plastic blocks. Tree climbing is discouraged. In the name of safety, children are penned into structured and “safe” environments. They are indeed protected from some harm by this, but they fail to learn proper risk assessment and the consequences for getting it wrong. They don’t learn that falling from a tree hurts. Such a “small” event in childhood could potentially prevent more severe risk taking behavior in adulthood.
This brings us to war. For over a hundred years now, international laws have governed the types of weapons that are allowable in warfare. Humanitarian concerns dictated that certain weapons and methods for utilizing them be taken out of the toolbox of militaries. In order to avoid barbarity, inhumanity and to protect decency, this course of action was followed. The noble purpose was to reduce the suffering inflicted on combatants and civilians. In addition to this, we have actors that have voluntarily refrained from employing certain weaponry. To a certain extent, this line of thinking has merit. Neither side employed gas on the battlefield during World War 2, and nuclear weapons haven’t been used offensively since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We also all wish to preserve the lives and property of non-combatants.
The question comes when we assess two different approaches to war. One, the “decent” road with banned weaponry and methods. Two, the “unrestrained” approach with “barbaric” weapons and methods of employment. The merits of the “decent” approach are obvious, no biological, chemical, gas, land-mines, cluster bombs and so on. Apart from the risk to civilians, cruel aftereffects and horrible deaths at the hands of soldiers are to a certain extent avoided. The main selling point for the “unrestrained” approach is that going all-out with all the tools in your arsenal can shorten a conflict and thus limit the total number of deaths. As an aside, we face the question of why tear gas is allowed for use by police forces against relatively unarmed civilians, but not against armed soldiers?
It is indisputable that prolonged conflict hurts civilians and soldiers alike. More time is allowed for deaths and injuries to be incurred, and property to be damaged or lost. Would it be preferable for “inhumane” weapons to be used instead, if it shortened the conflict? The suffering would be more intense and brutal during the fighting stage, but then the suffering could be over. I’m currently watching the new documentary series about the Vietnam War on PBS. Apart from clearly not having a clue as to what they are doing, the political leaders on the American side placed many limitations on their military. Is it better to drop grenades into tunnels rather than tear gas canisters? Is it truly more humane? Would an intense all-out bombing campaign against the North actually have resulted in less dead civilians? These are questions we should thing about, as new wars and conflicts are always around the corner. Whether the war should have been fought or not is outside the scope of this discussion.
We must make a distinction between some banned weapons and tactics and true weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, biological, radiological and chemical. Their use can’t be limited to only soldiers, damaging effects can and probably will spread to unintended targets. It therefore still makes sense to ban their use completely.