Just over a week ago, a post I made about Wikileaks (lifted directly from Dylan Horrocks’ twitter feed) went ballistic and garnered nearly 100,000 sets of eyeballs in a day. The events in question mentioned an upcoming video release about murder in Iraq and a Pentagon cover-up.
The video has now been released. It’s circulating all over the place, and Scoop has a good overview, with the short-form (17-minute) video embedded.
Basic story: a U.S. military helicopter identifies a group of men in a street as targets, and shoots them down. When others arrive to evacuate the wounded, they too are shot down. I don’t recommend watching the video lightly – it’s intense and emotional, and the video-game chatter of the U.S. soldiers is hard to listen to. But I do think it’s important, and if you intend to form an opinion on this, you should try to get through it. Warning: children are injured in the attack.
Now that you’ve watched that, here’s some essential reading: Keith Ng on this video, and the respionsibilities we have when making sense of primary sources such as this. Go read it, then come back here.
There’s lots of discussion happening all over the ‘net about what the video shows, and whether the U.S. military personnel involved were right or wrong to designate the men as targets and shoot them, and whether they were right or wrong to do the same thing when more people arrived to help the wounded. A lot of this discussion concerns the rules of engagement in play at the time, and whether the men in question were reasonably seen as carrying weapons.
The weapons are, to me, of greatest interest. You can hear in the spotter’s (gunner’s?) commentary as he sees the men and sees guns that he believes this is a legitimate military target. Look again at how exactly this happens:
At 3 mins into the video, the leaked footage begins as the spotters identify a group of people standing together.
At 3 mins 20 seconds, Reuters photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen is in the centre of the frame, hoisting his camera. The spotter says “That’s a weapon.” (With those words, Namir and companions were condemned to death.)
At 3’37, the spotter reports: “Have individuals with weapons.” Note the plural – one weapon has become several, without obvious cause.
At 3’40, two other men come into frame, and they both are carrying weapons, AK-47s apparently. (These are, again, legal to carry here.) Spotter, on seeing the first of this pair: “He’s got a weapon too.” Then, after seeing the other: “Have five to six individuals with AK-47s.” Three identified weapons (one erroneously) have become five to six. They’ve seen enough. At 3’50, permission to fire is sought, and soon after is received.
At 4’10, a long camera piece is identified as an RPG. Note, permission to fire has already been received at this point.
There’s a well-known perceptual/cognitive phenomenon called confirmation bias. This says that we interpret what we are seeing in terms of what we expect to see. This video captures confirmation bias in action. A camera became a gun, then two others with guns became proof of an attack squad, then the camera again became an immediate threat. The pattern is clear: there is no way for the spotters in the helicopter to step out of this chain of perceptions.
This is not a trivial matter. I’m not trying to diminish these events by pointing at a cognitive bias as an excuse or rationale. No, to me this is exactly where the scandal is. Fire orders are being made on interpretations that do not correct for this extremely common and well-understood bias. Lives are being taken and the system that authorizes this fails to account for decades-old research (and anecdotal understanding that goes back hundreds of years.) Instead, the whole apparatus operates in precisely the opposite direction; once the action is taken, it must be justified. The evidence is massaged and re-interpreted to support the initial confirmation bias. A perceptual error becomes truth.
Now, the target identification issue isn’t the only troubling thing here, and it isn’t the focus of Wikileaks’ interest. The assault on unarmed men (and children!) attempting to evacuate the wounded is horrific. The Pentagon’s stonewalling of Reuters trying to get this tape is appalling. The disengaged chatter of the U.S. military is disturbing, if completely understandable.
Regardless of those issues, the confirmation bias explanation for what happens is all I can think about right now. I probably won’t come back to the rest. I don’t think I want to watch that video ever again.