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Who will protect us?

Updated: May 24, 2022

All human communities have to do three things: provide for one another, protect one another, and find social meaning. If a community does the first two well, the third is included. If it does one poorly, then the meaning of living together is fragmented and quite chaotic, as we see today in our nation.

Who is the “us” that needs protection? Some of us are doing quite well, thank you! We live in fairly secure social worlds—with good public services, healthy populations for the most part, and financial resources. Such social worlds promote an attitude of “invincibility” rather than vulnerability. Others live in dangerous vulnerable social worlds. As we learned from the recent storms and fires, as well as the spread of the coronavirus, anyone could land up in either group. Still, the distinction makes sense because in most cases, some of us have resources to protect ourselves and some do not.

The question of “Who will protect us?” draws our attention to the relationships between these two groups: the “invincible” and the vulnerable. And what do we see. First of all, we notice that the relationships are social relations, not personal relations. Members of the two groups may not have any personal connection. Do they have a social connection? Are they like two islands without any interaction between them? Or are they like two islands whose existence depends on their networks, infrastructures, and common resources? What is the social climate in which the two groups exist: a climate of justice or a climate of injustice?

In a climate of justice, the relationship would be based on reciprocity. The relationship would not be out-of-balance. The groups would still be different, but the “invincible” group would not gain from the vulnerability of others, and the vulnerable would not fear harm from the “invincible.” International Humanitarian Law has given us some guidelines here in terms of the distinction between civilians and combatants.

Combatants may well be vulnerable, but in theory they have resources to protect themselves. Civilians do not. In fact, they have not had protection against the dangers of war—of combatants. This changed in 1949, when the International Committee of the Red Cross got nations to sign the 1949 Geneva Protocol for the protection of civilians in time of war. For the first time, civilians were not dependent on the good will of warriors, but rather on their leaders obeying the rule of law.

As you know, killing civilians has sometimes been part of our war strategy. This was true during the war with Indigenous Americans, with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and with the killing of 2 million Vietnamese civilians. It does not take much imagination to trace this strategy to the Atlantic commerce of enslaved people and appropriated land that created the climate of injustice that runs throughout our history.

Civilians, of course, do not only exist in war zones. They are the vulnerable groups who need protection, cannot protect themselves, and rely on citizens—people who have the resources to protect them—to obey the laws that establish their civil rights.

Civilians today are not dependent on philanthropy or on the good will of others. They just ask for what they deserve as members of the civic sphere: the rule of law.

Some might think that protection today requires more guns, more heroes, more wars. I want to propose a different approach. Protection requires more connection, more caring, more community. One could say this is a difference between masculine and feminine ethics, and they would not be wrong, if the differences are understood as different social constructions that are in the process of merging.

What I want to suggest is that the question “Who will protect us?’ should direct us to our civic obligations? What do protective relationships among members of the civic look like? As I see it, the civic includes two groups: civilians who need protection and citizens who have the means to protect them. Civilian review boards are a good model for how these two groups are related. Civilians appeal to the board of citizens. This means that the social differences between the vulnerable and the privileged show up in the civic space as civilians and citizens, and they negotiate together how they can honor the rights of all.

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