We all like to believe that we have a firm grasp on reality, that what happens in the world around us and how we perceive it are in perfect harmony; that not much "gets by us." A now famous psychology experiment, available on YouTube, demonstrates how faulty this belief is:
A dozen students are milling around a basketball court, dribbling and passing a basketball between them. We are instructed to keep our eyes on the ball, as the students shift around. This goes on for about a minute or so. After the video ends, a question is posed: "Did you notice anything unusual?" Nope, was my answer. Then we watch the video again, without focusing on the ball, and incredibly, there it is – a MAN IN A GORILLA SUIT shuffles right through the middle of the crowd, doing the Michael Jackson moonwalk.
And I never saw it. Neither, apparently, do 99% of people who view this video when following the instructions. It’s astounding and very discomfiting. The phenomenon is well known as tunnel vision, or "perceptual warp" – we tend to see only what we want to see, expect to see, or what we’ve been programmed to see.
Another instance is "buck fever," responsible for many tragic hunting accidents. One case involved a 22-year old female student at a small college nestled in a woody rural area of Virginia, where hunting was popular. An avid outdoorswoman, she had gone on a hike with her boyfriend. A deer hunter shot her through the chest, killing her instantly and wounding her companion. She was about 100 yards away, not in dense cover, and, incredibly, the hunter used a 3×9 scope. Some apologists criticized the woman for wearing a solid white shirt in deer season (it looks like a deer’s chest, they said), but the police and most residents placed the blame squarely on the hunter. How could he have mistaken a bipedal human being in white shirt for a tawny quadruped deer at only 100 yards with a powerful scope?
Go through the annals of hunting accidents, and you’ll hear this same story repeated over and over. A hunter has been sitting in his stand, or stalking for a full day, or many dull days, without seeing a sign of his quarry. Then there’s a movement in the brush on the far hill, and he fires, killing or wounding another hunter. Frustration and desire have overwhelmed perception and judgment; whatever the creature is, his eager mind’s eye sees a deer.
Another example, closer to the point I’m making, is the infamous video leaked by Bradley Manning of the U.S. Apache helicopter gunning down two Reuters journalists in Baghdad in 2007, and then blasting a family van with children arriving to give them aide. The "terrorist suspects" were walking nonchalantly down the center of the street, completely unconcerned about the deadly chopper overhead, and the one video camera visible does not resemble a rifle or RPG launcher, even to my unpracticed eye. But the crew requested permission from base to fire, and unloaded, killing the journalists and18 innocent civilians.
And finally, we have that infamous mirage of "weapons of mass destruction" littering Iraq.
Our quagmires in the Middle East have ushered in a revolution in warfare: not only the commander, but also the triggerman now has been removed from the battlefield or target zone, with drone technology. The Pentagon has admitted to using civilian contractors to command and control drone strikes over Afghanistan and Pakistan. I would hope they’re not teen computer nerds supercharged with angst and testosterone after a girlfriend break-up, but with all the wedding parties and child firewood gatherers they’ve been blowing up, that may be the case. Reality is so much slower and duller than Xbox.
Combine buck fever with remote-control weapons, then you’re certain to get a lot of collateral damage, and there goes your "hearts and minds" campaign, essential for defeating any insurgency. If we’re going full sail forward into Terminator III territory, then we had better learn to use it more responsibly. I’d really like to know what kind of training these civilian joystickers are getting – hopefully, more than 20 hours per week on Tomb Raider.
Today our nation has a buck lined in the crosshairs — or is it? Iran is contemplating, researching, and possibly developing a nuclear weapon — precisely because the biggest, baddest military of all time has rendered its two closest neighbors into bloody wastelands, and threatens another "shock and awe" campaign almost daily. The mullahs can plausibly smear the protestors as CIA-led stooges, because in 1953 the mobs who helped overthrow Mossadegh were CIA-led stooges. As even a 9th grade history student understands, any nation threatened by a foreign power quickly succumbs to the most repressive government: focusing on an external enemy distracts from domestic problems, and all dissent is construed as treason.
Our incessant blustering against Iran has only solidified the rule of the hard-line theocracy that a majority of Iranians are sick of. The sanctions will probably be as effective as those imposed on Saddam Hussein’s regime — solidifying the tyrant’s power while killing thousands of civilians.
The neocons are tense and itchy with buck fever now; Iraq has supposedly wound down another notch, and we have to keep a two-front war going, else Halliburton might have a bad quarter. But as many hunters know, and as we should have learned by Vietnam and Iraq now, sometimes you pull the trigger and it’s a mistake with never-ending regret.
Originally run in the Grand Junction Free Press, reprinted with permission.