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Stuff shouldn’t happen

09 October 2015

IN THE political world, saying the wrong thing can often seem more disastrous than doing the wrong thing. Jeb Bush, courting Republican votes, is currently lamenting two words he spoke in his response to the murder of nine people at Umpqua College in Oregon last week: “Stuff happens.” The words have been taken out of context, his supporters say; but adding the rest of the comment does not disguise the dismissive tone of Mr Bush’s remarks: “Stuff happens. There’s always a crisis, and the impulse is always to do something, and it’s not necessarily the right thing to do.” Rephrased a little, and in a different context, such sentiments might appear common sense. After yet another mass shooting, however, they suggest that Mr Bush has no conception that something does, indeed, need to be done. President Obama complained after the church shooting in Charleston in June: “I’ve made statements like this too many times.” A US website that notes every incident in which four or more people are shot has recorded 994 since President Obama came to power. Perhaps Mr Bush, if he remains in the race for the Republican nomination, will reflect on exactly why “there’s always a crisis”.

In a different arena, the accidental bombing of an MSF hospital in the disputed city of Kunduz, in Afghanistan, could also be described by Mr Bush as stuff that “happens”. Precision bombing is only as precise as the information received and the planes carrying out the attack allow it to be. Investigations into the error have been instigated by the US Department of Justice, the Pentagon, and NATO, among others. It will, no doubt, be regarded as too simplistic a conclusion for such organisations, but the deaths in Kunduz relate directly to the heavy ordnance available to the US military. Weapons of mass destruction, whether in the hands of disturbed individuals or fallible military units, have a tendency to realise their purpose.

The two incidents are not, of course, related, except by the thread that runs through many cultures — the United States in particular — that weapons solve problems. This is probably not a view shared by the 22 staff and patients killed or the 35 wounded in Kunduz; nor by the relatives of the 9940 people killed by firearms in the US so far this year, including the eight-year-old Makayla Dyer, shot dead at the weekend by an 11-year-old neighbour, apparently for not showing him her new puppy. And, in the mean time, President Putin is showing enthusiastically how the already dubious policy of bringing stability to Syria through force of arms can be made much worse by acting without reference to allies, violating other countries’ airspace, and bombing the wrong people. The seeming inevitability of errors, accidents, and wilful abuse needs to be taken into account when making any decisions about weapons, from gun-control in the US to the replacement of Trident here. Stuff happens, but it needs to be foreseen, not dismissed.

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