Today, we reflect on the technologies of killing
one another. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
We humans are a hardy lot.
It usually takes the cellular deterioration of old
age to set us up for death -- which is then caused
by final assaults of cancer, heart disease,
pneumonia. Death by natural causes usually follows
a long working-over of our system. Intentional
killing becomes a technological issue just because
we are hard to kill. It is seldom easy, and it
always plays against the universal commandment,
"Thou shalt not kill."
At the same time, we find many reasons for killing
-- the greater good of society as expressed in war
and capital punishment, mercy killing, personal
gain (often expressed in crime against another
person), revenge, anger, suicide. I expect we've
all sanctioned killing for one or more of these
reasons at one time or another -- either by our
words or by our deeds.
Little original technology has been created to help
us kill each other. What we have done is adapt a
great deal of our existing technology to that
purpose. We've repeatedly made weapons for hunting
into weapons of crime or war. Lisa Meitner, whose
1939 paper described the energy release of nuclear
fission, clearly thought she'd found the ultimate
peacetime power source. Asked what use their new
airplane would be, Orville Wright shot back,
"Sport." War was far from the Wrights' minds when
they invented the airplane, but their first big
commercial sale was to the Army. Edison, who was
committed to DC power systems, got Sing-Sing prison
to build an electric chair so people would know how
unsafe AC was.
Complex as atom bombs, rockets, and submarines
might be, they were all first conceived as
technologies of peace. Finding ways to kill people
has been a poor creative outlet for inventors.
Instead, people who seek improved means for killing
have forged every kind of sword from the plowshares
made by creative people.
In one area the question of killing has become
hopelessly muddled. Killing requires a massive
invasion of a healthy body. But what about a person
whose life has been sustained beyond the reach of
natural death and who is easy to kill? Denying
insulin to a severe diabetic is murder in anyone's
eyes, while most of us accept turning off the
respirator of a brain-dead person. But so much gray
lies in between. It's no surprise that philosophers
now teach in many medical schools. Doctors need new
tools to cope with the questions their technologies
have started to pose.
We engineers are often tempted to isolate delicious
puzzles from their implications -- how to make the
best bomber or cigarette or inherently dangerous
machine. But those puzzles can't be isolated. We
might really face situations where killing is the
lesser of unavoidable evils, but that shady moral
ground is the highest that killing will find. We'd
better be focused on the value and quality of lives
-- the day we're tested by the puzzle of making the
best killing machine.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds