Scott Olsen Was Not Shot Because He Is A Veteran: Honor His Humanity Not His Service

Scott Olsen

Scott Olsen
(Image: codepinkalert on flickr)

by Kathleen Barry

With all of you I am horrified and sickened over the shooting of  Scott Olsen by the Oakland Police, a particularly brutal police force known for its racial profiling.

I may be going out on a limb here, but in the multitude of announcements of the brutal shooting that I have seen in these last few days, the outrage against this shooting were headlined with phrases like “Veteran Shot” which immediately pushes those old American patriotic buttons that valorize those who serve in the US military over all other human beings.

I believe, as I discuss in Unmaking War, Remaking Men, that this slippage of language into that of the very state we oppose for its ongoing wars, Americans, even those struggling for peace and justice in this world have not yet come to terms with how to relate to or understand our war veterans.  We have seen our country shift from blaming soldiers/veterans for serving in the Vietnam war, to medicalizing them with diagnoses such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder allowing us to feel sorry or sympathetic for their suffering or worshipping , as our politicians do, “the soldier’s sacrifice.”  ”Veteran” is supposed to signal to us a special human being because s/he served our country to rally patriotism for U.S. war crimes.


The horror of Scott Olsen being shot in the head and face is that he is a human being and because he is a human being should not have been subjected to that brutality.  That he served two tours of duty in Iraq and came home to be savagely attacked on the streets of Oakland reveals the extent to which the US has become a militarized state, its citizens being its enemies.   To see that it was wrong to shoot him because he is a veteran, because he “served,” is to play the language game of those who would perpetuate war by honoring  the military in the way that patriotism requires of us.

My mind still goes to the image of Scott Olsen that was captured by the media when he was standing silently, unmoving, witnessing the police descend on the occupy Oakland encampment.  In that image he is to me more like the hundreds of thousands of victims of the US military who are shot down for just being there – in the line of fire.  As I see it, our soldiers who become our veterans are our country’s “expendable lives,” those who are expected to protect us and sacrifice their lives if necessary to do so, even when we do not need protection from Iraq or Afghanistan. We instead need protection from US foreign policy that makes enemies against our country in order to perpetuate ongoing war (keep an eye on the US preparations for attacking Iran).

But soldiers in combat are not our only expendable lives.  Racial profiling in the Oakland and San Francisco police leads to justified headlines indicating an African American or Hispanic male were killed.  They were killed because they are of a non-white race.  Scott Olsen was not shot because he is a veteran.

If we are going to identify human beings who are the subject of brutality by any terms and rationale such as “because they served” then should not those women who are in encampments, and there would be one in four of them, who were raped by their fathers or stepdads or grandpas regularly, sometimes for years, lives expended to another form of male power and domination, be identified as sexual abuse survivor if they are subjected to police brutality.   Should one of them be protesting and shot in the head by the Oakland Police because she is protesting, we would not likely be announcing that brutal act as “Sexual Abuse Victim Shot by Oakland Police.”  On the other hand, if she is raped in one of the occupy wall street encampments around the world, as has happened, then, of course, lets identify her as a rape victim.  That was the crime committed against her.

The horror of the shooting of Scott Olsen lies in the fact that he is a human being.  The shooting is not more horrible, could not be more horrible, because he is a veteran or for any other identifying factors.  Meanwhile, we who oppose war and desperately search for peace in all the ways we know how, must disavow the very patriotic language of the US military and the state that elevates some human being because they serve in the military.


Kathleen Barry, feminist and Professor Emerita, is the author of Unmaking War, Remaking Men: How Empathy Can Reshape Our Politics, Our Soldiers and Ourselves.  Her first book, Female Sexual Slavery, launched a global movement against trafficking in women. This article originally appeared on on October 31, 2011.

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World Can't Wait mobilizes people living in the United States to stand up and stop war on the world, repression and torture carried out by the US government. We take action, regardless of which political party holds power, to expose the crimes of our government, from war crimes to systematic mass incarceration, and to put humanity and the planet first.