Monday, September 8, 2014


How to Resist Violence


If anyone is in doubt whether it is ever defensible, current events offer only too much evidence that violence should be avoided at all costs. The devastation in Gaza, the brutality on all sides in the Syrian civil war, the continued fratricide among Muslim factions in Iraq coming after more than 10 years of a war to pacify that country, the murderous militias in Nigeria, in Libya and elsewhere should make any reasonable person conclude that violence should be avoided at all costs.
This sentiment is only reinforced by the memories of World War I, whose beginning 100 years ago we commemorate today, or by the so-called Gulf of Tonkin incident, 50 years ago, where then president Lyndon Johnson made up a story of a naval attack on an American vessel. Lyndon Johnson used that lie to persuade Congress to escalate military action in Vietnam which ended only after to almost 60,000 American soldiers died there.
At this point, defenders of violence will ask whether we do not have the right to defend ourselves when attacked. What of armed men invading our house, or rapists and murderers attacking the innocent? It seems obvious to most people that we have the right to defend our lives and those of our loved ones. They claim that this readiness to maim and kill other human beings is part of human nature. That is who we are. There is nothing to argue about.
In 1914 the German armies invaded Belgium and France while telling their own people that Germany had been attacked. World War I was supposedly a war of national self-defense. 50 years later Lyndon Johnson persuaded Congress that we needed to defend our security in Vietnam. Today American hawks urge the current president to begin harsher military actions against Sunni insurgents because, they say, ISIS is a danger to our security, here in the US.
More often than not, the right to self-defense is invoked by the aggressor. It is most often used to conceal naked violence. The overwhelming share of violence in the world is blatantly evil and not to be justified.
Violence needs to be resisted. How do we resist violence? I do not carry a loaded gun, I don't even own one. I have serious doubts about the wisdom of going around armed and ready to kill someone. Is that all I can or should do?
But violence, while most spectacularly destructive when it uses weapons, whether primitive or technologically sophisticated, is not limited to people shooting at each other. Human beings are violent to each other and do tremendous damage to each other without threatening each others' bodily integrity. We inflict serious harm on others without guns and rockets, or knives, or rocks.
Children are injured by parental neglect, by fathers or mothers who simply disappear, or may remain in person but pay no attention to their children. Parents unload on their children the pain inflicted on them during their childhood. Children grow up to injure each other. Bullying in schools is widespread. Even more common are cliques that exclude. Children by and large are not taught to be thoughtful of one another or to be kind.
Some people think that the violence children experience is a good preparation for adult life when they will experience oppression at work, bosses that are insulting, and employers that exploit them, authorities that disrespect them. The violence that is ubiquitous in childhood just continues. The adults who have a say in our work life, or authorities that provide assistance, or experts who give advice about everything from cars and houses to how to save our marriages, are as likely as not to patronize us, to belittle our intelligence or good will. Everywhere we encounter persons who perpetuate the violence done to them as children by now visiting it on others, adults and children.
These thoughts came to mind recently when I attended a demonstration to express dismay over the destruction wrought in Gaza by Israeli bombs and guns. I realized suddenly that many people not only disapprove of blatant acts of violence but they take sides: the Israelis, some say, are simply defending their homeland and thus can do anything that puts an end to attacks by Hamas. On the other side are the people who regard Israelis as the reincarnation of German fascism. Whatever Palestinians do is thought to be correct. All members Hamas are heroes. Each party in the conflict, while, on the one hand, deploring the suffering of civilians, on the other hand, are cheering on their side. By their wholehearted approval, they encourage the fighting, the blind sending off of rockets and mortar rounds, of bombs out of the sky and drones. By taking sides, by encouraging the fighters of one side or another, Americans participate in the violence and perpetuate it.
The men or women behind the guns are not the only violent ones. Violent are the persons who send them onto the battlefield. Violent are the persons who support them, cheer them on and tell them that their cause is just.
No cause that kills large numbers of innocent bystanders is a just cause.
Instead of inventing nonexistent rights, such as the right to defend oneself, we should look into our own hearts and scrutinize our feelings and recognize the violence, the anger, the deep-seated suspicion that motivates so much of our behavior. We must acknowledge that in taking sides, we are involved in the big fights in the world and thus are, implicit in the death and destruction they perpetuate.
There is a clear difference between deploring the violence and destruction in Gaza, for instance, and taking sides by blaming one party and seeing the other party as heroes. It is hypocritical to weep over the children killed in Gaza and then support the Israeli government. It is equally hypocritical to weep over the children killed in Gaza and present Hamas as heroes defending the underdog victims.
If you take sides, you take upon yourself the guilt for children dying in Gaza.