Does Pacifism Ever Work?

Note: Immediately after 9/11, I had a communication with someone who thought (and still thinks) pacifism the correct response to attacks. I wrote this:

I have been what would probably qualify as a full-fledged pacifist for most of my life. I did the whole anti-Vietnam thing, consumed with a fervor and self-assurance possible only for the young. The war was wrong, as it took American boys and sacrificed their lives for corporate interests in some far away place where we opposed the will of the people who actually lived there. There was no doubt it was wrong, and as it was sanctioned by our government, everything that deceptive government stood for must be wrong as well. Then I read about Joseph McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover, and the various nefarious activities of our colonial policies in South and Central America, and came to believe that war was just another tool in the quest to convert all the world to a bunch of mindless toilers enriching fat, greedy Americans.

I still believe our anti-democratic policy in Vietnam was misguided, though we all have learned a bit more about the horrors of the Communist state, or at least faced them more squarely, and if we are honest, admitted that while the intentions of our government were not always honorable, they certainly were motivated by honor and justice in ways unknown in the rest of the world. The true pacifist, however, cares not about the horrors of the alternative. Violence is wrong, war always murder, as it is the highest form of arrogance to kill another human being. There can be no action that justifies such behavior. Even self-defense. If the true pacifist does believe in self-defense, then he is a compromiser, as he has admitted some circumstances in which violence is possible, and then he's on the slippery slope of negotiation. All too often the violence that is wrong is the violence where he or his might get hurt, the violence that is justified when he or his are directly protected or avenged.

Ah, Mr. Noonan, I wonder what you're doing these days? You carefully nurtured our anti-government, anti-war sentiments, and you had no more fanatical, more assured, more self-confident follower than I. Poor Ed Saputa, arguing by himself that violence was a reasonable response to evil, was laughed at by all, especially those of us smart enough to understand his thinking was clouded. After all, his parents were Polish refugees who had seen first hand the Nazi invasion. What did they know about moral right? So they thought they knew what happened when evil was allowed to flourish unfettered. So what? Our glorious superior knowledge wasn't abut to be confused by some paltry reality that did not conform to our understanding of human nature. The Nazis, like everyone else not as elevated as ourselves, did not need to be killed, they needed to be educated. If we could talk to them, we could convince them to put their guns down and live harmoniously.

The pacifism of my youth was a sham, a moral self-righteousness and self-glorification based upon a belief in my elevated piety, my far greater concern for others than that manifested by the average, undereducated, fool, and my greater love for mankind. These days, I am convinced pacifism without a powerful religious base is illogical. For what is the truth that says "Violence is inherently evil" if not a fundamental submission to God's power to be the only judge? Otherwise, it is indeed a mere opinion, and all opinions are just that. Of course, the claim "pacifism without religion is illogical" is an opinion as well, but I believe there is some pretty convincing evidence for it, and is not the goal of the un-religious mind to celebrate reason? What logical reason can argue for pacifism?

In the world of no religion, where evolution is the creed that explains all and reason and science take the second and third roles of the three-part god, the survival of the individual is all that matters. Life is a struggle, with only the strongest and most aggressive making it. Those who do not make it did not make it for a reason, a reason possibly known only to the god of evolution, but there is no appeal from his judgements. Society has had trouble with the Spencers of the world who argued that we should live that way, though no credible response seems available. Why shouldn't the strong overpower the weak? Evolution demands it, does it not?

In a social setting, my life is the most important thing I can have, because once it is gone, that's it, there is no more. Sacrificing my life for a cause I cannot share in may be noble, but is not a very evolutionarily-wise behavior, since I cannot live to benefit from it, nor can I live to reproduce. And my self-interest wants me alive. On the run, in submission, under the dominance of evil, in prison camp, or where ever I might be, but alive is the ultimate good, dead the ultimate bad. I may sacrifice my life to save my children and perpetuate my line, but sacrificing it for some bigger cause makes no sense.

But for a religious person, giving my life for a cause makes perfect sense. We have been placed on this earth not for ourselves, but to serve the cause of God. Different groups view that cause in many ways, and using violence to further God's cause makes perfect sense as well. As the all powerful master of the universe, using violence if necessary is merely acting for God, who could do things himself, but wants our belief, our minds, and our lives. We are the hands of God, placed here to perform his will, and serve his law. For the powerfully convinced Muslims we now fear, his will is the destruction of evil, and America symbolizes everything evil to them in the same way the Nazis symbolized (and continue to symbolize) everything evil to us.

I have known several Palestinians. I have liked them. However, after having worked with them for years, I learned two things.

First: There are two sets of rules: one for Palestinians (and it seems for Muslims in general), and one for others, especially Americans. Lying to Americans doesn't count as lying, stealing from them is not only acceptable, it is reasonable. The same behaviors that would be punishable by death if performed against brothers are of no consequence when performed against others. Much like the slave-owners (present and past-of whom the Arabs have been, and continue to be, among the most vicious), human rules only apply to other humans, and slaves, Westerners, women or whomever, are not fully human.

Second: This is almost a word-for-word quote "We will never rest until Israel is pushed into the sea." If the ultimate goal is the destruction of Israel, how does America negotiate with that? There is no partial destruction that will appease them. No center road. Much like those who advocate and those who laugh at vegetarianism, there can be no reasoned middle path. Either eating an animal is OK, or it is not. I believe it isn't, most do not agree. What middle ground is possible...sometimes? Americans believe all things are, or should be, negotiable. But this is an either-or. Many things are. I have recently thought of it in these terms: there re moral issues and there are political issues. Moral issues have no middle ground. Political issues do. To keep it safe, I'll continue with vegetarianism as a moral issue, speed limits as a political one. One is either/or, one is a spectral issue, where arguments can be made at any point along the spectrum. Americans, especially the media which loves to see itself as moderate, believes, since religion is a crutch for the weak-minded and unenlightened, all issues are political, and those who have moral beliefs are extremists. And extremist is one step from the most dreaded label of all, intolerant. I saw a wonderful film recently called Liam. It is the story of a young Liverpool Catholic in the Depression, where decisions have far greater consequences than they do today-quitting a job means not eating. Yet a character quits a job because she feels she is abetting someone's sinning by working there. There was a discussion afterwards, and the very first speaker equated the Catholics and the Taliban. Anyone who has strong beliefs, especially religious ones, and attempts to teach them, is seen as intolerant, a word, much like racism, that has degenerated to the point of having basically no meaning.

Another component of this dialectic is that moral issues have evil on one side, and I do not believe you negotiate with evil. Another tool of the media is to call those who hold a belief, or any belief that they cannot call moderate, extremists. I am an extremist in many ways. I am opposed to child rape, to slavery, to genocide, to female genital mutilation, to torture. These are all moral questions, and they are either/or's. There is no third position on them. Either it is OK to do these things or it is not. Americans are uncomfortable with such ideas; they have been taught that it is wrong to impose one's beliefs, as if such a thing is even possible. But calling evil what it is, and not accommodating it is the only response to such things. The fact that the people performing the rape, the clitorectomy, the enslavement, do not believe themselves evil makes no difference. The Israelis understand this...I am convinced their continued attempts at compromise are merely a way of keeping the us shelling out bucks while they know that no peace other than the removal of the Palestinians will be permanent.

So, should we retaliate? I'm glad I'm not President. Allowing attacks like this will undermine the society to a point never before seen. Never have Americans felt unsafe. Never. No matter what the conflict, civilians were mostly safe. Hell, we were even reasonably nice to the Japanese and Italians we interned, and the Germans we imprisoned, in WWII. No, I don't think we'll be good at it. We don't respond well to fear, though we seem to like it. Look how the anthrax stuff has got us in a panic. I was at the hardware store this weekend, and a woman yelled at her son who was playing with some plaster powder (which is delightful stuff with a wonderful silky texture) that had spilled "That could be anthrax! Leave it alone!" We're afraid of things the rest of the world cannot imagine...cholesterol, teenage psychos, gaining weight. Words that are meaningless in much in many countries. All the superficial, flag-waving piety and patriotism is easy when nothing more is required, but should the push get close to the shove, we may see some serious anarchy. Life will indeed look like the nasty, brutish and short affair of Hobbes. All the "God Bless America"ing we do will disappear as it did in Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia and other places where basic liberty could not be protected. I think it will take two more attacks. The first will be a problem, but reassurance, and all our armed and uniformed protectors walking around (looking for what? Are terrorists so easy to spot?) will temporarily buy us off. But when the second hit comes...and I am far too nervous about its certainty...we will be frazzled. We have lived for years under the government and lawyers trying to free us from all risk, and we have come to accept risk-free living as our birthright. Panic will set in, and people do not think well when panicked.

If violence does beget violence (and that is certainly an if), does non-violence beget non-violence? Always? Or will non-violence sometimes end up in the death and obliteration of the non-violent? Non-violence works only if the person on the other side sees it as such. Gandhi was able to use his position to destroy English hegemony in India because the British people had no stomach for killing to support the Empire. But Hitler's opponents, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, shine today only because Hitler was defeated. If Germany had won, Bonhoeffer, and how ever many other pacifists were exterminated with him, would be just heaps of unknown bones in the graveyards. Can anyone name some of the non-violent victims of Stalin? Gone, almost without a trace, and Old Joe died peacefully in his sleep. Do you think non-violence against a Hussein, a Stalin, or a Pol Pot works? Well, that depends upon your definition of works. If this life is not your highest good (a position I find a little bizarre without some kind of belief in an afterlife), then dying is no big deal. We set our heart on acting in concert with beliefs bigger than ourselves. But for those without God, there is nothing bigger than our self. How can there be? I realize non-believers have sacrificed themselves throughout history for country, family, or principle, but they are uncommon-part of the reason they are celebrated is just how rare they are. For the believer, compromising absolutes is a bigger fear than losing life. There is no harm anyone can do to you, because they can only take something of very little value. But for those lining up the victims by the millions, to whom winning in the here and now is all that matters, pacifism is only something that makes their jobs a little easier.

At the end of Schindler's List, the camp commander is unceremoniously hanged. Spielberg has no problems with killing defenseless Nazis (either there or in Saving Private Ryan) without trial, without procedure, without pity. There was an evil so profound exterminating it was not only permissible, but appropriate. Did this violence beget violence? Stop it? And how is this action different from those committed by the airplane hijackers?

In the last few years, I have been reading and thinking a lot about the Social Contract. For years, I was vehemently opposed to the death penalty. I no longer am. Society is an agreement, and it has the right to punish those who choose to live in it and not follow the agreement. The world has a similar right. Societies that interact with others do so at the risk of being harshly judged for their behavior. Sovereignty is a tricky one. Can we intervene in the internal affairs of a society if we find their actions evil, e.g. slavery, apartheid, or clitorectomy? Can someone attack us because, for instance, they find our policies on homosexuals or abortion abhorrent? Many nations do, but they could not seek to impose their will on us, yet we act as if there is only one possible solution to all questions, and we have it. These are hard questions. Who makes those decisions?

This is partly why I choose to opt out to some degree. And why I turn it over to God. I cannot know what is best. I can only act as I see my life directed, and that is a life of obedience and self-restraint. There is an amusing e-mail newsletter I get called This Is True. He slammed Falwell and Robertson for their suggestion that maybe America was to blame for the attack. I replied, and included a letter I wrote to our paper that went unpublished. Pointing fingers is a very childish approach, but oh-so-comforting. But could it be that our life is indeed so corrupt, so flawed, so full of evil (and evil has lots of looks other than just turbans and swastikas) that we have indeed brought it on ourselves? Well, that is easy. We did bring it on. How can you say otherwise? Our national policies, beliefs, and values caused those who hate us and them to attack. The real question is whether such action was justifiable or not, and whether delf-defense is appropriate.

There has been a lot of talk about what went wrong, including some of the following.

Saying this attack PROVES how unnecessary missile defense is is stupid. It proves no such thing. Much like saying we don't need a fire department because we never had fires (AT&T laid me off for precisely that reason-but we didn't just put out fires, we prevented them, and there is no effective measure for that). What would prove such a statement? I cannot imagine. Much as he debate about gun ownership deterring crime; there is simply no way to measure. "Would you have attacked with missiles if there were no SDI?"

Criminals attempt to work around the plans of those they are attacking. To say America's defense team mistakenly concentrated on big-ticket technological attacks seems also silly. While 6,000 dead is an astonishing number, it is nothing compared to the problems that might occur if we did not defend against technological attacks. I am convinced some such attack is coming. How, where, in what way...I don't know. The problem is that on our side, we have people who have grown accustomed to having things pretty easy. I see people slacking all the time in what they know they should do...whether it is teachers not filling out stupid paperwork, guards easily distracted, or submarine commanders thoughtlessly and casually doing what they've done a thousand times. Yet sometimes, disaster strikes, because we have not followed procedures. And I am sure such a disaster will hit us. Someone bored from the repetition and tedium will not be watching as closely as they should. And another evil will hit us. Because evil is indeed the state of man's heart. And those who use evil will never rest. Because they believe just as firmly, or more firmly, than those who believe in reason.

Back to my Palestinians....they will never quit, because they believe right is on their side in a way we cannot comprehend. We do not believe anything as strongly as they believe in everything. We are jaded, dull, easily distracted and willing to compromise for convenience and comfort. They are not. They accept in the way ancient tribesmen accepted. They cannot imagine not believing...there is simply no alternative. And so, as a culture that believes in reason, we are forced to face people who do not believe in reason. Reason is not a part of belief. Has nothing to do with it. How do you "talk" with someone who does not share your acceptance of reason as the primary tool toward understanding? The basic vocabulary is not shared; they see all issues as moral, none as political, and thus compromise impossible. All compromises are feints to get a piece of what they want. This intensity has been fanned by corrupt regimes for whom the existence of the Palestinians is vital; they fester and ooze and blame the West.

I say I think we have more coming. And I think it will crush American civilization because it is soft, without foundation, and without anything to believe in. We have sold consumption, self-aggrandizement, sexuality and self-gratification as the legal tender of our society. It will be very difficult to convert those currencies into abstinence, submission, humility, self-sacrifice. So, we will want to lash out at those who threaten those sacred tenets and crush them. Once, soldiers went off to defend Christ against infidels. Now, we will send soldiers to defend SUVs. Will we be able to fight such a fight with nothing bigger to believe in. Freedom? What a laugh. Most Americans seem to think freedom is the freedom to choose between CNN and MSNBC. I know a high school teacher who asked his students if they would rather give up voting or TV. 100% said voting. They know they would be sacrificing little; they know they are manipulated and fooled. We want quick service at the drive through, football on the TV, flowing traffic, and movies in the video store. What else? What do people believe in? Not much, it seems to me. We construct our religion to mirror our desires and justify our wants, create gods who look the appropriate, inoffensive, multi-cultural way, and fabricate morals so everyone can do whatever they want. Fighting those who truly believe, when all we believe in is avoiding suffering, will be fruitless. Traditional political war is no longer an option. When we fought Germany and Japan, we could force them to a point where it no longer made sense for them to continue fighting. Their ability to get objectives diminished until they realized success was impossible, and they gave up. Our current enemies will never do that, since they do not want positive, they only want negative. They want us to pull out of Israel, to stop supporting Saudi Arabia and other insincere Muslim regimes, to stop exporting filth and sin. They do not want our land, our territory, our world, our money, or anything we have. They want us to go away, and I think we will only be too eager to do that once a few more catastrophes strike.

So, where do we go? These enemies want us to stop doing things many of us are not comfortable doing. Do we want to kill and die to support oil and Israel and Christianity? For a while, maybe, especially when we couch it as defending freedom and our way of life (what is that, exactly...SUVs and Hollywood?) And justice and having our own bogeyman as the embodiment of all evil. We are important as an enemy, just as unhappy Palestinians are important. Tyrants need someone to hate. And they need someone to do the hating. Remember Orwell and perpetual war? But what about us? Do we need someone to hate too? As long as we allow these enemies to hate us, we will always be submitting. They will need to crush us, little by little. The Middle East is very rich. The number of Palestinians is small. They could have been easily resettled in comfort and security throughout the area, but a ragtag band of haters makes ruling immorally simpler. An all-purpose enemy, a gang of those with nothing to do but fester hate, and a lot of money to support them means, to me, an endless, 1984-style war. These are a people with whom compromise will not work. They could easily have absorbed and protected the refugees, but for 50 years they have stewed and fermented and blamed, and we have received that blame. If that is how these regimes treat their brothers, allowing them to suffer to protect their position, how will they treat us? Using us for their purposes? What's to stop them? Their belief in justice? Truth? They believe in themselves, and that self does not include us as anything other than the spigot of cash to buy their oil. So, there are only two options. Submission, gradual, but quite possibly eventually total, or victory, which I do not think we have the stomach for. Where does that leave us?

I am as much a pacifist as you will ever find. I do not hunt, do not eat animals, do not fight, do not do anything "violent". And for years subscribed to all the thoughts about violence and such. But I have thought about this for years....and have changed my thinking. Violence does not solve anything, but the argument that violence begets violence is fatuous....when we receive violence, does not that same logic apply to the original doers. Does not violence beget violence for them too, or just us? Violence may not solve things, but it can stop things. Fear of pain is a powerful inducement. I am not sure what to do when faced with evil. Do we have the right to attack evil? In our country? In another? Hitler? Abortionists? Slavers? Tricky stuff...

Not to say we have tried anything (though the repeated failures for the past decade do seem to embolden attackers--this is at least the fifth, maybe sixth terrorist attack on America/Americans) but is there a point at which you no longer talk? Do you say "enough" and act? What sort of action? I heard a Clinton defender asked "Just what could he do that you would not accept?" and the person did not answer, but evaded, squirming and writhing. But it is important to know what we will not accept. Do we accept attacks on our ships? Our embassies? Our soil?

There are two photographs I've seen in my life that haunt me. One is the photograph of a couple that committed suicide in the thirties, hanged themselves in a closet. The other is one of a German soldier aiming his rifle at a Polish woman holding a baby. They are standing alone in a field and the woman has her back to the soldier and is cradling her baby tight. He is about 10 feet away. This is early in the war, September 1939. The Jews did try non-violence, or at least many did, and ended up dead by the truckload. When one side thinks of the other not as equals but as a lesser species, then there is no need, nor even the possibility, of discussion. The superior creature has the right to kill the inferior one--that's how things are set up here. Over a billion sentient creatures die every year in this country so we can eat them. They're just not sentient enough. That's what these Muslims believe; that's what Hitler knew. No one negotiates with those who are not on their plane. And when the inferior creature is evil, like the crushing of a scorpion, the right becomes a duty.

By negotiating, what could we convince them of? That we don't deserve their animosity?