March article 2013

Reflections – March 2013

Friends:Those who’ve followed these postings know that my legal battle with the federal government over a $16,000 fine (for traveling to Iraq to bring medicine without a U.S. license) has ended. The judge dismissed the government’s efforts to collect saying the government waited too long to sue. See Bert’s Case for a history of the legal issues.

Those who have followed these postings will recognize the deep admiration I have for two books by Jim Douglass, JFK and the Unspeakable and Gandhi and the Unspeakable. As a consequence, there are times when I hear a news story and find my mind saying out loud to myself, It’s the Unspeakable.

For those who have forgotten, this is how Thomas Merton characterized the Unspeakable:

It is a void that contradicts everything that is spoken even before the words are said; the void that gets into the language of public and official declarations at the very moment when they are pronounced, and makes them ring dead with the hollowness of the abyss. It is the void out of which Eichmann drew the punctilious exactitude of his obedience.

A year ago I cited the opening paragraphs of President Obama’s State of the Union address as an example of the Unspeakable. Sadly, it seems that the State of the Union address is fertile grounds for observing the “void that contradicts everything that is spoken even before the words are said.”

This year, our President spoke passionately about the need to reform gun laws to reduce violence in our country. The unspoken and Unspeakable void in his speech was widely known to his entire audience: Obama sits every Tuesday (insiders call it ‘Terror Tuesday’) and goes over a kill list. He determines who he will let live and who he will assassinate with a drone strike – even Americans – with no judicial due process whatsoever.

It’s as if this intelligent, thoughtful man never heard of the power of ideas – or that what he does carries more weight than what he says. This is a man who studied constitutional law, yet refuses to even make public the legal rationale for his assumed power to conduct drone assassinations. And this is the man who says he passionately wishes to reduce gun violence! This is the Unspeakable.

We’ve now been told that Obama will not kill Americans with drones, at least if they’re within the U.S. As for others, Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu has spoken of the Unspeakable better than anyone:

Do the United States and its people really want to tell those of us who live in the rest of the world that our lives are not of the same value as yours? That President Obama can sign off on a decision to kill us with less worry about judicial scrutiny than if the target is an American? Would your Supreme Court really want to tell humankind that we, like the slave Dred Scott in the 19th century, are not as human as you are? I cannot believe it.
I used to say of apartheid that it dehumanized its perpetrators as much as, if not more than, its victims. Your response as a society to Osama bin Laden and his followers threatens to undermine your moral standards and your humanity.
–Desmond Tutu’s Letter to the Editor, NY Times, February 12, 2013

We have been warned where this “mass application of force” will lead. Here is a remarkable tribute sent in honor of Mahatma Gandhi soon after his assassination in 1948:

In the evolution of civilization, if it is to survive, all men cannot fail eventually to adopt his [Gandhi’s] belief that the process of mass application of force to resolve contentious issues is fundamentally not only wrong but contains within itself the germs of self-destruction.

What is most remarkable is not just the content but the author: General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Allied Commander, South-West Pacific Command. He wrote this from Japan in 1948. He knew war.

Which brings up the question, Is violence (and war) ever justified?

A good friend wrote this appeal to several of us: “I would personally value from a full discussion of where each of us are on the question of violence – or if there are ANY justifications for war. … There is immense uncertainty on my part.”

I am grateful that my friend put his question so clearly and candidly. Here are my thoughts.

Let me begin with a “thought experiment.” I imagine that I am sitting in an aisle seat in the Aurora movie theatre in Colorado for the midnight opening of the new Batman movie. From the corner of my eye I see a strange looking man walking down with what appears to be an assault rifle in his hand. Suddenly something drops out of his pocket onto the aisle right beside my chair. I reach down to pick it up and see that it’s a revolver. Then I look up and see that the man has begun firing his rifle randomly into the crowd.

In this situation, if the only action I could take to stop his killing of people in the audience was to fire the revolver at him – and even if I tried only to disable him but ended up killing him – I would say that in this extreme situation it was reasonable and justified. (I believe that Gandhi once gave a similar example where he thought even killing could be justified. And, while I’m less certain, I’ve heard that the Buddha also imagined a situation where killing was justified.)

But here comes a real challenge and the real danger!

In my thought experiment above, I accepted physical violence as legitimate. If I accept violence in this circumstance, how do I limit it in another? How do I stop the justification of violence in virtually any other situation? As I see it, the essential task is to articulate what principles determine (and limit) justifiable violence and stop it from becoming a ‘slippery slope’ – an excuse to use violence anywhere.

(Here is one example of this ‘slippery slope’: The 2003 Iraq war is widely judged here solely in terms of whether the U.S. failed to achieve its goals in a ‘cost effective’ way. There is almost no consideration of the suffering and death inflicted on Iraqis. The immense violence unleashed on the Iraqi people – first through bombing their infrastructure and sanctions, then through invasion and occupation – is ignored. And in our cost-benefit analysis, only the cost and benefit to us is taken into account, not to others.)

The claim that if violence is a last resort then it is legitimate is clearly an inadequate principle. If we tell Saddam Hussein that he must be overthrown (as we did) and he refuses, does that make our violence, as a last resort to accomplish our demand legitimate? The claim that violence is legitimate in self-defense holds more of a basis, but it is possible to concoct reasons to believe that self-defense is required – whether it’s specious arguments over WMDs or that the person approaching wears a hoodie.

Nonetheless, the two U.N. Charter requirements – which both must be present to make the use of force legal – seem reasonable to me: both self-defense and a last resort. (President Obama’s Nobel Speech to the contrary notwithstanding; he claimed only “a last resort” requirement was sufficient! This is hardly surprising given our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.)

But beyond the legal justification for using force, I find myself turning to statements from Desmond Tutu, Douglas MacArthur, and Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. King to find a deeper and more satisfying requirement.

Gandhi himself spoke of his faith in the essential core of goodness in every person, including even his enemies, including even his assassin. Martin Luther King spoke of the arc of the moral universe as being long but that it bends towards justice. These two prophets speak of seeing the fundamental nature of humankind as essentially benevolent. They certainly were not ignorant of violence in the world (or in their own lives), but they had faith that underneath the violence was hidden goodness.

Here is the key I believe (and the most demanding requirement I can imagine) to determine if violence is justified: If it is undertaken without hatred for any party and with the wish for good for all parties, then it seems to me that the act that’s done would be done in the true spirit of nonviolence, even if it involves the use of force.

The principle here has moved from the external circumstances to the internal conditions of the actor. While one can impute the state of mind and heart by an actor’s external actions, this requirement imposes a most demanding standard of honesty and good will on the person trying to decide what to do.

As discussed in Gandhi and the Unspeakable, Gandhiji spent a lifetime preparing himself to die nonviolently. He purified himself to face his assassin without anger or hatred in his heart, but with forgiveness and love. We may believe that this is not possible for us – though Gandhi would disagree – or that we simply don’t want this for ourselves.

But at the level of verbal and emotional violence we all encounter in our lives, imagine how much freer (and happier) we’d be if we cultivated a response of goodwill for the poor person who was behaving that way towards us – even as we adopted the wisest counter measures we can to protect ourselves.

At the national level, I believe we’re seeing the truth of General MacArthur’s warning that the “mass application of force … contains within itself the germs of self-destruction.” Our Iraq misadventure has been called (possibly) “the greatest disaster in American foreign policy” by … Madeleine Albright.

When we do our cost-benefit analysis accounting of conflict – whether on the personal or national level – and consider only how it affects us directly, short-term, we fail to see the germs of self-destruction we are planting. We will not reduce violence here while accepting the violence of drone killings there.

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