Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Hypocritical peace activism

Christiaan Briggs is your stereotypical peace activist right down to the dreadlocks. He was one of those who went to Iraq to be a "human shield" to prevent the US invasion. He is also someone who beat up a 19 year old and sent him to hospital. Briggs got into an altercation with the man and his girlfriend on a bus. When the pair got off the bus Briggs pursued them punching the young man who fractured his skull on the pavement as a result of the blow. The victim had to have surgery to relieve pressure on the brain.

Now in the big picture of things Briggs is no one important. But he illustrates something which is common, particularly on the "pro peace" Left. Often the term "peace" is used falsely. It isn't that they are actually people committed to peace. They don't mind violence at all. Where they differ is that they are on the other side. During the war in Vietnam individuals who claimed they supported peace openly supported the Viet Cong communists. They weren’t for peace at all. They didn't want the war to end because they were against violence. They wanted the war to end so the communists could win. In the El Salvador conflict many of the peace activists were partisans to the Sandinistas. Again they weren't pro peace they just wanted one side to win over the other.

There is a long history of this sort of thing on the Left. Go back to the Second World War. The Communist Party and it's fellow travellers were strongly opposed to US intervention in the war. They campaigned openly and widely against the conflict. But that was when the Soviets and the Nazis had their secret treaty to divide Europe between themselves. When the two came to blows the peace movement of the Left, in the US, became war hawks literally over night.

I actually respect honest peace activists. I did not and do not support the war in Iraq. I was always against Vietnam and intervention in El Salvador. But I have no love for Saddam. I think the Viet Cong were evil. The Sandinistas deserved to lose the election and they did. The Contras were evil as well. My opposition comes from specific principles. The Left, however, tends to flow with the wind depending on what is good for the tyrants and dictators that they lust over.

At one point I knew a lot of people in the "peace" churches such as the Mennonites, Church of the Brethren and various Anabaptist sects. They tended to be against violence across the board not just when used by one side in the conflict. But they also tended to support massive state redistribution of wealth and state regulation. Apparently they thought that as long as they were only urging violence by others that they were not responsible. The wealth they wanted redistributed had to be taken by force or the threat of force. The regulations they supported were imposed by force of the threat of force. In each case they lobbied for such policies even though the only way government gets what it wants is to threaten people. And if people ignore the threats the state will send in men with guns.

It's not a hard concept to understand. Now I know some people are not pacifists opposed to violence in all cases. But these people were, or at least said they were. What were they promoting however? They wanted a specific end result in the economy. To achieve that result they asked a second party, the state, to force all other third parties in society to do what the activists wanted.

The violence these people advocated was one step removed. They didn't do it themselves. They just lobbied for it. In a sense they hired an "enforcer" to get what they couldn't get through peaceful means. They could have gone around soliciting donations which they redistribute to the poor or needy. They didn't do that. They chose a more indirect, but much more violent, method to achieve their goals. But just because you aren't looking when your enforcer puts the pressure on doesn't mean that violence is not being done at your request and on your behalf. It doesn't alleviate your responsibility.

Peace activists need to realise there are three positions regarding the use of force. One is the idea that you can use violence anytime you wish to achieve anything you wish. If people get in your way you are "justified" in forcing them to comply with your wishes. It is the morality of the Nazis and all tyrants.

The second position is that\ it is always wrong to use violence regardless of the purpose. I have trouble with this. It seems to say that the woman being raped, who kicks her assailant in strategic zones rendering his desire moot, is just as morally at fault as is her rapist. It basically says that you should sit there and take it. Gandhi pretty much took this position. And it is one that can work in some circumstances. But not in others. I don't see a problem with the use of force in self defence. It is a different matter when you use violence to violate the rights of others. Force in self-defense is not immoral.

In a nutshell the three main moral positions on violence are that you are permitted to use violence as you wish, it is never permitted to use violence or you may use violence only defensively.

I don't see the use of third parties as changing this. Just because I hire someone to attack people so I can achieve my goals doesn't change my moral responsibility for the act. So when it comes to government we have the same problem. We can lobby government to use violence for us to achieve specific outcomes we want. That is the first position. We can never use it, even in self defence, but only a pacifist anarchist would be taking that position. Or we can advocate the use of government only to protect rights and not to achieve specific ends in society.

Now some people who take the position that one permitted to use violence against peaceful third parties in order to achieve some "greater social good" would say that this mustn't be used for anything one desires. It should only be used for really important matters. Of course the problem with gangs of thugs is that once they are formed they tend to have agendas of their own. And when you create the structure for state violence you can't guarantee that your "loftier" goals will be the only ones pursued. You could lose control of the structure and find people not sharing your "noble vision" wielding the levers of power.
The third position is the traditional, classical liberal tradition. It says, with Jefferson, "that governments are instituted amongst men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed" and that the only purpose of said government is to "secure these rights". It is purely defensive and never offensive.

When I look back at most activists in the various peace movements over the years very, very few of them actually opposed violence. They usually held the position that violence is permitted provided it is used to shape society as they see fit. Almost none of them were actually pacifists in the sense of shunning violence across the board. In fact I've never met any such people myself though I am sure they exist. The position that I think makes the most sense is the one of liberalism: that no individual or collective of individuals may initiate force against the life, liberty or property of anyone else.