Violence is Never Justified

Reasonable people may question a philosophy of nonviolence by asking:

"What about the Nazis? Wasn't it right to resist them with violence? In fact, isn't it true there was no other way? The Nazis would have shot Gandhi and all his followers and thrown them in a pit."

The proposition that it was right to fight the Nazis violently is intuitively correct. Otherwise, we might be living in a Nazi world. Although something of a leap of faith may be required, this neither establishes the reality of a Hobbesian world, nor the justice of violence.

The Nazi phenomenon was produced by civilization, not nature; as Zygmunt Bauman noted, the Nazis had to work hard to overcome the "animal pity" that prevented most German citizens from murdering Jews. If Nazi violence-- and Serbian and Hutu violence--is a product of civilization and is not in our genes, then there is hope that we can change the way we live so as to avoid killing in the future. If violence was genetic, any discussion of how to avoid it would be restricted to the biological question of whether we could rewire ourselves to avoid it--a much more limited, technical and difficult solution.

Whether produced by nature or civilization, however, the Nazis were a fact-- a stimulus, so to speak, that required a response. In biological terms, the response could be fight or flight; simple choices. The existential philosopher adds a third choice: there is always death, arguably the choice a nonviolent resister to the Nazis would have knowledgeably made. If fighting the Nazis was the right thing to do, then isn't violence sometimes justified? This is the core principle of the international law of "just" war and of war crimes-- war is not total violence; there are things you cannot do.

The idea that violence is sometimes justified places us on a slippery slope, just as does the closely related NRA doctrine that, under the Second Amendment, revolution is sometimes justified. The word "sometimes" opens a panorama of moral doubt: when is violence, including revolutionary violence, justified? How can we know? Who gets to make the decision? It is easier to distinguish specific situations--violence against the Nazis or the British was acceptable--than it is to draw lines that will allow us to make decisions reliably in the future. And what good are these lines, anyway, if they are not universally accepted?

The NRA and other proponents of the Hobbesian view fail to present any guidelines that would tell us that (for example) the Kansas City bombing was morally wrong. Its status as an apparent act of revenge against an oppressive government for the massacre of the Branch Davidians arguably places it in the spectrum of "just violence", similar to a surprise attack or underground sabotage in World War II. Since most of us agree that the Kansas City attack was a horrifying mass murder, the lines between righteous and unacceptable violence are always murky. What about the Sandinistas' murder of General Somoza or contra attacks on civilian targets? The Chilean coup in which a democratically elected socialist president was murdered? CIA support of murderous generals in Latin America? Terrorist attacks on CIA targets? The Israeli slaughter of Arab civilians at Deir Yassin? Palestinian suicide attacks on Israeli civilians?

The truth is, it is not possible to write a rulebook with enough gradations, exceptions and subsets to define just violence. The Bible itself is not such a rulebook, as it delivers a confusing and inconsistent message. Dave Grossman, in On Killing, makes the observation that the commandment "Thou shalt not kill" is translated in most modern versions of the Bible as "Thou shalt not murder" and that numerous passages in the Old Testament establish that killing under certain circumstances is just. Killing in the Old Testament, of course, is frequently commanded by God, and under circumstances which would be murder under our laws. Although the New Testament is a much less violent book, even Jesus said that "Greater love has no man than this, that he give his life for his friends," certainly suggesting that violence in self-defense is no sin. The fact that Jesus recognized that a man could be a soldier and a good Christian, or that we must render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, suggests a confusing double plan of morality--which opened the door, a few short centuries later, to the inevitable spectacle of crusaders killing for Jesus.

If we wanted to build a really splendid and simple morality--simplicity is a virtue in creating rulebooks-- we could start from the premise that violence may sometimes be necessary, but is never just. Konrad Lorenz relates how the Ute Indian tribe had a doctrine that a member who killed another--even in self-defense--was expected to commit suicide afterwards. The ritual purifications of many primitive tribes returning from war, Moses' inability to enter the promised land, all suggest that the human being who performs the necessary may in doing so have given up some vital part of his own humanity.

Think about two men in a lifeboat with only enough food for one to survive. If the stronger man throws the weaker overboard, he may have done something necessary to his own survival, but not just. Suppose he woke to find the weaker man's hands at his throat, but could nonetheless have subdued him without throwing him over the side? Only if killing the other man was the only way he could resist his violent attack, do we find the survivor's actions morally justified. But, in that case, since there was only food for one, why wasn't it equally justified to throw him over without provocation? The answer is that we have constructed a complex and tendentious morality, overly married to subtle gradations of hard to prove external facts, which says something like: "If the other man doesn't attack me, we are obligated to die together; if he attacks me and it is necessary for me to kill him in order to survive, then and only then am I justified in doing so." But the whole thing bogs down with that "necessary", because what is necessary is rarely apparent at the time, or, conversely, many unneccessary things appear necessary in the heat of the moment. In 1941, it wasn't apparent to many people that it was "necessary" to fight the Nazis; a few years later, it seemed "necessary" to firebomb Dresden and drop the atom bomb on Hiroshima. What is "necessary" is only apparent in retrospect--and since history is written by the victors, we come perilously close to holding that whatever we do was "necessary" (for example, fifty years after the fact, the Smithsonian couldn't mount an exhibit telling both sides of the Hiroshima story.) Necessity becomes a loophole you can drive a truck through.

Men who have engaged in violence are not fit to rule us. Though we have idealized the American founders and our early Presidents, their toleration of violence against slaves or on the American frontier have left us a legacy of violence that still haunts us today. What goes around comes around. The returning Palestinian fighters trying to found a nation on the West Bank bring with them a legacy of authoritarianism, of violence as an acceptable solution, that has led them to torture and murder their own people as well as the enemy. Violent men who win a people the "right" to survive or the territory in which to do so, would serve humanity better if they then faded away--back to the farm, like Cincinnatus--and let the nonviolent carry on. Their violence, even when "necessary", promotes an endless feedback loop. By recognizing "necessary" actions as impure and shameful, we would better ensure that they are performed only as a last resort, never as a first. In this sense, the NRA doctrine of a Second Amendment right to revolution encourages its proponents to shoot first, justify afterwards.

There is substantial evidence that violence, even when "necessary" or "just", is not instinctively acceptable to human beings. S.L.A. Marshall's study indicating that most American soldiers in World War II refused to fire their weapons at the enemy, or the commonly held view that many servicemen in American silos would decline to fire their missiles even if we were under nuclear attack, illustrates that many of us instinctively find even "just" violence to be shameful.

The Utes have a better morality. Violence under any circumstances is impure, and reduces us to something less than human. Moralities which include theories of "just" violence are themselves a product of the same civilizations which produce violence, and are nothing more than apologia for destruction. Renouncing violence as a practical tool means adopting a moral rule with no exceptions.