One of the stupidest questions I often get asked when I openly question the utility and morality of organized violence for settling political conflict is: if an evil man came into your house and tried to kill your wife, would you do nothing?
Well of course I wouldn’t do nothing – unless maybe he had a gun or a large axe and it would be suicidal to try and stop him! Even then, I wouldn’t do nothing; I’d try and stop him from killing my wife any way I could, or we’d hide and I’d call the police! But just because I would try and do something in this situation does not mean I support organized, industrial-scale killing, nor does it mean that I would not do anything in the case of an invasion of my country by a foreign army. Pacifism is an objection to organized political violence; it does not having much to do with ‘doing nothing’ when someone physically attacks you in your home! In fact, pacifism, when it combines with nonviolence, is actually about working actively for peace through a range of direct actions; doing nothing is not an option! In an invasion, for example, nonviolence means a range of non-cooperative and protest actions designed to make the invader withdraw because it becomes too costly for them, morally and materially.
Without getting into the immense problems we face when we take an individual ethical analogy and try to apply it to relations between nations and groups, or the problems with the Hollywood caricature of ‘Dr Evil’-type people who can only be stopped by violent death, my other problem with this question is that it is asked in an unfair and stupid way. Moreover, its implications are not actually acknowledged or thought through by the questioner. The valid and more accurate form of this question should really be: if an evil man came into your house and tried to kill your wife, would you get a group of your friends together, arm them with shotguns and grenades, and then go the evil man’s neighborhood, blow up his house, kill him and most of his family and friends, and burn down his neighborhood? After all, it is this organized and overwhelming military response which is implied in the initial question.
I actually think that this question works in favour of the pacifist position: If such a person attacked my house, I would of course respond by trying to restrain him, call the police and then testify against him in a court of law – as would most reasonable people. I wouldn’t get a gang together and try to kill him and all his children in a massive revenge attack a week or two later! That’s vigilantism and everyone knows it would be wrong. These days, society responds to acts of violence with law and restraint in the greater interests of creating and preserving a norm-based, peaceful society; it does not promote a violent jungle where force and violence is used by individuals to settle disputes and mete out ‘justice’ between them. The fact is the domestic sphere with its rules and its commitment to non-violent conflict settlement is exactly what we should be trying to create at the international level. This means trying harder to find alternatives to war (and vigilantism) – and ending the use of stupid analogies to justify immoral and counter-productive methods of solving conflicts or punishing law-breakers.
Another stupid question I get on this topic is: But what if there was genocide like the one in Rwanda or the Holocaust going on right now, wouldn’t you agree to send in the military to stop it? This is a stupid question because it is designed to force a pre-determined answer. I could equally ask: If there was a genocide going on right now and the only way to stop it was through nonviolence by trained peace activists, wouldn’t you agree to it? Or, if the Holocaust could have been prevented by universal disarmament and the ending of all national militaries, wouldn’t you agree to it? Of course, such questions are unfair and stupid because they have inbuilt assumptions which are not necessarily verifiable or falsifiable. It is not necessarily the case that sending in the military would stop the genocide, for example: it must just as easily accelerate the genocide, or inflame the war, draw in other nations, and cause more people to die than if no military intervention had occurred. It is only an assumption that military force is the best option for ending genocide, rather than nonviolent methods.
I also object to this question because it is devoid of history and context. I mean, what happened to get to this point where a regime is committing genocide, and could we have done something to stop it long ago? Why did everyone just sit around and watch while this particular regime or group organized a genocide and did nothing to stop it? Why were the peace activists who warned that our violent societies and violent politics would probably lead to this situation ignored? Is it really fair to blame them once genocide breaks out, when they have been the main ones working to try and stop such things from happening? In other words, the point is not to sit around waiting until violence gets really bad and then try and think of a solution. The point is to think about what causes violence and try and prevent it from happening in the first place. I think we could do this, but it would require new thinking about violence and war, and not constantly trying to justify holding onto violent methods with stupid, unfair questions directed against pacifists.
This leads to my other objection to this question: it is simply not an honest question and it just reproduces common ways of thinking and acting. Actually, in my view, it’s just an attempt to harangue pacifists. The people who ask this question are not seriously interested in hearing what pacifists have to say about alternatives to violence, how to build cultures of peace or how to resolve certain situations peacefully. The fact is, the people who ask me these questions have ignored every suggestion and warning I and other peace activists ever made for decades. They don’t really care what we think anyway; they prefer to keep the world the way it is. Peace activists said there were signs of a coming genocide in Rwanda and action needed to be taken; they said that there were more effective responses to terrorism than a war on terror; they said that invading Iraq would be a disaster; they said that selling arms to every dictator in the world was not conducive to peace; and so on, and so on. But every time, they were dismissed as naïve and unrealistic, and their practical suggestions were ignored.
Thus, my ultimate question in response to these stupid questions is: How many wars, genocides, bombings, tortures and killings – how many absolute disasters like the one in Afghanistan – will it take until you have sufficient evidence to prove that political violence has failed as a response to conflict, and you give peaceful and nonviolent policies serious consideration? You’ve given war and intervention a chance for hundreds of years without much success. When will you give nonviolence a chance?
[Thanks to Helen Dexter; her clarity and commitment on this subject has greatly influenced me over the past few years.]