A Short Note On Pacifism

Pacifism

Recently, on Real Time with Bill Maher, rapper Michael Render, ironically known as ‘Killer Mike’, said the following with regards to an advertising campaign for a charity representing wounded warriors:

“Why don’t we stop sending poor and working class boys to war? And then we don’t have to have those commercials, we don’t have to have a charity, we don’t have to get angry that the VA (Veterans Association) hospital won’t see them for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when they come back so we have higher suicide rates. If we do the right thing by avoiding war, we don’t have to have that…”

This soap box rant received rapturous applause despite the fact that it has at best only a tenuous grip on reality and is somewhat immoral if taken literally.

While I was still thinking about what to make of this, I found myself in a political debate with a total stranger in the café at my local gym. He was steeped in regressive left rhetoric, tracing every problem on the planet back to Dick Cheney and Tony Blair, before topping off my growing frustration with him by proclaiming, “you can’t stop violence with violence.” Though I’m fairly confident I’d debunked this within about 20 seconds, he nonetheless remained perfectly satisfied with his position.

So what could my fellow gym goer and Killer Mike possibly mean? Surely we all want to avoid war, so what’s the problem with their beliefs and commitments to non-violence? Here are some thoughts:

Pacifism hinges upon two propositions:

  1. There are no truly evil people and ultimately anyone can be reasoned with.
  2. It is better to die without putting up a fight in order to set an example of non-violence.

The first of these misunderstandings really has its roots in western privilege. To put it simply, the majority of us have never encountered a truly dangerous person in a situation where we’re vulnerable to being victimised by them. This is of course a good thing and alludes to the fact that in the west we have built relatively safe and civilised societies. However, this also provides a false sense of security in that it disarms many people from even being able to imagine how badly a collision with a psychopath in the wrong circumstances might go. But a brief study of the cases of Richard Ramirez (The Nightstalker) or Dennis Rader (BTK), or an afternoon spent sourcing the uncensored versions of Jihadi John’s videos, ought to provide you with all the information one could require to realise that if you were ever cornered by people like this then the time for talking in the hope of a good outcome has long passed.

Unfortunately, this is where the rot really sets in. There are people who believe that even when words have obviously ran their course, the only thing left to do is to submit yourself to whatever harms are in store for you without resistance. Taken to its ultimate conclusion, this means one person armed only with a knife could murder everyone in an entire city, given enough time and the requisite motivation. It also inspires apparently moral people, such as Mahatma Gandhi, to say things like this:

“Hitler killed five million Jews. It is the greatest crime of our time. But the Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife. They should have thrown themselves into the sea from the cliffs.”

I’m proud to say that this is not the world I wish to live in. I believe that tyranny and evil should be confronted wherever they arise. If ever there were an example of a utopian vision setting us off course and causing real and avoidable harm, pacifism is surely it. The unhappy truth is that there are some very bad people in the world who can only be neutralised by recourse to violence (either actual or convincingly implied) and so even moral people will occasionally be required to apply it if our goals are to survive, to live in free and democratic societies, and to minimise suffering.