Sunday, August 23, 2015

Non-violence? Maybe. Lesser-violence, always.

A crazy guy, probably somehow related to ISIS, Al Qaeda or some other radical religious (Muslim in this case) terrorist organization, boarded a train from Belgium to Paris and was stopped by 4 courageous other guys. You can read all about it if you missed it here.

Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos, and Chris Norman [Spencer Stone was under treatment]
Of course, I'm very grateful that the guy's AK-47 jammed, and that he didn't know how to handle his firearms. I'm also grateful for the rapid and courageous actions of the two American army guys and the British citizen who grabbed him, disarmed him and knocked him out. Thanks guys.

I want to take this story as an illustration of a long-lasting discussion about non-violence, and the "what if" argument.

Background: Non-violent activists feel they have to answer the question of "what if ... someone came with a knife/gun/machete to kill your baby/mother/whoever? would you then use violence?" Hardcore non-violent activists and to me idealists usually dance around, bend over backward to try to land on their feet and say that they have a response to this, and yet would not have to use violence. The reason why I want to address this question is because of an internal tension that I live with, vis-à-vis non-violence. I am a bit of an idealist myself, so I need to resolve these things to move on. Sorry.

I've been told that when writing in English, you first have to state upfront where you want to take the reader. So here's my 'thesis' of sorts:

  1. Non-violence is a fantastic ideal, with 1,001 urgent and immediate applications needed right now.
  2. As all panaceas it fails and breaks down somewhere. Maybe at a prophetic level, it lives on in eternal glory, but very few of us are the Messiah, and as a practical philosophy in the here and now for very fallible humans, there is a place where it breaks down -- the "what if" moment. By trying to stick to non-violence as an absolute rule valid in all situations, non-violence activists undermine their cause.
  3. Where non-violence meets its frontier, lesser-violence remains valid and essential.
Let's get to it rapidly (this is a blog - I should be halfway out of here by now, dammit.)

I'll skip over point 1 -- if you need to be convinced of the power, value, merit and ethos of non-violence, watch this movie and call me in the morning.

Now let's look at the Brussels-Paris train story.

It's no accident that the train controller ran away and that military trained people rushed the madman. We react differently to fear and the fight-or-flight instinct. Military training presumably selects and boosts the "fight" part of the equation in humans. But let's look at this story as a "what if" case study. What if... you were a nonviolence believer and saw the guy load his AK-47 and shoot off a bullet in a window as he did? I see a couple of options:

a- Run away. 
No non-violence activist would claim this as the response. Non-violence activists are far from cowards and have not given up on protecting their neighbor. I don't see one actually run away on account of philosophy. (Instincts are a very different thing.)

b- Address the root causes for the madman's recourse to violence. 
This is obviously a stupid contention, but I must address it because some proponents of non-violence have recourse to it.
[Obviously, the root causes of why some young mostly men from mostly Arab and so-called Muslim lands turn to terror need to be addressed. If you know me, you must at least acknowledge that I don't think that this happens in a vacuum, I don't think 'our' hands are clean,  and I am not blind to so-called Christian or so-called Jewish insanity. I even blame so-called humanists on occasion -- my misanthropy is universal, so you won't see me blame Islam and make it a scapegoat.]

At the time of the "what if" question, you have 10 meters between you and a gunman. That gives you 1 to 5 seconds to take action, run, stand still, start debating, screaming, or waving your hands. None of these things can address the root causes of the madman's violence.

c- Move toward the gunman, hand raised, with calls to peace and quiet to soothe him, make a connection and convince him to stop his efforts and surrender to the police.
Well, who knows? This might work. But as a miracle. And miracles are by definition rare occurrences.
It doesn't mean that once in a while a person cannot feel the grace of the prophets fall on their shoulders. Maybe one can be called to be indeed a prophet of Old Testament and Messianic proportions. And if in addition to that you are reading my blog, I'm just thrilled. But seriously, while such a radical action could take place (not in 10 secs) in one place, one time (and I'm quite certain there are examples), it is statistically more likely that this would result in simply getting killed, leaving a madman to pursue his or her killing rage.

And honestly, don't refer me to MLK or Gandhi to argue for this miraculous, prophetic action. Neither MLK, nor Gandhi were ever in this situation. And I for one, have trouble picturing MLK standing at a distance from the gunman to avoid acting in violence. You may have trouble picturing him jumping the guy. But neither of us has any evidence. This simply did not happen.

What I can picture is that if absolute non-violence were the prevailing ethos in the three men who subdued the Brussels-to-Paris train shooter, chances are that a lot more people would have been injured and would have died. Their non-violence would have yielded a lot more violence and deaths.

One might argue a moral success (I wouldn't) to this hypothetical choice, but from a strategic perspective it would be a failure. Both in terms of the immediate body count -- failure - and in terms of the triggering of more violence -- greater rage and failure, greater failure.

d- Use force to subdue the gunman.
Using force against a person is called "violence" in my book. If this is not the case, then non-violence activists should clearly state that non-violence allows you to punch someone in the face (and in so doing agree with me for a logic of lesser-violence.)

In the incident under review, three guys, at least two of them professionally trained, used violence to subdue a criminal and in the process stopped a greater violence. A couple of observations are worth a mention:

  1. They instinctively or purposefully chose "lesser-violence".
    Having disarmed the man and gotten a hold of his AK-47, Alek Skarlatos might have chosen to put a bullet in his head. He did not. He used the butt of the gun to knock him unconscious.This says a lot. Compare, for example, with the indiscriminate use of violence that US police forces are encouraged to follow. Much has happened in terms of violence from US policemen on African-Americans, but it's also happened with Caucasian-Americans (albeit not in the same proportions) and once with a senior citizen leaving a Florida flight disoriented. Lesser-violence avoids lethal violence as much as possible. One would hope police forces got the memo.
  2. Non-lethal violence was possible because of circumstances.
    At least two of the three guys who intervened were trained fighters. One of them knew how to use a choke hold, and the other knocked the criminal unconscious. In other circumstances -- imagine that the criminal's guns had worked rather than jammed, the guys who jumped him could not have covered the distance and lived. They would have been unable to stop him with a choke hold.

    Now imagine that he had working guns and started shooting, and that one of the intervening passengers, or a policeman/policewoman had had a gun, the lesser-violence action would have been to shoot him down. Bullets are more lethal than choke holds. The consequences of that violence on the killer would have been greater. But again, this would have been the lesser-violence alternative to letting him kill innocent travelers.

    Bottom line: the circumstances dictated what level of violence was required to stop the greater violence. If you have half a second, you have to shoot. If you have 10 seconds to cover the distance, you don't need to shoot. If you have 10 years, you can build a relationship and change the root causes of this man's madness. If you have a generation, you can change the world so that fewer men/women are born inclined to such madness.
See, the more time you have, the more non-violence becomes fundamental. So non-violence is urgently needed to thwart tomorrow's violence.
For today's violence, we may have to opt for lesser-violence.
And greater violence today is going to yield more and more violence tomorrow. So lesser-violence is an absolute must.

I realize that these observations can be misused by some people to legitimate violence of their choosing. Sure. But I don't think people like Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, Mohamed Atta, Abu-Bakr Al-Baghdadi or Benyamin Netanyahu are waiting for my blog to settle their conscience (I'm not comparing them; I'm grouping together people who believe in the healing power of lethal violence to defend their cause). The manipulation of an argument to justify one's crimes can work in the court of public opinion. But I'm an idealist who believes in right and wrong at some level, and I believe in human conscience -- I even believe that a mysterious creator may have gifted it to us through a set of amino acids which form our DNA, and through social learning. So you can buy the New York Times off, Fox News, and sell your war. You can capture the hearts of confused young people to sell them your jihad (war in another language). That doesn't make you right or righteous in my book. Misuse of a rationale does not make it any less rational- it just makes you more corrupt.

I am making an argument for lesser-violence and for freeing the tremendous potential of nonviolence as an inspiring ethos, by freeing it from an artificial and pointless argument.

1,500 words.
I really suck at blogging.



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