The morality of pacifism

The world is caught in a bloody conflict, pitting the cultists of a make-believe Islam against the forces of liberalism.  It is impossible for the Islamist death worshippers to win, but quite possible for them to destroy most of what is of value to the liberal world.

The United States has entered this war full bore, as befits the greatest power and oldest liberal democracy in the world.  It has made it clear, after some initial confusion on the matter, that the conflict is being waged on behalf of the liberal way of life, not merely against the murderous fanatics of Islam or, still less, some vague enemy called “terror.”

In this war, as in all wars, horror follows horror.  People are blown to bits in Baghdad, London, Sharm el Sheik, and the media brings the violence home with something like relish.  What is to be done?  On moral grounds, some advocate a less horrible path.  Almost anything seems better than killing and being killed.  That is certainly the rule in everyday life.  Why shouldn’t we demand a higher morality of our government than the law of the jungle?

Yet it is precisely to protect against the law of the jungle that liberal democracies wield force.  That seems self-evident.  The police power at home is used to control and, when necessary, punish bullies and cheats.  The awful power of the military is aimed at those beyond our borders who seek to build, with bloodshed and mayhem, a world totally hostile to the basic principles of liberalism.  How can a law-abiding community overcome the violence of the jungle, without violence of its own?  And how can the two kinds of violence be seen as morally identical?

The violence of the rapist is of a different kind from the violence of the woman who defends herself against rape.  In fact, the two are moral oppposites:  one loathsome, the other courageous and noble.  The same moral difference, I believe, applies to the use of force by liberal governments against violently illiberal persons, groups, and nations.

Our culture, which rests on a Christian moral foundation, gives a lot of lip service to meekness and pacifism.  The Sermon on the Mount blessed the peacemakers, and explicitly commanded, “resist not evil.”  Surely, those who deliver a peace based on justice and freedom should be rewarded, on earth as in heaven; but I have always found the demand that we yield to evil without struggle to be, quite literally, immoral.  Not that it has ever been put in effect.  Priests and pacifists have always relied on the Marines to protect them from their own principles.

Churchill took a kinder view of the matter:  “The Sermon on the Mount is the last word in Christian ethics. Everyone respects the Quakers. Still, it is not on these terms that Ministers assume their responsibilities of guiding States…If the circumstances warrant it, force may be used. And if this be so it should be used under the conditions which are most favourable. There is no merit in putting off a war for a year if, when it comes, it is a far worse war or one much harder to win.”

Opposition to the present war comes with many explanations, fair and foul, but pacifism as such – moral outrage against violence – falls into one of three categories.  The first is the Sermon on the Mount type, which condemns all “war” as evil, regardless of cause or intent.  Since slavery and Nazism would still be thriving under this principle, and Israel and Kuwait wiped from the map, I have no problem, as I said before, in classifying it as not just wrongheaded but positively useful to evil purposes.

A second type of pacifism seems afflicted with bipolar disorder when it comes to violence.  In brief, it rejects the assumption that liberalism is morally superior to its current enemies, and condemns violence only when it’s initiated by governments of the liberal democratic persuasion.  Islamic violence, on this view, is a symptom of our own moral failings:  racism, economic exploitation, neocolonialism.  Liberal democracies – the United States and Britain above all – are to blame for the bloodshed on both sides, whether in London by immigrant Muslims or in Iraq by American soldiers.

Fair enough.  If one rejects liberal democracy as an organizing principle, nothing will justify the use of force by countries so organized.  But the converse is equally true:  if one believes in the moral superiority of liberal democratic principles, then nothing in this argument will convert one into a pacifist.

The third type of pacifism longs for world government.  This amounts to an attempt at realism by bookish professors:  the nation-state system that has prevailed since the Peace of Westphalia, which favors the strong and has been subject to savage conflagrations, must be replaced by a single source of legitimate power.  According to this notion, all current conflicts are illegitimate, being propelled by some nation or other, but the war in Iraq, initiated without the sanction of the UN, appears morally beyond the pale.

The hope of humanity rests with super-national structures:  the UN, the EU, the various NGOs sans frontieres.  Eternal peace will arrive when such structures coalesce into a global entity that attains a monopoly on the application of violence.

To any but an intellectual, the practical and theoretical obstacles to this scheme will be immediately obvious.  On what basis will world government be organized?  In liberal democracy, sovereignty belongs to the people, but the world has many peoples, many faiths and ways of life, often mutually hostile.  Suppose the world government were controlled by rabidly secular Europeans:  why should Muslim peoples recognize its legitimacy?  Conversely, suppose the world government followed sharia, or traditional Islamic law:  how could the U.S. and Europe accept its dictates?

The assumption that a world government will be morally superior, more peaceful and benign, is also flawed.  While wars between nations have been frequent and bloody, so have wars waged by governments against their own people.  The Spanish had their Inquisition, the Chinese their Great Leap Forward, the Cambodians their killing fields.

To protect against tyranny, the full panoply of liberal democratic rights and processes would have to be imposed – but those nations now liberal would have nothing to gain by surrendering to a more distant seat of power, while those nations that reject liberalism would find such an imposition unacceptable.  In the end, world government as a basis for pacifism is an empty shell, void of theoretical legitimacy, practical possibilities, and moral justification.

So how should we judge pacifism?  In every age and in every generation, there has been a minority of evil persons:  the murderous, the deceitful, the destructive, the self-obsessed.  Chance and circumstances have often allowed such persons to take over powerful groups, even nations.  The Taliban and Al Qaida were not the first to do this, not will they be the last.

Almost by definition, the rule of evil means the suffering and death of innocents.  A doctrine that teaches nonresistance to evil, that discourages law-abiding people from making war on arbitrary power, lends moral support to the killers and con artists who would wield this power, and becomes morally implicated in the ensuing tragedy.  In a liberal democracy, where the majority rules, this can only happen if public opinion is swayed by a relentless condemnation of the use of force.

That is why I called pacifism immoral:  it disarms and demoralizes the good man, and emboldens the thug.  This, too, is why courage is a virtue:  physical courage, certainly, but always allied to self-restraint and love of freedom – what is usually described as moral courage.


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