Tired of -isms

The story so far: David Weinberger said, “I am willing to admit that there are circumstances in which torture is permissible…”.

I disagreed.

David stood his ground saying:

“…Frank, are you a pacifist? I used to be until I got tired of defending the position against hypotheticals. I came to believe that there are occasions – rare – when it’s morally ok and even necessary to kill people. I’m still anti-war, anti-capital punishment, etc., and even sometimes identify myself as a pacifist since I don’t believe there’s ANY position that can be held to 100% of the time. And that’s how I feel about torture. Of course I’m against it and would work for a total ban on it. Allowing it is a terrible terrible policy on moral and practical grounds. Nevertheless, I stick with what I said: I can imagine circumstances in which I’d be willing to beat information out of someone.

Why isn’t this completely self-contradictory? Because policies are different than actions. A country that accepts torture as a policy has given up its claim to be moral. But in a world this complex, there are circumstances in which policy has to come second, IMO. Admitting that might help us get past the objections of those who are minimizing the torture of Iraqi soldiers.


Yule Heibel, Norm Jenson, and Mike Golby shared comments that articulated my feelings better than I could have myself. The discussion is at this link, where a link to David’s original brief essay is also located.

But I would like to address the question, “Frank, are you a pacifist.” This is one of those questions that sounds like it should be answerable in a simple binary fashion, but I find it offensive. While from time to time I might be willing to declare myself a pacifist, I think that whenever the question is raised there is a more complex answer required than a simple yes or no. I’ve played my share of team development games where I’m marooned on the moon with a 45 caliber pistol, an air supply good for one person for two days, sufficient water for three people for three days, a flashlight battery, a gel dildo, and three people on the team with the certain knowledge that it will be a day and half before the rescue craft can possibly arrive to scoot us back to safety in the space station.

My response to hypotheticals is and always has been, I’ll burn that bridge when I come to it. But the question regarding “pacifism” is more than a hypothetical, and I need to be able to answer it.

Since March 20, 2003 I have been arrested twice for symbolic and non-violent acts of civil disobedience in protest of the wars that the Bush administration has chosen to enter. The crimes were misdemeanors, and the punishments were modest. The judges were pleased to have us in the court room, and the police were uniformly courteous as they performed their duties. Times have changed since the days when symbolic protest was met with violence, incarceration, and felony convictions in my community. These minor acts of civil disobedience in opposition to the Bush regime are the least I can do to stand up for what I know to be true regarding the administration and its wanton foreign policy. By standing up against the Bush regime in this small way, I earn the right to criticize it.

Fifteen hundred years ago Augustine of Hippo laid out a framework for something called a “just war.” Seven hundred fifty years later Thomas Aquinas refined it a bit. An equal length of time had to pass before international law and the United Nations were contrived. I hope these latter day institutions and other international efforts can help us find our way toward bringing international criminals like bin Laden to justice, and eliminating the destruction and inhumanity of rogue regimes like the Taliban, and controlling the apparently genocidal impulses of warriors like Ariel Sharon in the face of violent pressure from indigenous people.

A year and a half before Bush invaded Iraq there was national debate regarding war on Afghanistan. Many people thought this would be a just war. The Taliban were out of control, commiting crimes against world culture and regardless of whether or not they sheltered bin Laden, they needed to be reined in. When bin Laden committed his greatest crimes, it was apparent that a police action was called for. Is this war? Is my recognition of the need to apply appropriate force against a criminal state in the context of international law a betrayal of some essential renunciation of force that a PACIFIST is supposed to make? I dunno… I do know that the Bush unilateralism made it impossible to bring the full force of international law into play. And I opposed the Bush war on Afghanistan, as I oppose a so called WAR on terrorism and the war on drugs. I’d like to see us civilize ourselves and purge the concept of war from our vocabulary and our consciusness.

As a matter of personal history, I don’t look like a pacifist. I pay my taxes, including those that go to fund the wars I don’t believe in. I have an Honorable Discharge from the US Marine Corps. My father and my brother each served in combat and survived with the same spread of medals on their chests as John Kerry, plus a few that he didn’t earn. Today, if faced with the issue, I would likely seek conscientious objector status. During the Vietnam war, I could not in good conscience say that I qualified as a CO.

When David asks me if I’m a pacifist, I feel compelled to answer. Here is one facet of my sense of the matter. I do not like to constrain myself or others by the use of glib ideological labels: Capitalist, communist, socialist, fascist. If I am a peaceful person, does that make me a pacifist? If I prefer the rule of international law to the cowboy antics of our ruling family, is that pacifism? If communism is the opposite of capitalism, what is the opposite of pacifism? Antagonism? I think I’d generally prefer to behave like a pacifist than an antagonist, but exceptions come to mind.

As a practical matter, I don’t think we’ll do away with war soon. That said, I think we should reinstate the draft and do away with mercenary contracting arrangements and the use of reservists as core field personnel. When we reinstate the draft, I want to help young people look within themselves and determine whether they qualify for conscientious objector status. Can I be both a pacifist and a pragmatist? I think so. Must I be a pacifist to absolutely oppose torture under all circumstances? No.

Posted in Peace and Politics
12 comments on “Tired of -isms
  1. bmo says:

    Well said

  2. fp says:

    Thanks Brian

  3. Frank, I didn’t mean my “Are you a pacifist?” question as a challenge to your integrity, which I hope and assume you know I would never doubt. Rather, as I intended to say with the rest of my paragraph, it’s a hugely ambiguous question. You obviously agree, and your second-to-last paragraph puts it beautifully. “I think I’d generally prefer to behave like a pacifist than an antagonist, but exceptions come to mind.” Exactly. That’s what I’m trying to say about torture. Of course I’m against torture. As I’ve said repeatedly, I’d be by your side in the streets proposing a policy to ban it or to oppose a policy that accepts it. But, “exceptions come to mind.”

    The aim of the original piece of mine that started this was to say: Let’s not have the usual discussion in which I say I’m against torture and someone else says, “Yeah, but…” and then spins up one of those hypotheticals you refer to. I’m willing to grant those hypotheticals so we can move on to the real issue: Condemning torture as a policy and condemning its practice around the world, including in Iraq by us.

    So, I’m sorry to have phrased my thoughts poorly enough that you felt I was demanding some sort of self-justification from you. And I am impressed by your commitment, Frank. Bless you for it.

  4. Frank conversation about torture

    Over at Frank Paynter’s there’s been an interesting and useful discussion of my attempt to find a way for the left and the right to agree on a policy condemning torture. (As I’ve noted several times now, I should have talked not about the right wing b…

  5. Frank conversation about torture

    Over at Frank Paynter’s there’s been an interesting and useful discussion of my attempt to find a way for the left and the right to agree on a policy condemning torture. (As I’ve noted several times now, I should have talked not about the right wing bu…

  6. fp says:

    Thank you David. I’ll shut up now.

  7. I can almost understand how a reasonable person could have opposed the liberation of the Iraqis, but reason fails me with respect to the Taliban. In fact, none of the opponents of the liberation of the Afghanis are anywhere close to realistic, pragmatic, or practical people: Chomsky, Ted Rall, the radical feminists, etc.

    How on earth could anyone – pacifist, libertarian, vegetarian, socialist, recycler, or Authentic Indigenous Cultures Booster – have opposed the toppling of the Taliban?

    That sort of moral snobbery just floors me.

  8. fp says:

    I think we should start with the gap regarding the “liberation” of the Iraqis. If you can “almost understand” a principled opposition to the invasion of Iraq, I’m led to wonder what still puzzles you Richard? Perhaps when we’ve discussed that we’ll be better positioned for an exchange of perspectives on whether blue helmets would have been better than unilateral effort in Afghanistan.

    Incidentally, I think that the toppling of the Taliban was long overdue without regard to the crimes of bin laden and his mob, but there are practical issues standing in my way of understanding how we do this without unleashing the dogs of war.

  9. Mike Golby says:

    Thanks for demonstrating the power of words, those who’ve addressed this misunderstanding. I realised, while reading David’s elucidation of his stated view, that a slight rephrasing may have made made his view much clearer. To wit: “But in a world this complex, there are circumstances in which policy has to [does] come second, IMO.”

    It makes all the diffenence.

    Catching the gist of David’s desire to find common ground in which sane people can speak, those disagreeing with such an observation (rather than the moral standpoint or principle thrown up by “has to”) would find themselves on the wrong side of the world.

    In agreeing that universally accepted and legislated policy is all-too-often subordinated (nay, betrayed) by the duplicitous actions of the policy makers themselves (who planned to facilitate these abuses), right-thinking people of any political persuasion would make nonsense of those minimizing the torture of Iraqi citizens.

    I’d also note that only a small number of those incarcerated in Abu Ghraib, Baghram, Guantanamo, Camp Cropper, Guam, military prisons around the U.S., those outsourced to foreign ‘torture states’ as ‘Other Interests’, and on ships around the world are ‘soldiers’ in a sense accepted by the people of Western ‘democracies’.

    A significant number, no doubt, are former conscripts press-ganged into service to do a job the U.S. taxpayer passes on, together with billions of dollars, to mercenaries and, in Afghanistan, militia of the most barbaric type.

    Would that the double-speaking policy makers in the U.S. had the guts to press-gang or draft into service the many loudmouths now shouting from their PCs for the killing fields to be plowed ever deeper.

    My bet is that many now minimizing the torture of others would lose their lust to experience the thrill of riding this vortex of increasing violence to its sprialing end.

  10. I can almost understand the objections that some had to the liberation of Iraq because of the way the war was sold. It always seemed to me that the most compelling reason to go in was to liberate the Iraqis from their oppressor, but under International Law you’re not allowed to do that because it’s a violation of national sovereignty. You’ll note that the UN has never overthrown a dictator, no matter how severe his torture and genocide may have been; it’s always been up to smaller coalitions to undertake regime change in the humanitarian interest, as in Bosnia and Kosovo. The Bush Administration saw a happy coincidence between the humanitarian imperative, our national interests, and a series of UN resolutions on weapons, and sought to legitimize regime change on relatively unimportant grounds. This whole mess was so complicated and political that many men of principle whom I respect opposed at least the timing of it. Fair enough. But Afgahnistan? Surely you’re kidding.

    Perhaps you can explain why you feel comfortable with civil disobedience – breaking the law to make a political point – yet uncomfortable with actions in the national interest that violate international law. There seems to be a bit of a contradiction here.

  11. Thanks for this conversation.

    My two off-topic bits : for my part, I think the ‘toppling’ of the Taliban was so incompetently handled, done for reasons so divorced from the kind of justifications that are now used for the action (does anyone even remember the resounding silence from the American administration while they blew up Buddhist monuments and executed women in stadiums?), and arguably has, thanks to the complete lack of support after the bombs stopped falling, despite the usual promises to the contrary, resulted in as much misery as the attack was intended to prevent, that I find the sophomorically act-utilitarian justifications for the action (which were, for the most part merely a smokescreen for the real purpose, which was a revenge-hunt for Osama), speaking as they do to an idea of ‘maximizing the good’, very hollow indeed.

    Further, the diaspora of jihadis during that haphazard invasion led directly to the bombing in Bali which killed one of my best friends. Amrozi, the grinning killer who has been tried for the act, may have pulled the trigger, but it was George Bush and his incompetent war machine that held the gun to my buddy’s head. I am unwilling to forgive this, particularly in light of the distortions and outright lies of the Americans before, during and after the fact, just as I am unwilling to forgive Osama’s murderers for their atrocities.

    Which is tangential at best, but perhaps goes some way to addressing Richard’s faux-shocked queries as to why someone might think that the misadventure in Afghanistan was as ill-advised and badly-executed as this latest clusterfuck in Iraq.

    (Also, another well-said to Frank for his original post, and to others here for their clarity of thought and expression, and reasonableness, qualities I merely struggle to emulate.)

  12. Moral inconsistency

    Frank Paynter makes an interesting claim on his Sandhill Trek blog Since March 20, 2003 I have been arrested twice for symbolic and non-violent acts of civil disobedience in protest of the wars that the Bush administration has chosen to enter. The crim…

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