Violence and the Lie

My step daughter asked once what stopped people from hurting other people.

© Elaine Elder, Pale Horse at Sunset, mixed media
© Elaine Elder, Pale Horse at Sunset, mixed media

The law, the police, the easy responses spurt out, but one who doesn’t know better can see the flaw in the answer. They only do something, anything, after the violence is done. They are hovering swords, not protecting walls. Morality? If someone wants to hurt you, he’s already reconciled his violence with whatever morality he holds. So what keeps them from doing violence? Nothing. Nothing but the threat of violence.

Violence can only be concealed by a lie, and the lie can only be maintained by violence. Any man who has once proclaimed violence as his method is inevitably forced to take the lie as his principle. -Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

It’s a cold realization when it firsts comes to us. We get used to it over the years, get used to the terrible and constant vulnerability of life without parents. We get used to it because rough men stand in the night ready to do violence on our behalf.

That idea of violence is uncomfortable with our civilized sensibilities of the modern world. We reject violence as a tool of state or individuals, we reject it as a determinant of morality. Might does not make right. And yet our armies are scattered across the globe. But you see we need those soldiers, because although we are righteous, the others are not.

The great lie at the heart of all states is that other people are not the same as us. It is the excuse for violence, the rationalization that makes it possible to wield a weapon in the first place: it’s okay to kill them, they would do the same to us, they’re different than us. It’s the foundation of every atrocity small or large throughout history. The lie that the others are different. And once that lie is used to justify violence, it can’t be relinquished. The ends become the means, and violence must be called down not just for the reason of the lie, but in defense of the lie.

Anyone who clings to the historically untrue — and thoroughly immoral — doctrine that ‘violence never solves anything’ I would advise to conjure up the ghosts of Napoleon Bonaparte and of the Duke of Wellington and let them debate it. The ghost of Hitler could referee, and the jury might well be the Dodo, the Great Auk, and the Passenger Pigeon. Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and freedoms. -Robert Heinlein

Chimpanzees form hunting bands that patrol their territory, viciously bludgeon to death trespassing chimps from other tribes. Wolf packs seize and defend swathes of land from each other, territory waxing and waning with the fortune of the pack. But the fighting is never pitched, always a sure thing. The attackers strike with either overwhelming force or not at all. The defenders retreat quickly if outmatched. It’s violence, but it’s not war, not as we understand it.

Besides humans, only ants fight wars. A million drones ripping each other apart limb for limb for naught but a few square feet of territory. I saw this once, a dead stump in the backyard that had long housed legions of little black ants that I’d watch as a child for hours on end. One day, a swarm of red ants invaded, hordes more ants than I’d ever seen. Giant black soldiers came out to defend, hulking tanks amongst the normal drones in their thousands. Tides flowed back and forth in red and black, the detritus of heads and limbs torn asunder by the wake of the waves of attacking bodies. Why would they go through such hell? Why would they die for it, for a few square feet?

It is because they do not sacrifice anything. They are all genetic neuters. Nothing dies with them. By defending their queen, they defend their own genes. Their deaths mean as little to their legacy as our discarded nail clippings mean to ours.

Other animals do not fight to the death because they carry their own genetic legacy. They cannot die for anything but their own children. Mating behavior is all ritual so that the ability to fight can be demonstrated without risk. When a scratch can kill from infection, unnecessary violence must be ritualized. Nature is full of infinite displays of faux violence, always stopping short of true harm.

But humans are unique. We fight wars, dying like ants by the millions, our genetic legacy withering in the pools of blood. By defending our nation, our religion, our way of life, we defend our ideologies, our memes. Our deaths mean little so long as our ideas live on. Memes make humanity ants instead of mammals, our individual attributes do not matter, we are irrelevant to the tribe.

So war is the human condition, the thing that separates us from animals. Violence, suffering, agony inflicted en masse. But it is also the antithesis of what we think civilization is founded on, it is the necessary evil that allows the greater good.

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. -Martin Luther King

Violence is always the worst that can be done. You can’t do more, and in a way you can’t do less. That is why war will never go away, because it is always the ultimate resort, the final line. There can’t be another line, and you can’t remove its capacity to be crossed except by changing fundamentally the way we think as human beings. The greatest capacity for human good, the willingness to die for a cause is the opposite side of the coin from the willingness to do violence. If people weren’t willing to die for a cause, killing to prevent the cause would not be such a rational resort.

The horror of war cannot be contextualized. Violence doesn’t become any less horrifying when it’s done for a good cause. A knife slipped inch by agonizing inch into a man’s heart is not less terrible to behold because it is for democracy on a battlefield instead of in the torture den of a serial killer. Horror knows no context.

The great crime of violence is not what it does to the victim though, it is what it does to the killer. A child soldier is forced into combat, loaded up with guns, drugs and alcohol, in more danger from his own side than from the nominal enemy. At what point is he culpable? When he burns, rapes and opens throats with a smile and a joke, is he guilty when he is eight? Twelve? Sixteen? Eighteen? We can’t draw such an arbitrary line, because guilt cannot be contextualized either. He is both an innocent and a murderer. He doesn’t cross from one to another at some point. All murderers are also innocents and all innocents are also murderers. We contain within us the seeds for both ultimate evil and ultimate good, but exist as both at the same time. We are evil and unredeemable even as we are good and innocent. It’s the duality of man: love and hate, heroes and monsters, good and evil.

Morality isn’t a scale, our goods don’t balance our evils and produce some net of our quality of being. We are simultaneously everything evil and everything good that we have ever done. And here is the real rub: the same is true even if we were forced, even if we were compelled to either good or evil against our will. Our actions are who we are. A man who slits another man’s throat is a killer whether he did so gleefully or with a gun to his head. This is not judgmental, an attempt to equate the moral culpability of the two, to establish stark black and white morality. Rather, this is an attempt to understand that rationality and morality must be considered separately for either to be understood. Murder committed under duress may be the only rational choice, but that does not make it the only moral choice.

Following orders has been rejected as a defense for atrocity. We declare that the soldiers should have refused their orders, even if it meant their own lives. We insist that individuals have responsibility to a higher law than their own survival. Morality divorced from immediate rationality. That’s the teaching of every religion since Christ, and the first thing rationalized away by human institutions. The godhead tells us not to kill, and our leaders, secular or not, add the endless litany of exceptions that all derive from that fundamental lie that others are different.

History has a very dark sense of humor. Gandhi preached nonviolence while the panzers swept Europe clean and the ashes of the Jews floated into the clouds. He said that the Jews should have offered themselves willingly. That they should have bared their own throats. That the horror would have caused the Germans to revolt, would have ended the war. He was an optimist. He believed that however evil the world, men within it could be redeemed. Gandhi’s philosophy only works if men are fundamentally good. If they are fundamentally corruptible though, it leads to the destruction of everything we have built. He failed to see that the Jews by and large did not resist, lambs to the slaughter, and yet the ovens still burned. The Germans did not revolt, did not refuse the orders. Only Allied guns by the millions stopped the horror. Rejecting the lie of the other is a suicide pact unless the other side can be convinced as well.

So are we helpless then, doomed to either endless violence or bowing to evil?

We don’t behave like mammals, we behave like ants. It’s the dark side of sentience. Our species replaced the preeminence of genes with the ascendancy of memes and exploded out of the savannah like a virus. A billion years of evolution surpassed by ten thousand years of sentience, our towers and art and beauty charged by the same force that arrays us by the millions to savage our brothers. The very thing that makes us great is the thing that makes us horrible. Life does not exist without violence, sentience does not exist without war.

That damnation is also what gives us hope, because we’ve made a jump before, we’ve changed everything that made us what we were, became something more, something both better and worse.

At no time has the world been without war. Not in seven or ten or twenty thousand years. Neither the wisest of leaders, nor the noblest of kings, nor yet the Church — none of them has been able to stop it. And don’t succumb to the facile belief that wars will be stopped by hotheaded socialists. Or that rational and just wars can be sorted out from the rest. There will always be thousands of thousands to whom even such a war will be senseless and unjustified. Quite simply, no state can live without war, that is one of the state’s essential functions. … War is the price we pay for living in a state. Before you can abolish war you will have to abolish all states. But that is unthinkable until the propensity to violence and evil is rooted out of human beings. The state was created to protect us from evil. In ordinary life thousands of bad impulses, from a thousand foci of evil, move chaotically, randomly, against the vulnerable. The state is called upon to check these impulses — but it generates others of its own, still more powerful, and this time one-directional. At times it throws them all in a single direction — and that is war. – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn