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What the malignant spirit that has captured us wants is this: genocide and slavery. Literally.
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We’ve convinced our society that we don’t all belong to each other. We’ve convinced our society that life is something you have to earn.
We’re close to making genocide inevitable now. What’s next?
Next, we must convince people that violence redeems.
You kill the boss villain at the end of video games.
The hero kills the boss villain at the end of movies.
But here’s the important distinction. The hero doesn’t just show up and start violencing all over the place until it’s full of violence. The hero ends the violence that was already there, with redeeming violence of his own, which escalates until at last it has cleansed the narrative of all sources of bad violence. Violence can’t only be the solution; it also has to be the problem. Violence isn’t just very very good, it is also very very bad.
This is where two buckets comes in very handy. You need only look at who is doing the violence to know if it is good violence or bad violence. If you haven't earned life, how can your violence possibly be good? And, if you have earned life, how can your violence possibly be bad?
'They' do bad violence to us. 'We' do good violence to end it.
If they keep doing bad violence after our good violence, it is because we didn’t do enough good violence previously. The solution becomes obvious: we must do more good violence at them. Harder violence, or more widely applied, or more brutal, or all three. The violence isn’t just good. It redeems. It is the perfected instrument for restoring bad things to goodness.
Our violence is good violence. We know it is good, because we do it. We revere it. We have parades and whatnot. Their violence is bad violence. We know it is bad, because they do it. We hate it. We will eradicate it from the face of the planet, like we did in World War I, which ended all war, and World War II, in which we stopped evil in its tracks forever, and the Cold War, in which we permanently stabilized the world and the War on Drugs, which stopped the drug epidemic, and the War on Terror, which has stopped terrorism forever…
Let me push back against myself on behalf of those of you I imagine I am losing my marbles. What the hell am I suggesting, exactly? That we shouldn’t have fought Hitler in WWII? That violence is never appropriate? That we oughtn’t to revere those who served and suffered and even died in our armed conflicts? That we should just let the terrorists go on with their heinous deeds, consequence-free? What if we were all speaking German right now? What if there were some crazy in my house ready to kill my kids? What if my wife were attacked? What if I was being beheaded by terrorists? I’d feel a bit differently then.
Well, yes. I suppose I would feel differently about that, if that were happening. Those things sound horrific. So let me say, right here and now, that if some maniac were getting ready to murder my children, I would welcome a weapon for the chance to stop that maniac, or the sudden appearance of somebody with a gun and the intention to stop that maniac. That would be just the ticket in that situation. I would not turn it down.
I would also like to take this opportunity to express my opinion that Hitler was bad. It is good that we stopped him, and it is to the credit of our country and those who bravely served that we did stop him. Glad to finally get that off my chest. I’ll say it again: Hitler was really bad. Good that we stopped him.
Let me also say that people who put their physical well-being and their very lives at risk in service of others exhibit a bravery that I believe deserves our wonder and our respect.
It’s worth calling back to the repeated theme of these posts, that we rarely set ourselves in opposition to things that are evil in and of themselves; rather we find ourselves in contention of some good thing that has been elevated out of its proper place. The key question is one of priority between good things. Order and prosperity and money and hard work are not bad; the evil comes in when they are made more important than the unsurpassable worth inherent to being human art.
Is it like this with violence? Is violence a good thing, or at least a necessary one? Can we imagine times when violence becomes necessary, to prevent some terrible abuse from taking place?
I think we can.
At least we can name a good thing, which might, in certain contexts, lead to an inevitable violent conclusion.
Let's talk about physical bravery.
Physical bravery can be very good.
Recently there was a man, captured by our foundational lies, who boarded a train with a knife. There he saw a woman who he knew did not belong to him, nor he to her, because her outfit marked her as a Muslim. Because she was a Muslim, he believed she represented implied bad violence, and had therefore not earned life. He set about to make her understand, at the foundational level of terror, that she had not earned life, intending to relive her of that which he had decided she had not earned. Three brave men stepped in to stop him, and this act created a violent altercation. Two of those brave men died in that altercation.
I think it was good that those men acted to protect that woman. I think it was very good.
I think it is appropriate to honor physical bravery, and the sacrifice that frequently accompanies it. As with the men on the train, so with those who served and suffered and died for us in war.
The question is not whether physical bravery is good. It very obviously can be very good, and even heroic. And certain acts of physical bravery will in many instances make violent outcomes inevitable. I don’t know a non-violent way to stop a hypothetical madman from hypothetically killing my children, and I very much do not want my children to be killed, hypothetically or otherwise.
Violence has a very specific appropriate scope when properly applied within justice, I think. It addresses a specific and immediate problem. It has a temporary duration and a clear goal with a clear end point. It is most frequently done on the behalf of others. It is not instigated. And, crucially, it is done because no power greater than the mere physical is available.
But, even if necessary, violence is only ever a fix. It is never a solution. It is the weakest power. If any other power is available to fix the immediate problem, that power is the better power. In short, violence is a sign of some turn missed on the road, some collective failure to select justice at some earlier point.
But the compass decides the navigation, and the navigation the course. The course decides the path, and the path the destination. And our compass tells us that we do not belong to one another, and so other people do not matter. It tells us life is something that some have not earned it, and so it is their own fault that they do not matter. Little wonder, then, with such a compass, that our course becomes a preempively violent one.
Suppose an ethic involved selecting preferences between competing good things. Suppose then we selected a bad by-product of of a good thing, and then confused the bad by-product for the good thing? And then suppose that we made that bad by-product one of our most beloved preferences?
We are now oriented toward violence.
As I mentioned earlier, those who sacrifice on our behalf deserve our wonder and our respect. I also think they deserve more: a deep examination on our parts—prior to the decision to ask them to exhibit that bravery—as to the necessity and honor of our motives and objectives, and a thorough inquiry after the fact, as to whether those motives were honored and those objectives achieved. Exactly why did we send those brave people into that desperate risk? Did we honor their astounding selflessness by setting it to appropriate ends? Did we secure those ends? Are we willing now to sacrifice and pay the price to provide for them and ensure those ends are maintained?
But when violence is my orientation, I no longer have to ask those questions. I don’t have to worry about motive or objective—the violence itself represents both purity of motive and objective in and of itself. And I no longer have to concern myself with the after. The after to violence is more violence, until we at last come to the end of violence. Those who can no longer provide the violence I need have reached the end of my reverence for them and can be discarded. Taking care of them… it’s going to cost us, you see. It won’t be profitable. And life is something you earn.
That the way to end crime is to lock up and kill all the criminals.
That the way to end terrorism is to kill all the terrorists.
That the answer to those who have not earned life is that they have earned death.
That we are the people meant to deliver that death.
That I am the person to do so.
And it starts with the best of intentions.
So, hey, let’s kill all the terrorists. Who, in the days after 9/11, could not want to see those who planned that attack dead? I sure did.
So we attack. We attack a place where some of the terrorists are. We also attack a place where the terrorists aren’t, but which seems like the sort of place terrorists might go. (We also don't attack a place from which most of the terrorists came, because that place is very profitable for us, and we love profit more than we love violence ... but that's a different essay.)
The terrorists see that we are now there. They meet us there and begin to attack. We attack back. We attack with the largest and most expensive and powerful military the world has ever seen. We dig in. They kill us. We kill back harder. Homes are reduced to rubble. Unaffiliated people—husbands, wives, sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers—die in all this carnage.
They keep killing us.
Our conclusion becomes that our mistake was not killing hard enough. We surge.
At some point, it becomes natural for us to be at war. We start to praise our bombs on television for their beauty and size and sophistication.
There is not less violence now than when we started. There is more. There are not less terrorists now than when we started. There are more. And we have joined them in bringing terror to the innocent. And still we, captured in our belief of violence's redeeming strength, think the answer is that we have not yet been fierce enough in our prosecution of good violence.
People start attacking us at home, using similar language to those we are fighting abroad. Many of us think the problem is that we haven’t yet cast a wide enough net of violence. Perhaps we need to kill in some more countries. Perhaps we need to suspect more people to see if they need death. Perhaps we need to start suspecting more people here at home. Perhaps we need to start rounding those people up.
We begin to equate the twisted version of religion practiced by murderous 'other' people with the peaceful religion of 'other' people in our communities.
We begin to see suspicion of such people as common sense.
We begin to see the existence of such people as a grave danger.
We begin to think that something should be done about those people.
We begin to think that we should be the person to take those actions.
We begin to carry knives on trains.
We are no longer addressing a specific and immediate problem.
We are no longer failing to instigate.
We are no longer engaged in something of temporary duration with a clear goal and a clear end.
We are no longer engaged on behalf of others.
We are no longer checking to see if some other, stronger, braver, better power might be available to us.
The suggestion that we do something other than violence begins to seem dangerously weak. In fact, it seems like a moral failing, even a betrayal of the memory of physical bravery enacted on our behalf. It seems like siding with the enemy. I suppose you want to invite the terrorists over for tea, do you? Have you forgotten those who sacrificed for your freedom?
Rules preventing us from enacting any sort of good violence begin to seem ridiculously naïve. Suppose there’s a bomb set to go off in one hour and you have the only man who knows its location…
If you found a society that had been captured by the idea that violence redeems, you would likely find a society that eventually advocates torture.
You’d probably find a society that invades other countries prior to any actual aggression, to prevent perceived possible aggression.
You’d probably find a society that spends an inordinate amount on weapons and armies—nearly more than the rest of the world put together.
You’d probably discover a society that considers the unfettered ability to personally own weapons to be a more important human right than the right to health care or food or clean water or education.
You’d likely find a society that believes strongly in the death penalty, and thinks brutality in prisons is just a well-deserved and necessary part of the punishment.
You’d probably find a society that cheers when a state governor brags about presiding over a record number of executions.
You’d probably find a police force that looked more and more like a military, and you might discover that this force is oriented in shocking ways toward violence as a first response, particularly toward those people society has already decided represent presumed moral defect.
You might find that diplomacy is scoffed at in such a country. You’d find a country that might not even bother to appoint diplomats.
You might find a country that considers invading a country that has not attacked it, and expects this to be understood as a defensive strategy.
You might find presidential candidates in such a society suggesting that we murder the civilian populations of our enemies. You might find it's an applause line.
You might find presidents who boast, as evidence of their moral strength, that when they are hit, they hit back a hundred times as hard.
You might find a country that believed any atrocity were allowable, provided only that some enemy were doing something similarly bad.
If you wanted to know which people such a society considered an enemy, you’d probably look for the people for whom acts of aggression were never permitted, and against whom acts of violence were rarely prosecuted.
Or, to put it another way, you’d probably want to look for which people the police stood before to protect, and which people the police faced to oppose.
If this were a deeply ironic universe, you might even find that people ascribed to all these ideas while worshipping a deity who admonished his disciples to put their swords away lest they die on them, who presented an example of a God who would sacrifice himself even to death rather than utilizing to harmful purpose any of his infinite power.
In a society that has determined that some earn life and others do not, the idea that violence redeems makes violence the natural solution for dealing with those who have not deserved life.
Then, after that, you just have to get efficient about it.
This is the conclusion: Other people not only do not matter, but it is their fault they do not matter, and it is good if, as a consequence for their failing, they are harmed. But it is even better if they die.
Here is the penalty for believing this lie: Cowardice and fear. If the only best solution is violence, then I will be ready to enact it with less and less qualm from an ever-increasingly comfortable position. If I live in a world where violence redeems, then I will become more and more ready to allow it to be delivered to more and more people, even while the threat I perceive grows nearly as quickly as my fear of the world around me, grows nearly as quickly as the every-increasing proliferation of violence that I support to redeem that threat.
And here is the danger of believing it: the threat I fear will inevitably grow. If I insist on a world where violence redeems, eventually one of the millions who I, oriented toward violence, threaten, will agree to meet me on the deadly battlefield upon which I have insisted, will attack me not from their strength but from their weakness, will try redeem the problem of me using the very sword that I have drawn.
A world in which violence redeems is a world that will inevitably kill me, maybe once, but more probably a thousand times.
* * *
Genocide is nearly inevitable now.
Finally, you just need a little push. A little blame. An undue focus on crimes committed by a specific group. Turn a blind eye toward crimes committed by other groups.
Make a government hotline to track 'them.' Disable law enforcement's investigation of 'our' most dangerous individuals. Build the largest industrialized prison system, and the largest military, ever known to human history. Take police forces already trained to view specific neighborhoods as war zones, its residents (and those who resemble those residents) as foreign hostiles, and themselves as occupying force, and empower them to greater boldness. Start testing certain concepts, speaking aloud ideas that have hidden for long generations behind cover of euphemism.
Start saying we need law and order, by which you mean stopping people randomly on the streets and frisking them.
Start suggesting that our problem is an unbecoming timidity when it comes to violence.
Start saying that we need to bomb until the sand glows.
Start saying we need to go after the women and children.
Start suggesting that an entire desperate population is a poisoned handful of candy.
Return to a policy of enforcing draconian drug laws in minority populations. Start praising dictators who murder suspected drug users in their own countries.
Propose a travel ban. Fight to enact it in court.
Start rounding people up. Split up some families. Get people used to that idea.
Conflate a vulnerable group with rape. Call them animals. Then go after the most productive and openly integrated and cooperative members of that vulnerable group, to make sure the totality of the dehumanization across the entire group is made clear. My, just listen to the cheers.
When we feel threatened, suggest the answer is to kill all the people in a country.
And just …let it all continue for a while. Let the gears of the machinery you’ve constructed turn until it releases its inevitable product.
Imagine the alarm we might see expressed, were we to see such things, recently receded, growing new roots once again in our soil.
It would be dramatic. We might even be tempted to think such alarm over-dramatic, were we the sort of people who preferred order over justice.