Une Question Malheureuse

The Pacifist's Dilemma

23 March, 2011
©Pirate Joe

    I have always considered myself a pacifist. Non-violent solutions are the ideal that I have striven to live up to. Yet here is a dilemma.

    Many of my fellow "persons on the left" are criticising president Obama for getting involved in Libya. Yet another war, they chant. "Not one dime for Libya" is a slogan I have seen in Internet solicitations urging me to sign on to petitions to cut off our involvement in the effort to depose Gidhafi (well, alright, "protect the citizens of Libya").

    So let me resort to an hypothetical story: You are a pacifist. The year is 1943. Your country has been occupied by the Nazis. Out of conscience, you have joined the Resistance. How could you not?

    Your fellow partisans respect your pacifistic views. Accordingly, you have been assigned a rôle in reconnaissance; the least likely position to have to confront the possibility of killing another human being. You're taking long hikes through the hills to record any Axis movements you can observe. You make careful note of everything you see, knowing that not only will your information be used by the Resistance, but that much of it will also find its way to Allied command.
As a matter of common sense, you keep to the woods and avoid open countryside, one never knows when Axis reconnaissance flights will appear.  Paths run about 2 meters within the tree line, allowing you a reasonable view of clearings while providing cover. Often, you must take egregiously circuitous routes to avoid open spaces. Evading detection is key, your work is most valuable when the Axis never suspects you're there.

    You are not thinking about any of that now, however. It is a beautiful spring day and you find yourself deceptively lulled by the bursts of floral colour and the quiet of the countryside. It's so easy to get lost in the bright spirit of rebirth, it's so easy to forget that there even is a war.

    But only for a moment: You hear something from the clearing beyond; you instinctively step behind a tree. In a moment you see the source of that noise: Two Nazi soldiers are marching a column of about 15 people at gunpoint. They call a halt at a spot about 150 meters away. These look like plain townspeople, you think to yourself. A quick look through your binoculars confirms it: men, women and children. One of the soldiers keeps his rifle pointed at the frightened townsfolk. The other has placed his rifle on the ground while he sets up a tripod upon which he will mount a machine gun.

    You don't need to be Sherlock Holmes to know what will happen next, or that you have but seconds to act. Your rifle is more than accurate enough that you could get the soldier holding the rifle with one shot. If the second soldier raises his hands, O.K. If he makes a move for his weapon, you could kill him before he got to it. You are perfectly positioned to save fifteen innocent lives. You must, however, act before that second soldier makes the machine gun operational, or all is lost. The seconds are ticking by. You have said that you would never kill: yet if you don't, genocide will occur before your very eyes. You are conscious of the weight of the rifle slung over your shoulder, the machine gun is almost set up...
    Yes, I'm a pacifist. Yet, what would I do in that situation? Would I fill my mind with abstract theories such as that by doing nothing I'm not compounding the use of violence? Perhaps Gandhi, if he were there, would stay my hand and say: you cannot play god... this situation is of the natural order and not of your making... it is more important to remain violence-free than to use their methods... He would, of course, be right.

    Yet, is it not true that if we have the power to stop an atrocious act of genocide and do nothing that we, too, are partially guilty?

    My point here is that, even with laudable  goals,
(such as non-violence) we can find ourselves caught between two completely opposite choices (such as intervene/not intervene) deriving from the same, or quite similar, philosophical orientations. If president Obama had decided to implement a "hands off" policy and not intervene, he would have been excoriated for being soft on dictators and indifferent to suffering, bloodshed and genocide. America and its stated philosophy of "liberty and justice for all" would again be derided as a sham.
    Then the images of Gidhafi's retribution would hit our TV screens. Cell phone videos of men, women and children being mercilessly gunned down would rip our guts out. Why did we do nothing? What manner of cold-hearted, indifferent leaders do we have? We knew this was coming... Yet in deciding to intervene, Obama has been labelled as imperialistic, hegemonic, spendthrifty, reckless, opportunistic, adventuresome, colonialistic, hawkish and a blundering neophyte who hasn't the faintest idea of what's in the Pandora's box he has just opened.

    In this case, I believe president Obama has handled the situation with skill, aplomb and although it didn't seem so, (almost) alacrity. I believe he knew full well that something needed to be done, but that it was critically important that the U.S.A. not be seen as leading the charge. In this important consideration, he has displayed a far greater depth of understanding of diplomatic reality, logical skill and awareness of "Realpolitik" then any of his predecessors all the way back to Richard Nixon. I support him in this, and I believe he has done the right thing.

    I didn't support the "dirty little wars" we have had to endure since the end of WWII. Although I was willing to hold my opinion on Afghanistan for a bit, I soon realised that it was just like all the rest. No, we should not put boots on the ground in Libya. Nor did we have any right or reason to depose Saddam Hussein. That was for the Iraqis to do: and herein lies my point: Libyans, not foreign interventionist armies, started the revolution, and asked for help. Maybe Iraqis had the same deep-seated hatred for Saddam that Libyans have for Gidhafi. If so, he (Saddam) would have found himself in the same boat with Gidhafi right now. If not, Iraqis would not sail the seas of revolution. In either case, we should have let Iraqis decide.

    Genocide, of course, imposes its own set of standards. It inspires universal revulsion across the human spectrum. When the first publicly demonstrated telegram was sent in May of 1844, it read "what hath god wrought". Perhaps no one thought of it at the time, but one thing that was wrought was that technology was now able (among many other things) to rip away the veil covering genocide. Now we could hear of genocide during, or even before, it happened. Coupled with the fact that the mid twentieth century placed us hours away from any spot on the globe, we found in our (our in the universal, global sense) hands, the ability, and dare I say, the responsibility to do something about it. Before the telegraph, there was nothing anyone could do; you would learn about it 6 months or even a year after it was all over and done with. Today, however, technology will bring it to you in real time, turning inaction into complicity.

    In the world of 1811, governments and people could wring their hands and moan "had we but known", an option that is no longer possible in the world of 2011. The world of 2011 has no other option but to come to terms with genocide, like it or not.

    What needs to be done? Well, for one thing, we, (the U.S.A) need to be up front to all our "friends", stating simply that although we may enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship, you need to know two things: if you cross the line and murder your own people, you will leave us behind. If your are a non-elected government, we will quite likely take the side of your people if they rise up for democracy, or at the very least, we will not help you put down the revolution. For the world? Perhaps we should pressure the U.N. to establish, (if one does not already exist) a task force to let governments know what the rules and consequences vis-à-vis genocide are. Yes, this will make all authoritarian governments squeamish, (read Saudi Arabia and Red China, etc.) but we either stand for freedom and democracy or we don't.

    Oh, and what would I have done on that day in 1943?.... I would have used my rifle.