LETTER: The calculus of violence

From reader Charles Jeanes

“Freedom or Death.” “No justice, no peace.”

These are, it is easy to observe, the kind of slogans that move masses of people to congregate in the streets of Western nations, and beyond as in Hong Kong, Egypt, or India.

People face violence at the hands of police and military when they revolt. Tear gas is one punishment; batons, rubber bullets, and water cannon are other non-lethal weapons of the “Forces of Law and Order.” When authority decides, lethal force is unleashed. Death is the consequence.

Government and anti-system power confront one another while non-participating majorities observe. How does the clash of force move the public: support for system change, for the status quo, or for some compromise? As I watch protests over racism, justice, environment and rights unfold I wonder how it will end. This, I do know: the assumption of violent revolt is “it works”. It makes change happen.

This I also know: the result of violent methods is under no one’s control, and there is no blueprint that produces certain chosen change by planned deliberate violent method.

Revolutions throughout a lot of human history, resulting in massive social transformation, did not end in designed, intended social justice. People fear for their lives when they challenge established power. Rightly so: witness Syria.

No one who refuses participation in violence can be judged guilty of system-complicity by the violent.

The violent choose a path; the non-participating choose a different one. Using a system and its institutions to make slow, incremental change, is not “moral cowardice” — though the revolutionaries say it is. I was ready to attack the ruling class when I was young, ready to fight, not ready to die, not sure I would kill. Now I am sure I will do no violence though I might suffer it, in the cause of change.

The calculus of violence as a method of change is chaotic; I’ve studied a lot of history before saying this. Watching other people kill and be killed doesn’t help understand and create “justice.” I may or may not respect fighters; I won’t join.

Charles Jeanes


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