Mere Anarchy Loosed Upon the World
by Bretigne Shaffer: Are
There Any Arguments for Nuking Hiroshima?
originally appeared in the book, Why
Peace, compiled by Marc Guttman.
As I write
this, my son is running around the house naked, even though I’ve
asked him twice to put his clothes on. I can hear the bathroom sink
swooshing on and off as he makes a swimming pool for his zoo animals.
I weigh getting up and possibly waking his baby sister, who is sleeping
on my chest, against the lesser likelihood that he will catch a
cold from running around the house naked and wet. I decide to stay
put. The swooshing continues.
I wonder how
a man named Scott Oglesby would deal with my son’s exuberance, his
lack of "respect for authority," his occasional noisiness.
Last December, Oglesby, a police officer, was at Stevenson Elementary
School in Bloomington, Illinois, when he heard a seven-year-old
special-needs boy having a seizure. Oglesby ran into the room where
the boy was being restrained by a school psychologist, shouted "you’re
giving me a headache!" and grabbed the boy by the throat, holding
him up in the air until he turned red, before throwing him down
in a chair. Oglesby is now on "restricted duty," but no
criminal charges will be filed against him.
I’d like to
think that cases like Oglesby’s are rare exceptions. But every week
there seems to be another story about someone being shot with a
taser over a traffic violation, or for not responding the way the
officer wanted them to. There was the paralyzed man thrown from
his wheelchair by an officer in a Florida jail; the New York City
cop who stopped a woman from driving her dying daughter to the hospital;
the mentally handicapped teenager who was tasered to death after
waving a stick around; and, in May of 2010, in another increasingly
common militarized raid on a family’s home, the shooting death of
seven-year-old Aiyana Jones as she lay sleeping next to her grandmother.
(There is little doubt as to what happened because the 20 officers
who burst into the girl’s home had brought with them a camera crew
for a reality-TV show.)
and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world..."
When I first
read Yeats’ "The Second Coming," years ago, I saw in the
first stanza a lament about the loss of a central authority, of
political authority. Now I think he meant something else.
I have to believe
that there was a time when people would have responded to the likes
of Officer Oglesby by unceremoniously dipping him in tar, tossing
a bucket of feathers over his head and casting him out from civilized
society. Today he and his ilk are given "administrative leave"
at best, and are soon back on the streets to endanger the rest of
us. At the same time, more than half a million Americans sit in
prison for the crime of using or selling substances the government
disapproves of. Our nation has the highest per-capita prison population
in the world by a very wide margin. Yet people like Officer Oglesby
and the officers who killed Aiyana Jones do not count among the
incarcerated. We are told that it is a punishable crime to ingest
certain prohibited substances, a bigger crime to sell them. But,
it is not a crime to shoot a seven-year-old girl in the head while
she lies sleeping next to her grandmother. We have become deeply
confused as to who the criminals are.
"why peace?" seems a silly one. Doesn’t everyone want
peace? Isn’t that one thing we can all agree on? Everyone says they
want peace, but very few are truly opposed to war or other forms
of aggression. When she was US ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright
famously told the world that whatever was gained from the economic
embargo of Iraq was "worth" the deaths of half a million
children. But I bet she says she wants peace. The assertion – almost
always conditional – has become meaningless.
As the United
States government prepared to invade Iraq in late 2002 and early
2003, I did everything I knew to do to prevent it from happening.
I engaged in debate, I signed petitions, I handed out pamphlets
in sub-zero temperatures, and on February 15th, 2003, I marched
in New York City, along with hundreds of thousands of others who
were opposed to the war. On my way to the demonstration, I wondered
how many would show up. I had the sense that I was in a minority,
that most people didn’t care that much, or were too busy living
their lives to do something like march for peace.
When I stepped
out of the subway station, I was taken aback. Pouring into the street
from every direction were people of all ages carrying signs and
waving banners. As far as I could see, the streets were filled with
people who shared my desire to prevent this war. I started to believe
that maybe the sheer force of our humanity, our collective "no!"
to more bloodshed, could prevent it. Barely a month later, the U.S.
government began its invasion and occupation of Iraq.
I learned from
that experience that demonstrations do not prevent wars. I was heartened
by the outpouring of public opposition to war, but realized that
we would need to come up with something much better than an appeal
to those who are committed to waging war if we were to change anything.
I also realized that most who said they were "anti-war"
were really "anti-some-wars" – and not only out of political
partisanship, but out of a desire to be taken seriously.
to come out and say that ALL war is wrong, that it is never justified.
That would be unreasonable. Everyone knows that war is sometimes
necessary. Everyone knows that sometimes there are just evil governments
that invade other countries or commit atrocities against the people
living under them. It is awful, it may even be unthinkable, but
even if war is never good, there are times when it is necessary,
and the practical and right thing to do is not to shy away from
this reality but to be an adult and make the tough decision. Everyone
with what everyone knows, though, is that it is quite often laced
with omission and untruth.
in American schools are taught very carefully about war, and why
it is sometimes necessary. This lesson has to be very carefully
planned and executed, because much earlier, those same children
have been taught that "two wrongs don’t make a right."
Adults might rightly fear that such children would not find it easy
to reconcile the two positions. So we are taught about the American
Revolution. We are taught about the Civil War. And then, at some
point (for me it was in seventh grade) we are taught about World
War II, the Holocaust, and the horrors of the concentration camps.
I had nightmares about stormtroopers and gas chambers after those
lessons, and I’m sure other children did too. I don’t remember precisely
what those seventh-grade history books told me, but I came out of
that class believing that the U.S. government went to war to save
the Jewish people from the gas chambers, that it was right and just
and that every once in a while, government does the right thing
and this was one of those times. I’m sure other children did too.
did I learn that saving the Jews was not the reason for the U.S.
entering the war; that the government that supposedly cared so much
for Jewish victims of the Nazi regime would not allow those same
people to land in America – an act that might have saved many hundreds
of thousands or even millions of lives without any military action
at all; that the justification for US entry into the war, the Japanese
attack on Pearl Harbor, was not an unprovoked act, as we had been
taught; that the nuclear bombs were not dropped on that country
in order to end the war; that the Japanese government had been trying
to surrender but balked at doing so unconditionally, a demand the
US later easily revoked after the real purpose of the bombings of
Hiroshima and Nagasaki – a show of force to the USSR – had been
It was only
much, much later that I even thought to ask the question, relevant
only to the version of history that had been presented to me: Why
does saving innocent people in Germany justify killing innocent
people in Japan? I still have yet to hear a satisfying answer to
Far from proving
the need for military intervention to deal with murderous madmen,
the example of WWII shows precisely how the institution of war and
the special rules that sustain it protect such sociopathic killers
– as long as they are on the winning side. Former Secretary of Defense
Robert McNamara has admitted as much, saying that the firebombing
of Japanese cities and the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki
would have been considered war crimes had the U.S. lost the war.
They still should be. "What makes it immoral if you lose and
not immoral if you win?" asked McNamara, who by all accounts
spent his later years haunted by his roles both in World War II
and in the Vietnam War. Of course there is no answer to this question
that makes any sense. So why are the rest of us not haunted? Why
do so many of us refuse to apply consistent standards of morality
to those who make war?
My son is now
making a jam sandwich in the kitchen. Every once in a while he comes
back to show me what he’s done, blueberry jam smeared across his
face and hands, and I tell him to go wash his hands so he doesn’t
get it all over everything. He ignores my request and runs back
into the kitchen, squealing with delight. He is "defying authority,"
and I am relieved. Too many of the problems I see in the world are
the direct result of obedience and respect for authority.
We have lost
our center. The little boy who was choked by Officer Oglesby understood
that what that man was doing to him was wrong. "Mommy, didn’t
that police officer’s mommy say he shouldn’t do that to people?"
he asked later. That little boy has more clarity than the adults
whose comments defending such abuse litter the blogosphere. He still
knows the difference between right and wrong. It has yet to be wrenched
from him by the system meant to "educate" him.
When I was
in high school, someone once pointed to a bunch of kids who were
teasing a mentally handicapped boy. "See? That’s what happens
in anarchy!" He announced proudly, apparently demolishing my
arguments against the state. Incredibly, it didn’t occur to me to
point out that this wasn’t happening in "anarchy" but
in the very controlled and authoritarian setting of a government
school. It didn’t occur to me to tell him about my experiences in
a Montessori school, where such behavior was unheard of.
believed that children have a natural instinct for learning and
a natural instinct for civilized co-existence. When teachers do
not interfere, children learn; when children are treated with respect,
they naturally become respectful; when they are encouraged to resolve
their conflicts peacefully, they do so. I went to school with a
little boy who had Down’s Syndrome, and I never saw any child treat
him with anything other than compassion and decency. In the years
I spent there, I witnessed some conflicts, and even a few rare instances
of someone being hit. But the stereotype of abusive, bullying playground
behavior was an alien thing that I never even heard of until I entered
lessons were just the opposite: That children are savages and must
have learning and respect forced upon them. Oddly, this is to be
accomplished not by showing them respect, but by treating them as
lesser beings, while demanding that they respect those more powerful
than them. Is it any wonder they soon start bullying those smaller
than themselves? The lesson here – the lesson that goes on to inform
adult decisions, institutions and problem solving out in the world
– is that might makes right. Children are told to respect authority
simply because it is authority. Simply because grown-ups are bigger
and can punish them if they don’t obey. Nothing more.
An old Cherokee
tale tells us that there are two "wolves" fighting inside
each of us, two opposing sides of human nature: Good vs. evil; peace
vs. aggression; compassion vs. hatred. The battle between the two
sides rages in each one of us, and the side that wins is the side
that we feed. Most of what we call "education" feeds the
bad wolves. It works against our better nature and feeds what is
worst in us, allowing it to grow at the expense of what is best.
It may be true that violence, hatred, and even cruelty each come
from a place within our nature. But a healthy society does not exalt
them. It does not try to magnify and expand the very worst of our
nature, making it dominant. A healthy society discourages these
attributes of human nature. We are not a healthy society and what
we have become is unnatural.
It is hard
to explain to people who have only known the culture of this kind
of schooling that there is another way, not only of educating children,
but of living in the world. It is hard to get them to see that things
don’t have to be the way they think they are, that it is within
the nature of each of us to live peacefully. That the "law
of the playground" is a lie and Lord of the Flies is
a work of fiction. That there is always another way.
It was a long
time before I really questioned the underlying premises of war:
Primarily, that killing innocent people can ever be a legitimate
form of self-defense or retaliation against a violent aggressor.
At some point, I was presented with the absurd hypothetical thought
experiments to which the apologists for war must always resort when
asked to defend its morality. I was asked to believe that a bizarre
set of circumstances, combined with a certainty of outcomes possible
only in a purely academic construction, offer a passable analogy
to the real-world situation faced by the war-makers. I was asked
to accept the premise that killing is always the only possible solution
and I was further asked to accept the assumption that the war-makers
are concerned with preserving innocent life. Confronted with the
question, I realized that yes, I would be willing to kill an innocent
person in order to save myself or someone I loved. But I also realized
that the act would still be a crime, though perhaps one mitigated
by my necessity. In war, such crimes – all but the very few exceptions
that prove the rule – are dismissed. In war, an act that ought only
even be contemplated under a set of bizarre, highly unlikely, and
strictly controlled circumstances is institutionalized and made
Wars of aggression
must always masquerade as defensive wars. From the Spanish-American
war to Vietnam and now Iraq, we have all become familiar with the
lies and propaganda used to justify what many call the "illegitimate"
wars. That time after time these claims turn out to be false is
no accident of history. This is the nature of the institution of
war itself, which grants nearly unlimited powers to do violence
to a single entity within a geographic sphere. To expect that the
war machine thus spawned will act on behalf of anyone’s interests
other than those at its helm; to expect it to use its powers to
promote freedom or to protect the lives of the innocent is to believe
in fairy tales. Even support for the best of all possible "good
wars" must necessarily have these fairy tales at its foundation.
that war can ever be "good" is to believe not only that
the academic hypotheticals are accurate representations of the real-world
conflict and that violence is always the only solution, we must
also believe in lies that are deeply ingrained in most of our psyches.
One of the most pernicious of these, one that persists in the face
of centuries of evidence to the contrary, is that governments act
in the interests of the people they govern.
particularly susceptible to this line of reasoning. We vote for
the people who rule our lives, the logic goes, and therefore we
control them and are responsible for what they do. Most of us cling
to this line of thinking and no amount of crony bailouts, "Constitution-Free
Zones," indefinite detentions without charge, SWAT-style raids
on unarmed Americans in their homes, sexual molestation as a condition
for air travel, or executive orders allowing for the murder of any
American citizen at the whim of the president will convince us otherwise.
to me that so many in the anti-war movement fail to recognize this,
insisting instead that the problem is one of undue corporate influence
on government. Many of these people distrust corporate monopoly,
yet have no problem with the monopoly powers granted to the far
more deadly state. They seem to believe that, in the absence of
corporate pressure, the state would suddenly begin to act in the
interests of those it governs. Until anti-war activists begin to
comprehend the danger inherent in granting a monopoly to a single
entity to "protect" and "defend" – until they
learn not to expect anything other than abuse of such a position
– they will remain impotent in the face of the war machine.
big lie spawns another one: The lie of collective identification
with the nations we live in and the governments that rule us. Believing
in this allows us to absolve our own government of its crimes against
innocent civilians who live under evil or repressive governments.
For if we are responsible for the actions of our government, those
civilians must likewise be responsible for the actions of theirs,
and "we" are therefore justified in using violence against
them. This bloodthirsty collectivist thinking prevents us from recognizing
the enemy we have in common with those civilians: Not "their"
government and not "our" government, but the very institution
of the war-making state itself, and the privileged position it occupies
in our societies.
just-war theory carves out a unique moral code for the war-makers,
laying out conditions under which it is acceptable to kill innocent
people. Why? There are no such conditions allowed for the rest of
us. No matter how threatened we may believe ourselves to be, we
are never permitted by the laws of society to kill an innocent human
being without serious consequences. This is the biggest lie of all.
It is the lie that says in some situations murder is no longer a
crime; it is the lie that tells us the lives of some people are
worth less than the objectives of others. Made concrete, it is the
lie that in the most real and final way possible allows some people
to pass judgment on the value of the lives of others.
necessarily know it to see him tear around the house yelling at
the top of his lungs, but my son is actually very civilized. He
is reasonable and can be reasoned with. But he asks lots of questions
and he wants to be treated with respect. I worry about how he will
fare in a world that demands obsequious obedience to arbitrary authority.
My daughter suffers from seizures. They are under control now, but
what happens if she has a seizure when she is older and encounters
an Officer Oglesby? Or is simply surrounded by people who are increasingly
conditioned to see anything unusual as a threat? And whose first
impulse is often violence?
week, there was a story about some young American soldiers in Afghanistan
who decided it would be "fun" to kill some civilians.
After shooting a 15-year-old boy, they posed for pictures with his
body. After the boy’s grief-stricken father had identified his body,
the platoon’s leader, Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, "started ‘messing
around with the kid,’" wrote Rolling Stone Magazine,
"moving his arms and mouth and ‘acting like the kid was talking.’
Then, using a pair of razor-sharp medic's shears, he reportedly
sliced off the dead boy's pinky finger and gave it to (pfc Andrew)
Holmes, as a trophy for killing his first Afghan."
I find myself
looking at people differently than I used to. I see young children
in military fatigues and camouflage and I wonder what their parents
can possibly be thinking. I wonder about the young men I see around
me. How many of them are war veterans? The guy in front of me in
line at the grocery store has a crew cut. Has he ever cut the finger
off the corpse of someone’s child that he killed? Does he still
have it somewhere? What does he do now? Is he in law enforcement?
Would he fire on unarmed Americans if ordered to? Or if he just
felt like it? Grab my son by the throat and hold him up in the air
if he annoyed him? I don’t know who the people around me are anymore.
My own answer
to the question "why peace?" is an easy one: Because
I unconditionally oppose the killing of children, and because I
do not believe the lie that it is "sometimes necessary,"
or that it can ever be "justified." I suppose I could
add to this "...or innocent adults," since there is certainly
nothing more moral or just about killing them. But for me it is
the systematized and sanctioned killing of children that makes war
people" aren’t supposed to bring this up when talking of war.
In the days and weeks leading up to a war, we don’t hear the talking
heads pontificating about the deaths of children. Instead, they
ask how much the war will cost, how long it will last, what the
goals are and whether "we" will accomplish them.
asks, "how many children will we kill? How many will we
maim? Mutilate? And how will we kill them? Will we blow them into
little pieces with ‘smart bombs’? Will we poison them with toxic
sprays? Will our soldiers shoot them in the head? How many will
they rape first? And how many children will die simply because they
no longer have access to clean drinking water, or because the hospitals
have been destroyed?"
To ask these
kinds of questions is to reveal oneself as a "kook," "naïve,"
a "bleeding heart" and "unrealistic," and to
lose any hope of being taken seriously in the debate. Yet what could
possibly be more serious?
Among the footage
from the US war on Iraq, there is a scene in an Iraqi hospital.
In it, a man carries the body of a baby that is either dying or
already dead. Not because the baby has been shot or because his
or her home was bombed, but because as a result of the UN-imposed
economic embargo, there is no medicine available to treat the baby’s
condition. The look on the man’s face as he carries the bundled
up child helplessly should haunt anyone who so much as missed one
opportunity to speak out against that murderous policy.
The scene is
one of hundreds of thousands of such personal tragedies from that
one act of war alone, some of which have been captured on camera,
most of which have not. Each time I see one, I am jolted into an
awareness that the images could well be of myself or my child. Thankfully
it is not me, not my family, and it is purely by accident of where
I was born that it is not. Knowing this, I feel some kind of responsibility
to those who, purely by accident of where they were born,
have these horrors inflicted upon them.
I am not a
pacifist. I do believe that violence is sometimes justified. But
war is not simply "violence," and one need not be a pacifist
to oppose war. One need not renounce all violence in order to oppose
the establishment of a class of people who are above the law; a
special situation under which it is acceptable to kill innocents.
If the moral codes upon which our societies are built are to mean
anything at all, then we must oppose war. If we believe that people
have a right to their own lives, a right not to be killed or assaulted
by others; and if we believe that that each person has as much right
to be here as anyone else, that no-one is above the law, whether
by virtue of political, social, economic or any other status, then
we cannot believe in war.
Of all the
lies that support war, one runs deeper than the others. It is a
lie that was given to most of us at a very young age. It is a lie
about who we are, what we are capable of and what is the true source
of the violence in our world. It tries to make us believe that the
way we live now – with our Officer Oglesbys and fire-bombings and
economic embargoes and the cutting off of fingers of other people’s
children – represents the natural order of things. That because
we are such flawed beings, we can expect no better.
as humans have a proclivity for violence," this lie tells us,
"there will always be war." This is utter nonsense. War
does not persist because human beings are flawed or unenlightened,
or even because we are violent or hate each other. Even if all of
this is true about us, it does not explain war. War is not just
another form of violence. It is the institutionalization of unrestrained
violence with no meaningful accountability for those who inflict
problems are not caused by our flawed nature, but by flawed institutions.
There will always be Officer Oglesbys in our world. There will always
be some people who don’t mind using violence to get what they want.
There will always be criminals. The question is whether we have
systems that protect the rest of us from the criminals, or systems
that enable and even encourage the real criminals, while criminalizing
those who are peaceful.
We would do
well to disabuse ourselves of the notion that institutionalized
violence creates order. It does not. It creates a safe place for
people like Officer Oglesby, the men who killed Aiyana Jones, the
Robert McNamaras and Curtis LeMays and the countless thousands of
others who murder with impunity under cover of the state. It creates
anarchy – the anarchy of Yeats’ poem, spinning us out of control
and taking us further and further away from anything that can legitimately
be called order.
But these institutions
also eat away at our center. They eat away at who we are, conditioning
us to accept force, violation and disrespect as part of our daily
lives; to accept the doctrine that might makes right, and to believe
that nothing else is possible. They tear us from our own centers,
our own moral centers, our knowledge of who we are.
The reasons to abhor war are numerous, from an unyielding belief
in the sanctity of human life, to fears for our own children’s future.
But the simplest answer, the most obvious answer, is the one that
seems to elude most of us, either because we have forgotten it or
had it "educated" out of us: Because it’s what we’re
Bretigne Shaffer [send
her mail] was a journalist in Asia for many years. She
is the author of Memoirs of a Gaijin and Why
Mommy Loves the State. She blogs at www.bretigne.com.
© 2012 by LewRockwell.com. Permission to reprint in whole or in
part is gladly granted, provided full credit is given.
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