Being a pacifist isn’t easy. Not easy at all.
A lot of self-described pacifists think it is easy. Essentially, the equation for many is, if it maims or kills, you don’t do it. Period. That’s easy, isn’t it?
There’s just one problem. It’s not pacifism.
Like everything else in life, being pro-peace is complicated. It’s a constant calculation, based on the circumstances in each situation. It’s not a blanket belief that no one should ever do anything violent, but a calculation of which actions will bring us closer to peace, and save the most innocent lives? Unfortunately, sometimes, the necessary action may be a violent one. Sometimes, in the grand peace calculation, there is little choice but to act violently. It’s a sad but true fact of life.
If someone was threatening your family and your only chance to save them was to commit violence against the perpetrator, most people – even self-described pacifists – wouldn’t hesitate to commit that violent act. It’s a calculation; the value of your spouse and kids versus the value of someone who obviously doesn’t have your peaceful leanings. Sure, you might try to talk the guy out of killing your family, but at that moment when it becomes their lives versus your pacifism, your pacifism will take a back seat.
It works much the same on the world stage. I know it’s a silly hypothetical, but knowing what you know now, if you could back in time and kill Hitler and his key advisers, would you, as a pacifist, do so, knowing that you might be saving millions of lives? Or would you, as a pacifist, choose the peaceful route, and not kill him, and let history play out as it did?
Pacifism in the current state of the human condition is about doing that which brings the greatest level of peace, and which results in a reduced magnitude of death and suffering. It’s about avoiding violence whenever possible, but recognizing that it is sometimes necessary in order to save lives.
First of all, it took me a long time to consider what we should do about Syria. It wasn’t an instantaneous decision at all. But as I wrote earlier this week, we cannot do nothing about chemical weapons use and call ourselves a peaceful nation. And while our history hasn’t been one of peace, it should be a goal for the future, shouldn’t it?
For more than two years, Syria has been embroiled in a civil war. It’s not a clean, tidy civil war, but rather a tyrannical government that is opposed by several factions, including some factions that are as tyrannical as the current government. So, for two years the United States has sat on the sidelines while a tyrant fights against his own people to hold onto power. On one level, that’s fine. That’s how countries like Syria determine their own destiny after centuries of outside control. Syria finding its own way was never going to be easy.
But there is war, and there is mass murder; they are not the same thing, even if you’re a pacifist. The war is about the government and factions of Syrian people fighting for control of the country. It’s unfortunate that humans haven’t evolved beyond using war to gain freedom, but we haven’t. Someday, but not yet. But that a tyrant like Assad decides to cheat to keep control by mass murdering people is not the same as conducting a war. Perhaps 1000 years ago, it was. But now, we have rules. You can laugh at how silly the notion of rules in war can be, but they exist for a reason. And mass murdering civilians is a violation of the rules of war. How can a pacifist not see this mass slaughter of civilians and not want to do something to stop it? When our soldiers commit crimes against civilians in wartime, they are punished. Should Assad just be able to do this and thumb his nose at us?
Hitler killed millions before the outside world found out what was going on, in part because they refused to believe “intelligence” coming from millions of refugees who were telling them. But if we’d had the opportunity to stop the Holocaust with an air strike, would our pacifism demand that we shrug and do nothing because some people might die?
In 1987 and1988, the Reagan Administration looked the other way as Saddam Hussein gassed Kurdish areas in northern Iraq as part of his Anfal campaign, which was essentially a Kurdish genocide. In all, over a 15-month period,more than 180,000 Kurds died. But in one single five-hour attack on Halabja on March 16, 1988,Iraqi troops under Hussein’s command sent a number of bombs filled with mustard gas and nerve agents on the town, causing massive suffering. The immediate effects of the chemical bombs included vomiting, blindness, seizures, convulsions and asphyxiation. The bombing lasted a matter of hours, but killed at least 5,000 innocent people and left at least 10,000 others sickened and/or disfigured, forcing them to live the rest of their lives with the massive physical consequences, including disfigurement and serious illness.
As pacifists, we have always been upset at the fact that the United States didn’t do enough to stop things like this? I see the Rwandan genocide mentioned nearly every day in this debate, with pacifists and liberals rightfully lamenting the fact that we didn’t do enough to stop that genocide, as well. Now, we are confronted with a situation in which a tyrannical despot is beginning to use chemical weapons as a way to gain an advantage, and we have an opportunity to perhaps nip this in the bud before it becomes a chronic problem. Why would we not do this? How can we complain about not doing anything about Rwanda and Iraq, and be equally as vocal about doing nothing in Syria? At what point do we stop lamenting things we haven’t done and actually do something instead?
Liberalism is supposed to be about standing up for values we supposedly hold dear, including peace. Liberals, as a group, are supposed to stand for what the Founding Fathers stood for (on paper if not in real life). We value democracy and equal rights and justice for everyone, regardless of ethnicity or faith, and we supposedly believe in these things for all people, worldwide. But how does that square with the knee-jerk reaction to the mere mention of the use of military force to enforce these principles around the world? How can we simultaneously complain about our government not intervening in Iraq and Rwanda and then also complain when our government tries to save innocent Syrians from slaughter from their government, and call ourselves liberals or pacifists?
I know a lot of liberal pacifists are convinced that an airstrike on chemical weapons and delivery systems will result in unmitigated disaster; it will entangle us in another war, and will cost innocent lives. But the cost of doing will likely be far greater.
Assad committed this attack for a reason. The United States, the UN and most Western nations have stated that the “red line” for getting involved in the Syrian Civil War, and on August 21, Assad tested that resolve. If the US fails to strike back, it will essentially give Assad permission to use chemical weapons to wipe out the people in those cities and towns currently held by the rebels, without doing any damage to buildings or facilities. That single, relatively small sarin gas attack killed 1,429 people in the space of an hour. Even if you choose not to believe that figure, several independent numbers put te deaths at more than 500, which is still very high for a single smallish chemical attack. How much carnage could they incur if they launched large-scale chemical attacks on towns and cities that are mostly anti-Assad? If 1,429 isn’t an impressive number, how about 15,000? Perhaps they could use other agents that are even more lethal than sarin, and kill tens of thousands and leave tens of thousands more with serious medical problems? Will that be enough to convince you?
If the West does nothing to stop Assad, what makes anyone think he’ll simply never launch another vicious attack? And another? How long do we let him get away with it before someone does something? If he launches 20-30 simultaneous attacks and kills, say 8-10,000 in a day or two, will that be enough? Or might that be another situation we come to regret, because we didn’t act quickly enough. How can we call ourselves liberals and pacifists, if we never do anything, and seem to prefer regret over action? How can we, as liberals and pacifists, be less angered by Assad’s targeting of innocent people with a gas they don’t even know is coming, than by President Obama’s recommendation that we do something about it?
In other words, who but liberals and pacifists will stand up for innocent people?