We make a bargain with our governments. We pay taxes and expect a set of government services in return. And in return for a guarantee of some measure of security, we grant the government a monopoly on legitimate violence. In theory, then, we forswear mob rule and paramilitary organizations, we occasionally accept the death penalty as an appropriate punishment, we delegate the responsibility to declare and prosecute war to our legislative and executive branches, and we put guns into the hands of the army and the police.
Governments, in other words, kill on our behalf. This arrangement is a form of social contract, which means that governments are basically contract killers. Some states, like Nazi Germany, use the tremendous power of arms and bureaucracy to transform their territories into slaughterhouses. Regimes that are merely authoritarian can be equally brutal but display a greater selectivity in their tyranny. In our more decorous democracies, meanwhile, we perfume our conversations with words like “justice” and “national security” to mask the odor of death.
Americans have never been entirely comfortable with this bargain. We have a long tradition of taking the law into our own hands, beginning with our own hallowed revolution. During the Reconstruction period, lynch mobs were a continuation of the Civil War by other means. More recently, a variety of paramilitary organizations have flourished, from the racist Posse Comitatus chapters that sprang up in the late 1960s to more recent anti-immigrant militias like the Minutemen. Even suburban soccer moms have zealously defended their “right” to bear arms. On the other side of the spectrum, meanwhile, a broad-based coalition has challenged the government’s “right” to kill citizens through the death penalty. And an equally diverse movement has protested the government’s waging of wars overseas.
It would perhaps be naïve to expect that a government, invested with the exclusive legal power to kill people, would use that power only within the borders of the country that it administrates. At some point in the distant future, a world government might assume the privilege of the monopoly on legitimate violence and discipline individual countries for their violent outbursts — in the same way that individual governments currently sanction their citizens if they fire off submachine guns in malls. For the time being, however, we live in a semi-regulated environment in which governments use violence to secure their borders and, occasionally, territories that lie beyond.
States committing acts of violence were much in the news this week, particularly in the Middle East. Turkish forces have been bombing targets in northern Iraq for a week after a series of attacks by Kurdish rebels in southeastern Turkey. Israeli aircraft launched raids in Gaza after coordinated attacks along the Israeli-Egypt border left eight Israelis dead. The Syrian government continues to crack down on protesters, with a death toll passing 2,200 after several months of resistance. And NATO forces bombed selected targets around Tripoli as rebel forces streamed into the Libyan capital for a final assault on Moammar Gaddafi’s stronghold.
Quick test: which of these uses of violence are legitimate?
Some people treat the issue as they would a sports game, always rooting for the home team no matter how dirty they might play. If you support Israel, then Israeli actions are by definition right. Pacifists also have a simple answer: there are no legitimate uses of state violence. But states are unlikely to adopt pacifism unless forced to (as the United States forced Japan after World War II). Aside from the partisan and the pacifist arguments, those who support the legitimate use of state violence will claim self-defense or promise the prevention of a greater violence like genocide. But these, too, are tricky justifications. Turkey believes that it is acting in self-defense, but so do the Libyan and Syrian governments. And military intervention to stop genocide – the stated purpose of NATO’s action against Libya – can have mixed motives, and it is not easy to define genocide before the fact.
One popular way of determining the legitimacy of these exercises of violence is to invoke democracy. Democratic governments, as opposed to authoritarian regimes, legitimately use violence because there has been an opportunity for citizens to freely form a social contract with the government. Turkey and Israel are democratic countries, and thus their use of force is legitimate. Ditto with NATO’s attack on Libyan targets. Democratic countries use violence in a self-limited way. As political philosopher John Keane writes in Violence and Democracy, “Ideally conceived, democracies understand themselves as systems of lawful power-sharing, whose actors are attuned to the dangers of violence – and to the mutual benefits of non-violence.” As such, Keane argues, democracies progressively “democratize violence” by subjecting it to rules, procedures, consent. When democracies use violence overseas, they only do so against undemocratic forces such as tyrants or terrorist groups. Democracies, according to one of the few postulates of international relations, don’t go to war with one another.
This is a common argument, and it surely makes democracies feel more comfortable about their use of violence. The problem with the argument is that it doesn’t square well with the historical record. After all, democratic states have committed gross acts of violence, whether against members of society not deemed full citizens (slaves, suspected terrorists) or against non-combatants that have inadvertently found themselves in a battleground (Hiroshima, Gaza, Afghanistan). Keane establishes an escape clause for his argument by suggesting that “mature democracies” do not commit such violations. Certainly when it comes to the death penalty, democracies have matured in their practice (each year since 1990, three countries on average have abolished the death penalty). But what about when it comes to the use of force overseas, say, the U.S. invasion of Iraq? Did the United States simply suffer a fit of immaturity?
Rather than view these acts as some unfortunate stage in the evolution of democracy, I prefer to think that democracy consistently attempts to obscure its relationship to violence. Wars are not put to a vote. Indeed, here in the United States, Congress has been largely shunted to the side when it comes to war, and it generally weighs in only after the fact. The militarism of the Bush administration required a concentration of power in the executive branch and a flouting of international law (such as the Geneva Conventions). The Obama administration, with its policies on drones and extrajudicial killing, has not relinquished much of that executive power or shown much greater sensitivity to international law. More troubling, perhaps, is the fact that leaders don’t necessarily hijack the political process in order to use violence. Swayed by fear and nationalism, a democratic society can agree, albeit with significant minority dissent, to a rollback of democracy (such as the USA PATRIOT Act) or a full-scale military invasion (into Afghanistan, for instance).
Violence is not antithetical to democracy, particularly if the democracy aspires to maintain its status as sole global superpower. However, democratic governments do develop different strategies to rationalize the use of violence — at a bureaucratic level (a shift in checks and balances, for instance), with a domestic audience (manipulation of an otherwise free press), and to the international community (in a presumed defense of human rights). Robert Cover, in a famous essay on law and violence, once wrote that judges sit “atop a pyramid of violence.” The same can be said of presidents who, in the foreign policy sphere, sit on top of a different but equally immense ziggurat.
When it comes to international law, the issue of governance is immaterial to the issue of legality in the use of force. Instead, the two primary standards are necessity and proportionality. International law specialist James Crawford defines the questions, “Have the intervening forces withdrawn promptly? Have they caused wanton damage, unrelated to the needs of the mission? More fundamentally, perhaps, have they left the people of the target State freer or less free in terms of their capacity to manage their own affairs?” These questions must be asked of any operation conducted in self-defense and any intervention designed to improve the lot of an oppressed people.
Walden Bello has argued in a recent Foreign Policy In Focus column that the international community must meet a very high standard before it can legitimately apply the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. To stop genocide, the military action must have General Assembly backing, for instance, and not include the troops of any hegemonic powers such as the United States and NATO. Handicapped by an adherence to higher ethical principles or hogtied by democratic procedure, would the international community then be at the mercy of the unscrupulous? Would tyrants and terrorists triumph? As I have argued at length elsewhere, the United States has worked with tyrants when it has been convenient, and our military policies have often served as recruiting opportunities that only swell the ranks of terrorists. We might find that a more ethical and more genuinely democratic foreign policy would reduce both tyranny and terrorism, though probably at the expense of our superpower status.
We have made a contract with our governments, and they are killing in our name. We believe that we are safer when the government can use violence against those who (we are told) threaten us at home and abroad. But perhaps the price for that security is too high: people executed under the death penalty and innocents who die in the line of fire overseas. Long ago we concentrated in the state’s hands the power to kill legally. Now it’s time to go the next step to strengthen the international rules and institutions that make it more difficult for all states to exercise that power.
John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus, where this article originally appeared.