Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

Choices in the Midst of a Murderous World


Is the human race determined to snuff itself out through mass violence? There are many signs that it is.

The most glaring indication lies in the continued popularity of war. Despite well over a hundred million deaths in World Wars I and II, plus the brutal military conflicts in Korea, Indochina, Hungary, Algeria, Lebanon, Angola, Mozambique, the Philippines, the Congo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, wars continue to rage across the globe, consuming vast numbers of lives and resources. In 2012, worldwide military spending reached $1.75 trillion. Moreover, the most lavish spenders for weaponry, war, and destruction were the supposedly “civilized” nations of NATO, with $1 trillion in military expenditures. By far the biggest military spender in 2012 was the United States, which accounted for 39 percent of the world total.

Nor has this pattern shifted since that time. Currently, the U.S. government is pouring $7 billion a month into its twelve-and-a-half-year-long war in Afghanistan. Elsewhere, drones are rapidly becoming the U.S. weapons of choice in the worldwide “War on Terror,” with America’s largest spy drone, the Global Hawk, costing $220 million each. In recent months, as the U.S. House of Representatives voted to end food stamps for the poor, continued the sequestration that slashed meals for sick and homebound seniors, and moved toward ending Saturday mail delivery, it rejected a 1 percent cut in military spending and, then, voted for a national defense authorization that provided for billions of dollars more than the Pentagon requested.

Furthermore, a nation’s armed forces often engage in violent behavior quite unrelated to their national security. Commanded by military officers viewing themselves as the saviors of their countries, they have staged bloody coups against own governments, terrorizing and massacring civilians in large numbers, as they did in Indonesia, Burma, Nigeria, Brazil, Greece, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and many other countries. At the moment, in fact, the Egyptian armed forces, having deposed a democratically-elected, civilian government, are busy gunning down thousands of Egyptians.

In fairness to the official armed forces, it should be noted that the mass violence in many societies goes far beyond them. Terrorism, gang wars, and religious massacres continue to plague nations around the globe. In the United States, lynching has declined dramatically, but gun-related killings are quite common. More than 30,000 Americans die in gun violence each year and – in a society with over 300 million firearms in the hands of civilians – it seems unlikely that such violence will decline. Indeed, massacres by gunmen – for example, the murder of 20 children and 6 teachers at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut – have become almost routine.

Admittedly, the Sandy Hook massacre was the work of a mentally-deranged individual. But the NRA’s response to a series of mass killings – opposition to all gun control legislation and a stubborn insistence that wider availability of guns will reduce violence – makes the Newtown maniac look relatively sane. And what is one to say about the mental state of the pro-gun zealots who, this August, made plans to turn up, fully-armed, at a Starbucks in Newtown — and were foiled only when the horrified management shut down the coffee house?

The acceptability of mass violence is demonstrated on a much larger scale by national governments’ ongoing preparations for nuclear war. Sixty-eight years after the U.S. government employed atomic bombs to exterminate the populations of two Japanese cities and it became clear to all but the mentally feeble that nuclear war meant global annihilation, over 17,000 nuclear weapons remain in existence, with 94 percent of them in the arsenals of the U.S. and Russian governments. Despite numerous claims by national leaders that they are committed to building a nuclear weapons-free world, the United States, Russia, China, India, and Pakistan are currently modernizing their nuclear weapons, with the United States and Russia spending about $75 billion a year between them on this project. Meanwhile, the North Korean government threatens to attack the United States with its small nuclear arsenal, while the Iranian government continues a uranium enrichment process that might enable it to enter the nuclear club. Appropriately enough, the famous “Doomsday Clock” of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists stands at five minutes to midnight.

There are, of course, important countervailing trends. Responding to the development of modern, mechanized warfare, mass-based peace movements began to appear in the nineteenth century. During the twentieth century, these movements grew even larger, particularly after the advent of nuclear weapons. In place of war, they championed international arbitration, global cooperation, arms control and disarmament, and the development of global governance. The World Court, the United Nations, and other international institutions owe much to this public pressure. Within individual nations, as well, critics of mass violence fostered new, more cooperative modes of education, non-violent resistance, conflict resolution, innovative therapies, peace studies programs, and gun control campaigns.

But resorting to violence is a long-term, deeply-ingrained habit in human history, and is not easily discarded. To shake it probably requires less attention to a royal childbirth or the latest sex scandal and more attention to the dangers of mass violence in an age of modern weaponry and war. This was certainly what the French writer, Albert Camus, meant when, in the immediate aftermath of World War II and the first use of nuclear weapons, he offered a simple but powerful challenge: “All I ask is that, in the midst of a murderous world, we agree to reflect on murder and to make a choice.”

Dr. Lawrence Wittner  is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany.  His latest book is a satirical novel about university life, “What’s Going On at UAardvark?” (Solidarity Press).] He can be reached through his website.


Lawrence S. Wittner is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is a satirical novel about university corporatization and rebellion, What’s Going On at UAardvark?

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


October 27, 2016
CJ Hopkins
The Pathologization of Dissent
Mike Merryman-Lotze
The Inherent Violence of Israel’s Gaza Blockade
Robert Fisk
Is Yemen Too Much for the World to Take?
Shamus Cooke
Stopping Hillary’s Coming War on Syria
Jan Oberg
Security Politics and the Closing of the Open Society
Ramzy Baroud
The War on UNESCO: Al-Aqsa Mosque is Palestinian and East Jerusalem is Illegally Occupied
Colin Todhunter
Lower Yields and Agropoisons: What is the Point of GM Mustard in India?
Norman Pollack
The Election: Does It Matter Who Wins?
Nyla Ali Khan
The Political and Cultural Richness of Kashmiriyat
Barbara Nimri Aziz
“It’s Only a Car!”
October 26, 2016
John W. Whitehead
A Deep State of Mind: America’s Shadow Government and Its Silent Coup
Eric Draitser
Dear Liberals: Trump is Right
Anthony Tarrant
On the Unbearable Lightness of Whiteness
Mark Weisbrot
The Most Dangerous Place in the World: US Pours in Money, as Blood Flows in Honduras
Chris Welzenbach
The Establishment and the Chattering Hack: a Response to Nicholas Lemann
Luke O'Brien
The Churchill Thing: Some Big Words About Trump and Some Other Chap
Sabia Rigby
In the “Jungle:” Report from the Refugee Camp in Calais, France
Linn Washington Jr.
Pot Decriminalization Yields $9-million in Savings for Philadelphia
Pepe Escobar
“America has lost” in the Philippines
Pauline Murphy
Political Feminism: the Legacy of Victoria Woodhull
Lizzie Maldonado
The Burdens of World War III
David Swanson
Slavery Was Abolished
Thomas Mountain
Preventing Cultural Genocide with the Mother Tongue Policy in Eritrea
Colin Todhunter
Agrochemicals And The Cesspool Of Corruption: Dr. Mason Writes To The US EPA
October 25, 2016
David Swanson
Halloween Is Coming, Vladimir Putin Isn’t
Hiroyuki Hamada
Fear Laundering: an Elaborate Psychological Diversion and Bid for Power
Priti Gulati Cox
President Obama: Before the Empire Falls, Free Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal
Kathy Deacon
Plus ça Change: Regime Change 1917-1920
Robin Goodman
Appetite for Destruction: America’s War Against Itself
Richard Moser
On Power, Privilege, and Passage: a Letter to My Nephew
Rev. William Alberts
The Epicenter of the Moral Universe is Our Common Humanity, Not Religion
Dan Bacher
Inspector General says Reclamation Wasted $32.2 Million on Klamath irrigators
David Mattson
A Recipe for Killing: the “Trust Us” Argument of State Grizzly Bear Managers
Derek Royden
The Tragedy in Yemen
Ralph Nader
Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than We Think
Norman Pollack
Centrist Fascism: Lurching Forward
Guillermo R. Gil
Cell to Cell Communication: On How to Become Governor of Puerto Rico
Mateo Pimentel
You, Me, and the Trolley Make Three
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
October 24, 2016
John Steppling
The Unwoke: Sleepwalking into the Nightmare
Oscar Ortega
Clinton’s Troubling Silence on the Dakota Access Pipeline
Patrick Cockburn
Aleppo vs. Mosul: Media Biases
John Grant
Humanizing Our Militarized Border
Franklin Lamb
US-led Sanctions Targeting Syria Risk Adjudication as War Crimes
Paul Bentley
There Must Be Some Way Out of Here: the Silence of Dylan