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We know the world continues to be dangerous. We know our cities are continued targets for indiscriminate attacks. We know we continue to sell arms to brutal dictators on the basis that if we don’t others will. We know we continue to invest heavily in military research and development because that’s just the established order of things. We know there are groups in the world like Islamic State, which revel in the most abhorrent and intimately barbaric acts of killing upon anybody who doesn’t fit into their dystopian visions.
We know that unscrupulous leaders wish to develop weapons of mass destruction for their own protections and to blackmail their neighbors – or worse to unleash their potential. We know we continue to speak about peace yet carry out violence like its business as usual. And we know the more we weaponise the world; the more we increase the chances of driving head on into our shared extinction.
When collecting his Nobel Peace Prize as the only war time President to have been a recipient of the award, Barack Obama, while acknowledging Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, brought us back to the ultimate question when it comes to thinking about the possibility for lasting peace when confronting our proclivities towards war and violence: ‘As a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason’.
Whilst “the Hitler question” as any high-school teacher knows is the surest way to close down any debate, it does nevertheless need to be ultimately addressed for it continues to be the default position adopted by those who continue to argue about the necessity for war in so-called “exceptional” conditions. The problem from the outset is what actually appears to be exceptional looks more like business as usual. War is not the exception; it is the norm of human history as it has been steered in a particular, though not inevitable, direction. So could non-violence have defeated Hitler?
Well certainly between 1939-1945 this question seems ludicrous. Then again the whole of Europe was tearing itself apart in a nihilistic orgy of willful destruction out of which nobody was really a winner. But let’s us not forget here that while the Allies were ferociously bombing German cities, in Denmark and Bulgaria courageous nonviolent movements saved tens of thousands from the concentration camps. But the camps were still there. And they still killed millions. That much cannot be denied. Nor can the fact that psychopaths with weapons armed with devastating potential have and continue to endanger the world. But what matters in respect to this particular issue is when we date our questions. What if for instance the German people had been given a fair and dignified settlement after the Treaty of Versailles instead of condemning them to ritualistic daily humiliations? And what if the international community at the time took seriously the notion that World War One was truly the ‘war to end all wars’ and sought to put as much investment into the demilitarization of the planet instead of insisting upon its scientifically driven accelerations?
Obama raises another important assumption, which needs to be addressed. As he notes, it is the ‘imperfections of man’ and the limits to his ‘reason’, which requires us to defend ourselves and from time to time call upon violence in the name of some collective notion of security. And yet sadly most violence, from the very personal to mass casualty warfare, is not carried out by irrational monsters. It is more often reasoned, rationalized and calculated with brutal effect by the most reasonable men. In fact we can argue that the real poverty of our human thinking begins from the notion that bullets and bombs bring freedom. History continues to teach us otherwise. Despite the fact that violence only seems to produce more violence, continuously, endlessly, we have yet to fully give ourselves over to the possibility of giving as John Lennon might say, peace a chance.
And yet apologists for war would still maintain a need for arms based upon the right to defend oneself, the dependency of jobs, and the most ethically absurd notion that we might as well contribute to the weaponisation of the world, because if we don’t, well, unscrupulous others will to our economic disadvantage. We need to accept, as they would say, the established order of politics and the reality of the world, as it merely exists. Economic arguments provide the surest way to absolve any ethical responsibility concerning technologies, which are ultimately produced to maim, kill and destroy lives. This is not about cultural relativism. On the contrary, it is to condemn violence, authoritarianism, oppression, and the forces of fascism wherever they appear and justify their existence.
So what then of this claim about dealing with the reality of the world? We need to recognize that reality is not something that is independent from us. We create the realities in which we live. And it is just that the one we have created is violently fated. But we do have the power to create another image of the world if we so desired. Future war speculators would no doubt come back here and point to impending resource scarcities and predicted environmental catastrophes as a counter variable to our mastery of earthly conditions. There are simply some variables – including humans, which are beyond our control. Recognizing the unpredictability of the world and our inability to master all things possible is not however something that necessarily needs to result in pessimism. The logic put forward here in fact not only extends some rather old ideas about the nature human beings as being violent; it is also deeply racist in its application. Namely that since humans are surviving creatures they will in the end do whatever they need to do in order to survive, including massacre one another – whether that comes from conditions of food scarcity and famine or some devastating natural event, which exacerbates all available resources necessary to sustain human life. And yet would we apply the same reasoning to the educated white middle class around the world? We would expect a dignified and civilized response, whatever the disaster.
The idea that scarcity and endemic poverty causes violence is a dominant myth that needs to be dispelled. As the Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen discovered, there has never been a single famine in history, which has come from a shortage of food. Famine is all about entitlements, so often denied to people as a result of conscious political decisions. Scarcity doesn’t create war; it is war that creates famines. The same applies to the environment. Whilst ecological doomsayers – from intellectual pundits to Hollywood – continue to see a world full of endemic catastrophe and warfare as a result of environmental change, from street level solidarities in New York after 9/11, to Mexico City after its two major earthquakes, onto the break out of peaceful relations between warring Christians and Muslims factions in Indonesia following the Tsunami, it is the experience of catastrophe which often brings humans closer together and reveals the best of the human spirit. If violence does occur it often follows the militarization of disaster zones and the demands by “established powers” to establish “order” upon vulnerable yet defiant local populations.
With enough imagination we can recognize that a different concept of politics is not beyond us. A good start point is to start rethinking a different narrative about the human condition. We continue to be taught that humanity emerges from some natural state of survival and it’s from the moment we learn to protect ourselves we are then capable of thinking about freedom, which in turn means we are capable of loving one another with an empathetic and respectful embrace. But what if walked into a Natural History Museum tomorrow and in the first exhibit we looked upon those same hominids laughing and joking, as we know they did before speaking with racial tongues, painting on walls to show their imagination and loving one another despite the elements worst intentions? Why after-all do we want to make secure any group of people if it’s not for some prior conception of love that doesn’t come after we have learned to tame our fears or indeed because of them? To truly move beyond war – to put war itself on trial – requires more than a simple commitment to non-violence or even the most righteous humanitarian principles. It is to break out of the politics as survival narrative, which continues to threaten our very existence.