A Friendly Disturbance

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October 31st 2003
Published: October 31st 2003
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I began my ride from Raleigh to Durham with the anticipation of seeing my girlfiriend Jennifer for the first time since I had let her home in northern Virginia nearly three weeks ago at the beginning of my trip. Jennifer had surprised me the night before during our hone conversation by mentioning that her schedule was free enough for her to drive down to Durham to see me for the weekend. Since I was not scheduled to speak to any meetings until Sunday, I was able to arrange my schedule to spend some time with her and her dog.

Part of my girlfriend Jennifer’s motivation to get away from her home for the weekend was to escape the sounds of her neighbors’ domestic disputes in the apartment below her. On one occasion the police had been called in response to the apparent sound of violence late one night.

At one in the morning Jennifer nudged me awake in our motel room in Durham and asked, “Do you hear that?” From above we could hear the distinct but indiscernible sounds of a shouted argument, followed by several loud crashes, a feminine scream and more thumping. Jennifer looked at me and asked, “Should we call the front desk?” to which I answered, “Yes.” In short order the police arrived and we watched as a college-aged woman was escorted down form the second floor and interviewed by a police officer while she sat chain smoking inside an old Volvo sedan. Every so often the officer would illuminate her face with his flashlight, then return to writing on his clipboard. A few minutes later a man was brought down from the second floor in handcuffs by two police officers and placed in the backseat of a cruiser. After a while the police brought out a camera and proceeded to photograph the woman’s face and arms, the camera flash revealing the growing bruises that were previously hidden in the shadows of the street lights. After perhaps 45 minutes our real world version of a reality TV cop show had come to an end and the last police cruiser had pulled out of the parking spot in front of our motel room. I returned to bed and laid awake, staring at the corrugated stucco ceiling above me, wondering how we had done the right thing in calling the police and bringing to an end an act of domestic violence.

I had little doubt that we had done the right thing, but I was unsure of why our actions had been right. And as a student of philosophy, I could not help but draw ethical maxims from what I had just experienced. But the ethical maxims that I drew that night had disturbing parallels to arguments I have heard advanced by war advocated in the past few years.

I had been witness to phenomena that circumstantially indicated acts of violence: verbal arguments, crashing noises and screaming. On the assumption that violence had occurred, I had consented to calling the police. In doing so, I was implicitly affirming the social contract entered into by citizens of our society: namely that our government is composed of and by its citizenry, our government and agents of our government act in the interest of us, the citizens, and we the citizens are consequently responsible for the actions taken on our behalf by our government.

If the last paragraph seemed a bit esoteric and academic, let me put it in real world terms: if I call the cops because my neighbor is beating his girlfriend, my neighbor will blame me for his arrest. If the cops shoot and kill my neighbor, his girlfriend will blame me or thank me, depending upon the status of their relationship. The police act on behalf of myself and society as a whole, and I bear a responsibility for the actions taken by the police.

So here was a situation where my neighbor had been beating up his girlfriend, and I had called (or consented to the cops being called) to stop the violence. Yet part of the power that the cops used to halt the violence was the threat of greater violence. If my neighbor had raised a fist at the cops, the cops would have raised a can of pepper spray. If my neighbor had raised a knife at the cops, the cops would have raised a gun. If my neighbor had raised a gun, the cops would have raised the SWAT team.

My neighbor was halted in his violent actions by the threat of violence to his own self, and I had consented to and bore a responsibility for the threat of greater violence by the agents of our government acting in the interests of myself and my fellow citizens.

If the ends justify the means, then the cops are justified in stopping my neighbor from beating up his girlfriend through whatever means are necessary, including lethal violence. In such a case, the cops are acting for the “greater good” of society. While it is “bad” for my neighbor to punch his girlfriend, it is “good,” or at least “not as bad,” for the cops to punch my neighbor while arresting him. When the ends justify the means, the morality of violence is dependent upon the moral standing of the violent person. If the person is violent for “good” ends, then violent means are “good.” If the person is violent for “bad” ends, then the violence is “bad.” It’s “bad” for my neighbor to punch his girlfriend, even if he thinks he’s doing it for “her own good,” but it “good” for the cops to punch my neighbor while arresting him for “the good of society.” On a broader scale, it’s “bad” for Saddam Hussein to kill Iraqis, but it’s “good” for George Bush to kill Iraqis.

I’m fairly certain that the threat of violence used by the cops to subdue and arrest my neighbor was “good,” but in doing so I find myself agreeing with war advocates that violence can be used for “good,” as they have argued since 9/11. They argue that America and its (few) allies must commit violence for the sake of a greater (but vaguely defined) “good.” While people may die in the process of “securing freedom,” those people have died for a greater “good.” Sometimes the people who die are “bad” people like Uday and Qusay Husssein. Sometimes the people who die are “good people,” like the ever-growing ranks of American soldiers. But if the ends are to justify the means, if the goal of securing freedom in the world is to justify the deaths of thousands of people worldwide, then we must wait until the end has been reached before we can decide who and what was “good” and “bad.” If the end justifies the means, then the end must be reached before the means can be justified. And we have not reached the end of our war.

World War II has often been justified by the salvation of the Jewish people from extermination at the hands of the German people. Yet a private in the German army invading Holland in 1939 would have been hard-pressed to know that what he was doing was “bad” because the Allies would save the Jews in 1945. In fact a German soldier would have believed that his actions were “good,” because his leaders had told him so, and because he couldn’t bear the thought that he was part of the invasion of a neutral country for “bad” reasons. When soldiers begin to doubt that they are killing for “good” reasons, they lose their will to fight. Questioning the morality of a war leads inevitably to a loss in morale. American troops in Vietnam and Soviet troops in Afghanistan both lost their morale when they questioned their morality. War advocates in America have attacked peace advocates for destroying the morale of the troops by questioning the morality of the war, oftentimes by saying that “this is not the time” for questioning the morality of the war. And war advocates are correct: when the ends justify the means, the means cannot be justified until the end, so we should shoot now and ask questions later. For now we will assume that our actions are “good,” and the end will justify them later.

The vast majority of perpetrators of violence, be they abusive husbands or grunts in the trenches, share a common belief that they are violent for “good” reasons. The 9/11 hijackers believed they were acting for “good” reasons, and likewise the American pilots who dropped napalm and cluster bombs across Afghanistan and Iraq believed that they were doing so for “good” reasons. Osama bin Laden and George Bush both rally their troops by urging them to protect the “good” people from the “bad” people. At the end of this war, as at the end of every war, one side will have won and will write the history books proclaiming that it fought the “good fight” against the “bad guys.” The loser will also write history books, but theirs will proclaim their lost cause as “good,” and their victorious opponents as “bad,” as Confederate and Native American historians have been doing for a hundred years. (I am not morally equating the Confederacy and the First People, but rather pointing out that the two groups have similar views of their own history.)

The opposite viewpoint is that all violence is “bad,” no matter who commits it or for what purpose. Such an argument has been advanced by strict pacifists, and I must admit that I often agree with them. But I’m pretty sure that stopping domestic violence was “good,” even if it did entail the threat of violence.

And so I found myself staring up at a corrugated stucco motel room ceiling, entranced by the patterns cast across it by the slivers of street lights that were able to slip by the window curtains. I wondered if our society would always determine the morality of violence through the outcome of violent struggles, or if we would ever seek to discern beforehand the morality of beating, burning, shooting, starving and disemboweling our opponents. George Bush and Osama bin Laden both profess to be acting in the “good” interests of God, and both denounce the other as “bad.” But I wonder if God is ever on the side of the “bad.” Is God only the victor’s God? Or does God suffer with all people, regardless of whether they are “good” or “bad?”

The power of the Cross is that God was able to transform an act of violence into an act of redemption. While the conventional wisdom was, and is, that the victors win by killing the losers, Christ lost, and won. Yet how many of us, like Gandhi and King, are willing to follow the example of Christ and confront an act of violence with an act of love? How many of us are willing to lose in order to win?


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