Sunday, July 19, 2015

Pacifism Versus Tragedy

Wouldn't it be great if reality were actually so simple that we could live peacefully with each other all of the time. 2500 years ago, some Greeks were writing and performing plays showing how, often, life is nowhere nearly as great as that, and that often a person has nothing but bad choices, and, if he or she wants to live virtuously, has to try to choose the least bad one, the one which result in the least mayhem and suffering. There's a reason people are still reading and performing Greek tragedies. It's because they're profound.

I grew up in a church which is just as strictly pacifist as the Quakers, or maybe even more. At some point after I was full-grown it occurred to me that although members of that church don't serve on police forces, because police carry guns, they do occasionally call 911.

I favor much stricter gun control in the US. Guns don't kill people -- they just enable people to kill other people in much greater numbers, much more easily and quickly. There's no doubt at all that the lower murder rate in the UK has a lot to do with the scarcity of guns. There's no doubt in my mind that that UK's policy is wiser than than US policy. All the same, the police in England do sometimes carry guns, and when they don't they often are expected to physically overpower people. They do arrest people over there. Force is necessary from time to time. For thousands of years people have have debating over when and where it is necessary and how much to use. Pacifists wash their hands of the discussion, they pretend it doesn't exist, and look down their noses at the one who get their hands dirty, and reap the same benefits that others. I know they do -- I repeat, I grew up a pacifist.

I know that pacifist conscientious objectors have put themselves in harm's way in wars, working in places like military hospitals. Some of those people were my ancestors, going back at least as far as the US Civil War. I have no wish to insult those people or question their courage. (I am capable of admiring a person's actions which are based on beliefs with which I disagree. I'm perfectly capable of it, I do it every day, and so do a lot of other people who see more grey than black-and-white in the moral landscapes surrounding them.) I'm just saying that they refused to confront some realities of human life which many other people, maybe actually most people, do confront, and grapple with, in the greatest seriousness.

I also don't wish to insult the people who fought in the Civil War or World War II. I don't want to insult the Germans who lost their lives trying to kill Hitler, because they knew that the war in Europe would end as soon as Hitler dead. And although members of my family's church had conscientious-objector status as long ago as the Civil War, many of them violated the pacifist policy of their church and became Union soldiers in the Civil War, and again during World War II, many of them violated the church's pacifist policy and joined the US military.

They grasped the tragic nature of the times in which they lived. Many of them may have realized that the world was not nearly as simple, and that morality was not nearly as black-and-white, as they had thought their whole lives long.

I have great respect for Gandhi and Martin Luther King. They were both extraordinary people, they both achieved great things, astonishingly great and noble things. But both of them -- tragically -- were killed before reaching the point where they could have assumed political positions of power in which they would command, if not entire armies and navies, at least police departments. Positions which confront the officeholders with tragic decisions. We don't know what they would have done in such offices. It's hard to imagine that a Prime Minister Gandhi or a President King would have entirely done away with the armed forces of India or the US. We don't know whether they would have accepted such offices.

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