Sunday, March 18, 2007
On the face of it, it's fairly light work to demonstrate that people have a right to defend themselves, and that such defense can include violence. This much can be proven, even to a liberal. There is no shortage of resources within the liberal tradition to draw on, actually. If you are a natural rights liberal, Locke will tell you about the right of people to resist a tyranny, for "the Society can never, by the fault of another, lose the Native and Original Right it has to preserve it self". The right of rebellion is implicit in Machiavelli too. If you are an all-American liberal, there is the "indubitable, unalienable, and indefeasible right to reform, alter, or abolish" any government, albeit one based on an inadequate majoritarian premiss. If you are an habitué of the sacred halls of the United Nations, then that omneity already recognises "the legitimacy of the struggle of the peoples under colonial and alien domination to exercise their right to self-determination and independence by all the necessary means at their disposal". And if, heaven help you, you are the sort of person who is into Just War theory, then you have no excuse, for all the conditions that obtain to make a Just War also hold in the case that we're talking about. Self-defense is the classical, unequivocal case of a Just War (albeit determining what is self-defense and what is not is far from straightforward).
There is also the elementary consideration that to deny a people the right to self-defense by all necessary means is either to insist upon an abhorrent and perverse acceptance of any scale of oppression up to an including annihilation, or to demand that any resistance that does take place is limited to strictly passive, unarmed means, however well armed and uncompromising the oppressor might be. Note that as yet we have had nothing to say about the violent or non-violent means that might be used, or than the stipulation of necessity: by any means necessary. This should be a case that pro-war liberals could assent to: it doesn't commit one to cheering on beheadings and car bombings in civilian areas. It simply recognises the legitimacy of self-defense against any form of tyranny, and a military occupation is such. It would seem incongruous, and solipsistic in the extreme, for them to insist that Iraqis accept the violent invasion of their society by hundreds of thousands of armed men under the command of a polity whose motives they can only guess at, based on their experience of war and sanctions, and which most of the world including their neighbours have drawn unfavourable conclusions about. Why should Iraqis be expected to accept benign assumptions about the occupying powers simply because some Western liberals have? It is one thing to claim that such an occupation is really a humanitarian relief operation, but quite another to insist that all Iraqis should share that view and if they do not, then they should acquiesce in the occupation, restricting themselves only to passive, unarmed means of resistance. And when those hundreds of thousands of armed men and their political masters begin to destroy the society's infrastructure, set up new prisons and torture camps, seal off towns and villages with barbed wire, break down doors in the middle of the night, bomb housing estates, shoot up passing cars and fire on protesters, it is the height of imperial arrogance to insist that, nevertheless, resistance by force is out. Indeed, if one still insisted on hoping for the success of the occupation, it would seem minimally appropriate to say to the politicians whom one supports that the people who are resisting are only human beings, it is the fault of the occupiers, and it is incumbent on them as the aggressor to find a peaceful settlement, ultimately to their disadvantage.
That it is possible to see a struggle as legitimate and natural without endorsing all the methods used in it, indeed while entertaining highly critical thoughts about it, is simple enough to prove. As an example, I give you Norman Geras on 'Our Morals: The Ethics of Revolution', which cites the instance of South Africa (this was written in 1989) as a clear instance of the legitimacy of revolt as a case of self-defense. More broadly, there is "a right of revolution against tyranny and against any bastion of
grave social injustice, including capitalist forms of it." Geras is here doing what he usually did - he engaged with liberal traditions with the hope of enriching the marxist one (with mixed results). So, he takes an instance of revolt that as many non-marxists can support as possible: that in South Africa aimed at overthrowing a system of racist apartheid. Yet resistance, being co-determined by the system it is aimed against, is ugly:
Bombs were placed in or near police stations, in the offices of the South African Defence Force, in one case in a shopping centre; the explosions caused death and injury. Black policemen and town councillors were attacked and killed. So were suspected police informers and collaborators, and individuals buying from certain shops in violation of a campaign of economic boycott. Sometimes such people were attacked in their homes and members of their families harmed. Often they were killed in shockingly brutal ways. 'One particularly cruel form of killing, known as the necklace, is to put a burning tyre around the neck of a victim who then dies a slow and painful death.'
And there are other examples: a woman rumoured to be a police agent is beaten, stoned, set on fire and raped with a broken bottle. I have no idea if the instance is true, but even so assume that it is: it is reasonable to conclude that in the course of a legitimate struggle, this was an unwarranted excess of which there might have been many such examples. These methods of torture and terror are not, however, merely supererogatory: there is a political strategy involved which may or may not on the whole be appropriate to the ends. Geras goes on to try to elaborate ethical principles for the conduct of revolutionary war, but since I can't see that it gets very far beyond the obvious, I take the discussion of his piece no further. You can read it for yourself. Other rebellions, often against colonial rule, have been marked by massacres (always far less significant than those perpetrated by the colonists). The Mau Mau committed a number of massacres and killed a few thousand in the course of their rebellion, including Kenyan supporters of the British. The British, in turn, killed over 100,000 and enforced a mass concentration camp system that at various times might have embraced almost the entire population, and which involved torture. I could, as you know, go on. Yet, if serious people need no reminding of the multitude of examples of insurgencies borne out of legitimate distress at grave conditions utilising brutal and possibly excessive military tactics, then so much the worse for those who do need reminding. So much the worse, in fact, for those who are aware, or capable of being aware, of the fact that there is a broad, popular movement of resistance, both military and civilian, against the occupiers of Iraq, but continue to behave as if it had no legitimacy on account of the means used by a some elements within it. If intelligent people are familiar with the right to revolt against tyranny, then this only impugns those who need reminding that there is a horrendous tyranny in Iraq, comparable to the treble tyranny of Saddam and sanctions and bombings - comparable, that is, by virtue of being worse on almost every index.
And yet, if you think I'm only describing a small percentage of pro-war apologists who have every reason to know better, I urge you to carry out a search of the press, television news, magazines of right and left, and try to find instances of accounts of the resistance movement in Iraq that a) recognise it as a resistance and not an Al Qaeda or Ba'athist conspiracy, b) recognise anything positive about it at all, c) recognise any rights, legal or natural or otherwise, that it might have. I'll pay a cash sum if anyone can show that more than 0.01% of the coverage does that. (A small cash sum). It is simply not done. People, whether in Iraq or Palestine or Lebanon or Haiti or wherever you like, have no right of self-defense against the empire. Self-defense is uniformly, almost without exception, thuggery and barbarism and criminality and gangsterism and fanatical cruelty and a tyranny in waiting. And the strategy for accomplishing this is precisely to talk about the methods these evil-doers use to forestall all discussion. They are bombers, head-choppers, child-killers. They value human life so cheaply that they sacrifice their own and those of innocent bystanders, because of God or funny ideas about the Twelfth Imam. They have car bombs and chlorine bombs and hostages. They make video nasties and chant verses from the Quran. Blood-spattered footage is their ensign. Indeed, they become the cause of the occupation, the reason for it necessity. In a phrase, the cause of occupation is fighting against the occupation. If only they'd stop trying to force us to leave, we would leave. There are many, many excellent reasons to deprive people of the right of self-defense, and the best one will never cease to be their putative endless depravity and irrationality. Which in its turn licenses and unreasoning blinness to the depravity of the occupation and to the realities of resistance.