Should anyone have the freedom to kill in the name of a cause in a world where we can’t agree on the cause; where one person’s idea of victory is another’s bitterest loss?
The recent attacks in [it seems most apt to leave the reader to fill in this gap] are no more – though not a jot less – than one in a list of atrocities that have shaken me since I was just about old enough to understand that something was wrong. The nightly TV news was running stories about men being kneecapped in front of their children, and young lovers being tarred and feathered just over the sea: I, being British, was implicated in it.
Dimly, nightly, I learned it was down to a ‘cause’. Something too dark, tangled and deep rooted to be explained or eradicated, something that just was. Something I could do nothing about.
I’m sure back then I would have pressed adults to explain the unexplainable: ‘How can people do this to each other?’, ‘Does a cause justify doing something that’s clearly wrong?’, ‘What will stop it?’
I’m still asking same questions after the latest eruption in a seething, brutal worldwide conflict that vanishes from here as it intensifies there – rooted always in history, religion, assets and power.
Being an adult myself these days doesn’t much help.
Can an ordinary person with ordinary feelings make any difference? We may not be able to trust our instincts: about the only secure instinct we can all acknowledge seems to be compassion. Can we be unambiguous about that? Compassion for the victim comes naturally. But compassion for the terrorist’s neighbour who wondered, but didn’t raise the alarm? Compassion for the terrorist’s mother, wife and child? For the terrorist? For the ones controlling the terrorists?
I don’t always understand my own views about some of these issues, let alone anyone else’s, but surely we can be unambiguous about deliberate murder? It turns out we can not. Would I kill a terrorist if it was in my power and it was certain that the lives of many others were imminently threatened? What if, though certain, I was wrong? Does that make me part of the problem?
I’d rather be part of the solution.
I am essentially peace-loving, as are the majority of people. I don’t like violence, I don’t like terror. I’m sure there is no terror like war. I don’t think either has any place in the 21st Century.
But logic tells me that when one group of people sets out to oppress another group by force, there are only two choices for the rest of us: ignore them and hope it doesn’t explode on our own doorsteps, or take some kind of action.
We can’t logically unravel the rights and wrongs of the ‘causes’ that drive so many of us. They have historic roots too fresh and knotty to have rotted back into rich, fertile soil, as has happened with ancient, but no less bitter conflicts that (mercifully, perhaps) no living human still commemorates or regards as relevant.
The roots of today’s conflicts still have an impenetrable, gory existence. The trees that bore them may be live, dead or dying – no matter – their roots are still watered by the blood of fighters and victims in a barbaric, daily ritual.
Perhaps it’s true that we are born guilty, though I’d like to think not. Perhaps being born British [or in any other country] is all the justification needed for someone to regard me as a prospective ally – or a fair target.
Innocent blood or guilty is (I’ll say through gritted teeth) another matter of perspective. Any blood will keep the roots of conflict alive.
No one can grow life-sustaining crops on bloody, root-riddled earth. If you only believe one sentence of everything written here, make it that one. I’m a gardener.
Caring souls far away hear news of the latest outrage and carry on living, saying: ‘We’ll be next’. ‘Nothing new’. ‘We can’t let them win’. Others sternly advise us that this or that conflict is or is not as worthy of our attention as another. Some pick up their weapons and prepare to die for a cause.
True, natural justice is surprisingly clear and uncomplicated.
A vote held with a plebiscite of eight-year-old girls would tell us what’s right and wrong in most conflicts. We ‘just’ have to set dogma aside, explain the facts in a simple way – and stick to the present. I’d put my life in the hands of little girls much more joyfully than in the hands of many of the leaders I see on the news channels.
From my perspective, any suppression of female influence is a marker we ignore at our greatest cost. Society is kinder, richer, better balanced when ordinary women’s voices are heard.
In another time, another conflict, women were able to point out the way. But for the supraworldliness and courage of the Irish peace women – mothers, daughters, friends and lovers – ‘the troubles’ could be still raging now.
For this world is not enough, it seems. Violence has moulded human instincts and values until terror and war seem normal; to have reasons, justifications.
We’ve made it seem complicated when it’s very simple. Peace is always the only answer. Yet for some reason it’s a final resort: we try everything else until no other option is left.
Meanwhile, peace stands on the sidelines, wringing its hands nervously.
We need to imagine a just solution and make it happen. The United Nations was a great start; The Elders, another step in the right direction. But do you sense the world is on a good trajectory?
The real tragedy is that it may be too early for us to see peace is the inescapable, only solution, but the time will come. I’m not convinced by the strategy of averting our eyes while the threat to the majority is small, and the mass of suffering concentrated in a few hellish spots.
Today’s world is tiny; tightly interconnected. Hundreds of thousands of people flee outwards from conflict. Terrorists cross the globe with real or fake documents and hail a cab to the airport.
We share in the guilt of decisions taken in our name; of living in essentially selfish, protected societies while other places degenerate to a living hell. We’re not heartless; we see what’s going on. We’re just not sure what to do for the best. Like Lady Macbeth, we wash splashes of blood from our hands over and over again. Let’s hope the blood stays metaphorical for as many of us as possible.
When something horrendous happens, and brutality leaves its indelible, despicable marks, I’ll brood, as if an answer will eventually appear that will provide some kind of key to the obvious question. Days when there is no key, when I’m forced to ask if my contribution is nothing but a grown up child’s wild fantasy, will never dent my determination to make some sense from what I see happening. To draw some conclusions. For this is my world too.
My heart cries out, as yours must if you’ve read this far, not just for the lives already lost or changed, but for everyone who is in danger or in fear, everyone threatened with oppression, every heart struggling with overwhelming grief for a human-made reason.
It is not for this that we are here.
So my proposal?
You’re totally right – I don’t have the answer. Just the simplest of suggestions. We harness the power of time. As mortals, we instinctively respect time, but it’s not that hard to set a distant deadline.
Let’s set a hundred year limit to achieve world peace that ends at the stroke of midnight on 8th December 2116. (GMT of course, I’m British.) After that, everything changes.
By design. For the better.
A hundred years means there’s no need to hurry. Not at first. People can keep on dying just as they do now. (Does that sound a bit weird? It ought to.)
Of course ‘this time next year’, ‘next week’ or ‘next minute’ would be better, if the world could find a way, but I do not think it will.
Perhaps we’ll spend the first 20 years working out how to work things out. Finding ways to approach the tough questions about world boundaries, religion, poverty and the other causes of conflict.
Instead of yahooing as we surf the waves of old or extreme ideas, we create a climate where new ideas can be expressed safely by thoughtful, caring individuals. We don’t accept that feigned answer: ‘It’s too hard’. We acknowledge that what’s happening now is too hard.
There should be no need to be in power or to shout the loudest to be part of the process. We need to make space for visionary, practical altruists (not the richest or best connected) to negotiate the best solution. By ‘best’, I mean whatever makes most sense in the gentler, saner world of people alive a hundred years from now.
It’s just a guess, but if we can’t all agree we will never fight over boundaries, perhaps we’ll adopt a fallback position and simply freeze countries’ boundaries as they are. Forever. Perhaps all people will have the right to practice their religion, but not to force their viewpoint on others.
And we need to rely on the difference between fair, good-humoured policing of an agreed, flexible world constitution that outlaws killing, terrorism, maiming, oppression and war and a world where pretty much anything goes, in some minds at least.
People born in 1870 could look at the moon and wonder if anyone would set foot on it in their lifetime. A hundred years is doable. Just. A hope for babies born from today on.
No more war in your lifetime: no more war ever.
– ‘Oh, that would never work. Fool! Dreamer!’
But what if it would? Do you think we’re going to see peace any other way, or any sooner?
Is it right that I haven’t got life changing injuries today because I wasn’t watching kids playing football or in [feel free to insert the scene of a tragedy here]?
The world failure is so evident. Isn’t it time we all started feeling survivor guilt and demanded more? Civilians should not be dying or homeless and shattered because of terrorism or war.
I’ll go further. We shouldn’t be asking any living soul to experience what we ask soldiers (and the loved ones of soldiers) to face in our name. And we have to keep on asking, not just for the next one hundred years, but for all time to come, because we have illusions about freedom. Freedom to take land or oppress people by force. Freedom to kill in the name of a cause in a world where we can’t agree on the cause; where one person’s idea of victory is another’s bitterest loss.
Believe me, I’m not that happy and I ain’t clapping. Are people free to commit outrages for all time simply because they want this or they don’t agree with that – or are they not?
I don’t imagine peace could be a painless process. But surely it’s time for something better? Time for one long, final push after so many excruciating contractions in the birth of a kindly world – foretold, but conceived as being someplace else other than on earth.
Thought of a better way? That’s great. Write it down. Share it.
The clock is ticking.
(For The Discover Challenge: Tough Questions. Comments are open for the next few days for those who assume good intent.)
16 Replies to “Discover Challenge: Tough Questions”
Great article! Well thought out and well spoken. I’m with you, I feel the the same way in today’s political climate,
I appreciate you reading it and taking the time to leave a comment.
[J] With you most of the way. A hiccup, though, when I got to the bit about ordinary women’s voices being heard and being effective in averting violence. That does rather imply that, intrinsically, men are violent, and women are not. Or better put, men are statistically more likely than women to adopt a violent course. Perhaps, but who’s included in the statistics? I suspect that ordinary, quiet, industrious, fair-minded and peace-loving men don’t seem to count for much, because they don’t have the loud voices and big fists of the archetypal beligerent man – and are perhaps even disregarded as not real men, and don’t have the benefit of the assumptions of non-violence with which all women seem to be credited. I believe also – in fact I know, because we have seen, in the same place you allude to, as elswhere, in recent big events across the world, that some women too can be capable of extreme views, advocates for courses of action that will inevitably lead to confrontation and war … but that these women are too disregarded as being unrepresentative. I also question whether the assumptions of intrinsic non-violence in women is subject to the historical context that women have not been at the front lines of power, money, cultural identity (no, scrub that one), territory: come the days of greater equality in positions of power and influence (which I have long been an advocate of), then I suspect the presumptions about women and pre-disposition to violence may disappear.
Thanks (J). I appreciate you taking the time to read this. To address the hiccup, I don’t believe any group of people has the monopoly on any good characteristic and am sorry that this seemed to be implied. Words are blunt weapons. No matter how much care we take to express our meaning, what we intend will never come over just right to everyone who reads it – hence the ‘assume good intent’. I often say that people well past retirement age have a lot to contribute to society (as I firmly believe it), but would not intend to imply that young or middle aged people do not.
So I agree with you that we should to listen to all peace-lovers, irrelevant of the individual’s place on the gender spectrum. And I’m with you on the craziness of talking about what does or does not signify a ‘real man’ or a ‘real woman’.
I stand by my belief that ‘any suppression of female influence is a marker we ignore at our greatest cost’. You make a very valid point that whether society really would be ‘kinder, richer and better balanced if ordinary women’s voices were heard’ is still open to conjecture. I’m one of the ones who would like us to find out.
That is a tough question.
As a pacifist, I was surprised to find myself defending the IRA to an Irish Catholic: their right of self-defence against, her view, their wrong of killing. Libya had a tyrant and is not better off now. Every time I wash my clothes, tiny fragments of plastic wash away to the North Sea, there to pollute the food chain. It is better to die on your feet than live on your knees. Many people believe theirs is the one true way to God.
Possibly the way is for us all to fight until we can fight no more, until we drink the cup to the dregs, until our losses and suffering convince each personally that this really is not working.
Let’s hope not. As W.B. Yeats put it, it doesn’t help that too often:
‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.’
I think it’s a tragic and complex dilemma, tho’ not just of our seemingly maddening modern world. Wordsworth put his finger on it when he spoke of the ‘still sad music of humanity’. Maybe one day narrow mindedness will be be thwart by a ground swell of common sense and compassion.
Dilemma is the perfect word – how can a peace-lover enforce peace?
Yet, who’s to say that it could not be done by consent with a worldwide referendum? We vote on less important things.
I’m in the mood to ask the obvious questions out loud today.
You have been thinking. I agree with much of what you say. I think until we improve the human condition, which is to repeat certain things over and over again, out of convenience, disregard or ignorance, we will have this. But wouldn’t it be nice if we all start to work right now on our little corner? We can’t necessarily influence international issues, but we can work locally, and that work moves up and out.
Ironically, the posts we hold back on publishing are often on the subjects we care about most. This is the one I’d like to be read and shared if my plane ever goes down.
What you say is indisputably true, and your good faith and hope are signs of the way global peace might come about, but you’ve raised another inconvenient question. If by a quirk of fate our little corners were placed at the centre of conflicts, would we plead for peace in vain?
We fear to intervene in other areas because we only imagine reaching out with violence to counter violence. We meet the gaze of vested interests and lower our eyes. Yet when I look in ordinary faces in all areas of the world, I feel convinced that peace does not have to be a dream.
Whew. You covered this well. There is enough of everything for everyone without ruining lives fighting
The USA is remembering Pearl Harbor today. Nothing is worth that kind of destruction. There are many horrific examples from many places. We must all chose peace or we all lose.
As always a thought provoking piece. I have just been travelling in Myanmar (formally Burma) for the last three weeks. A beautiful country with wonderful people. They are mostly Buddhist and with that comes a more peace loving ethics. However, they do have a number of ethnic groups that want no part of Myanmar . Even while we were there the military were accused of rape and killings of one such group who are muslin and want their own land. It was alarming for me to hear the hate the buddists had for the muslins. It does seem to me that religion is often one of the root causes of the world’s problems. Being English I should add that the Northern Irish issue is primarily religious which is then capitalised by politicians. Even now with the so called “peace accord” the hate is ever present. There was not a situation where the UK government penalised one group over another although there was plenty of misinformation to that effect. It was sad to see Trump playing the exact same card with his comments on muslins in America.
I do not know what the answer is. But it would help if all religions could be more vocal on, what is core to all religions that I am aware of, the ethics of peace and loving our fellow men and women.
I commented above in my answer to (J) that words are blunt instruments. It’s never so obvious as when we try to write about subjects like this. The English could be blamed for a good deal in the past, in many places, but we’re alive in the present and responsible for our choices now. Your comment made me wonder whether witnessing the Irish troubles has made England more secular.
I believe many of our core opinions, the ones we rarely question, are flukes of birth. In one place and time, we naturally believe x, y or z. We demand guns as our birthright or feel shocked to see them carried by police on the street. That helps me navigate my way around hard-felt disputes – the knowledge that I would feel differently if I had been born and raised the same way.
Lancashire folks watch, cheer perhaps, as witches are burned at the stake. Is that hate or ignorance? What if the opposite of love was ignorance, not hate. Would we feel better placed to address the issues?
In another age and time, our society will be judged as barbaric.
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