It seems like a long time ago that we were talking about guns. Sandy Hook wasn’t a long time ago, chronologically, but we’ve moved on to so many other topics, nationally – the IRS and Benghazi “scandals”, the NSA revelations, and now Syria – that it seems a dim memory. We seemed poised to take action, but ultimately nothing was really done, not in any meaningful sense. We did talk a lot, though.
One such talk, between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic, has been occupying my mind lately. The topic was guns, and why one might own one. Goldberg’s position was that responsible gun ownership was a fair stop-gap solution against events like Sandy Hook, and he repeatedly tried to get Coates to admit that, if they were in a situation where they were under attack by someone with a gun, would it not be better for Coates to have a gun himself than not? Coates responded:
The crucial difference is that I don’t accept the premise. In other words, if I have “have a gun” in that situation, other things are then also true of my life. In other words, there is no “me” as I am right now that would have a gun. That “me” would spend a good amount time being responsible for his weapon. It’s not so much a situation that, if I were with you and we were facing down a crazy dude, I wouldn’t want to have a gun. It’s that I’ve already made choices that guarantee that I couldn’t have one. It just isn’t possible, given my life choices. I’d much rather work toward a world where the psychotic shooter is actually a psychotic knifer, or a psychotic clubber.
To some this might look like a dodge, or some kind of obfuscation, but as usual I think Coates is thinking on a deeper level than one normally gets to when these types of hypotheticals come up. It’s jiu-jitsu, sure, but I believe it’s also true of him, based on his writings. It’s at the core of some of what I’ve been writing here; that in this world there are often either/or choices that we make, either individually or societally, supporting a choice toward war and violence and conflict or a choice toward peace (and too often the former).
I am personally a pacifist, but an untested one. I haven’t been in a situation that escalated to violence in more than a decade. I’ve participated in staged violence, through plays and combat workshops, I’ve played violent video games, I’ve pretended to be an elven rogue or a guy with a robot suit and an electro-katana fighting monsters, but I haven’t been in a situation that called on me to strike another human being since high school (and I didn’t throw a lot of punches then, although, to be fair, I was generally outnumbered, so there would have been little point). I point this out to forestall the inevitable, “well, what would happen if <something happened>?” smart-alecky snark that sometimes follows claims of pacifism. I don’t know what would happen. I hope that I would keep to my principles. My belief is that violence breeds violence, as simple as that; that to respond to violence with violence will categorically make a situation worse than responding with a peaceful alternative, a de-escalative maneuver.
I live in a city with a lot of murder and a mayor who basically doesn’t care about poor people or if they’re killing each other. However, I also live in a pretty safe part of that city, and work in a safe part of that city during daylight hours, and so I never really have to come in contact with the violence that happens in the neighborhoods it’s happening in. I read the papers and I get sad about the dead and wounded, and I’m fortunate enough to make enough to donate a little to causes that will help prevent some of the violence, but I don’t have to touch any of it first-hand. I am white and middle-class (insofar as we still have a middle-class) in America and so I am able to live a life that is relatively secure. And so it’s easy for me to call myself a pacifist. It’s easy for a fish to declare that he’ll never climb a mountain.
Our president, and our Secretary of State, and many other serious people are all insisting that we must engage in conflict with Syria over the use of chemical weapons there. There is no alternative but to shoot our missiles and drop our bombs and send our drones to a faraway land. No one can really tell us why this will make life in Syria more bearable for the refugees there (over 2 million at this point); no one can tell us why the use of chemical weapons here is so unconscionable but the use of same by the Iraqis years ago passed without comment. No one can tell us why we are sending bombs and not doctors, sending missiles and not food, drones and not clothes, bricks and mortar, blankets, water, flowers, toys. No one can really explain why the diplomatic solution is coming from Russia, a country which progressives and gay rights activists have no reason to be a fan of but which seems more dedicated than the US to finding a solution to this mess that doesn’t involve bloodshed.
We have a great and mighty military because we pay for a great and mighty military, and because the contractors that make our military technology make a great deal of money by doing so and can afford to contribute to political campaigns and fund skilled and amoral lobbyists. A missile cost us $1.5 million dollars. If you gave me $1.5 million dollars I could retire today. I could go on long walks. I could write for eight hours a day, as many novels or (let’s be honest) blog posts as I liked. I could keep to myself, and bother no one. What would happen if you gave ten people $150,000 to make art for a year, or two years, or five? How much food could you buy? How many jobs could you create in my city, how many neighborhoods could you enrich, how many schools could you build? (Notwithstanding that our mayor is more interested in sports arenas than schools, or the blood of children on his hands.) We have 6,000 Tomahawks, have fired 2,000, and are planning to replace these with missiles that cost $3 million per missile. How serious are we about the deficit, about the miniscule/non-existent fraud happening with the SNAP program or whatever other social program Republicans have decided is too expensive, if these are our priorities?
How much art talks to us about the sad necessity of violence, or the seductive call of vengeance against those who have wronged us? Or, let me ask the reverse: how much art shows us that peace can be achieved without killing? How much art respects or acknowledges the pacifist viewpoint? I can think of two examples; Avatar: The Last Airbender (the cartoon series, not the movie) and Monster, a manga by Naoki Urasawa which has also been adapted into an anime series. I’m sure there are more, but the plurality of pop culture that deals with violence presents most conflict as a ‘get them before they get you’ scenario, with ‘get’ switching to ‘kill’ depending on who the target audience is.
I’m not suggesting that pacifism is a panacea that solves all ills. There are trade-offs involved, foremost of which is that those who use violence may feel emboldened by the knowledge that you won’t strike back against them. Neither Avatar nor Monster presents the idea that pacifism, or a respect for life, is a choice without conflict. In Avatar, the main character, Aang, is a vegetarian who is afraid of the potential for violence within himself; as the Avatar, he possesses enormous power, but for a long time he struggles with controlling that power which, unleashed, has the potential to cause harm to friend and foe alike. His eventual goal is the defeat of Fire Lord Ozai, whose desire for power leads him to launch a war of subjugation against the world’s other nations. During the run-up to the final fight it’s assumed by everyone but Aang that the fight will be to the death; Aang, however, is loath to kill Ozai even though there is seemingly no alternative. The solution Aang comes up with is a bit of a deus ex machina, and a bit of a cheat for anyone watching who was hoping for a solution they could take into the real world. However, it’s a cheat that respects Aang’s chosen morality, a cheat that allows him not to compromise his beliefs, which I’ll take any day over the idea that hey, sometimes you just have to kill the bad guy. Avatar is ostensibly a children’s cartoon, but it has a nuance that eludes pop culture drivel such as noted paean to torture 24.
Monster’s ambiguity runs even deeper. The central conflict is between Dr. Tenma, a Japanese brain surgeon who saves the life of a young boy early in his career (which mostly stalls said career due to politics at the hospital at which he works). The boy, Johan, grows into a charming sociopath, amoral and sadistic, orchestrator of a number of murders. Tenma, who is horrified by the revelation, discovers that Johan is so good at covering his tracks and eliminating witnesses that no one can really say for sure whether or not he exists; in fact, Tenma finds himself pursued by the police as a suspect in the murders Johan has committed. Tenma is tortured with feelings of responsibility for Johan’s existence, since Johan would have died without Tenma’s interference, and he decides that it’s his responsibility to kill Johan himself.
At first glance Monster appears to share a great deal of DNA with the Harrison Ford version of The Fugitive; he has a Gerard in Inspector Lunge, who relentlessly pursues Tenma, convinced of his guilt, and Johan plays the role of the one-armed man. However, Monster more resembles the TV version, in which Richard Kimble most often had his cover broken by the fact that his impulses were to help those he met along the way. Kimble’s life would have been easier, and he might have accomplished his mission of finding the one-armed man and proving his innocence, if he hadn’t been so driven to help people (Kimble, like Tenma, was a doctor by trade). Monster spends a good deal of time with Tenma and his pursuit of Johan, but it also takes the time to flesh out the people who Tenma meets along the way, people who are generally touched not by his mission or his sense of purpose but by his inherent goodness. These hidden allies play their own part in the narrative, helping Tenma as they can, from afar, all emotionally invested not in Tenma’s success in his mission, but in his happiness, well-being, and freedom. Urasawa creates a work where the tension lies not in whether or not Tenma will catch Johan, or even if Johan will succeed in some act of unspeakable evil, but whether Tenma can bring himself to kill another person, an act that violates everything his life has meant, and Urasawa creates the sense that if he does, then there something good will be irrevocably lost. The epigraph for the series is that famous quote of Friedrich Nietzsche’s: “Battle not with monsters lest ye become a monster; and if you gaze into the abyss the abyss gazes into you.” Springsteen puts it another ways in Devils & Dust – “what if what you do to survive kills the things you love?”
There are precious few voices advocating for humanitarian efforts in Syria, or a policy of non-violent intervention (and those that exist that I’ve seen are bloggers with audiences but little political power). Meanwhile, President Obama talks about a red line, as if killing itself is not a red line, as if the act of taking a life through missile or gun or knife or rock is somehow virtuous compared to taking a life through chemicals. What stories have we been telling ourselves year after year that we see this conflict in Syria through a binary lens: inaction on one end and military intervention on the other?
I am a pacifist, but I am a pacifist in the middle of a powerful nation, likely to be untouched by violence. If I lived in a war-torn nation, where political differences were settled not through words in the halls of power but by blows and gunshots and the roll of tank treads in city streets, how long could I cling to that pacifism? I have trouble enough keeping it in mind in this culture, where my beliefs and my views on violence are rarely reinforced and are often invisible, where what I believe is never part of the conversation. How long would I remain a pacifist if I lived at risk of violence and death not only from my government but from a nation far across the world, raining death on my country at great monetary cost but little risk, a country that has reduced my life and safety to nothing and the assault of my home to a political calculation? On this day can we not acknowledge the risk of a war, in reality if not in name, on Syria and acknowledge that all we will truly accomplish is creating undying hatred for us in the hearts of those in whom this hatred may never have otherwise grown?
I am a pacifist and my voice is not heard, and, regardless of my beliefs, no matter how I’ve chosen to live my life, if our missiles strike targets across the world and kill Syrians there is blood on my hands, and on the hands of every American. And if I meet my death in days to come at the hands of a Syrian survivor, who saw his parents or his children or his siblings or his friends perish in flames to a missile or a bomb or a drone (a death as final as any other, chemical or otherwise) I hope I will still believe he’s wrong. But in my final moments, I will understand.