Saturday, March 25, 2006


Some old canards

I've heard some strong arguments against pacifism before, but I didn't find many of them in Cal Thomas's recent diatribe against Christian Peacemaker Teams. (Found via Jesus Politics.) Instead, in a week when CPT members are rejoicing over the return of three hostages from Iraq, what Thomas offers are mainly some old canards about pacifists that I don't find very convincing:
Strange thing about these peace movements: They rarely mobilize to oppose the killing, torture and imprisonment practiced by dictators. It is only when their own country attempts to end the oppression that the activists become active against America, not the initiators of evil. ...

Perhaps if Christian Peacemaker Teams had gone to Iraq during Saddam Hussein's murderous regime, or to China while Mao Tse-tung was slaughtering millions, or to Moscow while Josef Stalin practiced genocide on his people, or to any number of other capitals of carnage, they might be taken more seriously, though under those regimes they might have disappeared much quicker.
Pacifism, at least as professed by CPT members, holds that violence in all cases is an unjustifiable evil. So by definition a pacifist would denounce Saddam Hussein, Mao Tse-tung, and Josef Stalin as readily as any purveyor of violence. Disagree with that position if you like, but you can't argue that such absolute pacifists are too discriminating in their denunciations of murder and war. You would have a hard time finding a CPT member, I think, who would try to defend the brutality of Stalin or Mao, or who would argue that non-violent intervention in their regimes was not necessary.

Since CPT was founded in 1984, Thomas has set up a pretty impossible standard for judging the organization's seriousness if he wants to see evidence that they stood up to Stalin or Mao. I suppose Thomas has a better case for arguing that CPT members should have gone to Iraq to stand up to Hussein. It is worth noting, at least, that CPT delegates arrived in Iraq in October 2002, before the U.S.-led invasion. I don't know about CPT's activities in Iraq before then; I know about as much about the organization as you can find out from recent news items. But my object here is not to defend CPT in particular, but to question the underlying argument that Thomas is making about "these peace movements." His argument seems to be: Why are you pacifists always picking on us? Dictator X or Terrorist Y is violent too. Why not denounce their actions as well?

Pacifists do denounce the actions of Dictator X and Terrorist Y. A principled pacifist makes no exceptions for violence of any kind. On the contrary, it's the non-pacifist who has to give some account of why only some violence is justified, and why some evil dictators can be allowed to stand--even to be supported--while others must be toppled immediately. It's the non-pacifist, particularly one who believes in the Bush administration's doctrine of preemptive war, who has to explain why we make war on particular "capitals of carnage" and not on others.

I can oversimplify my point this way: If there were as many dedicated CPT members as there are soldiers in the world, I have little doubt they would be in the Sudan as well as Iraq, in China as well as Gaza. At least nothing about their principles would inhibit such a program of standing up for peace in every context. But an American advocate of preemptive war, for whom violence is sometimes justified, does have to give a rationale for being in Iraq instead of Sudan, particularly since the resources to which the United States has access are exponentially greater than those of CPT teams. If the United States government was willing to apply the doctrine of preemptive war consistently in every country where there is a murderous regime, then its principles would be easier to take seriously too.

There are good arguments that might be made to explain why certain regimes are more in need of violent overthrow than others. And there are compelling arguments against pacifism that stress the moral difference between, say, the unintentional killing of innocents and their intentional execution. (Although as I've said before, I have some doubts about those arguments too.) But Thomas doesn't make these arguments, and critics of pacifism seldom do. The easier response is to say, as Thomas does, that a pacifist is merely accommodating evil, whereas an advocate of war is doing something about it:
Peace, like happiness, is a byproduct, not a goal that can be unilaterally attained. Peace happens when evil is vanquished. ...

Peace "activism" may make its practitioners feel good or validate their belief that they are doing the will of God, but evil cannot be accommodated. Evil must be defeated if peace on Earth is to exist. That Mr. Fox and his colleagues could not, or would not, see this is most tragic of all.
As David Miller, a former CPT member, points out in response to Thomas, pacifists do not disagree with the end of vanquishing evil. They simply disagree that violence and evil can be vanquished with violence and evil. Pacifists, as Miller says, are not "blind idealists." They realize the risks that they are taking by "getting in the way" of violence and have few illusions that peace will always vanquish evil. Surely it's more illusory to think, as Thomas appears to, that evil can be "defeated" finally by the exercise of force. The more likely byproduct of force, it seems to me, has usually been not the vanquishing of evil, but rather its displacement into other contexts and modes. You set out to vanquish evil in Bosnia and find it cropping up in Rwanda. You set out to vanquish evil in Iraq and find it spreading in Africa. You set out to vanquish evil in Afghanistan and find it raising its ugly head in your own jails. It is certainly arguable that force has sometimes contained or diminished force, at least temporarily. But if Thomas's critique of pacifism is that force is justified because it can actually obliterate evil altogether, then he is setting an impossible standard not just for CPT, but also for himself.

Collective Improvisation:
I think you're taking Thomas way too seriously, but otherwise, this is a very good response. If you've got the energy, you could go over to your HNN neighbor blog run by Klinghoffer and make the point there. But don't expect a response.

Posted by Blogger Ahistoricality on 3/26/2006 05:04:00 AM : Permalink  

Maybe so. But I think Thomas is just saying in a particularly hyperbolic way why many people find pacifism untenable: because they view it merely as a policy of accommodation to evil.

Posted by Blogger Caleb on 3/28/2006 07:19:00 PM : Permalink  

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