Why do people do such horrible things to each other? When will people stop fighting? When will the threat of terrorism no longer exist?
I see the laments every time a terrorist attack happens in a Western nation, and my own response is–why are these the questions we ask?
What follows isn’t criticism, it isn’t an argument, it’s just a reflection. It’s just another way to ask why.
When I see these questions, they’re asked from a place of distance. Given the presidential nomination races this year, you would think the United States and the Western world is a horrific, tragic mess. Perhaps in some ways it is. But it’s a different kind of tragic than the tragedy of a terrorist attack.
The contemporary cry of the angry white man is summed up perfectly by Chuck Palahniuk in Fight Club.
We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war . . . our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.
But it’s not just angry white men. This is the tragedy of a certain type of privilege. Privilege enjoyed by people in nations that aren’t generally war-torn, where our home soil is relatively safe from invasions and bombs, so when it happens it’s especially scary and not par for the course. This is first world privilege that exists in spite of all the income disparity, racial disparity, ethnic disparity, gender disparity, and disenfranchisement in ours and other first world countries.
Terrorist attacks only seem distant to us because this isn’t our daily lives.
When these things happen and these questions get asked, I always wonder what people were thinking during the American Revolution, or the American Civil War. Not everyone was a patriot, and not everyone was arming themselves to fight. Surely there were shopkeepers, artisans, farmers, teachers, who were sitting back thinking, “Why does this violence happen? Why do we live in a time like this? Why is there all this violence? I just want to do my work and for my family to be safe.”
War, physical violence, ideological violence, violence over territory, systematic violence against “barbarians”–this is what human beings do to each other. This is what human beings have always done to each other. This is historically, perhaps psychologically, the type of creatures we are.
Every time we question the inhumanity of it all or use language that dehumanizes terrorists to make them seem totally other, we lose sight of the big, historical human picture. We lose sight of our privilege, of our relative peace. We lose sight of the fact that we kill each other all the time.
The story of history you learned in school is a story told by wars.
Our countries have largely been founded on war and genocide. When the winning side’s ideology is the one we want or the one we were born into, we justify the violence that got us there and that maintains it. Now, we have legal mechanisms and international treatises that justify certain types of violence and certain types of war.
Sometimes war is a political or economic maneuver. But sometimes we do use war as a way to stop genocide, to intervene when egregious human rights violations occur, and, occasionally, we actually enter a situation where war was a justifiable way to stop more war, more genocide, more rape, or more violence.
The scary thing about terrorism is that it doesn’t follow the modern rules we’ve set up for war. It’s not nation state vs. nation state. It’s not publicly declared. It doesn’t follow jus in bello, the rules of battle. It doesn’t follow the rule of non-combatant immunity. We can’t pawn it off on our soldiers overseas to fight the way we do so many other conflicts and pretend it’s not happening, because we are all potential victims.
But none of this means that our world is any different from how it has always been. It doesn’t mean that mankind has gotten worse.
I teach philosophy, including just war theory, political theory, and ethics. We talk about war, from the Peloponnesian War to the fact that we don’t know what to do–realistically, ethically, and justly–about terrorism.
The philosophers I teach wrote about war because it was part of their lives, too. Aristotle justified the slavery of those captured in war, because anyone who wasn’t Athenian was a barbarian and so was fit to be ruled. St. Augustine, who lamented violence, considered the Donatists heretics and justified their subjugation. John Stuart Mill justified British Imperialism, “provided the end is the barbarians’ improvement,” because the “barbarians” were uncivilized and uneducated. Though none of the above would strictly endorse violence, sometimes it was necessary.
There isn’t a why these acts of violence happen or a when it will end. People do horrible things to each other because we’re people, and that’s what we do.
We hear less often the history of the people who opposed war and violence, unless they met a violent end themselves, but they’ve always existed, too. We’re also the types of creatures who are capable of being horrified by our actions. And maybe we need to ask why so we can psychologically distance ourselves from it.
But, for me, I don’t need to ask why. I already know the answer. I see back into the twisted web of politics and history and human psychology, and I see this moment returning again and again. And, I can’t help but wonder if Nietzsche was right: “Man is something that must be overcome.”
Unchanging good and evil does not exist! From out of themselves they must overcome themselves again and again. You exert power with your values and doctrines of good and evil, you assessors of values . . . but a mightier power and a new overcoming grow from out your values . . . And he who has to be a creator in good and evil, truly, has first to be a destroyer and break values. Thus the greatest evil belongs with the greatest good: this, however, is the creative good.
Is violence natural? I don’t know, but given the past actions of humans over the course of at least 2500 years, I don’t think pacifism is a plausible option, especially when public policy is concerned.
Human rights that we have established maybe because we value human beings, or maybe to justify our continuous state of violence to ourselves, or maybe because we know that these violations will continue to happen. Food for thought.