What can’t be cured must be endured
Responding to Peter Beinart’s apology for supporting the war (unimpressive by comparison with the Bjorn Staerk piece I linked recently, but at least expressing some willingness to look at the reasons he got it so wrong) Hilzoy makes an important point
I admire Peter Beinart’s willingness to think about what he got wrong, and why. But while I think that he’s right to say that we can’t be the country the Iraqis and South Africans wanted us to be — a country wise enough to liberate other countries by force — there’s another mistake lurking in the train of thought he describes. Namely:
It’s not just that we aren’t the country Beinart wanted to think we were; it’s that war is not the instrument he thought it was …
Violence is not a way of getting where you want to go, only more quickly. Its existence changes your destination. If you use it, you had better be prepared to find yourself in the kind of place it takes you to.
There’s something even more fundamental to the appeal of violence. People are often faced with an unjust situation, where there is no apparent way to put things right. The injustice can be political or economic, as with a dictatorship or an unfair allocation of wealth, or it can be something like an incurable disease striking a loved one.
In these circumstances, where rational thinking produces a counsel of despair, it’s natural to take the view that “you have to do something”. In the case of incurable illness, the response may be a search for “miracle cures”. In other contexts, it’s more likely to be a resort to violence. This response is evident, not only in overtly political contexts, but in a whole genre of Hollywood movies where the protagonist (usually, but not always, male) is “mad as hell, and not going to take it any more”, and in real-life events that inspire, or are inspired by, such movies.
Sometimes, violence or the threat of violence is indeed the only effective way to resist injustice, but mostly it’s a way of making a bad situation worse.
To sum up, Violence is not a way of getting what you can’t have
* In a probably vain attempt to keep debate on track, I’ll say that violence in self-defence, or in defence of others who are under immediate attack, is sometimes necessary (World War II being the prime example, along with recent cases like that of Bosnia). There’s some room for argument about the limits of such defensive war, but I don’t intend to argue about that. On the other hand, examples where initiating violence is the only way to achieve goals that can’t be achieved peacefully, and where the benefits of resorting to violence exceed the short-run and long-run costs, are very few.