Two Cheers for Violence

by Dave Kopel

Liberty, September 2004. For more by Kopel on pacifism, see Pacifist-Aggressives vs. the Second Amendment: An Analysis of Modern Philosophies of Compulsory Non-violence. 3 Charleston Law Review 1 (2008).

"Violence never solves anything," pacifists and gun prohibitionists like to say. "Violence begets violence," they add. The statements are rattled off as if they were empirical claims whose truth is obvious to all intelligent people. In fact, they are baseless propositions that are contradicted by ample and obvious evidence.

Unless you want to abolish the police, then you can not really believe that "violence never solves anything" or that "violence begets  violence." Police carry weapons and use them when necessary to apprehend criminals. Societies create police because people believe that doing so results in less violence overall. Even British bobbies of the 19th century carried nightsticks.

When you watch the evening television news, you sometimes see stories such as "Policeman thwarts kidnapping by wounding kidnapper" or "Rapist stopped when policeman subdues him with billy club." No reasonable person sees such stories and thinks, "Oh how terrible. The policeman used violence, and since violence begets violence, we are sure to have even more violence in the future." Instead, rational people think, "Because the criminal was stopped and arrested, we will probably have a little less violence in the future. At least that criminal will not be attacking anyone else for a while."

Most people think the same thing when citizens who do not work for the government stop a crime. If the newspaper headlines read, "Students Wrestle School Shooter to the Ground, Breaking His Arm," or "Elderly Woman Shoots Burglar; DNA Tests Identify Him as Serial Murderer," reasonable and decent people are happy that the crime was thwarted. They believe that the people who stopped the crimes reduced violence.

Every year, at least 100,000 Americans (according to the lowest estimate), and perhaps as many as several million Americans (the highest estimates), successfully use gun violence, or the threat of gun violence, to thwart violent criminal attacks. Less violent crime, less violence.

At the national level, history tells many success stories for violence. Violence begat American independence, Greek independence, and Swiss independence. Violence kept the United States united, and then freed the slaves. Violence prevented Napoleon from becoming dictator of Europe, and prevented Hitler and Hirohito from becoming dictators of Eurasia. The threat of violence, including nuclear violence, deterred Stalin and the Soviets from conquering Western Europe. Violence ended the Holocaust, established the modern state of Israel, and stopped the Arabs from driving the Jews into the sea in 1948 and 1967. Violence removed the Ceausescu communist dictatorship in Rumania. Violence removed Afghanistan as a secure training base for worldwide terrorists in 2001. Violence kept terrorists from crashing United Airlines flight 93 into Washington, D.C.

Pacifists point out, quite correctly, that nonviolence can be successful, and is sometimes more effective than violence. Mohandas Gandhi's nonviolence ended British rule in India, and the People Power movement in the Philippines removed the Marcos dictatorship in 1986.

Only a person who is willfully blind to history can deny that violence and nonviolence can both be effective.

Some pacifists reply that violence should not be deemed an effective means of ensuring peace unless it is perfectly effective every time it's tried. They point out that World War II left Stalin in control of half of Europe, and that the War Between the States did not solve the problem of racism. [fn: The federal government did not prosecute that war to achieve racial equality, but to preserve the Union, so it is unfair to call the war a failure because the victors did not achieve an objective they didn't have. The war did eliminate slavery. Freedmen after the war were victims of pervasive discrimination, but discrimination is a far cry from slavery, under which one's children can be sold to an owner in another state.

There is little we can do that is perfectly effective. If perfection is the standard, then nonviolence fails the test as surely as does violence. The peaceful People Power revolution in the Philippines has left the Philippines with many social problems, including a terrorist Islamic insurgency which was more effectively suppressed by the police state of Ferdinand Marcos. Gandhi's nonviolent movement for Indian independence led to British withdrawal and over one million deaths in the civil war that resulted.

When conscientious people refuse to use violence when necessary to defend against the initiation of force, they help to propagate violence by criminals and by criminal governments. Nonviolence allowed the worst violence in history to take place: democracies failed to act against Fascism when victory would have been easy.

Pacifists often cite the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s as proof of the efficacy of nonviolent resistance. The reality is more complex.

Under the leadership of Martin Luther King, the civil rights movement did engage in a wide variety of nonviolent actions, such as bus boycotts, lunch counter sit-ins, and demonstrations. Some of these, such as the Montgomery bus boycott, succeeded quickly and directly. At other times, the benefits came more indirectly, but were still substantial. For example, when Birmingham, Ala., police used German Shepherd attack dogs and fire hoses against peaceful protesters; the images showed that it was the racist police, and not the civil rights protestors, who were guilty of destroying public order. The event changed public opinion in the rest of the country, and thereby paved the way for Congressional passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

But the part of the civil rights story that has been ignored by pacifist myth-makers is the great extent to which civil rights activists armed themselves for protection against terrorists like the Ku Klux Klan.

White supremacist tactics in the 1960s were just as violent as they had been in the first Ku Klux Klan era, after Reconstruction, when the Klan would methodically disarm the freedmen in a community and impose its reign of terror. In the 1960s, over 100 civil rights workers were murdered. The U.S. Department of Justice refused to intervene and prosecute the Klan or to protect civil rights workers. And help from the local police was often out of the question; Klan dues were sometimes collected at the local station.

In response, many blacks and civil rights workers armed for self-defense. John Salter, a professor at Tougaloo College and a 1960s NAACP leader, wrote: "No one knows what kind of massive racist retaliation would have been directed against grass-roots black people had the black community not had a healthy measure of firearms within it." Salter personally had to defend his home and family several times against attacks by night riders. When Salter fired back, the cowardly night riders fled. The unburned Ku Klux Klan cross in the Smithsonian Institution was donated by a civil rights worker whose shotgun blast drove Klansmen away from her driveway.

Many civil rights advocates viewed nonviolence as a useful tactic for certain situations, not as a moral imperative allowing oneself to be murdered on a deserted road in the middle of the night. For instance, the Deacons for Defense and Justice, based in local churches, set up armed patrol car systems in cities such as Bogalusa and Jonesboro, La., and were successful in deterring Klan and other attacks on civil rights workers and black residents. Sixty chapters of the Deacons were formed throughout the South.

Martin Luther King chose not to own a gun, but he explicitly defended the right of self-defense. In 1959, the annual convention of the NAACP resolved, "we do not deny but reaffirm the right of individual and collective self-defense against unlawful assaults." King supported the resolution, explaining that violence "exercised in self-defense" was "moral and legal" everywhere. King pointed out that even Gandhi did not condemn self-defense.

The claims of some pacifists that nonviolence is always more powerful than violence cannot stand up to historical scrutiny. Sometimes nonviolence by itself works just fine. Sometimes nonviolence on one front works wonderfully when supported by violence on another front. And sometimes only violence can succeed. From a prudential viewpoint, nonviolence always deserves careful consideration. However, a rational person will sometimes conclude that nonviolence is not an effective option.

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