Thursday, July 22, 2010

Munich and the Ring Road to Hell

They kill one of ours. So we kill one of theirs. That's the way it works -- isn't it?

I just watched Steven Speilberg's movie Munich again. It's the film about a group of Israeli assassins taking revenge on the people (ostensibly) behind the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.

The first time I saw the film, when it first came out, I found it exciting, poignant, and at the same time troubling. Watching it again, now with the benefit of recent efforts to think about how justice is administered, I felt sickened.

The film is a 2 hour plus meditation on a topic I discussed in a previous blog post -- the nearly insurmountable human impulse to say "They've hurt us so now we're going to hurt them." It is noteworthy that the film contains many references to the moral and legal obstacles to non-judicial retribution. For instance, at one point in the film, a member of the team of assassins points out that, "In Israel, we do not have the death penalty!" In other words, how can it make sense to carry out extrajudicial executions (assassinations) when your community's well-reasoned position is that execution (judicially killing) is unacceptable?

Another moment that jumped out at me is the point immediately after the events in Munich, when a member of the Israeli military argues for a different approach: "We've sent in the jets to bomb their military positions. That's a response!" It reminded me the degree to which the fundamental question we face is "Events have occurred ... without question, we must respond ... but what should our response be?" (viz. "The Response")

People can differ about whether Speilberg struck the right balance between thriller and morality tale in this film. The more important fact is that he made the film and it holds lessons for us today.

For instance: how are the actions of the team of assassins in "Munich," carrying out extrajudicial assassinations, different than the United States government's use of drone strikes to remotely kill our nation's enemies?

Violence is viral . . . violence begets violence.

Some years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Munich. I was driving while my friend navigated from a very simple map I had photocopied from a book. We managed to get on the ring road around the city, from which one of the main sights that can be seen is the Olympic Stadium. We had trouble figuring out where to exit to get into the city proper -- can't you read a map? you call this a map? -- and by the time we passed the Olympic Stadium the second time, tempers started to flare. We eventually made it to our hotel . . . but Munich and the Olympic Stadium have forever after, for me, stood for the proposition that going around in circles, stuck in the same rut and fighting about it, is a peculiar Hell that only humans could be capable of contriving.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Opposite of Violence Is . . . ?

If you embrace the proposition that might doesn't make right, you are led to the question, "What, exactly, is our idea of how to govern?" Or, more broadly, "What is the way that we want our nation to conduct itself -- to "be" in the world?"

I found some provocative thoughts on this subject in a book by Mark Kurlansky, Nonviolence: Twenty-five Lessons from the History of a Dangerous Idea. The entire book is well-worth reading and thinking about. (A lesson a day for a month . . . ?) However, the lesson that stopped me in my tracks was Lesson #23.

Lesson #23 says "Violence is a virus that infects and takes over." This struck me as a very powerful truth; indeed, the peculiar characteristic of violence is that it always "infects" the victim with the desire to retaliate. Hence the tendency for violence to lead to more violence.

Perhaps the viral nature of violence is a remnant of our primordial nature, an impulse to telegraph the message, "Don't mess with me!!!" Certainly, when you think of it in terms of signaling, it becomes apparent why violence is so contagious -- it is far less important that retaliation or revenge be specific to the act or actor that provoked it; all that matters is that the message "Don't mess with me!!!" gets broadcast widely. Moreover, there is a degree to which we are inclined to engage in "scary" violence more than "lethal" violence. Like a true virus, violence evolves successfully when it avoids killing its host.

When I thought about Lesson #23, the viral nature of violence, I was forced to confront a problem: I wonder if "non-violence" per se -- that is, measured restraint -- has the same viral power as violence itself. Are we impelled by our inner instincts to emulate non-violent behavior in the same way that we are impelled to retaliate in the face of violence?

As I cast about for an alternative that has some of the psychological power of violence, I landed on "compassion." It seems to me that compassion is something that, once experienced, tends to become contagious. The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that compassion has a gentle viral power on both the person exercising compassion, as well as on the receiver of compassion. To be sure, it is an impulse with different characteristics than the violence impulse. Nonetheless, there is no disputing that there are large numbers of people in the world who have felt the inner sensations generated by the practice of intentional compassion take over their lives, and those around them, in a viral way.

So . . . perhaps in the intentional practice of compassion we have a viable alternative to "might makes right" and violence. Can a government be "compassionate"? What might the differences be between the way individuals experience compassion, and the way compassion is enacted by governments?

Saturday, July 3, 2010

America's Founders: "Might Makes Right? Or Just Trouble?"

I've gone back to read the U.S. Constitution recently, and it's left me convinced that our founders had a very clear vision of a nation that avoided throwing it's weight around.

Years ago, I read Bernard Bailyn's book about the ideological origins of the American revolution. His basic idea was that you had to understand some of the abuses that our founders had observed in order to know how passionately they felt about avoiding them in the future. One of those abuses was indefinite detention, which I have delved into extensively elsewhere. Of equal concern to the Founders was the danger posed by standing armies. In the view of the founders, setting up a standing army was just asking for trouble.

William F. Marina laid this out very clearly in an article 35 years ago: "Militia, Standing Armies, and the Second Amendment." As Marina summed it up, "An armed citizenry...was both a check on domestic tyranny and the most desirable form of national defense. It was for the security of a free state from these perils that the Founders sought the protection of a well-regulated militia."

To echo Marina, I find several elements of the U.S. Constitution very explicit on this point. First, of course, there is the Second Amendment protection on the militia institution. The full context for this is provided in a series of grants of Congressional authority in Article 1, Section 8: first, the very brief statement of Congressional authority to raise an army (i.e. standing body of soldiers) for a limited period of 2 years, followed immediately and contrasted with the Congressional authority to provide a navy (i.e. capital equipment; ships), which, once provided, will be around indefinitely .... followed in Section 8 by the substantially more elaborate set of rules for calling forth the militia -- which clearly was intended as the main instrument of national defense.

I must confess that, having grown up at the height of the Vietnam War -- in which American projection of military power was in the news every day -- in the old New Jersey town of Chatham, with its annual 4th of July Fife & Drum Corps musters, I assumed for a long time that the military-industrial complex was a long-standing American tradition, and that the concept of the militia was obsolete.

My mind was opened when I read John McPhee's book about Switzerland, La Place de la Concorde Suisse, which provides a powerful picture of how a modern militia permeates the life of that nation. Switzerland doesn't sally forth looking for fights, but those mountains are bristling with weapons and everyone's a soldier.

With the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, I became aware that a lot of units going overseas are actually parts of the National Guard. This led me to do a little research, and I learned that the militias of the various states, the National Guard, and the U.S. Army are related to each other according to a set of laws (notably the National Defense Act of 1916) that take very seriously the primacy of the militia laid out in the U.S. Constitution. (For chapter and verse on this, see Barry M. Stentiford, The American Home Guard: The State Militia in the Twentieth Century.)

The more I dig into the U.S. Constitution, the more I'm convinced that the purpose the United States originally aspired to was precisely this unprecedented purpose: to demonstrate the truth of the proposition that might doesn't make right, and that governance can be achieved by other means.

People of good will can differ about just how far we, as a nation, have strayed from that purpose . . . and, to the degree that we have, the reasons why are complicated and need to be discussed thoroughly. But as a matter of first principal, isn't it important to get honest with ourselves about the basic question of what the Founders intended? And to ask ourselves whether that intent might be worth honoring?