Thursday, September 07, 2006

Ethics and Violence: Just, Unjust, and Christ's Words to his Disciples

One thing about discussing violence is that it is wearing. After enough violence-talk, a nice contemplative moment or meditation starts sounding really good. It's not that I've fully explored the topic, but I think it's had enough of my blog space for now. So this will be the last post in the series before I move on to other topics. It is a necessary subject but a necessarily ugly one. In this post I will begin with the U.T. Tower (August 1, 1966), look at a few angles of Just War and Unjust War, and then go back to the words of Christ.

Is violence ever justified? A real-world test case.

It was 40 years ago last month that a man named Charles Whitman went to the top of the tower at the University of Texas at Austin and opened fire. From that height he had a commanding view of the campus and nearby city streets. He was a crack shot, making one hit from over 500 yards away; he was also insane. (His autopsy revealed a brain tumor. It is debated how much that contributed to his insanity; the examination did not prove that the tumor was in such a position as to cause the insanity.) Over the course of more than an hour and a half, he shot 43 people, 15 of whom died. I'm not sure whether the fatality count includes the baby lost when he shot the abdomen of a woman 8 months pregnant; many of the others were shot in the chest. As time wore on, he shot an ambulance driver trying to take one of his victims to the hospital. He shot a policeman trying to get in position to return fire. He shot a reporter accompanying other policemen. He shot at the civilians trying to help those who were down, so that help could not come and the wounded were left on blistering-hot August-in-Texas pavement, slowly bleeding out and acquiring up to second-degree burns from the pavement until the sniper could be stopped. At the time, police did not yet have SWAT units; the nationwide move to form and train SWAT units was spurred on by incidents such as this.

Ramiro Martinez of the Austin Police Department was off duty. He called in during the long ordeal to see how he could help and was told to go direct traffic. But the traffic was already being directed by the time he arrived at the U.T. campus. Instead, he made his way up the tower -- stepping over and around victims' bodies and accidentally disturbing the hiding place of a man who was half-crazed with fear and grief after seeing two of his relatives killed by the sniper. Martinez got to the observation deck of the tower with help from a fellow officer and from a brave civilian. He then emptied his gun into the sniper -- and borrowed the next officer's shotgun for one more shot to make sure the sniper was dead. And the large number of people in hiding came out of hiding. And the dozens lying wounded were finally taken to the hospital.

There is such a thing as unreasoning violence. It's not possible to reason with unreasoning violence. "Armed and dangerous" was a bit of an understatement for Whitman. If Martinez had not killed Whitman, the casualty count very likely would have been higher, even if simply from the people already shot who could not be safely taken to the hospital with a sniper shooting at ambulance drivers. Given the layout of the tower and the resources available, there was no sure way for an officer to take out the sniper without killing the sniper. There, from all I can see, was a justified killing. Regrettable? Yes, it is regrettable that it came to that. And because of incidents like that, we have made sure that resources are available so that we have more options. In itself, that speaks to whether we are convinced it was ideal. But at that time and in that place, I don't see that there was another available way to restore safety and to clear the way to get timely help to those dozens who were injured, a number of them with life-threatening wounds. Regrettable, but regrettably necessary.

As a case study, the U.T. sniper can help us think through moral equivalence and non-equivalence. On the U.T. tower, was Martinez just as bad as Whitman because they both killed to get what they wanted, or do we consider the intent of the killing? What about the content of what they wanted? How did killing become part of the agenda for each one? For whom was killing a regrettable necessity to restoring safety, and for whom was causing mayhem the original intent? Were the two sides equally likely to help clean up the mess and restore order after they had won? But the Whitman case is far plainer than a war, which is rarely quite that simple.

Just War and Unjust War

When I hear "Just War", it strikes me almost the same way as when people say "brutally honest". We've gotten used to those phrases; maybe too used to them. Sure, it's possible for honesty to be brutal, but it's often just brutality trying to use honesty as a pretext. I wouldn't want to discuss "brutal honesty" without discussing "gracious honesty". And I wouldn't want to discuss "Just War" without also discussing "Unjust War"; and ideally we'd also discuss peace, though realistically peace is only possible if all parties decide not to fight; it is not in the hands of one side alone. Everybody who wants a war thinks it's just; they're not always right. Simply because someone uses the phrase "Just War" does not make it so. Just to cover all the bases, just because someone uses the phrase "Unjust War" does not make it so either.

Why did I start this post with an insane man on a killing spree? I would argue that, just as the occasional person becomes insane, there are times when cultures become insane. This does not mean every individual in it is insane; let me explain. How would we recognize a culture as insane? To reach back in history, how about a culture that insists on imprisoning and killing multitudes of people who have never taken up arms against them and pose no military threat? Or how about one that deliberately, knowingly produces as many killers as possible to create as much destruction and mayhem as possible in as many places as possible? There is such a thing as cultural insanity; there is such a thing as a culture that is as homicidal in its way as Mr. Whitman on the top of the U.T. tower.

In the face of such a danger, should we try reasoning first? First, last, and continuously in between, provided that there is evidence that the other person is considering change and not simply taking advantage of the time to set up or carry out the next attack. When we reason in times of war, we have to reason with more than just the aggressor; we also have to reason what alternatives are right if the aggressor is unwilling to listen. One fact of life that is unpleasant, but demonstrably true, is that sometimes people are not interested in reason. When reason fails, force prevails -- and force can go either way. So it's in the general interest to make sure the aggressor isn't the best-armed or best-trained, and to make sure that people are willing and able to defend themselves.

A Brief Detour: The Current War On Terror

My main interest is not the current war on terror, but it is bound to be on everyone's minds (mine included) at a time like this. So, speaking of just and unjust war, some have said that the U.S. has become a culture that is insane and homicidal, with Afghanistan and Iraq as evidence. Iraq in particular has drawn much skepticism about motives. Pre-emptive aggression (for example, intending to take out weapons of mass destruction before a possible future aggression) is always going to make a weaker case for Just War than intervening when there is active ongoing aggression. For example, if the U.S. had intervened in Iraq while the Kurds were being gassed, that would have made a stronger case for Just War than intervening years later and citing a future threat. Based on Saddam Hussein's record, a future threat was likely enough to raise a legitimate question whether a pre-emptive strike was justified. And we need to discuss what, exactly, would make a pre-emptive strike justified until we have reached a more thorough agreement than we have now. The question whether an action is just or unjust is one that any decent and thoughtful society will insist on examining. And, in a democracy, both those who favor more peaceful solutions and those who favor more active solutions have a right to be heard; we all have to live with the decision.

There is no nation in the world whose record is pure and spotless. And I have not seen any political party that has never been in the wrong. Aggressors and counter-aggressors often come in shades of gray, and so do wars. But it's too easy to become daunted by shades of gray. There are some shades of gray that are lighter (even if not completely clean), and other shades of gray that are darker (even if not at the utter depths of evil). And a solid commitment to good demands that we address both the problems on our own side and the threats from others, not just one or the other. Addressing issues from both sides does not make them equally severe or equally threatening; it simply shows that we are consistently committed to addressing wrong. Seeing the darkness of the other side does not rid us of the need to address the problems on our own side; in fact, being our own problems, we are in a position to address them more thoroughly and on a deeper level than the other side. Likewise, addressing our own problems does not negate the need to keep an eye out for serious dangers coming from others.

Just War/Unjust War also has a related study, Justice In War/Injustice In War, which looks at a slightly different question. While Just War/Unjust War is the debate over whether military action is justified in the first place, Justice In War/Injustice In War considers the morality of actions in the context of war that is already in progress. This matter deserves consideration also. If you take a good hard look at the current war in Iraq as the U.S. tries to train Iraqi personnel for basic government services and build infrastructure for basic health and economy (e.g. electricity), you will no doubt see the human universals of corruption and incompetence along with some outbreaks of willful evil. But that does not change the fact that the actions are aimed to restore order, build stability, and return control to the Iraqis; the general thrust of the actions is intended to be constructive, by design. On the other side of the war on terror, the terrorists are not going to London or New York to build electrical infrastructure for the benefit of their enemies. They're going to destroy infrastructure to drag down as many as they can. No terrorist has ever gone to New York or Madrid or London or the Kashmere region to build infrastructure for the benefit of Christians, Jews, atheists, Hindus, and so forth. If the U.S. had been content to destroy Iraq and capture Hussein, we would be done by now. But we never wanted to destroy Iraq in the first place, which is why we are staying to help rebuild. (I'll resist the temptation to take more blog space to second-guess our tactics and approach in restoring peace; the point is that the intent is constructive even if not particularly well-informed about the cultural background and therefore, in places, floundering.) Do both sides help rebuild if they destroyed? Does that make any comment about whether destruction was the original intent? Do both sides have the same regrets in case of innocent losses? Are such differences relevant in evaluating conduct during a war? Has the question been seriously raised on both sides as to whether the war is just? Do both sides permit peace demonstrations, and does that say anything about the relative willingness to use force? Do both sides hold their governments accountable to the highest moral standards, and does that say anything about whether each side is equally interested in those standards, or whether the governments are equally tolerant of being held accountable for their own actions? I believe that those who draw a likeness between the U.S. and the terrorists are not reasoning objectively about the situation. Given that everyone is in shades of gray, that does not amount to the same shade of gray or moral equivalence. I am not wishing to grant the U.S. a free pass; it is regrettable that the best we can say is "purer hands" and not "pure hands", and that needs addressing. But I hope we can try to keep ourselves as pure as possible -- and address the very real problems -- without becoming confused into believing that there is no basic difference between the terrorists and those who oppose them.

Opposing Evil: Holding Both Sides Accountable

Complaints against evil are commonly one-sided. Ironically, they are commonly one-sided against the less dangerous, less evil side, and for very practical reasons, some of them even reasonable ones. At best, we tend to criticize the more peaceable party because they are more likely to be reasonable, to listen, and to value peace. At worst, we are more likely to criticize the more peaceable party because they are less likely to attack or kill us for criticizing them. While no balanced approach to evil would lead us to protest mainly against the party less likely to kill us (i.e. the less dangerous and less evil party), that is still often how it works out. If we have not confronted evil on both sides, despite the risks, then we have not done our part in consistently standing up for what is good and right.

Following Christ

Christ provided very little instruction for armed conflict compared to the founders of some other religions; this in itself speaks volumes of his intent for his followers to be characterized by peacefulness. His advice for dealing with our enemies was to love them, pray for them, bless them. I am only aware of one occasion on which Christ ordered his followers to go armed.

The night in which Christ was betrayed ...
"But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don't have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one." ...
The disciples said, "See, Lord, here are two sowrds."
"That is enough," he replied. ...
"He (Judas) approached Jesus to kiss him, but Jesus asked him, "Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?"
When Jesus' followers saw what was going to happen, they said, "Lord, should we strike with our swords?" And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear.
But Jesus answered, "No more of this!" And he touched the man's ear and healed him. (From Luke's account of the night Jesus was betrayed.)
Matthew's account also records Jesus saying here, "Put your sword back into its place. For all who draw the sword will die by the sword." The fourth gospel's account records the saying to put the sword back into its sheath and also records the names: the swordsman was none other than the apostle Peter; the high priest's servant's name (the man who was injured) was Malchus.

Why would Jesus tell the disciples to make sure they had swords, but then rebuke them for the use to which the swords were put? Were the swords simply a deterrent? Was the timing wrong, since this was not some random lynching and Christ had accepted "the cup his father gave him"? Was the complaint against attacking a slave (likely unarmed), or was it against any bloodshed at all? It's unlikely that Jesus meant only to block with the sword; a shield would be more fitting if that were the case. But it's clear that Jesus was not having his disciples shed blood for his sake. Was it for their own sakes, to make sure they weren't arrested and killed at that time? The fourth gospel hints that the disciples were in danger, recording that Jesus asked those arresting him that they should let his disciples go free, that he was the one they were looking for (John 18:8-9). While Jesus did tell his disciples to bring swords, even sell their property to buy one if needed, Jesus' comments about drawing the sword (no matter how noble the cause) were not very encouraging: Those who draw the sword will die by it. He does not exactly condemn those who die in battle, but it does seem that battle is not the best way to spend your life (or death, as the case may be). He also gives no indication that he encourages or even accepts battle on his behalf as service to him. Nice touch on healing the servant's ear: reversing the bloodshed that an over-zealous follower did for his sake, showing his power and showing his disapproval of the attack, teaching his disciples, and at the same time showing love for his enemies. He did all this fully knowing that his enemies intended to kill him. (According to the Talmud, they had not exactly made a secret of that fact that they intended to kill him, but had been publicly announcing their intent to bring capital charges against him for forty days.)

For all the talk about violence, and that sometimes it may be justified, or (in defending the lives of those we love) can even be an obligation, we cannot forget that it is a thing of a fallen world, likely to consume those who use it even with good intentions. While Christ encouraged his disciples to be armed that night when going into a dangerous situation, we cannot forget that Christ did not accept violence on his behalf. The "sword" we are allowed to take up on his behalf is the message of what he has said and done. That is far likelier to change our enemies than any military action. When we gauge our actions for right and wrong, we gauge them against Christ's words. Imagine if we kept fast to them as we know we should; imagine if our enemies also knew them and tried to keep to them.
Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you.


Arwen said...

"When I hear "Just War", it strikes me almost the same way as when people say "brutally honest". We've gotten used to those phrases; maybe too used to them. Sure, it's possible for honesty to be brutal, but it's often just brutality trying to use honesty as a pretext. I wouldn't want to discuss "brutal honesty" without discussing "gracious honesty"."

Wow... this was powerful truth for me... I have always used "brutally honest" as a tag description of myself... believing perhaps that honesty is truly valuable in whatever form it comes. I would speak the truth in all circumstances... It never occured to me that there was an alternative to how I described that. I have struggled with the bible's "speak the truth in love", not understanding how that translated into reality... thank you for challenging the language that I used to describe myself, and inspiring a deeper understanding of grace.

D. P. said...

This is without question the most insightful and provocative post I've read this week—maybe this month! Thank you for such a reasoned reflection on issues that I'm sure are on everyone's mind on the approaching anniversary of 9/11.

codepoke said...

I wondered where you were going when you started in that UT tower, but it was to a good place.


Weekend Fisher said...

Thanks for the kind comments.

I'd originally started with a different test case than the U.T. sniper, but reconsidered after I re-read a write-up on the 40th anniversary in the August Texas Monthly. It came with pictures. The picture that haunts me the most is the picture of Ramiro Martinez as he left the tower. His face is full of the shock and horror of what he had just done. And the way the picture was cropped, you couldn't exactly see who it was holding him up by his right arm and left arm as they walked him out of the tower, but I expect it was the other cop and the civilian who got to the top of the tower with him. Unforgettable.

DugALug said...


Wow, this is a lot a great stuff. I wanted to add another, wrinkle to the Iraq war.

Many people have looked at its view in relation to terror and our position of protecting our soil. When we were entering Iraq, I was in Israel, working on of all things, an amusement park ride.

It occured to me that we Sadam wasn't threatening us, he was threatening our ally. Durring the Persian-Gulf war. Iraq launched hundreds of scudds into Israel. If they were willing to do that in a losing effort, who is to say what they would do with what we believed to be a significantly more dangerous arsenal?

I believe we 'touched' Iraq before they 'touched' our friend.

On a spiritual note, I believe that many Christians during WWII, missed the connectetion between judaism and Christianity. When the jews were assaulted, we as Christians were also acosted.

Sorry, I'm rambling.

God Bless

Weekend Fisher said...

That's an interesting angle about the Nazi attack on the Jews. "Divide and conquer" combined with "attack the ally" ...

SingingOwl said...

I just got around to reading this. Thank you for taking the time and thought to write it. I, too, started thinking of WWII--and I was also surprised to realize that the UT incident was--40 years--ago!

Powerful post.

Oloryn said...

Regarding being "brutally honest" vs "speaking the truth in love", sometimes the latter requires the former, and sometimes not. I regard Jesus' rebuke of the scribes and Pharisees as fitting the 'the latter requires the former' situation. These were people normally regarded as 'upstanding citizens', and may have needed the shock of being regarded as something far less to get them to the point where they recognized their own spiritual need.

The problem is that our discernment of when that's needed, and when it's not is nowhere near that of Jesus, and unless we're walking in real dependence on hearing Him in the matter, we're likely to get it wrong.

Weekend Fisher said...

Oh definitely. Then if we're annoyed enough, we're likely to not even mind if we get it wrong. I'm not saying that's right, I'm saying it's a natural temptation.