Thursday, October 05, 2006

Taking Up Arms

A commenter over at Daylight Atheism, in a conversation I participated in, asked, "When, if ever, is it appropriate to take up arms and resort to violence?”

Okay, it wasn’t a question asked of me, but it is an interesting question.

It is also a dangerous question to answer. In fact, I do not think that there is nearly as much discussion of this topic as there should be because it is a topic about which people are justifiably afraid of giving an honest answer. There is always the risk that his views will be misinterpreted (or, perhaps, correctly interpreted) resulting in all sorts of suffering and abuse.

However, I have given a great deal of thought to this subject, and I'm going to risk giving an answer.

Freedom of Expression

Consistency is important, so I want to present my discussion on taking up arms by starting with another issue where I have already talked about the appropriateness of violence; freedom of expression.

In posts on the "Toledo Riot," and on the riots and violence in response to cartoons of Mohammed that I called “On Cartoons and Violence,” I addressed the issue that the only response to words are counter-words.

The Toledo riots, for example, concerned an instance where people responded to a Nazi rally with violence - much of it directed against the police who were protecting the Nazis. Actually, the police were not 'protecting the Nazis.' They were protecting the right to free speech against those who would do violence against it. The protesters, in this case, may have thought of themselves as attacking the Nazis. However, they were actually attacking this right to free speech, trying to do harm to it.

Protesting the Nazis is legitimate - another proper exercise of the right to free speech. Violence is not appropriate.

In a post titled, “Freedom of Expression,” I further argued that the right to freedom of speech is not a right to be immune from criticism. No right to free speech is violated by saying that somebody is wrong, or even saying that he is maliciously wrong - that he is uttering statements that no good and moral person would utter. The right to freedom of expression means only a right to freedom from violent response to mere words.

Clear and Present Danger

There is an exception. The right to freedom of expression comes with an exception when somebody creates a 'clear and present danger' to others. The person speaking to an angry mob, telling them that they should march to your house and lynch you, would justify a violent response in self-defense.

Also, consider the organized crime boss telling a subordinate to kill somebody. It would be absurd to allow the crime boss to assert that the right to freedom of expression allows him to express the opinion that this target should be killed. The right to freedom of expression does not protect a person who instructs somebody to kill. It also does not protect the Islamic teacher who instructs his students to go out and kill all of the Americans (or infidels, for that matter).

One story in the press recently involves a French high-school philosophy professor who has gone into hiding with his family. He expressed an opinion about Muslims being violent. As if to prove this teacher's point, the Muslim community responded with death threats, including a site that posted maps of where he works and lives, pictures of the teacher and his family, with instructions to kill.

These are evil people who would force a family such as this into hiding for expressing an opinion. If the French government was to issue warrants for the arrest of those responsible for this web site, I would argue in its defense. Muslims are clearly within their right to protest that this teacher's claims were inaccurate, that anybody who would write such an opinion is evil, and that we should question the credentials of a teacher who is prejudiced against a certain number of his students. However, all threats of violence are inappropriate.

Votes and Laws

In the spirit of the universal nature of moral principles, I would argue that these same moral considerations relevant to freedom of expression are relevant to political freedom. The only legitimate responses to expressions of opinion in a free society are counter-words and private actions. Similarly, the only legitimate response to a political campaign is a counter-campaign aiming to collect a larger number of votes.

The only time that it would be legitimate to respond to a political campaign with violence is if the government does not allow citizens to vote, the government allows citizens to vote but still picks the winners and losers, or the government allows people to pick the winners through exercising a right to vote but not allow for free debate (thus not allowing the people to cast informed votes on an issue.

Even here, as Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, "Governments should not be changed for light and transient causes." No society is perfect. As such, it cannot be the case that any transgression, however mild. The transgression must be significant, and all other forms of response have been blocked.


There are two major situations in American history where our government has taken positions that would have justified people in taking up arms against it.

The first situation existed with the institution slavery. If there had ever been a slave revolt in America, where African Americans and Abolitionists took up arms against the government of the United States, that would have been an instance of permissibly taking up arms. African Americans had no obligation to remain slaves for the sake of preserving the peace.

The second situation, the violent response that Native Americans had to American expansion and encroachment into their territories, was also a legitimate use of arms against the government.

A third situation gives us a strong suggestion as to how hard it is to meet the standard of "option of last resort" in a society that allows for free speech. The fact that women were not permitted to vote was another situation in which our political system was politically unjust. Insofar as it forced a group of people to be subject to laws that they had no voice in making, and that that were substantially arranged against their interests, an armed rebellion might have been justifiable. However, these women showed that they were able to obtain their freedom without firing a shot - by taking action that aimed to impress upon the male population that their cause was just.

Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King in America also showed the power of fighting unjust laws in a basically free country without resorting to violence. The success of their efforts showed that they did not live in a situation where armed rebellion was the only option that remained.

Today's America

In America today, even those who express the view that they are upset with the current anti-Constitutional legislation have hardly come close to proving that they have reached the option of last resort.

We have scarcely attempted to communicate our position to others through words – preferring to talk mostly to each other as if our position is an embarrassment.

As the Women's Rights campaign, Martin Luther King, and Gandhi have shown us, the option of first resort is to communicate forcefully to the moderates in this country that the nation is heading in the wrong direction - that this country's position as a model of morality and justice are being diminished, if not utterly destroyed, by the current administration.

And we have an election coming up.

If we fail in this, then we will not have gained any right to take up arms. There is no possible way to justify shooting people when we have not yet made a serious attempt to even talk to them yet.

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