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Excerpt from Endgame

What Violence Begets (p. 701)

From chapter "Pacifism, Part II"

I’ve heard too many pacifists say that violence only begets violence. This is manifestly not true. Violence can beget many things. Violence can beget submission, as when a master beats a slave (some slaves will eventually fight back, in which case this violence will beget more violence; but some slaves will submit for the rest of their lives, as we see; and some will even create a religion or spirituality that attempts to make a virtue of their submission, as we also see; some will write and others repeat that the most disadvantageous peace is better than the most just war; some will speak of the need to love their oppressors; and some will say that the meek shall inherit what’s left of the earth). Violence can beget material wealth, as when a robber or a capitalist steals from someone. Violence can beget violence, as when someone attacks someone who fights back. Violence can beget a cessation of violence, as when someone fights off or kills an assailant (it’s utterly nonsensical as well as insulting to say that a woman who kills a rapist is begetting more violence).

Back to Gandhi: “We must be the change we wish to see.” This ultimately meaningless statement manifests the magical thinking and narcissism we’ve come to expect from dogmatic pacifists. I can change myself all I want, and if dams still stand, salmon still die. If global warming proceeds apace, birds still starve. If factory trawlers still run, oceans still suffer. If factory farms still pollute, dead zones still grow. If vivisection labs still remain, animals are still tortured.

I have worked very hard to become emotionally healthy, to heal from this culture, my childhood, and my schooling. I’m a genuinely nice guy. But I don’t do that emotional work to try to help salmon. I do it to make life better for myself and those around me. My emotional health doesn’t help salmon one bit, except insofar as that health leads me to dismantle that which is killing them. This is not cognitively challenging at all.

Next: If you use violence against exploiters, you become like they are. This cliché is, once again, absurd, with no relation to the real world. It is based on the flawed notion that all violence is the same.It is obscene to suggest that a woman who kills a man attempting to rape her becomes like a rapist. It is obscene to suggest that by fighting back Tecumseh became like those who were stealing his people’s land. It is obscene to suggest that the Jews at who fought back against their exterminators at Auschwitz/Birkenau, Treblinka, and Sobibór became like the Nazis. It is obscene to suggest that a tiger who kills a human at a zoo becomes like one of her captors.

Related to that is the notion that committing an act of violence destroys your soul. A couple of years ago I shared a stage with another dogmatic pacifist. He said, “To harm another human being irretrievably damages your very core.”

I didn’t think Tecumseh would have agreed. I asked, “How do you know?”

He shook his head. “I don’t know what you’re asking.”

“How do you know that violence irretrievably damages your very core?”

He looked at me as though I had just asked him how he knows that gravity exists.

I asked, “Have you ever killed anyone?”

“Of course not.”

“So you don’t know this by direct experience. Have any of your friends ever killed anyone?”

Disgust crossed his face. “Of course not.”

“Have you ever even spoken with anyone who has killed someone?”


“So your statement is an article of faith, unsupported, based not on direct experience or conversations with anyone who would know.”

He said, “It’s self-evident.”

Nice rhetorical trick, I thought. I said, “I have friends at the prison who’ve killed people, and I’m acquaintances with many others who’ve done the same. Because I’ve heard so many pacifists make this claim before, I asked these men if killing really changed them.”

He didn’t look at me. He certainly didn’t ask about their answers.

I told him anyway. “The answers are unpredictable, and as varied as the people themselves. A few were devastated, just as you suggest. Not many, but a few. A bunch said it didn’t fundamentally change anything. They were still the exact same people they were before. One said he’d been stunned by how easy it is, physically, to take someone’s life, and that made him realize how easily he, too, could be killed. The act of killing made him feel very frightened, he said. Another said it made him feel incredibly powerful, and it felt really, really good. Another said the first time was hard, but after that it quickly became easy.”

The pacifist looked like he was going to throw up.

I thought, This is just reality, man. Reality is a lot more complex than any dogma could ever be. That’s one of the problems with abstract principles: they’re always smaller and simpler than life, and the only way to make life fit your abstractions is to cut off great parts of it. I said, “A few told me their answers depended entirely on who they were killing: they regretted some of their murders, but wouldn’t take back others even if it meant they could get out of prison. One man, for example, overheard a rapist bragging how he’d made his victim tell him she liked it, and made her beg for more so he wouldn’t kill her. The man I spoke with invited the rapist into his cell for a friendly game of chess, and strangled him to death because of what he did to that woman. That murder had felt right at the time, he said, and he knew it would feel right for the next fifteen years till he got out. And one man told me that the thing he was most proud of in his entire life was that he killed three people.”

The pacifist shook his head. “That’s really sick,” he said.

“Let me tell you the story,” I responded. “He was a migrant farm worker, from a large Mexican family. He was fifteen. One day he didn’t go to the fields but to town. That day three men killed his father. Soon there was a family meeting, and he violated family tradition by interrupting his elders. He insisted that because he was the youngest, the only one without a family relying on him, that he be the one to avenge their father. For the next few years he worked hard to establish a business that would support his mother later on, and when the time came he killed the three men who had killed his father. The next day he went to the police station and turned himself in. He’s now serving life.”

“He should have let the law handle it.”

“I cannot blame him for his actions. They were human.” I paused a moment, then said, “And I have known others who killed because they were human. I have known women who killed their abusers. They had no regrets. Not one. Not ever.”

“You cannot sway me,” he said. “They should let the law handle it.”

“The law,” I replied. “The law. Let me tell you another story. A woman killed her mother’s boyfriend, who had battered her mother for years and finally murdered her mother. And—surprise of all surprises—the district attorney refused to charge him with murder. I suppose this was because women aren’t people whose lives actually count. So the woman did a sit-in at the DA’s office. For three days, she just kept saying over and over ‘You’re going to call it murder.’ The DA finally had her arrested for trespassing. Having gotten no satisfaction from the system, she bought a gun, tracked the boyfriend down and shot him dead. Because of her sit-in stunt, the lawyers were able to argue temporary insanity. She served two years in prison and didn’t regret a single day of it.”

The pacifists who say that fighting back against those who are exploiting you or those you love destroys your soul have it all backwards. It is just as wrong and just as harmful to not fight back when one should as it is to fight when one should not. In fact in some cases it may be far more harmful. The Indians who spoke of fighting, killing, and dying—and who fought, killed, and died—to protect not only their land but their dignity from theft by the civilized understood this. So did Zapata. So did the Jews who rose up against the Nazis. Of those who rose up against their exterminators at Auschwitz/Birkenau, and who were able to kill seventy SS, destroy one crematoria, and severely damage another, concentration camp survivor Bruno Bettelheimwrote that “they did only what we would expect all human beings to do: to use their death, if they could not save their lives, to weaken or hinder the enemy as much as possible; to use even their doomed selves for making extermination harder, or maybe impossible, not a smooth running process. . . . If they could do it, so could others. Why didn’t they? Why did they throw their lives away instead of making things hard for the enemy? Why did they make a present of their very being to the SS instead of to their families, their friends, even to fellow prisoners; this is the haunting question.”Bettelheim also wrote, this specifically of Anne Frank’s family, “There is little doubt that the Franks, who were able to provide themselves with so much, could have provided themselves with a gun or two had they wished. They could have shot down one or two of the SS men who came for them. There was no surplus of SS men. The loss of an SS with every Jew arrested would have noticeably hindered the functioning of the police state.”Bettelheim—and he is joined by many in this—states explicitly that such actions could most likely have slowed the extermination process. Ward Churchill responds, “It should be noted that similar revolts in Sobibór and Treblinka in 1943 were even more effective than the one at Auschwitz/Birkenau a few months later; Sobibór had to be closed altogether, a reality that amplifies and reinforces Bettelheim’s rather obvious point.”

Bettelheim comments, in words he could have written about us as we watch our TVs and wait for the end of the world, “The persecution of the Jews was aggravated, slow step by slow step, when no violent fighting back occurred. It may have been Jewish acceptance, without retaliatory fight, of ever harsher discrimination and degradation that first gave the SS the idea that they could be gotten to the point where they would walk into the gas chambers on their own. Most Jews who did not believe in business-as-usual survived the Second World War. As the Germans approached, they left everything behind and fled to Russia, much as many of them distrusted the Soviet system. . . . Those who stayed on to continue business-as-usual moved toward their own destruction and perished. Thus in the deepest sense the walk to the gas chamber was only the last consequence of a philosophy of business-as-usual.”

Bettelheim also writes, in words that are just as applicable, “Rebellion could only have saved either the life they were going to lose anyway, or the lives of others.”And, “Inertia it was that led millions of Jews into the ghettos the SS had created for them. It was inertia that made hundreds of thousands of Jews sit home, waiting for their executioners.”

Ward Churchill sums up Bettelheim’s description of this inertia, which Bettelheim “considers the basis for Jewish passivity in the face of genocide, as being grounded in a profound desire for ‘business as usual,’ the following of rules, the need to not accept reality or to act upon it. Manifested in the irrational belief that in remaining ‘reasonable and responsible,’ unobtrusively resisting by continuing ‘normal’ day-to-day activities proscribed by the Nazis through the Nuremberg Laws and other infamous legislation, and ‘not alienating anyone,’ this attitude implied that a more-or-less humane Jewish policy might be morally imposed upon the Nazi state by Jewish pacifism itself.”

Bettelheim observes that “we all wish to subscribe to this business-as-usual philosophy, and forget that it hastens our own destruction,” and that we have a “wish to forget the gas chambers and to glorify the attitude of going on with business as usual, even in a holocaust.”

But remember, the Jews who participated in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, even those who went on what they thought were suicide missions, had a higher rate of survival than those who did not fight back. Never forget that.

Instead of saying, “If we fight back, we run the risk of becoming like they are. If we fight back, we run the risk of destroying our souls,” we must say, “If we do not fight, we run the risk of not just acting like but becoming slaves. If we do not fight back, we run the risk of destroying our souls and our dignity. If we do not fight back, we run the risk of allowing those who are exterminating the world to move ever faster.”