Sunday, 17 July 2016

When to Kill A Dog Warden: The Rhetoric and Reasoning of Violence

I’m not a John Lennon fan.

I’m not even particularly a fan of the Beatles.

Don’t get me wrong; I recognise the importance of the Beatles in terms of popular culture and musical innovation. But they really didn’t impact my consciousness in a big way. I once described it to an irate Beatles fan- who seemed to think that I was somehow slighting the Fab Four- thus: there’s never been a time in my life where I needed to listen to the Beatles, a time when I’ve walked into the house, gone straight to the stereo, and put the Beatles on. In contrast, there have been hundreds of times I’ve done that with the Clash, Minor Threat, Bob Marley, Public Enemy, and Velvet Underground…

That said, the one Beatles song that I’ve always liked- thematically and musically- every time I hear it is ‘Revolution’.  Musically, it’s the one time that I thought the Beatles really showed some backbone; it’s recorded so ‘hot’ that it sounds loud no matter where you put your volume knob. Thematically, it was such an interesting counterpoint to much of the ‘revolutionary’ music of the time; it wasn’t a call for revolution, but a probing and questioning of those who did.

You say you want a revolution
Well, you know, we all want to change the world…

Lennon was right; in the socio-political maelstrom of the mid- to late-60s, everybody wanted change; there was a real global sense that, for many, the status quo could not hold. The Czechs in the streets of Prague, Irish Catholics in Northern Ireland, students in Mexico City, blacks in Detroit, Newark NJ, and Soweto, and a thousand other critical issues were screaming to be heard, demanding  something new, something better.

But beyond the all-encompassing- but rather amorphous term ‘revolution’- what, John wanted to know, beyond the rhetoric, were we all talking about specifically? He seems to suspect that it's all a bit hazy:

You say you got a real solution
Well, you know, we'd all love to see the plan…

So what was Lennon’s plan? He doesn’t say; he never lays out what he specifically supports. But what I find fascinating, though, is that he’s very specific about what he doesn’t support:

When you talk about destruction
Don't you know that you can count me out…

If you want money for people with minds that hate
All I can tell is, brother, you’ll have to wait…

If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao
You ain't going to make it with anyone anyhow…

I find it interesting that he’s doesn’t condemn this or that action, or this or that movement, but the rhetoric one step removed from it all; not those who destroy, but those who ‘talk’ about it; those who ‘want money’ for it, those ‘carrying pictures’ of ruthless dictators from a safe distance;

Those for whom violence- in the abstract, in theory- remains on the table.

Lennon seems to be poking and prodding the fashionable rebels, the political dilettantes; those thoughtlessly throwing around slogans, ideas, and images that they don’t fully understand.

The rhetoric and imagery of violence and armed struggle, and concepts like ‘… by any means necessary’ are incredibly alluring; they sound strong; they cut through theory and discussion and go straight to rock-solid commitment and action.  Let’s be blunt; they’re incredibly sexy, and can make dialogue and discussion look very homely indeed.

I got thinking about this after recently coming across a group called ‘Black Liberation Project’. They have a Facebook presence so you’re welcome to check them out for yourself.

There are a lot of positive things about the group, and I want to make clear that this piece isn’t intended as a condemnation of them or a marginalization of their actions and struggles.

But I want to use one of their statements that they posted to a Facebook group I’m a part of to think about a point.

My academic background and work experience is in post-conflict social reconciliation, so I’ve read a lot of manifestos like this one. Looking at this one broadly and philosophically, BLP seem to be trying to keep their options open, to maintain a public persona of activity and commitment. They bluntly state that the movement is not non-violent; they might feel that to declare themselves otherwise runs the risk of their cause not being taken seriously, or ‘White America’ remaining complacent to their concerns. In the struggle for liberation and social justice, they make it clear that they won’t be the ones to take anything off the table.

I’d like to explore the dangers of leaving violence- even in abstract, in theory, or simply in rhetoric- on the table.

The big problem with violence is that, when the cause in which violence becomes a tactic is a good one, a just one, even a noble one, it becomes easier and easier to rationalize. No one wants to ever admit that their use of violence might be destructive and abusive, so we instinctively rationalize our violence, figuring out how it can be put in the best possible light; how it can be categorized as self-defense; how it is proportionate, or a reasonable response to the violence used against us. Who wouldn’t argue that the cause of ‘liberation’, ‘emancipation’, or ‘justice’ is worth almost any price to attain, particularly if those against whom violence is used are trying to thwart that very noble cause?

Once violence is rationalized, it becomes easier for its proponents to dehumanize those against whom it is used. Cops, soldiers, judges, bureaucrats, and government employees are no longer individuals, but ‘part of the system’ or ‘the forces of oppression’. The fact that they very often are part of systemic oppression only makes the situation more complex… 

Once violence can be easily rationalized, and its victims dehumanized, it becomes normalized. People have been brutalized for centuries, BLM argues above; who could expect them not to reciprocate in kind? That’s normal; that’s reasonable.

Once that point is reached, the violence can be described as self-perpetuating; cyclical; ongoing.

And once violence is unleashed- particularly in asymmetric ways- it’s makes it all the harder to draw a line under a conflict and address the issues that led to the conflict in the first place, particularly if those issues involved the use of oppressive violence against a minority group or movement.

I lived and worked for many years in Northern Ireland in the aftermath of the 30-year conflict there.

Every side accorded itself the heroism of a noble cause; every side erected memorials to its fallen who gave their lives, on the one hand, ‘ar Saoirse na hEireann’ (‘for the freedom of Ireland’) or, on the other, in ‘the fight against Irish Republican terrorism.’

One such memorial is in the memory of Joseph MacManus.

On 5 February 1992, 49 year-old Eric Glass, the dog warden for Fermanagh District Council in the west of Northern Ireland, received a call to remove and destroy a Black Labrador who had bitten the niece of a local farmer.  When Glass pulled up to the farm and stopped his van, he saw two IRA guerillas running toward him, one with a handgun, the other with an AK-47 assault rifle. The report was a trap.

Glass was a part-time soldier with the Ulster Defense Regiment, the British Army’s local regiment. He had a sidearm on the passenger seat under a jacket and managed to grab it as the van was being riddled with bullets.

Glass managed to exit the van and return fire, sustaining multiple gunshot wounds, shattering his pelvis. One of the ambushers- Joseph MacManus- was killed.

Glass received a commendation.

MacManus was given a full Republican funeral, attended by thousands, full of soaring rhetoric of heroism and martyrdom, and a memorial in his honour was erected. It's inscription read: 

I Gcuimne
Oglas Soesaim MacManais
Oglaigh na hEireann 
A fuair bas ar Saoirse na hEireann

In proud and loving memory of  
Volunteer Joseph MacManus
Irish Republican Army
Maugheraboy, Sligo
Killed in Action, 5 Feb. 1992, Aged 21 Years

From my experience working, studying, and writing around the dynamics of conflict and violence, I will guarantee you this:

Once you’ve decided your cause is just, that the enemy is so extraordinary that opposing them demands the use of ‘any means necessary’, and if the conflict drags on long enough, you will- eventually- decide to murder a dog warden;

You will- eventually- conclude that a dog warden is part of the machinery of the oppressive state;

You will- eventually- describe the murder of a dog warden as a key battle in the struggle for freedom;

You will- eventually- decry those who question how the death of a dog warden brings the struggle for freedom closer to victory as pie-in-the-sky liberals, enemies of justice and freedom.

So my message to the Black Liberation Project is this: 

I believe that the American people need to fundamentally recognize and deal with the legacies of slavery and systemic racism that were embedded in this country from its earliest foundations;

I believe we need to fundamentally re-think how the US does policing, judging, and incarceration;

I believe we need to resist the status quo;

I believe that our resistance needs to be non-violent, but- and let me make this perfectly clear- I believe that our non-violence needs to be resistance...

I believe we should accept nothing less than true 
freedom, democracy, justice, independence, emancipation, and liberation.

But your statement above? Well, don't you know that you can count me out...

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