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OP-ED: Governments Kill

WASHINGTON, Aug 24 2011 (IPS) - We make a bargain with our governments. We pay taxes and expect a set of government services in return. And in return for a guarantee of some measure of security, we grant the government a monopoly on legitimate violence.

In theory, then, we forswear mob rule and paramilitary organisations, we occasionally accept the death penalty as an appropriate punishment, we delegate the responsibility to declare and prosecute war to our legislative and executive branches, and we put guns into the hands of the army and the police.

Governments, in other words, kill on our behalf.

This arrangement is a form of social contract, which means that governments are basically contract killers. Some states, like Nazi Germany, use the tremendous power of arms and bureaucracy to transform their territories into slaughterhouses.

Regimes that are merely authoritarian can be equally brutal but display a greater selectivity in their tyranny. In our more decorous democracies, meanwhile, we perfume our conversations with words like “justice” and “national security” to mask the odour of death.

Americans have never been entirely comfortable with this bargain. We have a long tradition of taking the law into our own hands, beginning with our own hallowed revolution. During the Reconstruction period, lynch mobs were a continuation of the Civil War by other means.


More recently, a variety of paramilitary organisations have flourished, from the racist Posse Comitatus chapters that sprang up in the late 1960s to more recent anti-immigrant militias like the Minutemen. Even suburban soccer moms have zealously defended their “right” to bear arms.

On the other side of the spectrum, meanwhile, a broad-based coalition has challenged the government’s “right” to kill citizens through the death penalty. And an equally diverse movement has protested the government’s waging of wars overseas.

It would perhaps be naïve to expect that a government, invested with the exclusive legal power to kill people, would use that power only within the borders of the country that it administrates.

At some point in the distant future, a world government might assume the privilege of the monopoly on legitimate violence and discipline individual countries for their violent outbursts – in the same way that individual governments currently sanction their citizens if they fire off submachine guns in malls.

For the time being, however, we live in a semi-regulated environment in which governments use violence to secure their borders and, occasionally, territories that lie beyond.

States committing acts of violence were much in the news this week, particularly in the Middle East.

Turkish forces have been bombing targets in northern Iraq for a week after a series of attacks by Kurdish rebels in southeastern Turkey.

Israeli aircraft launched raids in Gaza after coordinated attacks along the Israeli-Egypt border left eight Israelis dead. The Syrian government continues to crack down on protesters, with a death toll passing 2,200 after several months of resistance. And NATO forces bombed selected targets around Tripoli as rebel forces streamed into the Libyan capital for a final assault on Muammar Gaddafi’s stronghold.

Quick test: which of these uses of violence are legitimate?

Some people treat the issue as they would a sports game, always rooting for the home team no matter how dirty they might play. If you support Israel, then Israeli actions are by definition right. Pacifists also have a simple answer: there are no legitimate uses of state violence. But states are unlikely to adopt pacifism unless forced to (as the United States forced Japan after World War II).

Aside from the partisan and the pacifist arguments, those who support the legitimate use of state violence will claim self-defence or promise the prevention of a greater violence like genocide. But these, too, are tricky justifications.

Turkey believes that it is acting in self-defence, but so do the Libyan and Syrian governments. And military intervention to stop genocide – the stated purpose of NATO’s action against Libya – can have mixed motives, and it is not easy to define genocide before the fact.

One popular way of determining the legitimacy of these exercises of violence is to invoke democracy. Democratic governments, as opposed to authoritarian regimes, legitimately use violence because there has been an opportunity for citizens to freely form a social contract with the government.

Turkey and Israel are democratic countries, and thus their use of force is legitimate. Ditto with NATO’s attack on Libyan targets.

Democratic countries use violence in a self-limited way. As political philosopher John Keane writes in ‘Violence and Democracy’, “Ideally conceived, democracies understand themselves as systems of lawful power-sharing, whose actors are attuned to the dangers of violence – and to the mutual benefits of non-violence.” As such, Keane argues, democracies progressively “democratise violence” by subjecting it to rules, procedures, consent.

When democracies use violence overseas, they only do so against undemocratic forces such as tyrants or terrorist groups. Democracies, according to one of the few postulates of international relations, don’t go to war with one another.

This is a common argument, and it surely makes democracies feel more comfortable about their use of violence. The problem with the argument is that it doesn’t square well with the historical record. After all, democratic states have committed gross acts of violence, whether against members of society not deemed full citizens (slaves, suspected terrorists) or against non-combatants that have inadvertently found themselves in a battleground (Hiroshima, Gaza, Afghanistan).

Keane establishes an escape clause for his argument by suggesting that “mature democracies” do not commit such violations. Certainly when it comes to the death penalty, democracies have matured in their practice (each year since 1990, three countries on average have abolished the death penalty). But what about when it comes to the use of force overseas – say, the U.S. invasion of Iraq? Did the United States simply suffer a fit of immaturity?

Rather than view these acts as some unfortunate stage in the evolution of democracy, I prefer to think that democracy consistently attempts to obscure its relationship to violence.

Wars are not put to a vote. Indeed, here in the United States, Congress has been largely shunted to the side when it comes to war, and it generally weighs in only after the fact. The militarism of the Bush administration required a concentration of power in the executive branch and a flouting of international law (such as the Geneva Conventions).

The Obama administration, with its policies on drones and extrajudicial killing, has not relinquished much of that executive power or shown much greater sensitivity to international law.

More troubling, perhaps, is the fact that leaders don’t necessarily hijack the political process in order to use violence. Swayed by fear and nationalism, a democratic society can agree, albeit with significant minority dissent, to a rollback of democracy (such as the USA PATRIOT Act) or a full-scale military invasion (into Afghanistan, for instance).

Violence is not antithetical to democracy, particularly if the democracy aspires to maintain its status as sole global superpower. However, democratic governments do develop different strategies to rationalise the use of violence – at a bureaucratic level (a shift in checks and balances, for instance), with a domestic audience (manipulation of an otherwise free press), and to the international community (in a presumed defence of human rights).

Robert Cover, in a famous essay on law and violence, once wrote that judges sit “atop a pyramid of violence.” The same can be said of presidents who, in the foreign policy sphere, sit on top of a different but equally immense ziggurat.

*John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org) at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC.

 
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