Saturday, June 18, 2011

Using weapons

Some years ago, Daniel Ellsberg developed a list of US presidents who have used nuclear weapons. He said, every one of them since the weapons were invented. Of course, he anticipated the counterclaim that only one US president has used the Bomb, Harry Truman, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to end World War II. Ellsberg said, no, and asked rhetorically if a robber with a gun to your head who takes your wallet and never pulls the trigger, if that robber has used a gun? Then he listed all the presidents and all the incidents in which that president used nukes to get his way in geopolitical struggles.

It is that sort of understanding we need to bring to the false dichotomy between direct violence and structural violence, a distinction made helpfully by Johan Galtung even more years ago. If institutions are set up to unfairly exploit or oppress some--an ethnic group, women, a religious group, queers, etc.--those institutions cannot effect those oppressive policies without a loaded gun at the end of the laws and policies. Fair laws can be enforced nonviolently, given proper training and preparation in a democracy. Unfair laws and policies require violence or the threat of violence, thus blurring the difference, ultimately, between direct and structural violence.

It remains crucial to keep those distinctions, however, since those who have a superficial interest and knowledge of peace and justice--though they may be passionate about it and eager to help--they need to be brought to think about Galtung's category of structural violence because it helps them overcome Galtung's third problem of violence, cultural violence, which is to say, a belief system that allows for the use of violence.

Thus we find Glenn D. Paige (2002, p. 21), for example, writing about the possibilities of a nonkilling Korea and he posits that, in addition to all the obvious requirements about laws and weapons and commitments:

  • No ideological doctrines — political, religious, military, economic, legal, customary, or academic — that provide permissions for Koreans to kill Koreans, for foreigners to kill Koreans, and for Koreans to kill foreigners; and
  • No conditions of Korean society — political, economic, social, and cultural — or relationships between Koreans and foreigners that can only be maintained or changed by threat or use of killing force.

People simply will not abide conditions that feel unjust. At some point, they refuse cooperation. That point is reached sooner if there is no existential threat--structural violence with its ultima ratio regum, its last resort of the elites who benefit from the inequality--but even with mortal threat, there are limits to oppression, as we see from civil wars and nonviolent uprisings alike. It is key to hear the old long gone Pope Paul VI on back in 1972, "If you want peace, work for justice."


Paige, G. D. (2002). A Nonkilling Korea: From Cold-War Confrontation to Peaceful Coexistence. Social Alternatives, 21(2), 21-28. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

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