Monday, January 4, 2016

The Oregon Standoff and Selective Nonviolence

I’m taken aback by how quick many of us are to label people as terrorists and advocate the use of violence against them – especially when those calls come from the parts of the political spectrum that would otherwise consider themselves nonviolent and antiwar.

All over my Facebook feed today I’m seeing people talk about how the situation in Oregon would be different if the ranchers and militiamen had been Muslims, or a black kid with a toy gun. And I don’t disagree at all. There’s an obvious double standard. But the implication behind those statements seems to be that we should be treating the militiamen the same way – by overreacting with state-sanctioned violence, just as if they were Muslims or a black kid with a toy gun.

Does anyone else see the problem here? The militiamen claim they don't want violence (you can choose to believe them or not), and the FBI says it’s trying to come up with a peaceful ending to the incident. Should we not be approving of that? Shouldn’t this be what we actually want? Isn’t that better than seeing one side or the other rushing in with all guns blazing? I’d rather see cops trying to de-escalate situations instead of shooting first and asking questions later. I’d rather see our country adopt a foreign policy that values diplomacy over bombs and stops meddling in other nations’ affairs for its own benefit. Likewise, I’d rather see the two sides in Oregon working toward a peaceful solution, rather than turning it into another Waco or Ruby Ridge.

Moreover, it bears pointing out that while the terrorists we’re fighting overseas wouldn’t think twice about targeting civilians, the group in Oregon is directing its anger at a government that it feels has overreached its bounds. Apples and oranges. Calling them “YallQaeda” and what not is good for a laugh, but it blurs the lines between two groups of people with two completely different sets of motivations. Lest we forget, our nation was founded by people with grievances against their government, and that our own Declaration of Independence defends the right of the people to alter or abolish governments that they believe have become abusive of their rights. Would we call Thomas Jefferson and George Washington terrorists for rebelling against Britain? What about Russell Means and the American Indian Movement when they staged a standoff at Wounded Knee, or when they occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in D.C., both actions in protest of the government’s treatment of the Indians? There’s a big difference between resisting your government and the wanton slaughter of innocent people. It’s the difference between Henry David Thoreau and Tim McVeigh.

I also think we risk dehumanizing people and belittling what to them are important concerns, by abstracting them into words that distance them from ourselves as an “other.” This is something that’s plaguing our national discourse in general, not just in this particular incident. We look all too often as people we don’t like as enemies to be annihilated, rather than as human beings with their own concerns and grievances. Terrorists don’t become terrorists just because they enjoy killing people; most of the time they’ve been radicalized by more powerful people who terrorized them first, and seeing no other recourse, they lash out at their perceived enemies in a violent, impotent rage. That’s why simply killing more of them doesn’t get to the root of the problem and therefore won’t change anything. In the case of these ranchers in Oregon, they also feel they have legitimate grievances against their government (again, you can choose to agree or not), and to simply want to unleash the power of the state on them serves no interest, other than the short-term desire to squelch the complaints of an “other” whose views we don’t like.

An article in The Guardian today put it well: “The sad truth is that extremists – both at home and abroad – are often disaffected, frightened, and angry people desperately searching for purpose, validation, and meaning in a world they feel has left them behind. It’s a sickness that can infect almost anyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, or gender.” We would do well to remember that, and try to address the root causes of why they feel so disaffected, before we urge someone to pull a trigger.

As an anarchist, I feel no compulsion to take the state’s side in this or any other incident. But as a pacifist, I want to see a peaceful solution, to this and all conflicts. I realize that not all share my views, but I would hope that all of us would prefer to see peaceful solutions to our differences, rather than committing violence that only breeds ever more violence.  

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