Some years ago, I was struck by this quote from Elbert Hubbard, an American writer in the late 19th & early 20th centuries who died when the Lusitania went down:
“So long as governments set the example of killing their enemies, private individuals will occasionally kill theirs.”Political scientists sometimes define government as the thing that holds "a monopoly on the legitimate use of force", but that's never true for two reasons. First, very few governments prohibit force in direct self-defense. And second, "legitimate" is a circular claim: if a government does it, it's legitimate, because "legitimate" and "legal" are generally synonyms. And who stops the government from illegitimate actions? When has a government ever admitted to illegitimacy?
Every government defines its wars as legitimate, regardless of how they are entered into (when is the last time the US Congress declared war per the Constitution?), how they are conducted (Abu Ghraib? Afghanistan? My Lai is apparently not so far behind as we would like), or how much support they do or don't have from the public. Governments have always used force in patently illegitimate ways - think of the internment camps for Japanese-Americans in World War II. This isn't going to change.
And because governments set this example, others will follow it. The latest headline-grabbing case is Anders Breivik in Norway. His claim is that he was acting as a patriot, to protect the "legitimate" claims of the "Norwegian nation" against a government that had sold his nation out. He insists that he was justified, and that he would do it again if given the chance.
Very appropriately, we want to put both his argument and his actions beyond the pale. The moral high ground, it seems, is easily found here. But it's harder to claim that ground when we condemn the killing of civilians in some contexts and condone it in others. Our willingness to erode a host of protections - one recent example being a legal opinion within the White House that it would be OK to kill a US citizen abroad without trial - in the name of "security" just blurs the line further. As Gandhi reminded us,
The more different justifications we come up with for killing, the more individuals and governments will find ways to twist those justifications to perverted ends. I do not believe we are likely to get a societal consensus on who we think should be killed and why - but at the very least, I wish more people would seriously confront the question.
The confusion, the blurring of lines, the stretched justifications for me cry out for a simpler answer. I do see legitimacy in using violence to fend off an attack, provided you are actually being attacked. Pre-emptive violence against those who might attack later, or retributive violence against those who did something bad before, or violence against metaphorical attacks against "honor" or "purity" - all of these open a door to very dark places time and again. Instead of contributing to the problem, let's draw a line where we can all see it and agree upon it - and let's hold ourselves and our representatives to that line. If we want to lay claim to being a civilized and peaceful people, the way we want to understand those words, it's the least we can do.