From 1900 to the Boston Marathon: Reflections on Killing

mourningAmerican soldiers dying in Afghanistan, little children being murdered in Newtown, Connecticut, innocent bystanders being killed and wounded at the Boston Marathon, headlines like “Five Dead in Apartment Shooting Near Seattle—how sick we are of it all.

Yet, this is only a small percentage of the global killing that goes on every day, and does not include “structural violence,” which is the physical and psychological damage that results from unjust economic, social, and political systems and leads to the deaths of many of the world’s poorest people because of insufficient food, proper sanitation, and health care.

As Brian Williams said on April 22’s NBC Nightly News, “While Boston was our awful national tragedy, it would make for a mild day in other countries. That same day in Iraq 37 people were killed in one bombing.” American media coverage makes it almost impossible to ignore the tragic deaths mentioned in places like Newtown and Boston, but to empathize with all the similar sufferings in the rest of the world, and to ask ourselves how the USA contributes to any of it, we have to exert ourselves.

As sick as we are of it all, such killing is nothing new. Take for example 1900. The U.S. murder rate that year was higher than the average for the twenty-first-century years. Tens of thousands of U.S. troops in the Philippines were battling Filipino guerrilla forces resisting the U.S. takeover of their homeland following the Spanish-American War (1898).  From 1899-1902 both sides committed atrocities, and more than 4,000 U.S. troops died while the number of Filipino combatant and non-combatant deaths in this conflict is usually estimated at over 200,000.  U.S. troops also participated in squashing the Boxer Rebellion (1900), an anti-imperialist rampage in China.

A Colombian civil war from 1899-1902, left approximately 100,000 dead. In South Africa the Boer War (1899-1902) raged between Great Britain and the Boers, primarily descendants of Dutch colonists. In northeastern Africa, the Muslim Mohammed bin Abdullah Hassan, whom the British referred to as the Mad Mullah, had begun a jihad (holy war) to unite the Somali people and drive out the British. In the Congo Free State, which was anything but “free,” King Leopold of Belgium ruled as his personal possession a huge territory, and his oppressive policy (state terrorism, one might label it) killed countless Congolese.

Then there were the individual terrorist attacks. In 1900, there was the assassination of Italy’s King Humbert by the anarchist Gaetano Bresci, a U.S. silk-weaver who had returned to his native Italy. In 1901, another anarchist, Leon Czolgosz, inspired by Bresci’s deed, shot and killed U.S. President McKinley. As Barbara Tuchman details in The Proud Tower, between 1894 and 1914 anarchist assassins also killed a French president, two Spanish premiers, and an Austrian empress. And it was not just rulers who were the victims of terror.

In Paris in the early 1890s, as anarchist bombs exploded in places such as a railway-station cafe, a fashionable restaurant, and even in the French Chamber of Deputies, some Parisians feared to gather in public places, and fewer tourists visited the city. During the 1890s anarchist bombs exploded in other European cities like Barcelona, where a bomb at an opera house in 1893 killed and wounded over 70 people. In the Western world, such enemies of the very idea of centralized government were the most feared terrorists (a common term even then) of the time.

Those upset by all the killings of the time responded in various ways. International peace conferences at The Hague, Netherlands in 1899 and 1907 resulted partly from the efforts of individuals like Warsaw financier Jan (Ivan) Bloch (1836-1902) and Baroness Bertha von Suttner (1843-1914). Bloch wrote the six-volume The Future of War. In it he predicted how horrendous future wars could be, partly because of all the recent industrial developments. The baroness, was an Austrian peace activist and writer with international connections. Her most famous anti-war work was her novel Lay Down Your Arms. Both Bloch and the baroness helped persuade Tsar Nicholas II to invite other nations to an arms-limitation conference that became the 1899 Hague conference, and both individuals attended it.

But the most important and influential peace advocate of his time was the famous Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), who by the end of the nineteenth century had become an absolute pacifist. His thinking on non-violence strongly influenced later pacifists such as Mohandas Gandhi, Jane Addams, and Dorothy Day. Although Tolstoy had referred to the baroness’s Lay Down Your Arms as the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the peace movement, he was skeptical toward the 1899 conference, believing it “can be nothing but one of those hypocritical arrangements which aim not at peace, but, on the contrary, at hiding from men the one means of obtaining universal peace.”

Although the two Hague conferences helped lay the groundwork for many later twentieth-century international agreements, including those regarding warfare and international law, Tolstoy’s skepticism was understandable.  Barbara Tuchman’s chapter on the two conferences (“The Steady Drummer”) in her The Proud Tower makes clear the disdain that many of the world’s leaders had for the conferences. She quotes U.S President Theodore Roosevelt, for example, as saying he paid little attention to the 1907 conference because he was “‘utterly disgusted’ with the nonsense chattered by professional peace advocates.” Leaders like Roosevelt and the German Kaiser Wilhelm agreed to send representatives to The Hague not because they believed strongly in such peace efforts but to avoid embarrassment and for more complex political calculations. And, of course, the conferences did little to slow the momentum toward the Great War, which erupted in 1914.

Rather than diplomatic conferences, Tolstoy’s answer to stopping all the killing was simple, “Do Not Kill”—under any circumstances. He explained this time and time again, including in his 1900 essay, “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” He wrote it in response to the 1900 assassination of Italy’s King Humbert.

The irony was that Tolstoy, like the assassin, was also an anarchist—someone who believed centralized governments should be abolished.  But Tolstoy believed only in non-violent means such as not paying taxes or serving in the military, police, or other government positions. In the early twentieth century, he corresponded with Gandhi, then developing his non-violent resistance ideas among the Asian community in South Africa.  And Gandhi referred to himself as a “humble follower” of Tolstoy. Although he developed more sophisticated non-violent tactics to resist evil than Tolstoy had preached, Gandhi’s pacifism was similar to Tolstoy’s in being based on an absolutist moral ethic.

Prefacing his “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” Tolstoy quotes Jesus, “For all they that take up the sword shall perish with the sword” (Matthew 26:52). The German sociologist Max Weber refers to such statements as the “absolute ethic of the gospel.” In his essay on “Politics As a Vocation” (1921), he specifically refers to “Resist not him that is evil with force,” which was Tolstoy’s rendering of Jesus’s words in Matthew 5:39. But Weber adds, “for the politician the reverse proposition holds, ‘thou shalt resist evil by force,’ or else you are responsible for the evil winning out.”

Weber went on to distinguish between “two fundamentally differing and irreconcilably opposed” ethical approaches. The first was an absolutist ethic that stressed “purity of intention,” ignored consequences, and necessitated “absolute imperatives based upon religion.” This ethic was problematic because “goals may be damaged and discredited for generations, because responsibility for consequences is lacking.” The second, sometimes referred to a consequentialist ethic, was one “of responsibility, in which case one has to give an account of the foreseeable results of one’s action.” Weber also emphasized that “in numerous instances the attainment of ‘good’ ends is bound to the fact that one must be willing to pay the price of using morally dubious means or at least dangerous ones—and facing the possibility or even the probability of evil ramifications.”

In the political realm, which he believed necessarily involved some use of violence (e.g. to maintain law and order and defense against foreign enemies), Weber thought that government officials had to adopt the second approach. Although he declared that to any private citizen one could not prescribe which ethic one should follow and when, he distrusted those who proclaimed “the responsibility for the consequences does not fall upon me.” He considered them often “windbags who do not fully realize what they take upon themselves but who intoxicate themselves with romantic sensations.” He was more sympathetic to the “mature man . . . [who is] aware of a responsibility for the consequences of his conduct and really feels such responsibility with heart and soul. He then acts by following an ethic of responsibility and somewhere he reaches the point where he says: ‘Here I stand; I can do no other.’ That is something genuinely human and moving.”

Since 1900 true peace lovers have sometimes differed on which ethic to follow. For those with an absolutist ethic of never kill, the choice is clear. Never do it. For those following a more consequentialist approach the choice, of when to support violence and when not too, is much more complex. The differing positions of Dorothy Day (1897-1980), the only woman whom President Obama once listed among five great American reformers, and Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), Obama’s favorite theologian, illustrate this point well.

In June 1940, the month that Hitler’s armies had completed taking over parts of Western Europe, including France, Day wrote, “‘And if we are invaded’ is another question asked. We say again that we are opposed to all but the use of non-violent means to resist such an invader.” Given such a position it is hardly surprising that she continued to oppose the U.S. entry into World War II even after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Before, during, after the war, she often quoted passages from the Sermon on the Mount, as she did in December 1950 during the Korean War, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who calumniate you. And to him who strikes thee on one cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away thy cloak, do not withhold thy tunic also.”

Furthermore, she also believed that “pure means” had to be used to reach one’s goals. In September 1975, she wrote: “It is a lesson for us all in the peace movement that gentle pressure, constant hard work, a faithful, straightforward—one might even say respectful—adherence to the Scriptural command to love our opponents and to exercise the virtue of hope even when all seems hopeless, offer a great example of the pure means to achieve our ends.” Impure means (like killing others) could not be used to obtain a goal, no matter how noble it was purported to be.

Although the Protestant minister Niebuhr greatly admired Day’s saintly efforts to assist the poor, he strongly disagreed with her pacifist stand during WWII. In 1940, the same year that she said she would remain a pacifist even if Hitler’s forces invaded the USA, he wrote in an essay, “Why the Christian Church Is Not Pacifist,” that “pacifists do not know human nature. . . . They merely assert that if only men loved one another, all the complex, and sometimes horrible, realities of the political order could be dispensed with. They do not see that their ‘if’ begs the most basic problem of human history. It is because men are sinners that justice can be achieved only by a certain degree of coercion on the one hand, and by resistance to coercion and tyranny on the other hand.” When it came to Vietnam, however, Niebuhr, like Day, opposed our war there, referring to it as “the terrible and mistaken war in Vietnam.”

The present essay is not the place to delve deeper into Niebuhr’s theology, but for those interested in it an excellent article is available. I merely wish to contrast his more complex and nuanced ethical approach to that of Day and indicate why I think his consequentialist ethic is the more realistic one for dealing with today’s violence.

Before doing so, however, a word of appreciation for the absolute pacifism of Tolstoy and Day is appropriate. We would never elect such a believer, one who would renounce all use of military force, as president, and well we shouldn’t.  But most of us are private citizens, not the president or even an elected public official, soldier, or government worker. Tolstoy, Gandhi, Day, and other pacifists have reminded us all of the importance of peace and the horrors of violence. They have made us less trusting of the hawkish assurances of political leaders. Does anyone wish to argue that they have harmed the world more than helped it?

But if, as private citizens, we wish to help the cause of peace and non-violence, how can we best do so if we accept a consequentialist ethic, which affirms the need to consider the consequences of our actions?

I believe we must start by affirming and trying to live up to positive values such as love, compassion, humility, courage, empathy, rationality, and tolerance, while rejecting negatives such as egotism, dogmatism, and nationalism.

If following Day’s advice to heed the words of the Sermon on the Mount (“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you . . .”) is asking too much of us, we can at least exercise a little empathy, compassion, and tolerance. The ancient suggestion of Philo of Alexandria to “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” does not seem too much to ask.

Tolerance is especially important because in almost all cases of wars and atrocities, the enemy has been depicted as less than human by the use of derogatory terms like “lice,” “vermin” (Nazis speaking of Jews) or “yellow monkeys” and “gooks” (Americans on the Japanese in WWII and then on the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War). In his The Moor’s Last Sigh Indian-born novelist Salman Rushdie captured well the intolerance that so often troubled the land of his childhood, both internally and with neighboring Pakistan: “In Punjab, Assam, Kashmir, Meerut—in Delhi, in Calcutta­—from time to time they slit their neighbor’s throats. . . . They killed you for being circumcised and they killed you because your foreskins had been left on.  Long hair got you murdered and haircuts too; light skin flayed dark skin and if you spoke the wrong language you could lose your twisted tongue.” In our present century, conflicts of ethnic or religious identity are likely to remain a major cause of global violence.

As a result of various events from the 9/11 destruction of the World Trade Center to the recent Boston Marathon bombing, many people in the USA are mindful of “militant Islam” or “Islamic terrorists” and think of Muslims as being intolerant. But this itself reflects our own intolerance because most Muslims do not advocate terrorism. And if a Catholic or Protestant bombs an abortion clinic, we do not label him a “Christian terrorist.”

Tolerance should also extend to our political discourse. In President Obama’s University of Michigan Commencement Speech (May 1, 2010) he stressed this: “We can’t expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down. You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it.” And he warned us against throwing around phrases like “socialists” and “Soviet-style takeover” and “fascist” and “right-wing nut.” Such phrases, just like vermin and gooks, encourage intolerance and violence.

One of the great enemies of tolerance is dogmatism. Overwhelmingly modern killings in wars and terrorist acts have been committed by people who think their beliefs, whether religious, nationalistic, or some of some other ideological hue, justify their violence. One lesson that history should have taught us is to be extremely wary of any religion or ideology that demands the death of individuals in order to be spread, whether it be Christianity, Islam, Nazism, communism, or American exceptionalism.

Opposed to dogmatism and intolerance is a humility that realizes that no one has a lock on truth, that at best we are all confused searchers for it. But this searching should reflect a commitment to rationality and logic. If we label someone a terrorist and say we are against terrorism because of the loss of innocent lives we should be consistent. You cannot just call those you don’t like terrorists while at the same time calling those who use the same tactics, but for a cause you justify, “freedom fighters.”

To take just one example we hear much of Palestinian Arab terrorism directed against Israel. But in postwar Palestine two future Israeli prime ministers, Menacham Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, were leaders of terrorist groups working to drive the British occupiers out of Palestine.  In 1946, two years before the British left and Israel was created, Begin’s terrorist group, Irgun, blew up the south wing of Jerusalem’s King David hotel, killing over 90 people including British officials, Jews, and Arabs.

And if we say that terrorism is wrong because of the death of “innocent civilians,” how about our approval of killing many civilians who died in WWII? Were they, including all the Japanese killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, “guilty civilians”? A U.S. Gallup poll conducted in late August 1945 showed that 85 percent of those polled approved of dropping the atomic bombs on those two cities. Forty years later, after historians had revealed that dropping the bombs might not have been as necessary to end the war as once thought, 80 percent of Americans age 65 and older still thought the U.S. bombings were justified. (See here for more on the bombings.)

In other places I have written much more about the attitudes supporting twentieth-century violence, so here I’ll just briefly mention a few factors that encourage U.S. violence. To begin with, our culture encourages conflict and violence much more than peace. Look, for example, at our films, TV, and video games. The reasons for this encouragement are varied.

In his 1977 book A Rumor of War Philip Caputo recalled how as a young college student in 1960 he enrolled in a Marine officer training program partly as a result of the romantic heroism of war movies: “The heroic experience I sought was war; war, the ultimate adventure; war, the ordinary man’s most convenient means of escaping from the ordinary. . . . Already I saw myself charging up some distant beachhead like John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima.” Three quarters of a century earlier psychologist William James recognized that military training and wars appealed to positive, as well as negative, human traits, and he called for the creation of a “moral equivalent of war,” for opportunities for people to perform more of the heroic type of actions of war without all the accompanying tragedies of it.

Simply put, fighting and war stir our emotions much more than peace-seeking. Most Americans have always spoken fondly of “our brave soldiers,” while looking upon “peaceniks” with disdain. Look in most big bookstores. Are there more books about wars or peace-seeking? Look at the History Channel. Do we see more scenes of wars or peace activists?

Other observers have stressed our frontier-society background and our stress on individualism as opposed to community. At present our dysfunctional political system and our media-driven here-today-gone-tomorrow culture also prevent us from focusing and acting rationally to reduce violence. Our Senate’s Shameful Lack of Courage on Guns is just one example of our broken politics, which has been held up to justifiable ridicule on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show (see here and here) by comparing it to Australia’s more politically courageous gun restrictions.

After the December 2012 killing of schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut, there was much political talk of investigating all sorts of causes of American violence. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said, “In the coming days and weeks we’ll engage in a meaningful conversation and thoughtful debate about how to change laws and culture that allow this violence to continue to grow,” and “every idea should be on the table.” Where’s the change?

Our failure to do much to change our violent ways represents not just a lack of political will and courage, but our failure to focus and carry through good intentions. Our media is partly to blame, but only partly. One day (or week) we might be riveted by some dramatic shooting or bombing, but then our attention turns to something else: that crazy Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, or former basketball star Denis Rodman’s visiting him, or the latest celebrity gossip, or sports team we follow.

So where do we go from here? For starters, those of us who are not absolute pacifists, but who decry the violence that seems so endemic in our country, have to display more of the sticktoitiveness and courage that pacifists like Dorothy Day evidenced. As part of her anti-nuclear protest, in the late 1950s she demonstrated and was arrested every year for her annual refusal to take part in New York air raid drills mandated by the city of New York. Sometimes she was jailed for her actions, for example in 1957 when she was sentenced to 30 days in New York City’s Women’s House of Detention.

Whether it’s protesting, writing letters, contacting our Congressional representatives, forming or joining peace groups, or some other activity, we simply have to do more. But we have to do so using peaceful and tolerant means.

One of the difficulties we face is the complexity of the modern world and of discovering truth. One of the reasons so many people supported the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings is that they thought that the bombings would save hundreds of thousands, maybe even a million, American lives that would result from an invasion of Japan. This was a postwar justification that was often heard coming from U.S. political leaders. Before invading Iraq, President Bush assured us that Saddam Hussein possessed “weapons of mass destruction.” How is the average person to know when violence, including the killing of civilians, might be justified?

There is no easy answer. We cannot just trust our political leaders. The more liberal John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson failed us by escalating our involvement and killing in Vietnam, just as the more conservative George W. Bush did later by invading Iraq. In a democracy, ordinary people have to take great pains to be good citizens. We might think some politicians, religious or humanist leaders, TV commentators, or bloggers are more trustworthy than others, but ultimately we each must decide when, if ever, killing is justified.

walter mossAnd that includes not just wars and individual acts of killing, but capital punishment and other types of state violence. Some people consider abortion, or at least some forms of it, as killing. There too, each person must decide for herself or himself. To make wise decisions on such questions requires all the love, compassion, humility, courage, empathy, rationality, and tolerance we can muster.

Walter G. Moss

Thursday, 25 April 2013


  1. JoeWeinstein says

    A great discussion. However Max Weber is hardly the only person who carefully distinguished the ethical approaches: absolute pacifism vs. consequentialism (generalized utilitarianism). For vibrant discussions of ethical possibilities by many philosphers in recent decades, see the Oxford reader on Ethics (edited by philospher and animal rights advocate Peter Singer).
    Unfortunately for us now in the USA, our government and its foreign policies have (at least since year 2000) been driven by absolute ideological abstractions – whether neo-left or neo-con – rather than facts and likely consequences of actions. Even as I write, Obama and team disregard the common-sense version of Weber’s principle: ‘thou shalt resist [and be seen to be prepared to resist] evil by force [if necessary] or else you are responsible for the evil winning out.’ Since antiquity it has been known that being prepared – and being seen as prepared – to use force is sometimes the only way to avoid having to use it (or else capitulate to and promote evil): a simple message which seems beyond ability of team Obama to comprehend.

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