“Mr. G., you are charged with conspiracy to overthrow the government. How do you answer?”
“Who charges me?”
“The government’s an interested party here! It can’t charge me with conspiracy to overthrow itself.”
“Yes it can. It says right here…”
“The statute says I can’t use violence to overthrow the government.”
“Well that’s the same thing.”
“What’s the same thing?”
“Conspiracy to overthrow the government and violent intent to overthrow the government amount to the same thing.”
“We’re worse off than I thought. Where did you go to law school?”
“That’s what I thought.”
“Just answer the charge, will you?”
“What is the charge?”
“Conspiracy to overthrow the government.”
“That’s right. Let me tell you what I think about that.”
Mr. G. spoke to the judge for a while about the meaning of conspiracy and of overthrow. At last the judge said, “Look, this hearing isn’t Socrates’ Apology. Why don’t you write some of these ideas down for me? Then we can take a look at your brief.”
That was agreeable to Mr. G. A couple of days later he came back to tell the judge he had a start.
“What did you write?”
“Here it is.”
Let me go straight to the issue of violence, as that’s the thing the statute forbids. I agree with that. When either side or any party to a civil conflict uses violence, that breaks the law, no matter what the context. The main purpose of the law is to prevent violence. The police and armed forces are subject to this law as well.
Let me speak directly to the issue of violence in this context. Here’s the background. I’ve written as clearly as I can that we must alter or abolish our government. That language, alter or abolish, comes straight from the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson could not have been more clear. A government that violates natural rights must be replaced. Citizens who suffer under this kind of misrule have a right to replace it.
A government that tortures has no claim to obedience or loyalty. It is not constitutional because it observes no limits on its power. If a government tortures prisoners already under its control, what will it do to people it regards as enemies, who are not under its control? It kills them, of course. That is just what we have witnessed.
A government that tortures people is out of control. It observes no limits. It has no claim to legitimacy. A government that tortures people is tyrannical, not democratic, even if it maintains the forms of democracy. It is not democratic even if a majority of citizens favor torture.
Now, I’ve written these things many times. I can see why people in the government might understand these statements in a provocative light. They might look my way and conclude, “We have an extremist here, and we think he’s a threat.” A government that uses violence fears that people who oppose it will use the same methods. A government that initiates violence against its own people can easily bring about what it most fears: a loop of violence that escalates to war.
Let’s remember, though: citizens who want to replace their government should abjure violence for a couple of strong reasons: it does not work and it is inherently wrong. We can deal with the moral question pretty readily. If it is wrong to torture people, it is wrong to act aggressively against other people for any reason except self-defense. We’ll take up self-defense in another essay. For now, we want to say: if we must replace the government because it practices violence against other people, citizens should not use methods that put them in the same criminal category as their opponents.
Aside from the moral case, we see a strong practical case against violent methods of political change: they do not work. Here’s why:
- Like a fire that has plenty of fuel and a blowing wind, you cannot control political violence.
- You bring weakness against strength.
- A new government that replaces the old is just as illegitimate, since it used force to gain power.
- You lose material and moral support from people who might otherwise want to help you.
Let’s consider each of these reasons in turn in future posts. If political violence is wrong and ineffective, that should make us turn conclusively and resolutely toward non-violent means of change. Violent change looks easier, but it doesn’t have a good record. Non-violent conflict, if carried out properly, poses genuine difficulties for its practitioners, but it generally has a better chance of success.
As we make these arguments, the example of the Syrian civil war lies in the background. People in that country tried civil resistance, and the government mowed them down with machine guns, mortars, sniper fire, attacks from the air, and so on. A recent technique: government helicopters strafe bread lines. If the government is willing to murder every last unarmed civilian, what do you do then? Do you fight in self defense? When the Syrian people had to choose between surrender and armed conflict, they chose armed conflict. Non-violent methods did not look like they would succeed.
Let’s return to the Syrian case in the future. We want to keep it in mind – along with other political conflicts in north Africa and the Middle East – as we consider the points above.