Three-strand cords

In a post that I wrote a year ago, Justice Without Borders, I described how in Henry Shue's formulation of basic rights, the right to security is a positive one, calling for action, and not merely a negative "do no harm" principle. At the time, I was puzzled by the question of practical responses, especially coming from a largely pacifistic perspective. If we are not to go to war on behalf of someone, then how are we to protect their right to be free from threat of bodily or psychological harm?

As is so often the case, life answered.

First, I want to respond to my own comments grappling with the possibility of going to war on behalf of the oppressed. I haven't really studied just war theory or read much about the subject. However, as a general principle. I believe that violent confrontation is an ineffective non-solution to problems, and that it should not be the resort of civilized persons or nations, certainly not on a large scale and not even, as my previous posts have highlighted, through the selective application of drone strikes. The one possible exception to this case would be in the case of genocide. I believe this is a fairly common exception to make, but to be honest, I am not entirely happy with it and I wanted to challenge it to see if it might too be an unnecessary application of violent means.

Enter Žižek. In an interview published on Quartz, he shares some of his thoughts on the rise of right wing and extremist/radical right politicians and groups. At one point he makes an intriguing comparison, saying that Hitler was less violent than Gandhi, and that Hitler did not succeed partly because he was not violent *enough.* His basis for this claim is in the ends toward which the two men worked. Hitler used violent means to defend a status quo, or perhaps even to carry it out to its darkest implications. There was no break from the past, no great change to the people or the state of the nation. On the other hand. Gandhi's passive resistance was incredibly violent in that it effectively overthrew the historical, social, and political order of the British Empire's claim on India. The change was so great as to be considered a form of violence. And this is one of Žižek's points: that nonviolence can be more effective in bringing about radical change than violence. So we must take the high road.

Which leads me to my second point.

In order to ensure that others have access to a security right, sometimes we must voluntarily give up our own right. It is ours insofar as our society is built upon a respect for that right and our government is structured in such a way that it protects it and does not threaten it. A right cannot be lawfully taken away: but it can be foregone.

This is essentially what we do when we open our borders and our communities to refugees. There is some risk there that no amount of intensive, "proctological" examination of a person's history can ever fully mitigate. There is no way to see the future, and as that will always be the case, we can't know what someone may become. All we can do is weigh who they are and have been.

Some Americans want to block these refugees from their communities for fear of terrorism. Fair enough, in a world of threats, why add yet another possibility? And yet, I can't support that. What we have is not ours. What we hoard will only slip through our fingers in the end.

Likewise, the unofficially official American rhetoric against Muslims generated by fears for our own security can only exacerbate the already fraught situation. It is commonly held that terrorist organizations gain adherents by creating narratives about uniting to fight a common enemy. If we play into that myth by placing religious or ethnic bans or by spreading hate and vitriol through both official statements and poorly regulated presidential Twitter accounts, we have armed our own executioners (in a much more lasting way, might I add. than putting mere physical weapons in their hands--a weapon can be broken, lost, or taken, but an ideology endures until the last written words of the last man have been burnt to ash, and even then we are not safe).

I was thinking today about the way that all of these things come together. I do not desire war, but I do wish to act on behalf of those who have had their lives taken away; their most basic rights stripped from them. And I think what we find is that war is not necessary if we can find a more radical path, one that violently overthrows the destabilizing forces of a region through non-violent means.

What is this path?


I cannot kill a man once I have broken bread with him. And I cannot stir up anger against him if his reputation for genuine beneficence is established and he consistently acts for the good of others.

This doesn't even involve giving up much. In fact, it doesn't mean giving up anything at all. This so-called travel ban was meant to place additional restrictions on travel for some nationalities and for a limited period of time. I have separate problems with it, but my point here is that it's not something we already have: it's an attempt at the security bonus package.

But realistically, our existing immigration reviews are extremely intensive. Your chances of dying at the hands of a Muslim terrorist on American soil are infinitesimally small compared with the chance that you will be involved in a fatal vehicle crash or that you'll die of cancer. What actually went down at Bowling Green, Kentucky, involved men who were prepared to support terrorism... in other countries. They were trying to supply weapons overseas, not plan an attack on American citizens in their own homes.

In other words, as sacrifices go, this one is really small. And as far as its impact, the potential is incalculably great. When did support for gay marriage dramatically increase? When people began to realize that gay people weren't somewhere else--"they" were close friends and family members who had been to  afraid to speak out. The other wasn't so other.

When you invite someone into your home, when you REALLY open your community to them, they stop being representatives of a culture you don't share and a religion you don't understand, and the start being friends. People you'll actually make an effort to understand. People you're committed to helping. And it goes both ways. Through the generosity of hospitality, we find ourselves ably defended. How can you stoke hatred for Americans when old friends visit or call and talk about how friendly Americans have been to them, how open they have been? The charges do not stick.

Is this a tremendously idealistic picture of the world? Absolutely. But better to fight forever for an unattainable ideal than to sit passively by in cynicism and watch it all go to the dogs.

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