by Julio R. Sharp-Wasserman
As the United States government initiates another war in the Middle East, we are yet again asked to ignore glaring absurdities in the government’s justification of large-scale violence. A distaste for hypocrisy, so central to Jesus’ moral vision, plays an essential role in the outlook of any morally devoted person. Yet a central fact of modern politics, and one accepted as a truism in modern political science since the writings of Max Weber a century ago, is that the state claims a monopoly on the use of violence through a police and military, a privilege whose public legitimacy is based upon its use to condemn, punish and prevent violence committed by others.
This hypocrisy at the essence of the political sphere is one that we do not reflect upon often enough. We seek security of our life and property by recourse to an institution—government—which was responsible for almost all and certainly the most appalling instances of violence in the 20th century. Genocide, mass imprisonment and torture, and large-scale conflagrations can only be brought about by institutions with the taxed resources and the social privilege necessary to organize such large-scale violence. Yet these same institutions, and always the largest and most powerful of them, are, inexplicably, routinely tasked with mitigating violence whenever and wherever it materializes in the world.
The best thing anyone can do to decrease violence in the world is to abstain from violence and embody peace; and as the country with by far the largest and most active military, the best thing we can do to make the world a more peaceful place is to stop going to war. Yet the U.S. government is now telling us that the latest round of violence in the Middle East is an evil that must be stopped by still more imprecisely destructive airstrikes on civilian areas. This is, of course, exactly what we were told about the crimes of Saddam Hussein, in the official attempt to justify a war which turned out to be far more destructive than his regime. Even the most conservative estimates have placed the death toll of this war in the hundreds of thousands, and the displaced—many of whom are religious minorities or other refugees of newly unleashed sectarian violence—in the millions.
The Obama administration, in a display of astounding moral insincerity whose purpose was clearly to drum up support for more extensive intervention, bombed ISIS targets at Sinjar Mountain this summer, claiming concern for the welfare of the Yazidi religious minority. The administration did this without mentioning the fact that religious minorities in Iraq, from Yazidis to Shabaks to Christians, have been far more unsafe since the invasion and before ISIS came to prominence. It also should not be forgotten that ISIS’s formation was a direct result of the original 2003 invasion, in the wake of which Abu Musab al-Zarqawi exploited instability and newly ripened sectarian tension to build an anti-Shiite unofficial al-Qaida off-shoot in Iraq that later became ISIS. And instability in neighboring Syria, which has been ISIS’s other training ground, is certainly attributable to a significant extent to the free movement of radicals between Iraq and Syria since the destruction of the Iraqi government.
As Martin Luther King taught us, paraphrasing Jesus, violence only begets more violence; and Iraq right now is a concrete illustration of this proverb. Let us also not forget the classical liberal dictum that every government intervention has unintended consequences, because of the essential unmanageability of human behavior. Human behavior is unpredictable and that of those enraged by violence and instability is yet more unpredictable. The future conduct of millions of people affected by a large-scale act of government violence such as the one being initiated, is so far beyond the capacities of human foresight that no consequentialist argument in defense of an act of war like this one, least of all in the complex region is question, is plausible. After all, none of those within the American war machine who are currently advocating war against ISIS predicted its rise in the first place. But what is predictable is that more violence will make Iraq a more violent place.