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the futility of violence

May 2, 2011

My first response to the news that Osama bin Laden had been killed by the US was: “Ten years, thousands of lives and billions of dollars later, and the US has finally succeeded in making Osama bin Laden a martyr. Good job?”

All sarcasm aside, I realize that many see bin Laden’s death as a cause for celebration, but I think it’s worth reflecting on Lao-Tzu’s words on war, especially the part about treating victory in war as a funeral:

Where the princely man abides, the weak left hand is in honour. But he who uses weapons honours the stronger right. Weapons are instruments of ill omen; they are not the instruments of the princely man, who uses them only when he needs must. Peace and tranquillity are what he prizes. When he conquers, he is not elate. To be elate were to rejoice in the slaughter of human beings. And he who rejoices in the slaughter of human beings is not fit to work his will in the Empire.

On happy occasions, the left is favoured; on sad occasions, the right. The second in command has his place on the left, the general in chief on the right. That is to say, they are placed in the order observed at funeral rites. And, indeed, he who has exterminated a great multitude of men should bewail them with tears and lamentation. It is well that those who are victorious in battle should be placed in the order of funeral rites.

A similar sentiment can even be found in the Old Testament of the Bible:

Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice, or the LORD will see and disapprove and turn his wrath away from them. (Pro 24:17-18)

Personally, it saddens me to see so many people celebrating the death of another human being, even a not-so-nice one like bin Laden. It reminds me of Gandhi’s saying: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” In fact, one of the main things that originally attracted me to Buddhism was its attitude towards violence, e.g.:

“He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.” Those who harbor such thoughts do not still their hatred.

“He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.” Those who do not harbor such thoughts still their hatred.

Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.

There are those who do not realize that one day we all must die. But those who do realize this settle their quarrels. (Dhp 1.3-6).

And:

Killing, you gain
your killer.
Conquering, you gain one
who will conquer you;
insulting, insult;
harassing, harassment.

And so, through the cycle of action,
he who has plundered
gets plundered in turn. (SN 3.15)

I think Howard Zinn, a WWII vet and political activist, came to a similar understanding — that war can’t end war, that violence can’t end violence — from his experiences in WWII; an idea which he expressed in part of a speech he gave in 2006:

I was talking to my barber the other day, because we always discuss world politics. And he’s totally politically unpredictable, as most barbers are, you see. He said, “Howard,” he said, “you know, you and I disagree on many things, but on one thing we agree: war solves nothing.” And I thought, “Yeah.” It’s not hard for people to grasp that.

And there again, history is useful. We’ve had a history of war after war after war after war. What have they solved? What have they done? Even World War II, the “good war,” the war in which I volunteered, the war in which I dropped bombs, the war after which, you know, I received a letter from General Marshall, general of generals, a letter addressed personally to me, and to 16 million others, in which he said, “We’ve won the war. It will be a new world.” Well, of course, it wasn’t a new world. It hasn’t been a new world. War after war after war.

There are certain — I came out of that war, the war in which I had volunteered, the war in which I was an enthusiastic bombardier, I came out of that war with certain ideas, which just developed gradually at the end of the war, ideas about war. One, that war corrupts everybody who engages in it. War poisons everybody who engages in it. You start off as the good guys, as we did in World War II. They’re the bad guys. They’re the fascists. What could be worse? So, they’re the bad guys, we’re the good guys. And as the war goes on, the good guys begin behaving like the bad guys. You can trace this back to the Peloponnesian War. You can trace it back to the good guy, the Athenians, and the bad guys, the Spartans. And after a while, the Athenians become ruthless and cruel, like the Spartans.

And we did that in World War II. We, after Hitler committed his atrocities, we committed our atrocities. You know, our killing of 600,000 civilians in Japan, our killing of probably an equal number of civilians in Germany. These, they weren’t Hitler, they weren’t Tojo. They weren’t — no, they were just ordinary people, like we are ordinary people living in a country that is a marauding country, and they were living in countries that were marauding countries, and they were caught up in whatever it was and afraid to speak up. And I don’t know, I came to the conclusion, yes, war poisons everybody.

I know that we’re not a nonviolent species by nature; but as naive as it might sound, it’s my hope that we’ll eventually see the futility of violence in the long run.

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