The recent violent repression against the Burmese population, including the apparent arrest and jailing—and perhaps murder—of nonviolent Buddhist monks, brings to the fore a dominant paradigm of our time. I mean the increasing inclination of nation-states to employ most of their violence against their own people. And when that is not at issue, the violence of nation-states is most often used against defenseless civilian populations.
There was a time—though one can hardly imagine instances in our lifetimes—when war meant the clash of armies, all elements of whom were equipped with weapons, defensive gear, and the knowledge that they were engaging in violent activity against others like themselves. Though they were clearly insane, conflicts like World War I and the American Civil War illustrate the type. Huge groups of raging men would hurl themselves at each other until one side or the other’s leaders grew tired of dying, and ordered a retreat. Again, though many saw this as organized insanity, at least the conflict was limited, in these pitched battles, to combatants, and a kind of battlefield protocol (it was once called “honor”) pertained.
More recently, however, (and I do not mean to exclude the depradations against civilians that both WWI and the Civil War inflicted), war has become more weighted in favor of massive strikes against civilian populations. As Ken Burns’ recent documentary on WWII made clear, the firebombing of German and Japanese cities by American forces were deliberate attacks on civilians meant to inspire despair in the general population of a kind that would convince enemy leaders that the price for persisting in battle was too high. More recent American (or American-inspired and -supported) attacks on civilian populations in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and twice in Iraq, have the same purpose.
Even these attacks, however, can be rationalized as part of the horror of war, and, more locally, as attacks against a perceived “enemy.” What cannot be so easily justified are the ever more common attacks by military forces against their own populations. The victims of such attacks are not “enemies,” nor foreigners, nor outsiders. They are the citizens of the nation-state mounting the attacks. In Burma’s case, the monks are not only citizens, but the soul of the entire country. And yet, the generals in charge of the Burmese government seemed to have no compunction whatever about ordering their troops to invade the sanctity of monasteries, usually in the middle of the night, and beat and bludgeon some of the monks and spirit thousands of others off to prison for further beatings and god knows what else. The troops also seemed to have no reservations about firing into crowds to break up rallies and intimidate the population into staying off the streets. (It may have been Napoleon Bonaparte who inaugurated this tactic in 1795, when, as his first act for France’s revolutionary leaders, he ordered artillery to fire grapeshot directly into a crowd of royalists in Paris, quickly ending an uprising. He was just as quickly promoted.)
But rather than an exception to the rule, this type of violence against the state’s own population has become commonplace. The military in the aforementioned places—Guatemala and El Salvador, as well as Colombia, Chile and elsewhere—has routinely attacked villagers or dissidents and either tortured or killed them. The ranks of the “disappeared” in Latin American countries in recent years have grown exponentially, while the massive exterminations in Cambodia, China and the Soviet Union are legendary.
It would be comforting if we could point to Burma or Guatemala or Chile or China and say, ‘Well, it’s those barbaric countries where such things happen. Thank God we’re in America.’ Unfortunately, no such comfort pertains. Increasingly in our own country, we are witness to state power being employed against civilian populations. The United States Army, for example, under General Douglas MacArthur was ordered to clear Washington of impoverished soldiers who had served in WWI, and who, in 1932, were demanding that the nation give them the bonus legislated by Congress several years earlier. The government had already paid off debts and bonuses owed to corporations, and the veterans, devastated by the expanding Depression, wanted theirs too. Thousands camped out in Washington, DC to demand this payment. President Herbert Hoover, fearing revolution, ordered the Army to get rid of what became known as the Bonus Army. On July 28, Gen. MacArthur, aided by future “heroes” Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton, led 200 cavalrymen, 400 infantrymen with fixed bayonets, and five tanks against the biggest protesters’ encampments near the Anacostia River. The troops dispersed the veterans and burned the camp to the ground, in the process killing two veterans and wounding many more.
This pattern has continued right down to our time. Anyone who lived in Berkeley during the anti-Vietnam war protests of the 1960s, knows that it was a common sight to see not just policemen, but armed soldiers and barbed wire guarding the streets and controlling demonstrations during those days. Helicopters routinely attacked demonstrations by spraying tear gas at demonstrators on the UC Berkeley campus. In one incident, a soldier fired at a lone man on a rooftop observing a demonstration, killing him. This tactic was repeated at many other campuses, including, most infamously, the Kent State campus in Ohio, where national guardsmen opened fire on demonstrators and killed four students. And in Chicago during the demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention in 1968, police literally rioted, clubbing peaceful demonstrators without mercy.
More recently, the cooperation between police and the military has grown ever more sophisticated, but the end result is the same. The United States government has proven, time and again, that it will employ whatever force is necessary to break up demonstrations and disperse crowds it deems disruptive or dangerous. It has also employed more covert means—including the infiltration of protest groups to incite the type of violence that will give it the excuse it requires to attack—to keep Americans from freely exercising their democratic right to peacefully assemble and protest. Thus, the current President, despite his clearly illegal actions in the so-called War on Terror, has never faced a real demonstration: all groups are kept well outside the zone where the President appears, and anyone who manages to gain entry is forcefully ejected as soon as he or she is discovered.
The Patriot Act has given the government even more power to act against groups who challenge its decisions. More threatening still, the actions and thoughts that can elicit a government response have become ever more subtle—including simply contributing to groups the government deems suspicious, or even getting an email from someone the government deems suspicious. This comes under the category of aiding and abetting the enemy, and is strictly forbidden. As the essay, “Bigger Monster, Weaker Chains: the Growth of an American Surveillance Society,” by J. Weinstein and B. Steinhart points out: “Under these changes and other authorities asserted by the Bush Administration, U.S. intelligence agents could conduct a secret search of an American citizen’s home, use evidence found there to declare him an “enemy combatant,” and imprison him without trial. The courts would have no chance to review these decisions – indeed, they might never even find out about them.” Putting all this together, the essay concludes:
“The massive defense research capabilities of the United States have always involved the search for ways of outwardly defending our nation. Programs like TIA15 [total information awareness] involve turning those capabilities inward and applying them to the American people…”
That is the real point here: the massive military capabilities of the United States, and many other nation-states, have now been turned inward to be directed against their own people.
The state is, by definition, that entity which arrogates to itself alone the use of violence. Vengeance by an individual is against the law. Only the state can kill, and it can kill sometimes deliberately, as in the death chamber, and sometimes wantonly, as in the mass slaughters in Hiroshima, or Dresden, or Vietnam, or Iraq. Increasingly, we are seeing states kill their own citizens—usually in order to maintain the power of whatever group of scoundrels happens to be in charge. If we add to this the growing power of nation states to kill their own environments as well, to kill every living thing that inhabits the space they claim as theirs, we can only conclude that the murderous nature of nation-states must soon reach the point at which the only object left to slaughter will be itself. More and more I find myself thinking of this as a “consummation devoutly to be wished.”