The Rule of Freedom

The second (and final) edition of the Rule of Freedom: the Manifesto of the Sovereign Community has been published. The full volume is now available for free here. Though it has grown out of my other blog, it follows some of the themes of this one as well.

Table of Contents
Part 1: Voluntaryism and democracy
– 01 Why I am a voluntaryist
– 02 Why more people are not voluntaryists
– 03 Morality and the non-aggression principle
– 04 The problem with democracy
– 05 We need to be forced: human nature and the Leviathan
– 06 The difference between government and leadership
– 07 Propaganda
– 08 The fine line between democracy and dictatorship
– 09 Somalia
Part 2: The state
– 10 What is the state?
– 11 Power
– 12 Law
– 13 Taxation and debt
– 14 Elections
– 15 Interest groups and lobbies
– 16 Bureaucracy
– 17 Let’s reform the system!
Part 3: Security and war
– 18 Police
– 19 Guns
– 20 Terrorism and airport security
– 21 The War on Drugs
– 22 Immigration and borders
– 23 Nationalism
– 24 Democratic wars
– 25 War: Counting the costs
– 26 Support the troops
– 27 Why do we still go to war?
– 28 Afghanistan
– 29 Secrecy
Part 4: Don’t fear the free market
– 30 What the free market is and what it isn’t
– 31 Rich and poor
– 32 Government knowledge is not superior knowledge
– 33 Intervention, central banks and planning
– 34 The armed corporation
Part 5: The sovereign community
– 35 Has anarchy existed before?
– 36 Roads
– 37 Education
– 38 Health
– 39 The environment
– 40 Polycentric law
– 41 Agorism and counter-economics
– 42 Mutual aid
– 43 Contract-based communities
– 44 Breaking free

How to be an individual

I have a friend named Dave. He calls himself an individualist. He was born in the United States, but he does not consider himself a member of any nation, race or imagined community of any kind. When people ask him where he is from, he points to a world map and says “there!”.

As such, Dave treats you like an individual. He does not stereotype, because he knows that people vary within groups, and that anyway he does not know if something someone else says about a group of people is necessarily true. He has met many people from many cultures; he has met tall people, short people, smart people, stupid people, fat people, black people, hairy people and beautiful people; he wants to learn about all of them.

Dave is interested in learning about what is different about all of us, and also what is similar about us. George Carlin puts it well: “That’s all the media and the politicians are ever talking about, the things that separate us. Things that make us different from one another…. But I also like to know that I can come back to these little things we have in common.” So does Dave. It is good to know that all humans are very much the same in many ways, and in all the important ways. Any differences among us are no reason to deny someone his or her humanity.

He loves his family and friends. He does not love anybody he does not know, inasmuch as he can sympathise with anyone. Dave considers everyone in the world equally worthy of love, respect, kindness, dignity and charity. It bothers him just as much to know that 100 Ugandans died in a plane crash as to know that 100 Canadians, Australian soldiers or Andean farmers did.

He loves the NHL, the World Cup and the Olympics, but not because he is rooting for any one team. It seems strange to root for one country all one’s life. How do you know where is best if you have not lived everywhere? He also does not feel proud of any team, because he thinks pride should come from one’s own accomplishments, and not those from accident of birth. He volunteered for the Olympics in Vancouver because he wanted to be around people from every country. It is amazing what you can learn from people from other countries.

He doesn’t think he’s better than anybody else, because if we are all individuals with the same capacity for joy and pain we are of equal worth. Dave cares how you are as an individual and does not judge you for which group you belong to. He assumes you do not conform to anything he thinks he knows about your group until he gets to know you. Dave does not get offended when someone insults a group he belongs to. He does not really understand what it is like to get offended on behalf of a group. Surely, he reasons, it is not groups, or ideas, that need protecting, but individuals.

Dave is happy and he thinks all individuals should be too. He hopes to meet you one day and learn how you are different. He hopes you are an individual too.

The power of the state of exception

It saddens me to hear Americans speak of their country as a paragon of freedom governed by the rule of law. It is possible that it once was. However, it is clear that the United States is no longer a free country. It is only free to those who put their heads down and keep quiet.

In 1922, Carl Schmitt wrote Political Theology, where he outlined his ideas on the state of exception. Schmitt advocated that the sovereign, defined as he who decides the exception, should be vested with extraordinary powers to deal decisively with an extreme emergency. If the state, and democracy, are in jeopardy, Schmitt believed, the sovereign should take control until the situation is defused. Schmitt erroneously believed, however, that the sovereign would restore democracy when conditions were reasonable to do so. It is perhaps for this reason that Schmitt enthusiastically supported Hitler during his rise through the chaos of the Weimar Republic and the totalitarianism of the Third Reich, including the political murders of the Night of the Long Knives. In a democracy, the sovereign is supposed to be the people. The people have the power to bring down governments, start wars and approve of virtually anything in their name. In the US, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, led Americans to turn their power over to their government to keep them safe.

Elites frequently try to create a state of exception in order to use emergency powers. Sometimes, of course, they do not need to. The sight of two airplanes hitting the World Trade Center was so shocking that most Americans threw their hands up and cried out for a strong government to take over. As we now know, planning for a war in Iraq had begun before 9/11, so the US government could proceed to put its plan into action.

Since 9/11, the US government has blatantly flouted its own rules. Take the abrogation of the Bill of Rights with the USA Patriot Act. The government assumed greater power to spy on and detain its own people. The Patriot Act has not yet been repealed. Though such laws should only be enacted during a state of exception, the US government has done its best to prolong the state of exception through war and the creation of enemies, and keep everyone scared. Few Americans even question the Patriot Act anymore, perhaps because doing so might land them in jail.

In the course of the war in Afghanistan, the US locked up hundreds of “unlawful combatants”, a term deliberately chosen by the Bush administration because it fell into a legal grey area. The phrase does not appear in the Third Geneva Convention, which means that, unlike, say, prisoners of war, those designated unlawful combatants have no legal recourse. The Fourth Geneva Convention requires that anyone captured in war be protected and eventually charged. These are laws that the US helped craft for its own benefit. After all, if other states follow these laws, Americans are treated better by their enemies. But in a state of exception, laws go out the window. According to journalist Andy Worthington, there are still 174 inmates at Gitmo, 90 “approved for transfer”, 33 recommended for trial, and 48 still there indefinitely.

The intervention in Afghanistan was legally permissible. The UN Security Council acknowledged the US’s right to self defense with Resolution 1368. However, international law also bars indiscriminate use of bombs that do not attempt to hit specified enemy targets. It is all right to bomb what one strongly suspects is a military or terrorist stronghold, but many of the bombs dropped on Afghanistan targeted heavily populated civilian areas. Over three thousand Afghan civilians were killed in the first six months of that war. Most American citizens did not question the bombs and the dead people, because they saw that whole part of the world, wherever it was, as deserving of retribution.

Next came Operation Iraqi Freedom. Iraqi Freedom was not approved by the Security Council and was a wholly illegal war. It was an act of aggression, which is ius cogens, universally accepted as law and permitting no derogation. In case you have forgotten Abu Ghraib and CIA waterboarding (see more here), torture is also ius cogens. Extraordinary rendition, in which the UK’s and Canada’s governments also participated, and which seems like the kind of legal term or political euphemism that makes the average person turn the page, is abducting and transferring someone without trial to somewhere they might be tortured. The practice may still be going on. Government secrecy has made it almost impossible for us to know the truth.

We are aware, nonetheless, that the wars and violence in Iraq and Afghanistan continue. Pakistan has become the new frontier in the fight against terrorism, with drone attacks increasing under Barack Obama and killing 54 this past week. The war in Pakistan is an undeclared war, making it also illegal. After seven years of violence, the president announced in March 2009 the administration’s goal in the AfPak war: “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.” It is likely that special interests want a US presence to safeguard the building of oil pipelines through Afghanistan and the mining of the trillion-dollar mineral deposits under Afghan soil. So confident is he that the ongoing state of exception will vindicate him, Barack is free to continue drone strikes (which occupy something of a legal grey area; they may be legal if they can actually be shown to be used in self defense) and still not formally declare any kind of war in Pakistan (which is not grey at all) because the only ones who can truly stop him only receive a few soundbytes about it a week on TV.

Another practice that has not abated is illegal detention of Americans. Just this week, 131 peaceful antiwar protesters were arrested outside the White House, guilty of nothing more than voicing disagreement with their government. No less depressing is the state of Bradley Manning, stuck in solitary confinement for leaking documents that compromised the US’s and other governments’ ability to hide their crimes. Manning has not been charged; he has no access to the outside world; he is not let out of his cell for more than an hour a day and cannot exercise in it; nor does he have even a pillow or sheets. Psychological studies find prolonged solitary confinement highly destructive to the brain, with effects including “overwhelming anxiety, confusion and hallucination, and sudden violent and self-destructive outbursts”. The effects of such solitary confinement are not far from those of torture. According to lawyer and author Glenn Greenwald, the government is extremely concerned about leaks, and torturing those who do what concerns you is a brilliant way to prevent it. Bradley Manning, like Julian Assange, is being made an example of. Criminalising the publishing of classified information is akin to banning investigative journalism. But the US officials that ordered and approved of locking up Bradley Manning, along with the cutting up of the Bill of Rights, the illegal war, the bombing of civilians, the torture and the indefinite detentions, will never see a courtroom.

In a world where chaos is inevitable, we cannot let fear permit our worst behaviour and legitimise anything the government does. There are going to be more disasters, more terrorist attacks and more wars. We must not lose our heads and let them take our freedoms when no one has the right to take your freedom. How can we trust the government on anything? If the government does not follow its own laws, why should the rest of us? We should attempt to free ourselves from the arbitrary force of governments, and deny them the chance to take our freedom.

Human Nature, Violence, Anarchy

Do we need government?

Though many people have already made up their minds, and take it as given that we do, those who are not so sure are called anarchists. Anarchism is a term that is poorly understood. It is not synonymous with chaos. Modern anarchism is the belief that one does not need, and indeed should not have, a government with a monopoly on the use of force to maximise virtue.

Their arguments are simpler than they seem. The fact is, we live most of our lives without being told what to do by the state. We are basically free to choose our friends, lovers, clothing, food, occupations and actions. We are legally prohibited from such acts as theft or murder but most of us would not likely engage in them in any case. However, the basic reason anarchists distrust the state is that they feel no one should be allowed to initiate the use of force against anyone else. Since taxation is forced out of us, taxation is coercion; and all actions taken by an organisation that forces you to pay all its costs are illegitimate. Thus, government begins with violence.

Statists, on the other hand, often argue that, to curb the violent side of human nature, we need a strong state, one capable of imposing its will, at least as arbiter, if not through powerful security forces that necessarily take away our freedom. This view, too, is not without merit. Among those most notably in favour of a strong state was Thomas Hobbes. Writing during the English Civil War, Hobbes believed that what he saw around him was what happened when the state could not impose its will and prevent fighting among the people it governed. His solution was a powerful but ultimately benevolent state to end the violence. Both statist and anarchist positions should be considered when idealistically discussing the type of society we want.

Some anarchist thinkers, including my favourite, Stefan Molyneux, have often brushed aside the claim that mankind is inherently violent. They tend to concede that we could be violent, but that war and other brutality is more a result of indoctrination (excluding the 1% of people who are psychopaths, many of whom delight in violence). They may be right about the effects of indoctrination, that we only kill people we have no prior connection with because propaganda creates enemies, and that violence is shouted into us by drill sergeants. But let us examine a psychologist’s argument.

In one of my favourite books, the Blank Slate, Steven Pinker writes that brutal violence in humans and our ancestors goes back at least 800,000 years. It is part of our nature. No human society knows no violence, but modern societies, with their police forces and militaries, whose torture and war crimes characterise the annual reports of Amnesty International, have far less violence than many more isolated hunter-gatherer groups.

Of course, most anarchists would not want a return to such a way of life. They would not deny the need to minimise violence, simply that there are better ways than law enforcement. But to assume that the government is somehow to blame for most violence in society is misguided. War happens between small societies where everyone has a weapon, just as it does between larger ones where personal weaponry is illegal. It occurs in cultures where mass media (including violent television) consumption is pervasive and where it does not exist. And violence is a fact in societies with poverty and disease and those with effective government-funded social programmes. We are still not clear on the causes of human violence and war, and there is no consensus among social scientists.

Presumably for this reason, anarchists have not yet found (and admittedly, not yet been allowed to test) a solution to natural human violence. Nonetheless, their arguments are compelling. First, as stated above, since government relies on violence, discontinuing one form of violence is worth attempting in order to move in the right direction. Stefan Molyneux argues that violence cannot be used to create virtue, just as rape can never create love. Second, the development that modern anarchists envision is that the involuntary institutions of government be gradually replaced by voluntary ones. Instead of healthcare, education and collective defense into which we are forced, everyone will instead organise themselves and come up with their own solutions. (After all, food is more important than healthcare or education, and yet the free market has no trouble distributing it.) Anarchists alone do not have the solutions, because no one person or organisation could. Third, Stefan’s idea is to create dispute resolution organisations, or DROs, that are like arbiters who hold parties to contracts accountable to each other and use perhaps public shaming when they do not. They would function similar to insurance companies and credit rating agencies, neither of which require government.

A further question is, is our modern, “civilised” society less prone to violence and thus no longer in need of government? This question falls in between the “expanding circle” and the “Hobbesian trap”. When mankind was organised into small bands, our circle, meaning those whom we care about and treat as equals, would be no more than our tribe. Peter Singer describes the expanding circle as the evolution of the consciousness of civilised people toward treating ever greater numbers of people as kin, from the larger community to the nation and now of course to the entire human race. In this environment, war is less likely as the circle expands, because instead of, say, Germans’ seeing the French as a separate race less deserving of respect, they have embraced them as, though perhaps not brothers, partners in improving the world. On the other hand, with no leviathan (to use Hobbes’ word), or powerful state, a Hobbesian trap could arise. There is safety in numbers, and when people feel threatened, they tend to retreat into the groups of their primary sources of identity (eg. the nation). But since neighbours may feel they are outnumbered or outgunned, they are apt to do the same, and may attack preemptively to avoid a more dangerous conflict later. The Yanomamo, an ethnic group in the Amazon with huge kill rates relative to most other groups, obsess over possible invasion by their neighbours, and often engage in preemptive strikes on them. As a result, their neighbours are equally nervous of invasion, prompting them to strike earlier and harder. A government can prevent this trap, as it plays the role of the parent breaking up fighting children–the bigger force prevents serious violence between the smaller ones.

Democratic and despotic governments alike, plus those intent on violently assuming power, killed well over 100m people in the twentieth century. And yet, government is considered a necessity to limit violence. But would those numbers decrease without government? Does the state actually resolve conflicts? Government provides us with some measure of control and order. We have a desire to control, or at least influence, our surroundings. Democracy might be ideal because it gives us the illusion that we are in control, without the responsibility of running a country or an economy. But perhaps we should no longer subscribe to the ideal of democracy. One lesson I took from the movie Fight Club is to stop trying to control everything and just let go.

Which political system optimally solves the violence problem, while giving us everything else we expect? Despotism, where one is jailed just for looking at a gun; anarchy, where the punishment for shooting someone could be anything from being shot oneself to nothing; or democracy, where rights are usually upheld but which still fall prey to Hobbesian traps? If you have already decided, you may be fortunate: people are still debating, and killing each other over, the answer.

Hatred, enemies, revenge: how to destroy yourself

I was spending my time in the doldrums
I was caught in the cauldron of hate
I felt persecuted and paralyzed
I thought that everything else would just wait
While you are wasting your time on your enemies
Engulfed in a fever of spite
Beyond your tunnel vision reality fades
Like shadows into the night.

-Pink Floyd, “Lost for Words”

Do you hate? Do you have enemies? Will eliminating your enemies make you safe? Do you take revenge? Do any of those things make your life better? Do they bring you happiness?

Hate as a psychological phenomenon comes in seven forms: cool hate (disgust), hot hate (anger/fear), cold hate (devaluation), boiling hate (revulsion), simmering hate (loathing), seething hate (revilement), and burning hate (extreme combination of all components of hate, driving a need for annihilation). These feelings are painful. They cause despair, illness, violence, war. But none of them are necessary or inevitable. Many people have moved beyond hatred to feelings of forgiveness and compassion for all humankind, or all living things. Those people, in fact, understand hatred from a different angle than those who continue to hate. They understand that we should not judge others for being different, but accept them as misguided, or simply unfortunate, extensions of the human family.

Why hate people? People are basically products of their genes and their environments, neither of which they had any but the remotest control over. How can I judge another person knowing that? On September 15, 2001, a man named Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot as payback for the terrorist attacks of four days earlier. Although Sodhi, a Sikh, was related to the hijackers neither ethnically nor religiously, a United States gripped with fear forgave and forgot about his murder. 1700 incidents of abuse of Muslims took place in the five months following 9/11. Muslims had become the outsider, the twisted, the enemy.

An evil Jewish landlord evicting a poor old German man

Jews being kicked out of school in Nazi Germany

The enemy is not human like us. In his excellent book the Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, Dr Philip Zimbardo describes the process of dehumanisation. When others are less than human, torment, torture and murder can seem entirely legitimate and even pleasurable. The book’s website contains pictures of Nazi comic books that led young Germans to consider the Jews deserving of a final solution, many examples of government propaganda depicting the enemy as an enemy of god, a barbarian, criminal, rapist, and subhuman creature, and postcards of lynchings of blacks in the old American South that people would send each other. It is well worth a visit.

One of the main points of the Lucifer Effect is that anyone, regardless of mental ability, can become evil. The right justification and the right rhetoric, perhaps mixed with a stressful situation, can lead anyone to viewing others as subhuman. The movie American History X describes the process by which an intelligent, well-adjusted young man became leader of a gang of neo-Nazis. He had all the apparently well-reasoned arguments in the world. White people came to America and prospered, he averred, while all the other races fell behind. His mistake was assuming the reasons why that happened were racial or cultural, rather than anything else. A little ignorance of history turned everyone but white, protestant-descended Americans into his enemies.

But why have enemies? How could a Christian, for instance, want to kill his enemy, when the Bible says to love them? How could the lower classes have foreign enemies when their true enemies are the elites in their own society that repress them? After all, we did not choose our collective enemies; political opportunists did. Who are the scapegoats on any given day? Terrorists? Muslims? Iraqis? Iranians? Chinese? Are communists still our enemies? I forget. In George Orwell’s 1984, the enemy, the object of all the hate, would change when the Party decided it would change, and the stupid people accepted it without question. Orwell had a strong understanding of how manipulable humans are. To this day, the enemy of the people is whomever the elites who control the people say it is.

Too often we cling to enemies as we might to a security blanket. A Buddhist website says, “If you try for a moment to befriend an enemy, he will become your friend. The opposite occurs if you treat a friend like an enemy. Therefore, the wise, understanding the impermanent nature of temporal relationships, are never attached to food, clothing or reputation.” The time for being enemies or friends needs to last no longer than we want it to. Life is fleeting, too short to waste being angry. Buddha said, “In another life, the father becomes the son; the mother, the wife; the enemy, a friend. It always changes. In cyclic existence, nothing is certain.”

We should not struggle against enemies, but against ourselves. That is why the Prophet Mohamed called the struggle against one’s own shortcomings, movement toward the full embrace of moral living, greater jihad (holy war is lesser jihad). Often, our hatreds are a reflection of what we see in ourselves, and what we dislike about but are not willing to admit to ourselves. Think about the wars of the world: most of the worst are between groups that have the most in common. Since they are different groups, however, only one may remain.

Along with hatred and enemies, revenge is a misguided action. It springs from loss of control of oneself. Revenge tends to lead to a cycle of violence (unless it leads to genocide) that descends through collective imagination and memory to infect young nationalists and prompt them to pick up guns. It turns cool heads hot, whipping people into a frenzy that leads to irrational and self-destructive action. Chandrakirti said, “It is foolish and ignorant to retaliate to an enemy’s attack with spite in hopes of ending it, as the retaliation itself only brings more suffering.” Here is a familiar example.

Why did 9/11 happen? Do people know yet? Have they read the 9/11 Commission Report? Here is a brief summary of what made people so cross with the US. Bin Laden and his associates declared all Americans deserving of death due to the sins of their government. What could make someone so blind with anger he cannot see distinctions among 300m people? First was the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia, and support for despotic governments in the Muslim world; second, the suffering of Iraqis under US-imposed sanctions during the 1990s; third, US support for Israel and its brutality. All those results were the brainwaves of American foreign-policymakers. The Bin Laden Gang’s mindless advocating of violence was never very popular among Muslims but many of them could nonetheless agree that the US’s foreign policy had had disastrous effects on their societies.

In the Upside of Irrationality, Dan Ariely describes our desire for revenge as akin to mindless anger: not directed, but just a desire to do harm. Now the US has entered into wars with the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. Whether or not Afghanistan was a reasonable target has become irrelevant. The American people were still so filled with revenge that, at any given time, between 56 and 78% of Americans polled felt it was right to invade a country they knew nothing about to kill people of the same religious category as the ones who killed a small number of their compatriots. Of 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq, who was taking revenge? Both sides. Who won? Neither. Revenge has neither eliminated the threat nor provided any kind of catharsis to anyone.

I learned all I needed to know about revenge from the old cartoon He-Man. When some powerful sorcerers were making others fight each other against their will, He-Man came along and subdued them. The victims immediately called for blood: make the sorcerers fight now, to teach them a lesson. But He-Man, in his wisdom, told the erstwhile gladiators, if we force them to fight, we are no better than they. Let us instead forgive them and grant them the opportunity to redeem themselves. They felt good for having performed an act of forgiveness and kindness, and the others had the chance to rediscover the good side of themselves. Everyone’s suffering was over.

When we are under stress, we turn inward to the groups we say we belong to and turn against the unknown. Political opportunists and hate mongers do not want us to learn about other people, because we will learn about our similarities, become interested in their differences, and realise that we have been lied to by the propagandists we hear on the news.

Hate begets hate. Love begets love. Free your mind of desires to cause pain in others and soothe your own pain in the process.

So I open my door to my enemies
And I ask could we wipe the slate clean
But they tell me to please go fuck myself
You know you just can’t win.

-Pink Floyd, “Lost for Words”

The al-Qaeda label

What labels do you use to introduce yourself? Do any of them accurately describe you? Do any of them account for the nuances in your thinking or identity that make you unique?

Do you consider yourself a liberal? A conservative? Do others label you as such? If your answer to any of these last three questions is yes, you are playing a game that cannot be won. Such labels are useful to simplify our thinking and polarise disputes, erasing nuances and the colours in between. The more people call themselves liberals and conservatives, the more people we have on our team. There is no room for diversity of thought or deviation from orthodoxy: you are either with us or against us.

The same liberal-conservative false dichotomy is reflected in the terrorist-freedom fighter example (or perhaps today terrorist-martyr more accurately describes this inaccuracy). People cling to their labels as symbols of their identity, which is why simplistic labels are pernicious. Of many significant examples, this post will look at “Al-Qaeda” as one such label.

Al-Qaeda is not really one organisation like the Tamil Tigers or the PKK. It is a very loose network of people who violently oppose American occupation of traditional Muslim land. Al-Qaeda members in different regions have little or no contact. However, to read US government communications, it is a well-organised group inches away from taking over the world. (The US is not alone.) The label “al-Qaeda” is extremely useful for the US government to legitimise its actions. Whenever someone declares himself a member anywhere in the world, the US government feels justified in violating sovereignty, detaining anyone who might be “al-Qaeda” and engaging in so-called targeted killings (assassination). There is no legal basis for such action simply because someone says he is al-Qaeda: he needs to participate in hostilities to be targetable. But to the American people, al-Qaeda is evil and must be stopped at any cost.

The US government is currently targeting Anwar al-Awlaki for assassination. It says such a policy is justified because he is leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is associated with al-Qaeda, an organisation with which the US is at war. Awlaki is located in Yemen, and while he presumably poses some degree of threat to US interests in the Middle East, it is unlikely he can conduct any major terrorist attack on American soil. Dangerous, probably; worth invading Yemen and keeping Guantanamo open for, international law would say no.

Of course, the other side of the coin is just as important. People have rushed to form organisations named al-Qaeda in order to bait the US into a war, for the purpose of draining its military power, depleting its treasury and frustrating its people. The naming of al-Qaeda in Iraq (or Mesopotamia) illustrates this point. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi formed his organisation in 2003 to oppose American occupation, but it was not for another year that he renamed it al-Qaeda in Iraq. Zarqawi knew that by declaring his allegiance to Osama bin Laden and renaming his organisation al-Qaeda, he would be perceived as defender of Sunni Islam from the crusaders and get all the press he could want.

But the question was not, was he al-Qaeda, but rather, was al-Qaeda in Iraq deadlier than any of the other insurgent groups there? The Bush administration immediately assumed so in its external communication. George mentioned al-Qaeda 27 times in a speech in 2007, even though about 30 groups had claimed responsibility for attacks on American targets in Iraq and many experts at the time did not believe al-Qaeda in Iraq was a real threat. But it did not matter to Americans: al-Qaeda did 9/11; al-Qaeda might take over Iraq; give us more support for the mission and the recent surge. Al-Qaeda is there, and we must remain until it is defeated.

Wise people eschew collectivist labels that are designed to divide. Belligerents revel in them.

The Stoics would have approved of Costa Rica

I have begun writing (well, researching) a new book on why and how the public approves of and thus legitimises war fought in its name. In a democracy, if not also in a dictatorship, the people must approve of or at least tolerate war if the state is going to commit billions of dollars and thousands of lives to it. Each section of my book will explore the causes of war from the public’s perspective. Some questions I will ask include, why did the American public allow the US to invade Iraq in 2003? How do Israeli history books affect the way Israelis see Arabs? Why do Christians and Muslims in Jos, Nigeria, fight each other? And why did some Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka encourage the war against the Tamil Tigers?

I have several ideas for an introduction. One of them is to discuss Costa Rica. Costa Rica is surely one of the most peaceful countries in the world. It has done what so few other states have: abolished its military and replaced it with a civil guard. And yet, this apparently easy target has managed to avoid most of the bloodshed that its neighbours in Central America have suffered. Before going into why this might be, let us turn to the lens through which we will analyse Costa Rica: stoicism.

An article by William O. Stephens in Star Wars and Philosophy entitled “Stoicism in the Stars: Yoda, the Emperor and the Force” describes Yoda as a stoic. The stoics in ancient Greece believed in acting virtuously and in harmony with their fate. They remained happy by accepting the things they could not change. They were in no danger from the Dark Side of the Force.

Yoda was patient. He lived waiting for the jedi to arrive so that he could train him. When Luke Skywalker arrived in Yoda’s swamp, insisting that they hurry to be taken to the jedi master, Yoda bid him stay and eat first. During training, Yoda implores Luke to focus on the present. The jedi’s mind does not wander to future adventures but remains rooted in the present, choosing the right moves for the right time. Instead of seeking excitement and risk, the jedi seeks virtue through control of his emotions, equanimity and calmness. The jedi’s mind is at peace, even when all around is chaos. The jedi may be happy and humorous. He avoids anger, fear, aggression: The Dark Side of the Force are they. He uses the Force for wisdom and defence, but never aggression. Let us see how Costa Rica fits this mold.

First, as mentioned above, Costa Rica has no military. That means it cannot, at least not easily, prosecute a war of aggression. Not only is aggression clearly not a virtue in Costa Rica, it has become effectively impossible.

Second, Costa Rica ranks first in the 2009 Happy Planet Index, which measures happiness, health and sustainable development. This achievement accords with its rank of third in the world and first in Latin America in the Environmental Performance Index for 2010.

Third, its history has been more peaceful than those of its neighbours. It went through a civil war in 1948–for six weeks. Contrast this with Nicaragua’s ten year civil war and Guatemala’s incredible 36 year civil war and we see that Costa Ricans have escaped the misfortune that they could have. This observation of chaos outside its borders and peace within presumably allowed Costa Ricans the privileges of stoicism.

Oscar Arias Sanchez, elected president of Costa Rica in 1986, is a jedi. In 1987, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the Esquipulas Peace Agreement that played a major role in ending the wars of ideology and beginning democratisation in Central America. He has also won the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism and is a trustee of the NGO Economist for Peace and Security.

Oscar Sanchez was reelected in 2006. At a speech in Trinidad and Tobago last year, he reprimanded fellow Latin American leaders for spending too much on their militaries and not enough on education. He was proposing they leave the path to the Dark Side and seek wisdom, enlightenment, peace.

Costa Rica is a strong example of a peaceful state. It could be an excellent introduction to my next book, as a contrast to the states I will be examining.