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 appeal to national ideals sold Operation Iraqi Freedom

Drawing on sources from political science, history, media and the psychology of nationalism, this paper explains how the Bush administration used what Americans perceive as the virtues of their nation and its foreign policy–freedom, democracy, peace, humanitarianism and God–to win support for its invasion of Iraq.

Why war is wrong, part 3: support the troops

“A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.” – Napoleon

Soldiers  are agents of the state and agents of war. As such, they are outside of peaceful society. Soldiers are trained to follow orders unquestioningly and kill people without knowing who they are. They have their most important human qualities, such as compassion, squeezed out of them through indoctrination. They are put into uniforms to strip them of their individuality and thus their ability to act independently of orders. They are forced to conform. They are chosen when they are young: able to kill but less able to think critically about killing. After they kill, they turn into nervous wrecks. Saddest of all, they believe they are keeping us safe. Well, some of them do.

I wonder what the “Support the Troops” people think when they find out some soldiers have been killing civilians for sport. (See here and here.) And though most are isolated incidents, like collateral damage (a euphemism for killing civilians accidentally, such as these nine children killed from a helicopter in Afghanistan), friendly fire (a euphemism for soldiers’ killing their fellows) and rape (See here and here.) (sometimes a deliberate policy of intimidation or ethnic cleansing), they are inevitable in war. Do you know why? Because when people are given the kind of power over others that a big gun or an army grants you, many of them will choose to use that power however they want. We call soldiers brave, but how brave is it to beat, rape and kill unarmed men, women and children? How brave is dropping bombs on or shooting cruise missiles at people? These people are heroes?

Let us briefly examine the killing of innocents. It occurs in every war. The soldiers and civilians in the country prosecuting the war have been told that they are at war with an entire country, and as such, civilian casualties are easier to stomach. Their media report little in the way of dead innocents, and use a variety of euphemisms to soften the blow when they do. In Afghanistan, for instance, thousands of innocent people have died from air strikes (3000 in the first six months alone, though estimates vary).  (It makes one wonder if there is really such a thing as targeted, “smart” weapons; and if not, what it is we are paying billions of dollars to develop.) How many newspapers reported the figures at the time? Perhaps they were afraid of looking unpatriotic. If patriotism means dropping bombs on people, or letting it go unreported, you can have it. However, we could still kill people who are harming innocents—the only enemies we should ever have—and leave innocents alone. We do not need a state to have special ops teams that get into tight spots to cut the head off the snake. We will always have people who want to do this type of work. Large-scale wars are just not necessary. But while they continue, expect hundreds of innocent people to get caught in the crossfire every year from it.

I also wonder what “Support the Troops” really means. Which troops? All of them? What about the racist ones? What about the ones who are just mindless killers? We should support even the ones who deliberately kill innocent civilians and take trophy photos with them? Putting a sticker on your car is cute and all, but the idea “Support the Troops” lacks all nuance. (A politician’s idea of supporting the troops is to use them and get photographed next to them.) Besides, are these the same troop-supporting people who do not take their governments to task for reducing funding for body armour, pensions, medical and psychiatric treatment for veterans? Did you know that 17.4% of soldiers in Afghanistan report acute stress? Did you know that some 20% of suicides in the US are veterans, even though they make up less than 1% of the population? Between 100,000 and 200,000 Vietnam vets have killed themselves. Plenty of suicides take place among current soldiers as well. Posttraumatic stress disorder is believed to afflict up to 30 percent of close to 2 million active-duty soldiers and veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Unemployment among young male veterans is now more than 22 percent, and hundreds of thousands of US military vets are homeless or at risk of homelessness. I don’t think we should have any troops, but while we have them, how about they get what they were promised and what they need? Is that what it means to support the troops? Because that is not what is happening. Don’t expect government to make it happen, either. Government is bankrupt, morally and now economically. Finally, if you really want to support the troops, take away the government’s ability to send them to their deaths in pointless imperial wars.

What is the difference between soldiers and terrorists? Or insurgents or enemy combatants or whatever word the propaganda machines are using this week. Well, let’s see. First, soldiers are employed by a state and terrorists are not. That means soldiers are pursuing the state’s interests and terrorists are pursuing private interests. Most wars are concocted by elites and wrapped in flags and slogans. Flags lend wars and the actions of soldiers legitimacy in the eyes of nationalists. They get it: soldiers=good, terrorists=bad. Terrorism, on the other hand, is usually born of desperation. Therefore, in general, terrorists have real grievances and soldiers take for granted that their commanding officers have the best interests of the country at heart. To argue that terrorists are less moral than soldiers because they target civilians is wrong because soldiers sometimes target civilians, sometimes as an aim of war and sometimes for fun; and those branded as terrorists sometimes target agents of the state (as when al Qaeda attacked the USS Cole, and Bill Clinton declared it “an act of terrorism”).

And when there are such abuses, we rightly call for the guilty soldiers to be prosecuted. What tends to happen, though, is that the military will throw the book at a few soldiers whose abuses have been made public, and it will attempt to cover up any more so the military’s image remains professional and just (much like they try to cover up images of coffins with flags draped over them). (The Iraq War Logs have revealed plenty of examples.) One point of the book The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo is that individual responsibility, asking who did the crime, should not be the only consideration when apportioning blame. An additional question is, who created the conditions where all this was allowed to happen? Donald Rumsfeld’s deliberate sidestepping of international law and basic human morality trickled down to his army in Iraq, which is how we got Abu Ghraib.

Soldiers are lied to. They are told that their actions, whether occupying a foreign country, shaking down a village, killing whomever they are told to kill without question, are all in the service of a good cause. Soldiers are not only taught to kill, and that killing is right, but to believe in the utmost honourability of their organisation and their superiors, and thus the uncritical, unquestioning acceptance of their orders. That’s called indoctrination. But I guess since we are mostly taught not to question through government-run schools, what would we expect? Besides, many people who go into the military want to follow authority and want to kill. But why should we pay for their training, their guns, tanks and bombs?

But not all soldiers want to kill. Most are persuaded, much like the public is, that, in extreme circumstances, it is noble to kill. I am not a big fan of killing anyone, but of course I can understand that killing can be the right thing to do: if you are defending your own life or the life of an innocent, it may be necessary to kill someone. But states do not fight defensive wars very often anymore. The US has not fought a defensive war for 200 years. (Contrast that with the evil Iran, which has not fought an aggressive war in 200 years.) Wars against terrorism are usually results of state, not terrorist, aggression. Every war for humanitarian ideals (if there has ever truly been one) has just set the intervening powers further down the road to the next imperial war by enlarging the state, legitimising aggression and spreading the lie that war is not so bad on the people. Soldiers need to begin to think very critically about their role as agents of the lies, the plunder and the killing.

One problem is that the US, British, Canadian and other public constituencies do not care enough about the turmoil abroad caused by their governments’ policies. Most of them will never fight in a war, nor will they see the war brought home to them (until the next terrorist attack, at any rate; and then they will not realise the war was the cause of it). Many of them do not care what happens abroad, as long as they can keep the car full of gas. Many others support these wars, believing they are self-sacrificial and good for everyone. When the public is not exposed to the bloodshed and the costs of war, it can give its seal of approval willingly.

Revenge does not work: Israeli policy and the failure of deterrence

Revenge is a natural impulse with a rational purpose: to deter future violent actions by one’s opponents. But due to the complicated twists and turns of our thinking, revenge only brings pain. One clear lesson from the history of Israel is that revenge, however overwhelming, however clear the message it sends, does not work.

Through many incidents of tit for tat violence before Israel’s declaration of statehood, conflict between Jews and Arabs raged in British Mandate Palestine. The Jews gained the upper hand, and by the end of 1948, some 700,000 Arabs had been kicked out of their homeland. This event was known as the Nakba, or catastrophe. Though comparisons to the extermination of 6m Jews may seem unfair, this event was the Palestinian Holocaust. It served as the unifying event that created the Palestinians as a people, at the same time millions of Jews became Israelis.

For a few years after 1948, Israel felt the need to define and secure its unsteady borders. The newly-constituted Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) were always on the lookout for the next invasion, but instead of coming in the form of a unified Arab assault, it tended to be Palestinians crossing the armistice lines. Though most of them simply wanted to visit relatives (150,000 Arabs had remained in Israel) or return to their homes, some attempted to exact revenge for the Nakba. They rarely did much damage, but because Israeli security forces adopted a policy of shoot first and ask questions later, somewhere between 2700 and 5000 people were killed crossing the border, most of them unarmed.

In addition to territorial integrity, massive retaliation was Israeli policy. In 1953, some people infiltrated Israel and murdered an Israeli mother and her two children near the Jordanian town of Qibya. The IDF responded with a devastating raid on Qibya, led by Ariel Sharon, blowing up 45 houses and killing 69 civilians. Guerrilla attacks escalated and in 1954, the IDF attacked Egyptian military outposts in the Gaza Strip (then under Egyptian rule but inhabited by 300,000 Palestinian refugees) and killed 37 Egyptian soldiers. The message was clear: control the Palestinians or you will be sorry. It did not work out as Israelis hoped.

At the funeral of an Israeli farmer killed by Arab marauders in 1956, Moshe Dayan cogently summed up Arab feeling toward Israel.

Let us not today fling accusations at the murderers. What cause have we to complain about their fierce hatred for us? For eight years now, they sit in their refugee camps in Gaza, and before their eyes we turn into our homestead the land and villages in which they and their forefathers have lived.

He went on to say

We are a generation of settlers, and without the steel helmet and the gun barrel, we shall not be able to plant a tree or build a house…. Let us not be afraid to see the hatred that accompanies and consumes the lives of hundreds of thousands of Arabs who sit all around us and await the moment when their hand will be able to reach for our blood… The only choice we have is to be prepared and armed, strong and resolute, or else our sword will slip from our hand and the thread of our lives will be severed.

Dayan recognised the injustice of the advent of Israel and believed, I think rightly, that it had come to mean there could be no accommodation with the Arabs. Strong reprisals, he believed, meant that Arabs would see Israel’s strength and be less inclined to fight back. Far from preventing further violence, however, reprisals increased resistance to Israel, the Palestinians organised and eventually, the Six Day War began.

The causes of the Six Day War are numerous and complicated, but the initiation of the war was Israel’s attack on Egypt on June 5, 1967. Egypt had sent a large number of Egyptian troops into the Sinai and closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. A major reason for Israel’s preventive attack on Egypt, according to Aharon Yariv, Israel’s chief of intelligence at the time, was to restore Israel’s deterrent capacity. If Israel had looked weak in the face of pressure from Arabs, it might have faced greater threats. Israel won the Six Day War, but the threats kept coming all the same.

In the 1970s, Palestinian terrorism went international. Of many attacks that brought international attention to the Palestinian cause, the most infamous was probably the Munich massacre. A group calling itself Black September entered the Israeli athletes’ compound at the 1972 Munich Olympics and took the team hostage. Black September called their operation “Ikrit and Biram”, after two Palestinian villages whose residents were killed or expelled in 1948. Clearly, it was itself an act of revenge. In the messy rescue attempts that ensued, Black September murdered 11 athletes and coaches. In response, Israel launched Operation Wrath of God, the assassination of those suspected of organising the murders at Munich (dramatised in the film Munich). Wrath of God was followed by plane hijackings and raids on Israeli territory, and the cycle of violence rolled on for decades.

When Gaza and the West Bank were sealed off to prevent suicide bombers from entering Israel, the weapon of choice for Gazan militants became the Qassam rocket. Thousands of rockets and mortars fell on southern Israel, and 22 Israelis were killed. In order to punish all of Gazas 1.5m residents for their tacit or active support of these attacks, on December 2008, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead. Cast Lead killed 1400 people, including 300 children, and wreaked untold devastation on the perpetual humanitarian crisis known as the Gaza Strip. The massacre on Gaza did not, in fact, end the rocket attacks (though it reduced them), and reciprocal violence has characterised life in southern Israel and Gaza since then.

Recently, the violence has escalated. On March 23, 2011, a bomb attack at a bus station in Jerusalem killed a British national and wounded 39 other people and setting off the latest pointless cycle of vengeance. The Israeli Air Force responded to the bombing with strikes on Gaza that killed eight people, including children, even though they did not reveal (presumably because they did not know) who committed the bombing. Last Thursday, members of Hamas’s military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, fired an anti-tank missile at a school bus in a kibbutz in southern Israel, critically wounding a teenage boy. Israel again bombed the Gaza Strip. On Saturday, Israeli officials said that 120 rockets had been fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel since the school bus attack, some 50 last Saturday alone. On the same day, while visiting the wounded teen in the hospital, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch said there “is no immunity for anyone in Gaza.”

According to the International Crisis Group, the regional turmoil has raised Israeli anxiety that embattled Arab governments will seek to divert attention from domestic matters and provoke some kind of conflict between Israel and the terrorist groups that oppose it. It also says that Hamas has been emboldened by these developments “and is therefore less likely to back down from a challenge.” It may also need to prove itself in the face of challenges from more radical, rival Palestinian groups, who in turn may be the ones to bring on the next massacre of Palestinians. The blindness that righteous indignation induces is the root cause of all of these attacks.

The IDF has been warning since last year that something bigger than Cast Lead could result if the attacks on southern Israel do not stop. Gabi Ashkenazi, IDF chief of staff, said on the second anniversary of the beginning of Operation Cast Lead last December that Israel “will not accept” more rockets from Gaza, and warned that “the IDF is preparing for any scenario”. This week in Ashkelon, a town near Gaza that has been the target of many of the rockets, locals called on the IDF to do something. Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth reported that “many residents still believe an extensive ground operation against Hamas is the only way to bring peace to the south.” They are, of course, wrong, as the inevitable carnage would simply provoke further attempts to even the score.

Egypt has called a conference in Cairo that has a chance of reducing tensions. Serious efforts by outside parties can temporarily defuse the situation but without substantial changes in attitudes, revenge will remain the bloody reality in Israel and Gaza.

The history of Israel is a history of revenge. Israel has consistently retaliated with massive violence in the face of guerrilla attacks, terrorism and other threats. The idea seemed sound: show them we mean business and they will not mess with us again. But they do. And retaliation has not, and never will, bring either Israelis or Palestinians the peace they claim to believe in.

If you are angry, you see your attack as nothing but attempting to right a wrong. One’s own actions are never aggression: we are the victims, they are the terrorists. But the real wrong is any attack that is not based purely on self-defence. If there is no immediate threat, we are better off mastering our emotions so that the cycle of violence stops. As hard as it is, controlling one’s anger and turning the other cheek are the only way to prevent further bloodshed and misery.

Are we inherently warlike?

The biological roots of war seem to run deep. Biology can answer some of our questions about the reasons we go to war and commit acts of violence against one another. This post reviews two books that consider the effects of our biology on our apparent propensity to war. It is possible, however, that the premise that we are prone to war is mistaken, and we will consider evidence for that as well.

In Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World, Malcolm Potts and Thomas Hayden attempt to explain the roots of modern warfare by looking at human biology. First, killing seems to have an adaptive function, meaning, in the end, that men who kill end up having more children, and thus passing on their genes. The most competitive and aggressive males tend to make the largest contribution to the human gene pool, thus reinforcing our tendencies to violence. For instance, some 8% of Central Asians can trace their genes to Genghis Khan. Because evolution favours only those who reproduce, for men “at the bottom of the social pile” it is rational to risk everything, including violent death, when the alternative is not to pass on their genes.

95% of human history has been spent living and fighting in small clans. Now we live in a modern age that does not require the same aggressive behaviour, and we benefit far more from cooperation than violent competition, but nature is slow to evolve. Culture, however, evolves quickly, and its influences on our behaviour can help us “rein in our Stone Age behaviours”, such as murder and rape. Rape is common during wartime, and logically a man’s reproductive success will increase if he kills other men and rapes women. “This does not mean that men have evolved to rape,” say Potts and Hayden, “but it does suggest that many if not all men have at least the biological potential to experience the aggression, loose emotional control and dissociation from empathy that presumably underlie the act.”

Testosterone is one factor that might account for aggression, particularly differences in aggression between men and women. Testosterone is twenty times higher in men than in women. It accounts for men’s greater muscle strength, drive for status and aggression, as well as weaker control over their impulses. Unmarried men aged 20 to 24 are three times as likely to murder someone as married men of the same age. Studies also find high levels of testosterone in men convicted for violent offenses. Testosterone increases among male soccer players before and during a game. They fall among losers, but the winners experience elevated levels sometimes for days after the match. Even the fans experience rising testosterone, as we identify so strongly with our side, even when we are not fighting. High testosterone correlates strongly with assertiveness, competitiveness and the desire to manipulate others.

Chimpanzees–but bonobos too

Potts and Hayden draw much of their writing from observations of chimpanzees. We share a common ancestor with chimpanzees from about five to seven million years ago, and according to biologists, 99.6% of our DNA. Some chimp behaviour is a mirror to our own, particularly the hunting and killing–sometimes with appalling brutality–of members of the same species. Chimpanzees jockey for influence and status, impose hierarchy and reward loyalty. They also work to establish peace after fighting. In what Potts and Hayden call “the chimpanzee equivalent of international relations” we can see a reflection of human war. Each chimpanzee troop recognises its territory and borders, which it patrols. All adult male chimps display a keenness to participate in team raids on others’ territory that could end in bloody, torturous death. They fight over territory and access to resources. As a troop’s territory grows, so too does its access to food and mates, and as such expanding territory through team aggression is a way to have more offspring that survive. Surprise attacks and the use of overwhelming force are features of chimpanzee “wars”. Such brutality in chimps, as in humans, depends on the ability to turn off empathy for the enemy. Chimps display generosity to others in their ingroup, which comprises their blood relations, and hostility to their outgroup. Humans are much the same, except that our associations need not be familial. Nationalism, or its counterparts in race, religion and other associations, creates a sense of family that we are willing to kill for.

Chimpanzees even “de-chimpanzee-ise” in the same way we dehumanise. “Indeed, it might well be impossible for an intelligent, highly social animal to kill its own kind systematically unless it evolved some sort of neural machinery to de-identify those it is about to kill.” Combine the dangers of dehumanisation with our desire to go along with our group and deference to authority, and humans can become mindless killing machines.

Douglas P. Fry, however, questions the usefulness of comparing humans with chimps. ”At best, chimpanzees provide only tangential insights about human behaviour in the evolutionary past.” The idea that chimpanzee raiding has the same root as human warfare may be to obscure the differences between the two species (they have evolved separately for millions of years, after all) and ignore humans’ similarities to bonobos, to which they are roughly equally related. “Linking humans to chimpanzees instead of to bonobos is an arbitrary decision that is begging for a convincing rationale.” Bonobos do not engage in raiding. Fry quotes Frans de Waal, who in Our Inner Ape says “I sometimes try to imagine what would have happened if we’d known the bonobo first and chimpanzee only later or not at all. The discussion about human evolution might not revolve as much around violence, warfare and male dominance, but rather around sexuality, empathy, caring, and cooperation.”

Creating the ingroup

Much of Potts and Hayden’s comparisons of humans with chimpanzees considers raids. Both humans and chimps engage in violent raids on enemy territory. War may be just an extension, an “evolution”, of team raids. Though wars can involve millions of people, fighting units (to whom loyalty is apportioned most strongly) are often small groups, like raiding parties. Fighters are the same age and condition, bonded by a sense of kinship. Raids are dangerous and depend on being able to trust every member of the team, so it is not surprising that the sense of honour is strongest among young men at the prime of their physical strength. Virtues such as loyalty, courage and camaraderie, essential to a psychological understanding of war, evolved as ways for us to protect those in our family. As Richard Dawkins explains in The Selfish Gene, because our bodies are just vehicles for our genes, we will go to great lengths, including self-sacrifice, to protect our genes. Our genes are carried by our children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and so on. Therefore, we will sacrifice to save them. We can have the same feelings toward anyone we consider equivalent to kin: our friends, nation or team.

This transfer of feelings of kinship to non-blood-related associates manifests itself most evidently in the “band of brothers”. Relations in small military units are characterised by mutual support and respect, deep loyalty and shunning of anyone not seen as contributing. Men might go to war for idealistic patriotism, financial need, conscription and so on; but when the guns start firing, it is about your team.

In fact, any shared experience can create an ingroup. German and British soldiers notably left their trenches during Christmas of 1914, exchanged food and played football. They saw themselves, however briefly, as sharing the experience of being in the trenches, rather than as polar opposites bound to kill each other. (And why not, given that most of them would have had more in common with each other than with their generals.) Military trainers understand this, and as such, training usually disorients, exhausts and demeans recruits while breaking their links with the outside world. “[T]he main point is to awaken and intensify the instinctive predispositions of team aggression, producing warriors imbued with intense loyalty to those who have gone through the same training.” (Watch Full Metal Jacket for an illustration of this phenomenon.)

The important thing, of course, is to get ’em while they’re young. When boys hit puberty, the “innocence” of childhood turns into the sexual drive, competitiveness and risk-taking behaviours of early adulthood. “Their experience is limited, the drives are strong, and the rewards can seem great and death remote.” Growing up and living in the right conditions, young men could become master chess players or manipulated as a lethal force. Turning ex-child soldiers into normal boys again is an uphill battle waged against memories of the thrill and camaraderie of blowing things up with friends and wielding absolute power of life and death over terrified masses.The Nazis involved boys in military training from an early age. By 1936, 90% of German boys were in the Hitler Youth, and a few years later, 900,000 of them took part in a Nuremberg rally. It was a camping holiday filled with games and singing. What boy would not have enjoyed it? The Nazis actively encouraged the natural tendency for boys to rebel against their parents. Obedience to the group (and the Führer, of course) was essential, and cowards were ostracised. They fought furiously as part of the Wehrmacht as Hitler became more desperate and recruited younger soldiers, believing in “final victory”, while more mature minds knew it was naive. (Mao’s charisma and ideals–not to mention propaganda–recruited millions into the Red Guard in China during the Cultural Revolution.) These leaders understood human nature and how to manipulate it.

Potts and Hayden are disappointingly brief and non-committal on the biological roots of terrorism. Terrorism is more like tribal raiding than conventional war. They describe it as “a particular kind of team aggression–built very much upon ingroup identity, the desire for revenge, and a lack of empathy for the outgroup–[that] has taken on a profile out of all proportion to the number of warriors involved.” They touch on suicide bombing, as it is hard to see at first how suicide attacks could represent a successful evolutionary strategy. The sexual allure of the suicide bomber might suggest that embracing death can create new reproductive opportunities. It could also be altruistic behaviour that aids the survival of the killer’s genes. It may only be a stretch of the imagination (but not of the genes) to extend that idea to the entire national group.

The Yanomamo–our modern ancestors?

”It has become almost obligatory to mention the South American Yanomamo in any evolutionary discussion of warfare,” says Douglas P. Fry. The Yanomamo are an ethnic group in the Amazon who have fascinated anthropologists with their apparently violent ways. “Violence is ubiquitous in Yanomamo society,” claim Potts and Hayden. Yanomamo men are said to beat their wives as a warning to stay away from other men and capture women as wives in raiding parties. Men hold chest-pounding duels, wherein one men runs up to the other and punches him in the chest as hard as possible. (This form of non-lethal fighting is probably an antidote or alternative to more pernicious violence. After all, some men engage in hand-to-hand combat with their friends for fun.) Like their discussion of terrorism, the authors’ look at the Yanomamo is somewhat superficial, not explained clearly in evolutionary terms and better examined elsewhere.

In Beyond War, Fry takes up the claims against the Yanomamo. Commentators tend to assume the Yanomamo accurately represent our putatively-warlike ancestors, even though they are sedentary horticulturalists and our ancestors were hunter-gatherers; and despite the fact that bands (like our ancestors) do not form coalitions as readily as tribes (which are bigger, like the Yanomamo). Arguments from Yanomamo violence also tend to ignore differences in social organisation, and Yanomamo social organisation did not exist in ancient times. In his discussion of them, Fry points out that much of what is “known” about the Yanomamo comes from a study by Napoleon Chagnon, which has been much contested since. Chagnon found that unokais, Yanomamo men who have participated in killing and undergone a purification ritual, tended to have more than two and a half times the number of wives and three times the number of children as non-unokais of the same age. Fry takes issue with this study, pointing out that the two sample groups were not of the same age, and that the unokais as a group are at least 10 years older than the non-unokais. Neither did Chagnon’s study take into account that tribal leaders tend to have more wives and children than other men. There may be no difference between the reproductive success of those who have killed and those who have not.

Is war in our nature?

Fry, in fact, is not convinced that we evolved a propensity to war at all. The widespread (not universal) occurrence of warfare does not mean engaging in warfare is adaptive or provides reproductive benefits. Moreover, it seems to have occurred only very recently in human history, and was not present hundreds of thousands of years ago.

The fact that men are bigger, stronger and more aggressive than women is also no indication that they are adapted to war. These differences hold true over innumerable animal species that lack anything resembling war. Since male aggressivity is flexible, and can manifest itself in sports, business, and so on, it is the environmental conditions under which violence and war occur that need to be taken into account when considering human nature and violence.

Contrary to what Konrad Lorenz said in his influential tome On Aggression, human aggression is not inevitable, and contrary to Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, humans are not warlike by nature. Saying that we are means there is no point trying to reduce or eliminate war. Why attempt the impossible? But these are simply cultural beliefs that we are socialised to hold.

Fry takes a macroscopic anthropological view of human aggression, suggesting war can be replaced by “more effective, less brutal ways of seeking security, defending rights and providing justice for the people of this planet.” All humans seek justice, though their methods vary. Some favour violence and some don’t. Much of the violence humans inflict on each other, which may have been called “senseless” or “evil”, is a consequence of the desire to right wrongs.

War is part of our culture

The media distort our perceptions of the amount of violence in society because so much of what we watch features violence. And yet, most adults spend almost every day without purposefully inflicting injury on others, being the victim of aggression or even witnessing someone else’s victimisation. Not only is this true of us in our culture, but the same holds even for the most statistically violent cultures in the world. The cross-cultural data show that “violence [is] the shocking exception” among the countless peaceful solutions we find to our conflicts such as negotiating, agreeing to provide compensation for damages, reaching compromises, forgiving and reconciling with friends and strangers alike. “Humans have a solid capacity for getting along with each other peacefully, preventing physical aggression, limiting the scope and spread of violence, and restoring peace following aggression.” These findings should not only change our understanding of war but our ideas about the necessity of standing armies, the purpose of military intervention and the possibility for non-violent conflict resolution.

We project backwards. Because we are accustomed to seeing war in our world, we assume that war is eternal. In 1925, Professor Raymond Dart discovered fossil skulls from two to three million years ago he named Australopithecus africanus. He interpreted fractured skulls and shattered bones as proof that our ancestors killed and ate each other. But his extrapolations were disputed. Some of the shattering of the bones was undoubtedly due to the rock and dirt that pile on top of bones during fossilisation. Large predators plausibly account for the holes in the skulls. Dart believed, like most of his contemporaries, that man was inherently warlike and vicious. After all, World War One had ended only a few years earlier. A violent world was the world with which Dart was most familiar. But it is not necessarily the world of the australopithecines. Dart himself, in fact, accepted the alternative explanations when he realised they were more likely. We view our world as simply a technologically advanced version of the ancient world, but there is no reason why we should limit our imaginations this way. (Potts and Hayden mention Dart but do not discuss the controversy of his initial beliefs.)

Some anthropologists who claim that war is universal tend to include homicide in the definition of war. But homicide and war have different causes. Meanwhile, as Fry quotes Johan van der Dennen, “[p]eaceable preindustrial people constitute a nuisance to most theories of warfare, and they are thus either explained away, denied or negated.”

Do all cultures have war?

Studies show that nonwarring societies do exist. The very fact that they exist seems to disprove, or at least call into question, the idea that man is naturally warlike. All human societies have believers in the supernatural, music and property, as well as rape, revenge and murder. Not all societies have warfare. In fact, at least 70 cultural groups do not engage in war at all. Apart from many smaller groups such as the Semai of Malaysia or the Amish, one could cite Sweden and Switzerland, having gone many years without war, Iceland, 800 years without war, and Costa Rica, which disbanded its military after World War Two.

One of many examples of cultural groups who have not developed war is Australian Aborigines. Aborigines, under very different conditions from our own, developed relatively peaceful cultures. Bands that could have fought traded instead. They tended to respect each other’s territory. Band membership was open and fluid, and people had relatives and contacts in other groups (which is one reason I doubt the US and China will go to war). They also had advanced dispute-resolution mechanisms, such as duels, contests, meetings and reconciliation ceremonies.

Potts and Hayden consider archaeological and anthropological evidence but in less detail. They discuss several individual cases of group violence, arguing that the evidence that man has a penchant for blood is “abundant”. Fry’s approach seems to take a wider look but both points of view may be valid.

Can we move beyond war?

Not only is war unnecessary and lethal, it is possible to change our behaviour. Humans are so flexible that they can do various jobs in all kinds of societies and cultures. Says Fry, “the transition from the millenia-old lifeways of the nomadic forager band to the conditions of the urban, industrial nation is truly staggering. Yet we high-tech folks of the twenty-first century rarely pause to consider the immense plasticity in the nature of our species that allows a hunter-gatherer primate to live in this Internet world of strangers, stock exchanges and cruise missiles.” As long as we know it is possible to end war and make peace, we are capable of it.

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”