Criminals with the Best of Intentions

I just finished reading Love and Struggle: My Life in SDS, The Weather Underground, and Beyond by David Gilbert, and it was a bit of a surreal experience in that it held up a twisted mirror to me, revealing my darkest timeline. I resonate with a lot of Gilbert’s story, his analysis of events, and even his politics and intentions; but the book begins with the story of how he was arrested for robbing a Brinks truck, which resulted in a shootout and three dead police officers. Like me, Gilbert began as a pacifist; but within a decade he was participating in bombings and living as a fugitive.

After he starts from the beginning of his story, it becomes clear that self-criticism with the goal of improvement is one of the principles that Gilbert carried through every collective and organization he was a part of, and this book amounts to an extended self-criticism of his life. He says so in the introduction, pointing out that he wrote this book for the sake of his son Chesa, and also in response to the many letters he’s received from activists asking for wisdom and advice. He’s had a lot of time to reflect on his life, as he’s been in prison longer than I’ve been alive, and the depth of his self-criticism shows the perspective he’s gained, no doubt partially from growing older but mainly (I think) from time outside of his life as a revolutionary. His distance from the events has allowed him to acknowledge persistent flaws in his character, repeated mistakes both personally and organizationally, and flaws in the radical Left in general. A few things stood out to me as I read this book:

1. The Left Eats Its Own

Someone once told me that the Left eats its own, and I was disappointed to acknowledge how true that is, even in my own experience. Love and Struggle confirmed that for me, with story after story about infighting within organizations and between organizations who, by all accounts, should have been the closest of allies. Gilbert points out how much false motives played a role in this, over and over again: self-proclaimed “revolutionaries” who talk about solidarity with armed struggles abroad, but who actually just want to stoke their egos and dare themselves to be more radical; organizations who uphold being anti-male-supremacist and anti-white-supremacist as core definitive values, and yet maintain hierarchical structures and harbour racist and sexist attitudes; etc. To put it more bluntly than Gilbert does, a lot of the time they were being poseurs.

I think that the infighting in the organized Left is somewhat inevitable based on the character of the Left: it values education (and educated people love to debate), principles (and no two people have completely identical principles), and passionate advocacy. Add in a dose of human pride (leftist activists are often perceived to be holier-than-thou, and the perception is often all too accurate), and it’s easy to see why there would be conflict. Especially when leftist activists are concerned with so many issues, most of which are intertwined yet still represent so many perspectives and people groups; contrast that with the Right, which is much more homogenous (mostly middle-class, mostly white, mostly Christian or otherwise religious) and places a higher emphasis on cultural uniformity. Gilbert’s life as an activist included involvement with anti-war, anti-imperialism, anti-sexism, and anti-racism groups, often working in alliances (or working to build or maintain shaky alliances) between white, Black, Mexicano/a, feminist, and more generically leftist organizations. Each of these organizations had its own principles and purposes, and while they were all against American imperialism, sexism, and racism, their other principles often conflicted, sometimes over slight variations in interpretation of Marx or Lenin or Mao.

There’s also the Left’s desire to be non-complicit with evil or oppressive systems, and their ability to see systems everywhere. Not only are the principles of different organizations conflicting with each other, but they do so because the organizations have differing views of which systems the other is complicit with (e.g., sexism, racism, imperialism), and they vow not to ally themselves with that kind of complicity in order to maintain the stability and clarity of purpose of their own organization (but to the detriment of the larger movement). Ironically, the clarity with which they see the specks in their neighbours’ eyes not only doesn’t reflect in how they manage to miss the logs in their own, but also the logs in the eyes of the third-world revolutionaries they claim to have solidarity with: Gilbert describes Soviets and Maoists in a generally positive light in spite of their obvious horrors, and recalls an argument he once had with another revolutionary about whether or not it was alright for the communist Vietnam to invade the communist-of-a-different-stripe Cambodia. It turned out that the imperialist move by the Vietnamese (invading their neighbour) stopped the Khmer Rouge’s genocide of its own people. The third-world nationalist struggles were clearly idealized uncritically, except perhaps through analysis of their brand of theory (Marxist-Leninist vs. Maoist, etc.).

So how can people who work to allow the greatest extent of human freedom and individual rights and expressions maintain cohesiveness in spite of their differences? Individual critical thought and aversion to authority, while often excellent and necessary traits, keep the Left from working together with even a shred of the cohesive power of the Right, and I’m sure that this is why communist regimes tend to have well-developed propaganda departments. Leftist cohesiveness is impossible in an educated society that allows for criticism, even when there’s a common enemy to unite them.

2. It Takes More Than a Common Enemy

The principles that united the various groups that Gilbert interacted with were generally based in excellent values: anti-imperialism, solidarity with the oppressed, anti-male-supremacy, and anti-white-supremacy. The various groups also shared a foundation in socialist thought and analysis, mostly Marxist-Leninist though sometimes Maoist or Islamic. That said, the extent to which these values or perspectives were emphasized in each group led to divisions, as noted above; the only thing that kept them together, it seems, is a general sense of having a common enemy, American imperialism. Their major emphasis on solidarity was proved fragile by instilled racism and sexism, their distance from the third-world revolutions that inspired them, and their own differing analyses of theory and events and practices. There was a general assumption of humanism that undergirded all of the other values and principles, but at least in Love and Struggle it was merely an assumption and not elaborated upon.

Without a strong core, it’s easy for values to shift. How does a pacifist student protester evolve into a violent revolutionary? If generic humanism alone is the strong core, then the project was doomed from the outset, because humanism itself is not a core: it is derived from, and a mere shadow of, the true Human. Humanism itself can have many different perspectives and values that range widely simply because of its generic nature: humanism is basically a generic appreciation for human life, abilities, accomplishments, etc. It’s a powerful value that spawns many other powerful values, but it’s very non-specific. But if we recognize that humanism is a development of Christianity, which is based on the person and character of Jesus Christ, we can see the true strength of humanism and everything that comes from it: it comes from Christ, and without Christ it’s just a generic sense of goodwill that has no anchor to root it. Revolutionaries can justify violence against the bourgeoisie in solidarity with the proletariat by emphasizing the humanity of the oppressed and dehumanizing the oppressors: in the name of humanism for the oppressed majority, dehumanization of others on a smaller scale seems permissible. But Christ defines what it means to be human, and calls us to humanize our enemies, showing us how to do it in his own life. With his teachings and examples (and continued presence among us), there is a specificity to our humanism that doesn’t allow for a shifting scale of values or justification of means in light of desired ends.

3. Radicals Are Often Forced Into Radicalism

Reading this book was a lot like watching the documentary If a Tree Falls, about how environmental activists became “eco-terrorists.” In both cases the shift toward more radical and revolutionary action came in response to the inefficacy of more congenial and conventional means of dissent. Basically, when all legitimate avenues for being heard are blocked or undermined, activists are faced with the choice of giving up or trying less legitimate actions. When I watched If a Tree Falls I resonated more with their struggle, as I too find it difficult to promote environmental sustainability in a nation with the world’s biggest environmental catastrophe as one of our primary industries. But seeing this shift toward radical and revolutionary action in Love and Struggle about issues that I’m less involved with helped to frame it for me a little better, and I think that the shift to violence is a false choice.

While I do think that the powers that be force greater radicalism on dissenters by blocking any legitimate methods of organized dissent, I don’t think that radicalism or even revolution require violence. Gilbert points out near the end of the book that many leftist organizations thought that the violent organizations he worked with hurt the cause by resorting to violence, and I think that they’re right: a regular strategy these days is for undercover police to infiltrate an otherwise peaceful protest and try to whip up a mob in order to discredit the claims of the protesters and legitimate the use of force to put them down. Gilbert describes this strategy going back to the 60’s, so I’m surprised that he didn’t catch on that engaging in violence actually undermines the position of dissenters.

Radicals who have left the biggest mark on this world were those who chose radical love (not in the sense of the free love of the 60’s, which Gilbert admits was quite poseur-ish in its deliberate flouting of societal norms for the sake of flouting societal norms, as well as being largely a cover for men to hook up with multiple women). Jesus, Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., made themselves stand out by their radical refusal to be violent toward their enemies, and their efforts to bring peace to those who would kill them. These people were forced to radicalism in the same way that Gilbert and the Weather Underground were, but their radical methods were more innovative and truer to their core values. Their shift to radicalism was not a compromise with the powers that be, but rather a fuller and more drastic expression of their very selves as human beings. Their radical insistence on love in the face of adversity made dehumanizing them completely impossible, and made any violence against them very obviously illegitimate.


Overall, this was a very fascinating book, and a cautionary tale for me. No matter how frustrated I get with doing things the right way, I can never let it drive me to become what I struggle against. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and though I admire Gilbert’s passion and principles, I think he lost his way. A good read for inspiration and practical advice, but take Gilbert’s self-criticism further than he does if you want to gain more foundational wisdom here. B+


Gaza, ISIS, and Two Types of Just War

I’m currently reading In the Fray: Contesting Christian Public Ethics, 1994-2013 by David P. Gushee, a series of essays and addresses in a variety of ethical topics and issues. Today I read “Just War Divide: One Tradition, Two Views”, written in 2002 just before the US invaded Iraq again, and it got me thinking about the possibility of a third Iraq invasion on the horizon.

Gushee points out that Just War theory has been divided into what he refers to as “soft”, or “dovish” views of just war, and “hard” or “hawkish” views. He then gives an example of each view. I’ll give you his definitions of the two views, followed by more contemporary examples from Gaza and Iraq today. First, “soft” just war:

Soft just war theory is characterized by seven key components: a strongly articulated horror of war; a strong presumption against war; a skepticism about government claims; the use of just war theory as a tool for citizen discernment and prophetic critique; a pattern of trusting the efficacy of international treaties, multilateral strategies and the perspectives of global peace and human rights groups and the international press; a quite stringent application of just war criteria; and a claim of common ground with Christian pacifists. – Gushee, In the Fray, 32.

Soft just war theory starts with the notion that war is hell. Gushee later points out that soft just war theory developed in the 20th century, in large part in response to the horrors of the wars of that century. The fact that he separates between articulating the horror of war and having a presumption against war may seem strange: if war is awful, why wouldn’t we presume against it? Starting with the presumption that war is horrific, even evil, soft just war theory sees the criteria of just war as a criteria for the limitation of war: if war cannot be carried out justly, it should not be carried out at all. Gushee goes on to describe hard just war theory:

Hard just war theory reverses these emphases, replacing them with the following: a presumption against injustice and disorder rather than against war; a presumption that war is tragic but inevitable in a fallen world, and that war is a necessary task of government; a tendency to trust the US government and its claims for the need for military action; an emphasis on just war theory as a tool to aid policymakers and military personnel in their decisions; an inclination to distrust the efficacy of international treaties and to downplay the value of international actors and perspectives; a less stringent or differently oriented application of some just war criteria; and no sense of common ground with Christian pacifists. – Gushee, In the Fray, 33.

Hard just war theory sees war as a necessary evil, a regular function of government as a way of keeping the evils of injustice and disorder in check. This is where references to Hitler usually come into play: what’s more evil, to kill thousands of people in a war, or to not go to war and let millions of people die at the hands of a radical dictator or terrorist group? Governments have the responsibility to protect their people, and some would argue that they even have the responsibility to punish those who would attack their people (Gushee points out that this was argued as a reason for the US invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11). Starting with such presumptions, hard just war theory sees theĀ criteria of just war as a criteria for the justification of war: war must be waged, and should be waged as justly as possible.

Before continuing to the examples, make sure you take a look at the criteria of just war. There has never, in the history of the world, been a war that meets all of these criteria; yet even the most pacifist of us, with the benefit of hindsight and recognizing the life we enjoy today, may be willing to admit that there are some wars that we’re glad were fought. I think I would insert into Gushee’s analysis, then, a difference in the way that the word “just” is understood: soft just war theorists would argue that no war is just, even if war is necessary; while hard just war theorists would maintain that the ends justify the means, i.e., that a war is actually just in the sense of being morally acceptable if it is waged for the right reasons and in the most humane and effective ways possible.

Now take a look at the current conflict in Gaza. Israel and her allies tend to lean pretty heavily on hard just war theory, which Gushee points out is natural for any government to do: he notes that we tend to hold the position on just war that best aligns with our loyalties. Those loyal to a state or military body are naturally going to have their reasoning affected by that loyalty. In Israel, every male and a large portion of the female population is a member of the military; further, their ethnic identity is tied with their national identity, as Israel is a Jewish state. Even further, they have reason to understand their survival and continued existence as a part of that Jewish identity, as from the moment Israel became a nation they have been subject to attack from neighbouring nations whose explicit aim was to completely destroy them for racial and religious reasons – so loyalty to the state and the military can be seen as inherent to cultural and religious identity for Jewish Israelis.

On the other side of the conflict, hard just war theory (of a different sort) also rules: Palestinian governments and militant groups such as the PLO, Palestinian Authority, and Hamas have all at different times and to different degrees justified their militant stances. The difference is that they pay no lip service to just war criteria, and work within revolutionary frameworks that include guerrilla warfare, suicide bombings, kidnappings and torture, and targeting civilians. Make no mistake, Western governments do this too (Israel is surely no exception); we just claim that we don’t. In any case, the Palestinian governments’ concept of just war is much broader, with no restrictions on methodology but instead deriving its justification entirely from right reasons for war: being oppressed on one hand, and (at least to extreme conservative islamists) the existence of a Jewish state in a Muslim holy land on the other.

International parties in this conflict aren’t quite so firmly on the side of hard just war theory. The US government affirms Israel’s right to defend itself, but is more insistent that other means of conflict resolution be at least attempted (Canada hasn’t said much in that regard, to my shame). Other nations condemn Israel’s attacks on Gaza, but support the Palestinians’ rights to defend themselves. Of course, both nations are defending themselves by offensive means, attacking their neighbour as a way of defending against them, and this is deemed justifiable only by the most “hawkish” of just war theorists.

International groups and individuals are more prone to supporting Palestine than most national governments are. Hamas began as a (terrorist) militia, and other militant forces around the world support their struggle openly and verbally, while governments who support them do so secretly and with smuggled shipments of weapons. Individuals who have no connection to the conflict except through news reports online are more commonly soft just war theorists: Paul Estrin, the now former president of the Green Party of Canada, wrote a blog post in which he lamented the entire war, and even recognized several of Israel’s faults in the conflict, but implied that if Hamas didn’t change their aim of eradicating Israel that Israel would be justified in taking more severe measures. His whole post seemed a long way short of pacifism on one hand, and yet there was nothing “hawkish” in his view that Israel would be right to defend itself. Even so, there were immediate calls for his removal based on his so-called support for “genocide” (the implication being that Israel is engaged in genocide, and therefore any support of Israel was support of genocide). So even people who have no connection to the conflict other than being a human being on planet earth are regularly expressing some form or other of just war theory in support of either side of this conflict.

The Israel/Palestine conflict, to me, gives support to soft just war theory. I’m a pacifist, but when I see that there are elements on both sides of this conflict who won’t stop until the other side is annihilated, I can’t help but think that perhaps defensive violence may be necessary. If that defensive violence could be used in a just way as defined by the criteria of just war, I might be won over to soft just war theory from my current pacifist stance. I recognize that my pacifism is easy, given that I’m not currently under threat. Even so, the convoluted nature of the Israel/Palestine conflict suggests to me that a pacifist response is possible: both sides can recognize that they’re guilty of atrocities toward each other; both sides can recognize that they’re not gaining any ground by fighting; and both sides could at least in theory agree to simply stop fighting. I think this would require that both governments agree to more tightly control their citizens, as the extremists on both sides are the ones who keep the fighting going, but I think that would in many ways be more just than trying to exercise strict control on each other. So I still have some hope for a pacifist option, but in general Gaza makes me think that perhaps soft just war theory is justifiable.

Then ISIS happened. Everywhere I look online these days I see news stories about ISIS (an extremist militant islamist organization) murdering Christians in Iraq, even beheading children. My first thought whenever I see a story like this is about the Christians, my people: “Lord, please help those poor innocent people.” My second thought is about ISIS: “Someone needs to kill those motherfuckers.” Not particularly Christian or pacifist of me, is it? Of course, my sudden swing toward thinking that violence is justified is, as Gushee pointed out, a product of my loyalty to the group in question. It’s also due to the nature of ISIS: they’re a completely unaccountable group that seems to function on mob mentality and religious fervor, and shows absolutely no restraint. This is as near to radical evil as I’ve ever seen in this world, the kind of evil that doesn’t follow the rules of war, the kind of evil that can’t be reasoned with. This is mass-possession, the likes of which the world hasn’t seen since…Hitler. And I’ve come full circle, back to the argument that war is justifiable if it’s fought for the right reasons, and that it’s better to kill a few thousand members of ISIS than to let them slaughter Christians for no cause.

Knowing that I have this kind of reaction is helpful, I think. It helps me to identify with those who justify war without immediately resorting to inflammatory and dismissive terms like “warmongers”. It helps me to step down off of my high horse as I offer opinions on the internet regarding the wars of the world from my comfortable couch in Canada. And it helps me to consider the true cost of pacifism, as well as the true potential of non-violent resistance, because all too often we treat pacifism as an ideal that gets thrown out the window as soon as the first shot is fired by our enemies. If we’re going to hold a soft just war position, we need to do so not as a failed attempt at pacifism, but rather as a principled and self-controlled approach to self-defense or the defense of others. And if we’re going to hold a hard just war position, it should be because it makes sense, not because we’re loyal to our state or military body. And finally, knowing that I have a knee-jerk reaction toward a hard just war position reminds me why, more often than not, my standard position is pacifism: because as much as I’m loyal to Christians and may want to defend them, my first loyalty is to Christ himself, who absorbed the violence of Rome into his own body rather than letting himself be rescued by his followers (or a legion of angels), and did so in a way that inspired a more principled and higher resistance in people and shamed the violent powers that ruled by the sword. This is not the kind of action that I can insist that others follow – if I were in their situation, I may feel justified in violence – but it is the action that Christ took, and the action he calls his followers to emulate. I hope I never need to follow him that, and at the same time I watch and wait for an opportunity for my own death or persecution to mean something. If given the choice between justifying killing someone and having a meaningful death, I hope for the latter. Perhaps if more of us looked for ways for our life, and death, to be meaningful rather than looking for ways to justify killing others, we’d have less opportunity for either.