- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 9, 2001

In the 1960s, antipathy to the Vietnam War in some quarters spiraled into a broader opposition to war in general and gave pacifism a veneer of respectability in America. Smugly summing itself up in a bumper sticker (that can probably still be seen clinging to the rusted bumper of a Volkswagen microbus), the peace movement-turned-pacifism asked rhetorically: "What if they threw a war and nobody came?"

Now a generation and heinous terrorist attack later, we find the question reversed: What if they threw a war protest and no one came?

The terrorist attack of September 11 has forced us to re-examine liberal beliefs that have been allowed to travel unchallenged for far too long.

None of these beliefs lays claim to loftier moral high ground than does pacifism. Pacifism cloaks itself in unmatched moral superiority. It brooks no question and no equal; those who doubt it are beneath it. Yet when seriously examined, it is not morally superior at all but, as September 11 demonstrates, morally inferior.

Amazingly, even those who do not ascribe to pacifism have conceded it an exalted place. How could those who are so benign as to not even claim the moral right of self-defense be anything but the most enlightened and most just of the human species? Those who doubted this have for the most part tacitly consigned themselves to trudge through the muddy vale beneath pacifism's ivory tower.

In the wake of the recent terrorist attacks, America finds itself confronted with, not just a unique war, but a direct challenge to its prevailing relativistic respect for a plurality of ideas, regardless of the inanity of many of them.

September 11 presents America as a nation with an absolute case that formerly could only have been concocted in a philosophy seminar.

Imagine a case where thousands of innocent civilians are killed in a nonwar setting. They have done nothing to provoke this attack, they have no warning that it could even occur and yet they are killed deliberately.

Would this then present the case for a just retaliation?

Sadly, this is no longer simply a theoretical abstraction for America.

However, let us take up the question. Let us assume there is a group of pure pacifists. This group eschews violence, even in their own self-defense. This defenseless group would be perpetually susceptible to expropriation by others of anything they possessed including their lives up to a point at which others no longer found it worth the effort of taking.

Pure pacifists therefore could only exist in two cases. One would be complete isolation. If pacifists were not completely isolated, others would have the obvious incentive to expropriate them. Regardless of what we label these expropriators "unscrupulous," "thieves," or worse the rational cost-benefit choice would be to take from the pacifists unless deterred by some means.

The fact that the pacifists will not take a hand in this deterrence presents the second and the actual case for pacifists' existence. Pacifists must exist within a larger group that will not only defend themselves, but the pacifists as well. This larger group subsidizes the pacifists by performing the deterrence that the pacifists themselves reject, but which the pacifists need in order to survive.

Once pacifism's subsidization is made clear, it is impossible to acknowledge its claim to moral superiority. How can a position be morally superior if it is dependent on another's action particularly if that action (deterrence) is itself deemed to be morally inferior by the pacifist?

To make the matter clearer, imagine a group of people who refused to work on moral grounds and subsisted off the charity even if unsolicited of others. Which of these two groups is morally superior is perfectly evident here.

Likewise it is the pacifists' subsidizers who are in the morally superior position. This is because their stance permits them to differentiate the actions of others choosing to defend or retaliate depending on circumstances thereby allowing for just self-defense. The pacifists' in contrast does not: Either you resist or you do not; there can be no middle ground. Such an absolute stance does not allow pacifists to differentiate between the motives of military action. And it is the motive that defines an action as just or not.

Bringing ourselves back from the theoretical to the particular, there can be a just war. America is now involved in one. Those who do not support her may lay claim to other titles, including pacifism, but not that of justice or moral superiority.

J.T. Young is a deputy assistant secretary at the Treasury Department.


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