“People sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”
– Misattributed to George Orwell. (Still a BadAss Quote, No Matter Who Said It.)
Why Social Justice Advocates Should Do Our Killing.
The trouble with weapons is the people who want to own them often do own them. Few of us would be overly concerned to hear that a Mennonite missionary maintains a large collection of modern weaponry. The Mennonites are one of a few Christian denominations with a near-absolute theological prohibition against violence. Thousands of young Mennonite men have suffered social and legal consequences for their wholesale refusal to kill. Their moral courage is of a caliber I try and fail to mimic. Conversely, most of us would be concerned to learn that a career violent criminal kept the same collection. We have good reason to believe someone convicted of aggravated assault, armed robbery, and manslaughter would use those weapons to victimize more people.
Consider a scenario in which the amount of weaponry remained fixed, but we could assign it to the care of any demographic group or combination of groups. Given an objective of minimizing suffering, we should assign the entire stockpile to the care of those least likely – and most reluctant – to use it. Our collection of AR-15s & concealable semiautomatics would remain secure and neglected in the basements of Mennonite churches and Jain temples. Street violence would again be measured in stitches, lost teeth, and black eyes.
Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, firearms – like most consumer products – are most sought after by those most enthusiastic about their use. The same principle of enthusiasm holds true for how we select our life’s work. Those who feel compelled to build become engineers. Those who feel compelled to comfort become nurses. In most scenarios, we encourage that enthusiasm because it’s necessary to succeed in professions both challenging and critical.
Policing and warfighting are clearly both challenging and critical. The two professions – let’s refer to them collectively as the “Profession of Arms” – ensure the physical security that allows the rest of us to excel in more civil pursuits – building, creating, healing, and the other callings that give substance to civilizations. However, soldiers and policemen often use violence to guarantee us that security. We allow them to do so because we’ve concluded that the controlled application of violence is often the only way to protect ourselves from predation, from groups or individuals who would seek to exploit and victimize us. Often even the most staunch pacifists among us agree with the descriptive mechanics of this principle.
However, we’re left with the problem of enthusiasm. A young man attracted to the profession of arms – especially law enforcement – by the lure of state-sanctioned violence has an emotional incentive to apply a level of violence higher than is necessary to protect the rest of us from predation. Protector becomes predator. Left unchallenged, state violence can detract from our well-being and safety as much as that committed by “real” criminals.
Conversely, a passive, non-violent personality is equally undesirable. Those we commission to carry out our violence must, in fact, be willing and capable of doing so. The men who stepped into the darkness over Normandy, or who drove across the dunes of the 73 Easting did so enthusiastically, and many spent their entire adult lives pursuing the experience. Those called to the profession of arms must be comfortable in violence, but not content. They must be prepared for the experience, but not relish it. They must be absolutely capable of killing – of ending human life – but nauseated at the prospect of doing so. In short, we should cultivate formations filled with aggressive, lethal, and utterly tortured warriors.
The sharpest edges our society – the Tip of the Spear – should be forged from those most thoughtful about the morality of ending human life. The application of state violence, to arrest, to incapacitate, and ultimately to kill, should be the product of a highly compassionate mind having conducted sober risk assessment and thorough moral arithmetic. Our violence should be carried out by those deeply aware of their own biases, and of how they affect their own behavior and decision-making. It should be committed by those among us who truly grasp the second and third-order effects of violence, and who know how to mitigate those effects. Our Spearhead – our “Rough Men” – should be sharp, fierce, and entirely reluctant to employ their full skill-set.
If you are young, healthy, bright, and outraged about unnecessary state violence, I sincerely encourage you to consider the profession of arms. We absolutely need anti-racism activists to hold police accountable and remind us that #BlackLivesMatter, but nowhere can you effect that change more directly or immediately than from behind a gun and a badge. We need human rights activists to advocate for prisoners’ rights and sentencing reform, but nobody is better positioned to make American prisons safer, more humane places than those who keep the keys and guard the walls.
The compassionate, humane members of our society must not concede the profession of arms to the sadistic and the inhumane. The most moral among us should necessarily place themselves in positions of maximum moral ambiguity. They’re the most prepared to apply violence in accordance with the values of a free society. Given the ultimate goal of reducing suffering, they’re the most qualified. They should form the sharpest edges of our spears.