I am very tired, and have gotten very little sleep lately. Part of that was due to last night, which was one of the more joyful and hopeful moments I have seen in years, even if I didn’t go outside like everyone else. I have longer thoughts coming in the Huffington Post (just finished filing new blog), but I want to say something about the fake quote circulating on Facebook:
“I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
While the sentiments might seem superficially reasonable, a closer reading betrays a misunderstanding of human conflict–violent or nonviolent.
War doesn’t happen because of some kind of pure and abstract hatred. This quote conjures up the stereotypical image, spread by Balkan Ghosts and other books, of two tribes with “ancient hatreds” that control their minds. While primal violence and enmity is important, but to see conflict through the prism of “hate”–sustained by hate and somehow eroded by an equally vague “love” is simply bizarre. War is fundamentally about politics. Conflicts are fought for political objectives, even if those objectives might seem irrational to anyone except the one who sets them.
Adolf Hitler may have hated Jews and practically anyone who wasn’t Adolf Hitler, but he has a very specific (if insane) political vision that was internally consistent and a set of political-military tactics to achieve it. Of course this “vision” was genocidal, paranoid, and utterly repugnant, but if he was driven solely by abstract hate he would have remained a failed artist of no consequence rather than a mass murderer whose quest to depopulate every town from the Polish border to Siberia was backed by the murderous organs of a totalitarian great power state. This is “rationality”–even if it is a kind that we find difficult to accept. Quite similarly, Osama Bin Laden had an internally consistent (but clock cuckoo) political vision and he also used brutal violence to try to achieve it.
If we accept Clausewitz’s claim that war is “politics by other means,” we have to also accept that there are no “irrational” conflicts. Perhaps the actors involved have miscalculated the relative efficacy of violence, as the Palestinians did when their return to violence in 2000 led to the IDF’s stage-by-stage demolition of the Palestinian Authority. But to imply that actors are simply driven by positive or negative emotions is to insult their intelligence and autonomy.
Conflict exists on a spectrum of complete nonviolence to nuclear warfare. It’s a basic fact of human existence, and how actors choose to achieve their gains is often situationally dependent. We all have goals, and often times they conflict with those of other people. Political realists from Machiavelli to Pareto share an assumption that politics is at heart a form of power over people–hence we often turn to politics to increase privileges, right perceived injustices, capture scarce resources, or spread our own systems of belief. Since politics determines the distribution of power, it is a basic part of our lives no matter whether we religiously watch C-SPAN or indulge the apathy that heavy does of American domestic politics often seems to cultivate.
So to return to the quote, whether or not you meet hatred with hatred or hatred with love really matters little because such terms are really too general to meaningfully describe the political reasons why people conflict. Sometimes those political visions are flexible and can be modified to fit reality if actors judge that the price of continued violence is too high, or actors can realize that their goals are best met through cooperation rather than conflict. F.W. De Klerk and the South Africans, in the end, judged that they could not maintain apartheid in perpetuity and the political vision outlined by Nelson Mandela of the African National Congress was acceptable to them. In short, you use the method most appropriate for your policy and most acceptable to your own system of morality.
It is no wonder that Martin Luther King Jr. never uttered such words, as he was probably the only major strategic and operational leader of non-violent struggle who truly understood strategy. For example, Martin Luther King Jr. simply didn’t wake up and decide that he wanted to eradicate prejudice. He realized that an entrenched Southern oligarchy was using an interlocking system of legal prejudice, extralegal violence and intimidation, and paramilitary power to maintain a system of privilege built on the backs of African-Americans. Realizing that this system was the enemy’s “center of gravity,” the common spirit that bound it all together, King Jr. elected to challenge it not with love and flowers–but nonviolent action carefully designed to accomplish his policy. Like Mandela, King Jr. (with a little unintentional help from the more militant Malcolm X and plenty of help from the at times adversarial Lyndon Baines Johnson) demonstrated to elites that the system could not be maintained and forced them to reach an accommodation.
Bin Laden was never looking for an accommodation or a compromise. Like Lenin and Robspierre before him, he was looking to overthrow the ancien regime and put everyone associated with it to the guillotine. His fanaticism and willingness to hurt innocents knew no bounds, and we can only guess at what horrors might have ensued if he actually succeeded in his mad quest to impose his own political order on the Middle East. So in the end a Navy SEAL addressed the “root cause” of Bin Laden’s grievances by putting a bullet through his temple.
The longer we go on believing in the message of this quote, that only love can vanquish evil, the longer we set ourselves up for tragedy. Love did not stop the Japanese rampage through China, love did not end slavery in the American South, and love did not stop Napoleon’s attempt to dominate Europe.
This is not to say that love is weak—love is one of the most powerful things imaginable, and anyone who has experienced it or has had the pleasure of giving it to others understands that. Hate is, at least for me, the most draining thing imaginable and something I try to avoid at all costs.
But neither love or hate are policies, strategies, or tactics. They’re only emotions and ideal categories. They are not instrumental devices that we use to get what we want. So let’s stop pretending that they are causal forces, that somehow rejoicing in the end of a mass murderer is going to conjure up more hate which in turn leads to more conflict.
Update: Thanks all for the RTs. I did make an error when I said that King never said all of the words described–as some sleuthing has discovered, only the first sentence was made up. The larger point about King’s use of strategy reflects the record–even if it is not really a part of how he is seen in popular history.