Two recent incidents have drawn attention to the fact that violence is more and more seen as a justifiable solution to grievances. One of those, the racially motivated attack on police officers in Dallas Thursday evening, is well known, while the other, a call by an Ohio professor to “storm the NRA headquarters” and “make sure there are no survivors” has been reported only in right-wing media and on websites concerned with gun rights.
The Dallas shooter declared his desire to kill white people, white law enforcement personnel in particular, and murdered five officers, wounding seven others in a series of shots from several locations before being brought down by an explosive device delivered by a robot. He targeted the police who were on duty at a peaceful protest in the city against shootings by officers in Minnesota and Louisiana in the last few days.
Getting much less attention was a Facebook posting by James Pearce, who has taught philosophy courses at Southern State Community College in Ohio on the 13th of June, a day after the attack on an Orlando nightclub that killed forty-nine. Pearce suggested that “there’s only one solution. A bunch of us anti-gun types are going to have to arm ourselves, storm the NRA headquarters in Fairfax, VA, and make sure there are no survivors.” Additional attacks have been reported in three other states.
One fact that we need to remember each time incidents like this grab the headlines is that violence is at the lowest levels in history, both in the United States and globally. We’ve been doing the right things—in many cases without realizing it—over the last several centuries. The freeing of markets along with protections for labor has distributed economic success to a large percentage of the population, though inequalities remain and have been widening in recent years. Another factor has been the emphasis in western societies since the Renaissance on education. An example of this can be seen in literacy rates over time. During the Middle Ages, only a tenth to a third of the population could read, depending on the specific time and location. Some sixty percent of residents of the United States could read at the time our Constitution came into force. But now, America’s literacy rate is above ninety-eight percent, and some eighty-three percent of people around the world can read. By metric after metric—overall health, women’s rights, global communication, the list goes on—we’re living in the best of times.
And yet, violence remains. Violent crime is still committed, and the gunslinger, whether of the Old West or modern action films, is still an American icon. I’ve been know to perpetrate western stories from time to time, and I have a visceral understanding of John Wayne’s last character, J. B. Books, when he says, “I won’t be wronged, I won’t be insulted, and I won’t be laid a hand on. I don’t do these things to other people and I require the same from them.” This leaves me having to ask myself—as we all must do—when violence is necessary or appropriate.
There have been movements around the world that preached a pacifist approach to life. The Quakers of Christianity and the Jains in the Hindu tradition are two such cases of people who practice a rejection of violence. But as much as I can respect someone who refuses to engage in violent acts, I find that choice to be unrealistic in a world that has people who don’t make the same decision. Most who study history understand the need for the Allies to fight against the tyrannies of Germany and Japan in World War II. When we move past what’s generally taken as an obvious case of necessary violence, though, we’re left having to ask where to draw the line beyond which violent actions are no longer morally justified. This is an especially pointed question in a nation that got its start in a revolution and fought a civil war.
This is a question that each of us has to answer for ourselves, but my judgement—as a student of history, as an American who enjoys living in a country that respects basic rights, and as someone who owns and carries firearms—is that violence is only justified when it is used to stop violent acts against innocent people. This is the principle of self-defense, and it can equally well apply between interest groups or nations.
The Black Lives Matter movement is a broad coalition, so it’s hard to characterize such a diverse group in short sentences, but unlike what we saw in Dallas Thursday evening, peaceful protests have pushed candidates and elected officials to take seriously the concerns of ordinary citizens in their relationship with the police. There might be a time when physical violence is the only answer to tyranny, but we’re nowhere near that time in contemporary America. As a nation, if we’re to see further reductions in violence, that will come only through mutual acknowledgement of each person’s rights and through a commitment to work together toward building and accepting a nation in which we work together where we can and leave all to live their own lives when we disagree.
The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of Guns.com.