Few of us can easily surrender our belief that society must somehow make sense. The thought that the state has lost its mind and is punishing so many innocent people is intolerable. And so the evidence has to be internally denied.
~ Arthur Miller
The recent suicide attack made by a man who crashed his plane into a Texas building housing IRS offices raises questions that neither the mainstream media nor other establishment voices will dare to examine. Such a frontal assault on the state — like suicide bombers in the Middle East — must not be seen as an indictment of political systems. The media will go into its obligatory "damage control" mode and marginalize the man — Joe Stack — as a "kook," a "terrorist," or an "extremist," another threat whose example can be turned to the benefit of the state. His lengthy, but inelegant, written statement explaining his anger at the government was quickly labeled a "diatribe," a "rant," and a "rambling screed," to discourage others from reading his words and having their thinking infected thereby. Far safer to have this man thought of as "insane," for what rational person would want to give his writing serious attention?
There is a sadness within events such as this, reflective of an individual inner awareness that the social systems with which we have organized with one another simply do not serve their avowed purposes. Governments do not defend our liberty and protect our property, but increasingly control and despoil us; schools do not fire our children’s creative imaginations and capacities for independent questioning, but carefully condition their minds to accept assigned roles in an institutionally-structured world; as they increase in size, business organizations cease functioning as convenient tools for sharing in the division of labor that makes our material well-being possible, and become icons that are "too big to fail," and are thus entitled to be sustained at the forced expense of ordinary people.
Our institutionally-dominated world, in other words, is a structured monolith that no more serves the living than does a packinghouse serve the cattle who are consumed therein. Wars, police brutalities, assassinations, torture, the use of eminent domain to transfer property to corporations, asset forfeiture, the subjugation of the human spirit, the corporate purposes for which the state exists, these and so many other examples of the continuing war against life that is our modern society, increasingly remind us that we humans are but fungible resources to be exploited on behalf of well-organized interests not of our own direction.
The sadness in this man’s suicide attack is enhanced by two interconnected factors: (1) that his anger and frustration at a system that so thoroughly exploited — rather than supported — him, reduced his response to a life-destroying act of utter desperation; and (2) that our own lives have become so fragmented from one another that we are unable to see our common interest in defending one another from these forces of organized victimization. Like so many people who have been battered into submission by more powerful bullies, there is a tendency for victims to internalize the wrong as a personal shortcoming. As our social and political thinking has evolved from milder to more severe levels of lunacy (e.g., from wars of supposed "self-defense" to "preventive" wars) our collective madness has escalated from the normally-neurotic to the commonplace psychotic. We learn to absorb the deranged reasoning that insists upon the increased costs to our humanness.
Perhaps the saddest words of all in Mr. Stack’s statement are these: "violence not only is the answer, it is the only answer." Such a thought probably accompanied the Ohio man who recently bulldozed his own house when faced with foreclosure proceedings. The same mindset — while not spoken — undoubtedly underlies the actions of those who shoot others at shopping malls, schools, or their workplaces. The shallow-minded will attribute such acts to guns or other tools of destruction.
Resort to violence has always reflected a sense of hopelessness, despair, and despondency so contrary to life. Because the state is defined as a system that enjoys a monopoly on the use of violence, it becomes easy for any of us — frustrated and angry over having our wills systematically violated by coercive agencies — to feel the need, at some point, to respond in kind. But if violence practiced by governments is antithetical to life, doesn’t a violent act of retaliation likewise diminish the quality of life? It is not the unlawfulness, or the immorality of such acts that is so saddening, but the dispiriting impact it has on the actor; what it does to the soul of the person driven to such desperate measures. By resorting to statist tactics, we internalize statism; we become what we oppose.
I have always been less interested in the philosophic foundations of peace and liberty than in the psychology — the state of mind — that is necessary to bring about such conditions. It is not the rest of the world; the politicians and other collectivists; the media; "they" that are so in need of reformation, but our individual selves. Shakespeare expressed the point so clearly in Julius Caesar: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings."
All of the anger that we feel is self-directed, even when we are reacting to what others have done to us. This is not to absolve the wrongdoer, but to focus our attention on the more important question: what personal shortcomings led to my being victimized? A student once asked me: "but if you were walking alone down a dark, uninhabited street at night, and were approached by a gang of muggers, what would you do?" I answered that my response would depend upon the options available to me at the time but, I added, "when I got back home, I would ask myself: u2018why on earth was I walking alone down a dark, uninhabited street at night?’."
We are uncomfortable contemplating our own imperfections or, worse yet, those "dark-side" voices within our unconscious mind that speak of qualities we would prefer not to have (e.g., anger, capacities for violence, etc.) Though most of us do not act upon these feared elements, we are troubled that they are within us. How do we get rid of them? All too often we project such attributes onto others (i.e., "scapegoats"). As an expression of our identification with a political system bent on controlling the world, we easily ascribe such motivations to others: (e.g., Hitler, the communists, and, now, militant Islam).
It is important to point out that a scapegoat — whether foreign or domestic — need not be innocent of any wrongdoing. Whether we are engaging in scapegoating can largely be sensed by the anger we feel toward another. If a serial killer was loose in our community, we might respond in a fairly rational way, taking steps to protect our family and friends from possible attack. Such behavior — born of a rational fear — would not rise to the level of projecting our felt shortcomings onto another. On the other hand, if our response was fired by an intense rage, we might well be expressing anger at ourselves for feeling vulnerable to the attacks of another.
How much of the anger we experience from state action is really an indictment of our inability to avoid being looted, regulated, bullied, and dehumanized by this system? The Greek Stoic, Epictetus, observed: "It is impossible for that which is free by nature to be disturbed by anything but itself. It is a man’s own judgments which disturb him." If we have a sense of existential worthiness (i.e., our own reason for being), and the expectation that others in society will respect our inviolability, how will we respond when such expectancies fail us?
As popular respect and sanction for the state continues to erode, political authorities react with increasingly draconian measures to shore up a fading obedience, a process that only intensifies the disrespect and anger felt by so many. Many men and women — mindful that the trust they had been conditioned to give to the political system was unwarranted — strike out in self-destructive anger. Joe Stack’s act of enraged desperation was the latest, but will not be the last, example.
But is there a peaceful means — one that does not emulate the violence of a system that has failed them — of restoring a sense of humanity to a society already politicized far beyond the fears of the founders of this country? Just one of the many victims of the collapse of long-held popular expectations of the American system, has been the idea of "constitutional government." The notion that state power could be restrained by words written on parchment, has been thoroughly discredited in recent years. The state — which enjoys the authority to interpret its own powers — has been enjoying a holiday free of any limitations other than its own appetites.
Joe Stack’s belief that "violence is the only answer" to such depredations would only enshrine destruction — whether engaged in by the state or by those seeking liberty — as a way of living. It is what such a mindset would do to us, to our children, and grandchildren, that ought to set us against violence. Arthur Koestler may have been right when he suggested that humanity may have been an evolutionary mistake; that imbuing a killer ape with intelligence might not have been one of nature’s better strategies!
Whether it is too late to salvage mankind from its self-destructive bent I cannot say. But for the sake of my children and grandchildren, I am not prepared to give up on the evolutionary process; I have no interest in engaging in futile, self-destructive suicide runs at statist windmills. Instead, I shall continue in my efforts to outsmart those who insist on keeping my fellow humans penned up for their fate inside the institutional abattoir!
I was reminded of one such effort as I learned of Joe Stack’s response to his own frustration. The state has expanded its powers by encouraging the rest of us to divide off from one another into conflicting groups (e.g., competing racial, ethnic, gender, religious, economic, etc., categories). What if we were to rediscover what our distant ancestors knew, namely, that what we have in common is a need for our protection as individuals? What if each of us began thinking of wars, taxation, torture, eminent domain, etc., as attacks by the state upon each of us? What if I understood that your being conscripted also enslaved me; and that I would be prepared to stand by you in peaceful opposition?
There is a wonderful scene of just such a possibility in the movie Witness. Set in an Amish community — where people live peaceful, anarchistic, pacifistic, and spiritual lives without any inner political structuring — the villain (a Philadelphia police official) arrives to capture the hero (a police officer who is in hiding) in order to kill him. An Amish boy rings the family bell, sending a warning out to all the neighbors who come running in answer to his signal for help. The villain — the only man who is armed — is completely disarmed (without being touched) by some two-dozen pacifist Amish men who stand as "witnesses" to the wrong being perpetrated by the villain.
What might we learn from the example of the Amish — and others — about the peaceful strength that comes from our standing together with one another in a peaceful, moral resolve that says "no more"?
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of the newly-released In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918—1938 and of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival. His latest book is Boundaries of Order.