To Refuse Allegiance to the State An Open Letter to the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee

by Barry Loberfeld by Barry Loberfeld

To all people of goodwill in the NWTRCC:

One of the nice things about this past Christmas vacation was all the time I had to devote to things that really were about “peace on Earth.” Now I could finally read some of the stuff I had collected throughout the year, such as the May-June issue of The Nonviolent Activist, the official “Magazine of the War Resisters League,” which I’d picked up at a kind of poetry-and-politics cabaret hosted by PeaceSmiths, a Long Island antiwar group. What struck me most was a one-page piece entitled “AN APPEAL TO CONSCIENCE: In Support of Those Refusing to Pay for War on Iraq” (“a project of the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee”). It sped straight to the point of what war means: “death and disease” – by bombing, shooting, and environmental poisoning – for both soldiers and civilians in Iraq, as well as “terrorist attacks against the United States, its citizens, and those of any allies who join us.” It also means “tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars, thus further diverting resources from addressing the hunger, homelessness, unemployment, and other economic problems facing millions of American families.” The Appeal contended that “[p]re-emptive war against Iraq violates international laws, including the Charter of the United Nations, which the U.S. Constitution requires us to uphold” and suggested that “there are other, more peaceful and effective approaches to dealing with real threats posed by weapons of mass destruction.” It concluded:

We believe that every citizen of this country has a moral duty to speak out against, and avoid cooperation with, this escalated war against Iraq – and to encourage others to do the same.

Refusal to pay taxes used to finance unjust wars, along with refusal by soldiers to fight in them, is a direct and potentially effective form of citizen noncooperation, and one that governments cannot ignore. War tax refusal has a long and honorable tradition among religious and secular opponents of war …

Refusal to pay all or a portion of one’s federal taxes as a form of conscientious objection to war may involve personal risks. For that reason, material and moral support for war tax refusers – including organizing support committees, raising support funds, and providing legal defense – is an important form of war resistance in itself.

Therefore, we, the undersigned individuals, believing that war tax refusal under the present circumstances is fully justified on moral and ethical grounds, publicly declare our encouragement of, and willingness to lend support to, those persons of conscience who choose to take this step. [original emphasis]

Among the names listed were Joan Baez and Daniel Berrigan, William Sloane Coffin and Daniel Ellsberg, Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn.

All of these persons are fully aware of the reasons given for going to war. They have heard prominent, accomplished individuals, both inside and outside the Administration, present empirical evidence and moral arguments. They have heard the War on Terrorism justified as a benefit to all people, including the Iraqis, and they have heard the accusations of “selfishness” and “indifference” hurled at those who’ve rejected this claim. They must surely acknowledge the possibility that this invasion of Iraq, like the earlier one, might garner the support of a majority of the population. And yet they defend the right of any dissenting individual, acting upon no more than his own judgment and ethics (“conscience”), to withhold his person and property from the war effort of the State.

The Appeal is a remarkable statement – explicitly and implicitly. Consider. I oppose the War on Drugs. I disagree with those, inside and outside the government, who defend it. My own judgment of the evidence and my own moral code lead me to conclude that narcotics prohibition is a benefit to no one. Even though poll after poll may show that a majority of Americans oppose legalization, don’t I have a right to refuse “to pay all or a portion” of my “federal taxes as a form of conscientious objection” to this war?

I also oppose the War on Ignorance. I believe “public education” to be a virtual oxymoron; that government involvement (i.e., coercion) makes a mockery of anything that can decently be called learning; that freedom of education is a basic human right for the same reasons that, say, freedom of religion is (see my Freedom of Education: A Civil Liberty). While most Americans don’t agree with me, many others – from Calvinist fundamentalists to Randian atheists – do. Will the Appeal’s “undersigned individuals” honor the right of “tax refusal” of both the “religious and secular opponents” of this war?

What about the War on Illness? After considering every argument on the subject, I’m convinced that greater government control of medicine – “national healthcare” – will mean only greater “death and disease.” My sense of “moral duty,” my idea of what I owe others, tells me to advocate the total withdrawal of the State from this area – that is, “to speak out against, and avoid cooperation with, this escalated war.” What of those of us who share this conviction? Will all the “undersigned individuals” support our “[r]efusal to pay taxes used to finance” this “unjust” war – “along with refusal by” physicians “to fight in” it, i.e., their right to practice medicine peacefully in private (a right denied by the Canadian government, for one)?

Ah, and the War on Poverty? I believe this war, by “diverting resources from” American citizens (via taxation), has prevented us “from addressing the hunger, homelessness, unemployment, and other economic problems facing millions” of our fellow human beings, here and abroad. I believe this war has no more provided anyone with “security” than the War on Terrorism has; that both have already backfired; that both have increased, not lessened, misery; that both are unconstitutional (as are all the others above). Those of us who condemn the former as strongly as the latter – are we free to dissent from both? Will our right of “[w]ar tax refusal” be recognized – or dismissed as “selfishness” and “indifference”? To put it as directly as possible, will the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee “publicly declare” its “encouragement of, and willingness to lend support to, those persons of conscience who choose to take this step”?

“The War Resisters League affirms that all war is a crime against humanity” – so reads its credo. But it is all-too-obvious that its supporters oppose only foreign militarism. They actually advocate domestic militarism, the deployment of armed forces by the State against its own citizens. Their “pacifist” position rejects retaliation by “the army” against invading soldiers, but sanctions the use of coercion by “the police” against people who have themselves committed no violence. How can we pretend that the violence of domestic militarism – even when we call this state coercion “socialism,” “progressivism,” “egalitarianism,” or any other inane misnomer – is not real violence? Are its weapons less real? Its jails? (Of course not, which is precisely why the Appeal acknowledges the “personal risks” of refusing to obey the orders of those who command the weapons.) And how could anyone justify this violence? As retaliation (rejected, we’ve noted, as an option for the foreign military) against such perverse analogies – persuasion cast as coercion – as “economic violence” and now even “verbal violence,” i.e., speech? Don’t pacifists believe “Violence only leads to more violence” – a declaration that in fact appears on the page opposite the Appeal? Indeed, why is state coercion even seen as a tool – worse, the only tool – to achieve social ends? How can one oppose the use of force for “nation building” abroad, but not at home? Is it unthinkable that maybe “there are other, more peaceful and effective approaches to dealing with real threats” such as ignorance, illness, and poverty? And how can anybody defend taxation (for domestic militarism) and “tax refusal” (of foreign militarism) – the way one defends both censorship (of others) and free speech (for oneself)? Is this right of “conscience” a right of every man – or just the privilege of the Left?

If the Appeal demonstrates anything, it’s that a right of conscience cannot exist apart from the right of property. How can anyone have a responsibility to control what’s done with his property without a right to control what’s done with his property? And what is conscience itself but, as James Madison phrased it, “the most sacred of all property”?

I challenge the War Resisters League and its supporters to fully become good neighbors and really oppose “all war” – not only the war the State wages against other nations, but also the one it wages against its people and their lives and property. A world without domestic militarism is simply a world without violence. To imagine that it will also be a world without justice, prosperity, cooperation, and compassion, is to proclaim that violence the font of these values – as absurd, cynical, and ultimately obscene a statement as one could make.

Force creates only destruction, and being the first to raise one’s fist makes a man nothing but a brute. Please, sever your support, both “material and moral,” for domestic militarism, just as you would have others sever theirs for foreign militarism. In short, be true to your own values … to your own selves. If one can’t do that, what of any importance is left?

In Peace and Freedom, Barry Loberfeld