Remarks at Student Peace Awards of Fairfax County, Va., March 10, 2019
By David Swanson, Director, World BEYOND War
Thank you for inviting me here. I'm honored. And I'm reminded of lots of happy memories of Herndon High School, class of 87. If there was encouragement back then to take on the sort of projects that our honorees today have taken on, I missed it. I suspect that some improvements have been made in high school education since my day. Yet I did manage to learn a lot at Herndon, and also by participating in a trip abroad with one of my teachers, and from spending a year abroad as an exchange student following graduation prior to beginning college. Seeing the world through a new culture and language helped me to question things I hadn't. I believe we need a lot more questioning, including of things familiar and comfortable. The students being honored today have all been willing to push themselves beyond what was comfortable. You all don't need me to tell you the benefits of having done that. The benefits, as you know, are much more than an award.
Reading the summaries of what these students have done, I see a lot of work opposing bigotry, recognizing humanity in those who are different, and helping others to do the same. I see a lot of opposing cruelty and violence and advocating nonviolent solutions and kindness. I think of all of these steps as part of building a culture of peace. By peace I mean, not exclusively, but first and foremost, the absence of war. Prejudice is a wonderful tool in marketing wars. Human understanding is a wonderful impediment. But we have to avoid allowing our concerns to be used against, avoid accepting that the only way to solve some alleged crime is to commit the larger crime of war. And we have to figure out how to persuade governments to behave as peacefully on a large scale as we try to on a smaller one, so that we aren't welcoming refugees while our government causes more people to flee their homes, so that we aren't sending aid to places while our government sends missiles and guns.
I recently did a couple of public debates with a professor from the U.S. Army's West Point Academy. The question was whether war can ever be justified. He argued yes. I argued no. Like many people who argue his side, he spent a fair amount of time talking not about wars but about finding yourself confronted in a dark alleyway, the idea being that everyone must simply agree that they would be violent if confronted in a dark alleyway, and therefore war is justifiable. I responded by asking him not to change the subject, and by claiming that what one person does in a dark alleyway, whether violent or not, has very little in common with the collective enterprise of constructing massive equipment and preparing massive forces and making the calm and deliberate choice to drop explosives on distant people's homes rather than negotiate or cooperate or make use of courts or arbitration or aid or disarmament agreements.
But if you've read this excellent book that's being given to these outstanding students today, Sweet Fruit from a Bitter Tree, then you know that it simply is not true that a person alone in a dark alleyway never has any better option than violence. For some people in some cases in dark alleyways and other similar locations, violence could prove the best option, a fact that would tell us nothing about the institution of war. But in this book we read numerous stories and there are many, no doubt millions, more just like them of people who chose a different course.
It sounds not just uncomfortable but ridiculous to the dominant culture we live in to suggest starting a conversation with a would-be rapist, making friends with burglars, asking an attacker about his troubles or inviting him to dinner. How can such an approach, documented to have worked over and over again in practice ever be made to work in theory? (If anyone here is planning to attend college, you can expect to encounter just that question quite often.)
Well, here's a different theory. Very often, not always, but very often people have a need for respect and friendship that is much stronger than their desire to inflict pain. A friend of mine named David Hartsough was part of a nonviolent action in Arlington trying to integrate a segregated lunch counter, and an angry man put a knife up to him and threatened to kill him. David calmly looked him in the eye and said words to the effect of "You do what you have to do, my brother, and I am going to love you anyway." The hand holding the knife began to shake, and then the knife fell to the floor.
Also, the lunch counter was integrated.
Humans are a very peculiar species. We don't actually need a knife to the throat to feel uncomfortable. I may say things in a speech like this one that don't threaten anyone in any way, but nonetheless make some people pretty darn uncomfortable. I wish they didn't, but I think they have to be said even if they do.
A little over a year ago there was a mass shooting at a high school in Florida. Many people have, quite rightly I think, asked the people just up the street here at the NRA to consider what role their corruption of government may play in the endless epidemic of gun violence in the United States. Thank you to Congressman Connolly for having voted for background checks, by the way. But almost nobody mentions that our tax dollars paid to train that young man in Florida to kill, trained him right in the cafeteria of the high school where he did it, and that he was wearing a t-shirt advertising that training program when he murdered his classmates. Why wouldn't that upset us? Why wouldn't we all feel some responsibility? Why would we avoid the subject?
One possible explanation is that we've been taught that when the U.S. Army trains people to shoot guns it's for a good purpose, not murder, but some other kind of shooting people, and that a t-shirt from a JROTC program is an admirable, patriotic, and noble badge of honor that we shouldn't disgrace by mentioning it in conjunction with a mass murder of people who matter. After all, Fairfax County has the JROTC too and hasn't experienced the same result as Parkland, Florida yet. Questioning the wisdom of such programs would be vaguely unpatriotic, perhaps even treasonous. It's more comfortable just to keep quiet.
Now, let me say something even more uncomfortable. Mass shooters in the United States very disproportionately have been trained by the U.S. military. That is to say, veterans are proportionately more likely to be mass shooters than are a random group of men of the same age. The facts in this regard are not in dispute, only the acceptability of mentioning them. It's all right to point out that mass shooters are almost all male. It's all right to point out how many suffer from mental illness. But not how many were trained by one of the biggest public programs the world has ever seen.
Needless to say, or rather I wish it were needless to say, one doesn't mention mental illness in order to encourage cruelty to the mentally ill, or veterans in order to condone anyone being mean to veterans. I mention the suffering of veterans and the suffering that some of them sometimes inflict on others in order to open up a conversation about whether we ought to stop creating more veterans going forward.
In Fairfax County, as much as anywhere in this country, questioning militarism is questioning an existing economy of military contractors. Studies have found that if you moved money from military spending to education or infrastructure or green energy or even tax cuts for working people you'd have so many more jobs and better-paying jobs at that, that you could in fact divert sufficient funds into aiding anyone who needed help in transitioning from military to non-military work. But in our current culture, people think of the enterprise of mass killing as a jobs program, and investment in it as normal.