Author: Stewart Bova is a Virginia Commonwealth University graduate with a degree in History currently training for the Navy.
“War is not an independent phenomenon, but the continuation of politics by different means.” – Carl Von Clausewitz
There is a an open and continuous threat of violence, to whatever degree, which, if carried out, could, and often does, lead to your injury, harm towards your loved ones, and even your death. Even after your death, this threat extends to the seizure of your property and assets and, obviously, you’d have no means to resist.
Now, with such a large price to pay for such violent provocation, why are we not worried every moment of the day that this threat could be carried out? Simply put, we live among each other in a social contract that demands the necessary existence of violence. However, it seems that much of Europe has forgotten this.
The threat of violence described above is the most constant and all encumbering threat in modern civilisation; it is the threat levied by the state. Per the social contract theory laid out in famous works such as Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil, the state owns the legal right to administer justice with the possible use of force, in order to achieve social order, peace, and stability. The consent of the governed to give up certain rights and observe certain obligations to a looming leviathan is the heart of civil society and legitimate government. However, the government cannot, and will never be able to, control human beings to the extent that it wants. Humans are unpredictable. Humans are violent. Moreover, violence is sometimes needed in order preserve one’s life and safety.
Looking back upon my life, I feel blessed and honoured to have accumulated a truly international collection of friends, experiences, and worldviews at my age. Even within my home of Virginia, I have had the luxury to travel extensively in a variety of social, political, racial, and class groups. These experiences gave me an opportunity to explore so much of humanity and history. However, one aspect that I am most grateful for is one that may be difficult or counter-intuitive to accept at first. I have been blessed with an exposure of and acclimation to violence.
The real world is simple, uncaring, and clear. Life is violent. People are violent. From fistfights to wrestling matches, as well as from firearms training to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, I have participated in the act of controlled violence. Many times, I have enjoyed these activities without any pretext or goal, but rather for its own sake.
However, for the majority of my European acquaintances, the list I have just provided sounds more like a list of activities for a deviant than for a civilised and “educated”, person. Their shock is usually compounded when I mention that I have personally experienced racially motivated assaults, witnessed light gang activity, laid down on the ground due to gunfire in an apartment building, and even had a heated exchange with foreign police officers who trained their assault weapons at me.
Informing them that I am a proud gun owner of several firearms and trained in them is usually the final nail in the coffin. “But you are so educated? Why would ever have them!?” exclaimed one dinner companion from the Netherlands. “I do not see how any educated person could want to have a firearm, let alone use one”. I can see where he is coming from, especially from the European environment in which he was raised. A quick look on the statistics of firearm deaths in America would easily persuade any reasonable person away from the idea of personal use of firearms.
This is a conversation I have had hundreds of times, and is one I will undoubtedly have in the future with my friends from the European continent. However, the purpose of this piece is not to discuss the place of firearms in European society. There is a separate and important discussion to be had on the supposed validity of owning a firearm for self-protection, but it seems this has come at the cost of discussing the validity of using violence in the manner of self-defence.
“While violence has been used to the horror of our world for some of the worst actions in human history, it also created the stable world we enjoy today”
It seems many Europeans have written off violence and its application as a blight on civilisation, reserved only for the ignorant, foolhardy, or evil. This is not without its legitimate concerns. Evil people have used violence to get what they want, and in the worst expressions of human malice, used it to torture, rape, and kill, for its own sake. I fully understand the desire to rid the world of violence, and I understand the impulse to cleanse it from our society so no one will ever have to experience it.
Nevertheless, the world does not lend itself to our desires and no amount of social engineering will eliminate the need of understanding and using violence. Moreover, this view of violence expressed so commonly by my European counterparts is incomplete.
While violence has been used to the horror of our world for some of the worst actions in human history, it also created the stable world we enjoy today. It was violence at the end of a bayonet that ended slavery in the United States. It was war, in all its horrors, that ended the rule of totalitarian Nazi Germany. It was the threat of complete nuclear annihilation that ended the blood thirst of the Imperial Japanese.
War is, as Clausewitz put it, “not an independent phenomenon, but the continuation of politics by different means.” And war is simply violence on a macro scale – with one state attempted to project its will over another. War is not the only option in the toolbox, and nations spend vast amounts of resources in the form of diplomacy, trade, aid and propaganda to affect the behaviour of the states with which they deal. But when all other means fail, and two nations are at an impasse with two unchangeable wills, war will inevitably occur.
War theory is well read and discussed in educated circles, but if one brings the logic down to the local level of violence between individuals, one can easily see how the theory can apply to the everyday interactions between citizens and the variety of situations they might face. Whether it is in the morning of September 11th, the offices of Charlie Hebdo, or a broken window in the middle of the night, the veneer of civilisation can crumble before us in an instant. Humans use violence as a means of achieving a goal. While retaliation in the scope of an eye-for-an-eye is not an optimal strategy, it is undoubtable that understanding violence can be the key to surviving and countering threats forced upon us. Put simply, when faced with a person, or a group of individuals who are hell bent on killing you, maybe the only response is use of self-defence and force.
European society as a whole needs to recognise this reality and inculcate it into the culture. To give a personal anecdote that demonstrates what can happen when an entire group of people, not acclimated to violence, suddenly faces a deadly threat, I will describe what was taught to me personally by one of the police officers investigating the scene after the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007. The police officer described to us the scene as he entered into room 211 of Norris Hall, after Seung-Hui Cho murdered 32 of his fellow Hokies:
“Some were in their seats, right where they sitting for class. It was clear from the way the bodies were spaced out, they stayed where they were as the shooting went on”. My eyes began to widen and I stuttered attempting to formulate a proper question in response to what I heard. “Wait? They just sat there when he came in firing? Why did they not react and do something?” The police officer shook his head, clearly having a difficult time retelling what he saw, even after spending the remainder of his career talking about this one day of his life. “Cho just walked down the line of students shooting them where they sat, and the others just looked in horror as he was closing in on them. They had simply frozen, waiting till he was in front of them.” These students, paralyzed by the sight of violence, simply waited to be killed.
This was not how all the students and faculty reacted that day to the shooting taking place around them. Many sacrificed their lives for their students or fellow classmates, some by blocking the entrance with their bodies as Cho fired rounds into the door. Others reacted quickly and jumped out of the second floor window of their classroom to escape the hail of bullets. The lessons taught to us by this former police officer were clear. Be ready to act. Be ready to defend yourself. It is with no doubt that if these students were in some way prepared, either physically or mentally, this tragedy could have been mitigated. The only way to achieve this level of preparedness is to train, to think about scenarios and know how you should act.
“The truly moral person is not one who, by default, abstains from violence, but rather one who is capable to administer it justly”
It is no easy matter for some individuals to think about preparing themselves for the destruction and violence that they could encounter. For some, they may even want to take a principled stand and chose not to react violently and remain peaceful. However, in the face of a person who will not respond to rhetoric or appeals to humanity, a sign of force could be the only thing keeping you alive. Being prepared for violence and being able to administer it, can be the best, and sometimes the only, deterrent to physical harm – making the other individual second guess their decision to attack you. The truly moral person is not one who, by default, abstains from violence, but rather one who is capable to administer it justly.
As readers peruse this article, I hope it makes them think about violence and it can begin a much-needed discussion about what the average person is capable of doing. All humans are capable of violence. We cannot ignore this reality and the potential harm that can be inflicted on innocent people if we, ourselves, do not know how to act when civility is unfurled. As anyone who trains in anything from first responses, CPR, first aid, to martial arts and firearms will tell you – Its something you want to know, but hope you never have to use. We cannot expect violence to disappear, nor can we rely on outsourcing its prevention and application only to certain individuals. The leviathan is the rightful arbiter, but is not always present. Europeans have learned to cope with the idea of the state using violence to pacify society. Maybe now, Europeans should look into what they can do individually to keep themselves safe and about what they could do in a situation to possibly save their lives or the lives of the people around them.
If someone is interested in this topic, one of the best sources I know of is the conversation between Sam Harris and Jocko Willink on “The Logic of Violence”