Sunday, May 24, 2009

Waiting to Forgive

My friend just phoned me and rehearsed to me a speech that she’s supposed to give in a few weeks. It’s about the memoir she is writing, Gently to Nagasaki, and it offers a spiritually moving glimpse of healing.

Joy’s topic is and . She contrasts two attitudes toward the bombing of : self-justification and remorse. Most Americans took – probably still take – the view that the bombing was justifiable, reasoning that it ended the war rapidly and spared many American soldiers. I remember feeling elated when I read about the bombing. It was only much later that I was ashamed. Is there any such thing as a “just war”? While it goes on, the fighters always can justify what they are doing. However, the only moral clarity comes from acknowledging that it is also — or perhaps never anything except — evil.

Joy doesn’t take sides. She describes the horror of the American bombings, but also the horror of Japan’s atrocities, especially the . She speaks of the Nazis and the Turks as well: two societies that perpetrated genocide, but then took different stances toward their own actions.

The Germans made it a crime to deny the holocaust. The Japanese, on the other hand, continue to deny what they did. So do the Turks, who refuse to let the Armenians apply the term “genocide” to the slaughter of their kin, and the Americans, who officially claim that Hiroshima and even Nagasaki were justifiable responses toward their enemies.

I have forgiven Germans because they have acknowledged their own wrong-doing. But when I deal with Turks, Japanese, and even many of my own American kin, I sense that reconciliation is incomplete. I cannot restore trust by an act of will. Forgiveness is impossible in the absence of their apology.

That is my own shortcoming. I should be able to forgive Hitler himself by saying, as Christ did on the cross, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” But my spirituality is under-developed. It’s still a work-in-progress, and I don’t think I’ll ever attain such magnanimity.

I know that relationships with friends are constrained. Issues remain unforgiven or unacknowledged. There may be a superficial politeness but no trust or affection.

These days I am particularly aware of my damaged friendships with a Sri Lankan family of five who came to Canada as refugees 26 ago. They became “my” family, for they came to live in my home and stayed, in various combinations, for six years. It became clear that the father of the family had brought the war with him and was fighting it from Canada, probably even using resources of mine. My own motivation had been to protect the vulnerable and give victims a new start in a new land. People who had become dear to me were continuing participants in a war that would claim 70,000 lives, and I did not know what to do about it.

I came to understand how denial works. The wife and children in my Tamil family refrained from confronting their father, refrained even from admitting to themselves what consequences resulted from his activities as a Tiger leader.

I even managed to repress the awareness myself for several years. I knew but did not mention what he was doing. Only ten years or so ago did I pull myself up morally and invite the whole family to dinner to discuss this terrible reality. The husband, wife, and one son came. The other two children declined. The father proudly stated that he would appreciate it if both his grown sons would go to fight for the in Sri Lanka.

The wife/mother, on the other hand, insisted that her husband and I were on the same side somehow. It was impossible for her to believe otherwise, for she respected my commitment to peace, while also trying to hold her family together. Only once did her denial crumble; it happened when she saw her sister-in-law on TV, a victim of the suicide bombing of the central bank in Colombo. For a day she stayed in her room, angry, but then she resumed her pretense that there was no conflict in her family.

My attempt to work through the dispute failed and the cool politeness between us hardened. I rarely saw the children, who had grown up and moved away. The mother and I grew distant. She no longer phoned, nor did we invite each other to social functions. They all knew that I despised the warrior-father. As a fervent spokesman for the Tigers in Canada, he always justified what he did as “serving my people.”

Only once did he show any insight into his motives. A couple of years ago he brought a friend of his to see me — a spiritually-oriented man who had written a book about Gandhi and other pacifist religious leaders. My Tiger friend mentioned an article I had published in Peace Magazine — an interview with a Christian war correspondent, .

The impressive thing about Hedges was that he acknowledged his own craving for the excitement of warfare. He had been in every ongoing war during the 13 years of his work for the New York Times, and he titled his remarkable book, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. People fighting in a war cannot doubt the significance of what is going on around them, he said. Life seems full and intense; even the colors seem brighter because you know that you may die at any instant. Private life as a civilian may be hum-drum and ambivalent, but in a war everyone has to take sides. Even the journalists take one side or the other and slant their reporting to make “their” side look better than the enemy. It is inevitable. You cannot talk people out of that mind-set while they are actually in a war. People on both sides feel the same aliveness, and both sides feel sure that they are morally justified in whatever horrors they perpetrate. Honestly admitting his motives, Hedges had to promise himself that he would stop going to war. Yet he was missing it.

My Tiger friend reminded me of this interview and said that it had described himself perfectly. He too was a Chris Hedges.

I barely replied. His confession was apparently not an apology. Of course he owed me an apology for having made me, a full-time peace activist, complicit in his war. But he owed huge apologies to the victims of his war — the people blown up by , the children abducted and forced to become soldiers, even the Tamils in Canada who were forced to pay “taxes” to buy the weapons that kept the war going.

But his acknowledgment was no apology, and I had no absolution to offer. He was like a brother to me, but a brother whom I despised for the immense harm he was doing. Despising him was not a spiritual accomplishment on my part; I wish I could forgive without his apology but that is a state of mind that I cannot summon up, even in my imagination. What would it be like for a peace activist to love Hitler? For Christ to love the people who crucified him? How would I behave if I could do that? I am only partly a Christian and certainly am not Christ-like, but I try to be like , and I cannot even imagine what his inner experience was like. But I know he always confronted evil instead of acquiescing to it, as I had eventually done.

So now the war is over. The newspapers say it is time for reconciliation. They call upon the government of to be generous toward the Tamils, and insofar as the president does so, it is by distinguishing sharply between and Tigers. In reality, almost all Tamils went along with the Tigers, whether they believed in the cause or not, just as the mother and children in my own Tamil family went along with their Tiger. Perhaps they came to believe in him — they never said.

Reconciliation now? Why not earlier? I am writing this after the war. While it was going on, I kept quiet. A producer for the CBC phoned a few weeks ago, asking me to go on The Current and talk about the Tigers. I refused. Yet I am writing this self-revelation now. Why so? During a war, people consider it futile to attempt to stop the animosity. They are right. Wars, once underway, are not terminable by soft words that would “turn away wrath” in other circumstances. Wars underway, not being terminable, have to be fought to the end, until one side is crushed. I just wanted them to hurry the crushing up, bringing the whole thing to a close. But I did not like to say so on the radio.

Now there is a potential for reconciliation that did not exist a month ago, but according to journalists in Sri Lanka, the mutual hatred is more intense than ever before. I don’t think they want reconciliation. Peace is not what they want, but victory – and the hope for victory is not easily abandoned. Usually it subsides gradually, leaving behind a permanent soreness, a hardness of soul.

Or there may be genuine reconciliation. In a world where no one is Christ-like, the only reconciliation that is possible begins, as the Germans did, with the full acknowledgment of their own evil actions. And some of the Germans’ enemies also apologized. (I remember , for example — the Canadian peace activist who founded Veterans Against Nuclear Arms — who wept publicly when acknowledging having flown in a plane that .) Reconciliation involves abandoning the proof that your side was right and the other side was wrong -- even if they were.

What I heard this week was a great outpouring of pity for the displaced Tamils being held in tent cities. They are certainly the Sri Lankans suffering most at the moment, but this is not a balancing exercise, where the harm done to either side can “compensate“ for – and hence justify — the evil they have done to the other. Both sides have perpetrated . The Tigers can never collect enough instances of their own suffering to exculpate their violence. Sorry, but no one who portrays them simply as victims is being truthful. Now is the time to come clean.

I was wrong — terribly wrong — to rejoice when I heard, at age thirteen, that an atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima. Forty-odd years later I encountered one of the scarred victims of that bombing at a million-person march in New York City, and we both embraced and wept.

Forty years is too long. Reconciliation begins with forgiveness, and forgiveness must be sought. I want to forgive my Tamil friends. But all I can do is wait.

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Monday, May 11, 2009

Defending Democracy Again

Why does democracy need to be defended all the time? And why are the critics of democracy mainly old lefties? It is embarrassing to have to keep justifying democracy when my co-defenders are right-wingers with whom I have very little in common. It is my own friends and colleagues who continue challenging the connection between democracy and peace. Why?

Please tell me, dear friends, why you are predisposed to criticize democracies. What is there about it that irritates you so? To me, there is no higher project than the support of political freedom around the world. I wonder how anyone could possibly wish for anything less than that.

The current flap involves a question from a Science for Peace friend who asks:

“Is the US a democracy? It has made war on quite a number of nations in my lifetime, with horrendous violence (Agent Orange in Vietnam, for example). Does it matter so much that democracies in theory don't make war on other democracies, if they do make war on other nations?”

Let me take her comments in sequence.

“Is the US a democracy?” Answer: Yes, insofar as any society is. Perhaps a few countries are more democratic than the US but the main point is that democracy is everywhere a work-in-progress. One can say that some societies are more democratic than others, but no society is 100 percent democratic. It’s like going East. You can keep going East for the rest of your life and there will still be plenty of East left for you to go toward. We can (and should) keep improving our form of governance forever, but in the end more progress will still be possible. Almost certainly this last presidential election in the US was more democratic than the previous two.

Even more obviously, political freedom varies from one country to another. Does anyone need to be told that it is more unpleasant to live as a citizen of Burma or China or Darfur than the United States or Norway or Canada?

It is widely accepted that global democratization took place in three successive waves. The first began in the early 19th century; at its peak there were 29 countries that can be counted as democratic. With the rise of fascism, the number declined to 12. The second wave followed World War II and crested twenty years later with 36 recognized democracies in the world, then declined in around 1970. The third wave began in 1974 and reached about sixty before beginning to decline. We are now in the slump after that third wave.

There is a clear causal connection between economic development and democracy, though this has seemed more obscure lately, especially since China has developed economically quite rapidly without democratizing. According to Amartya Sen and others, the causal connection runs in both directions, with democracy being especially favorable to economic development.

Scholars of democracy take certain criteria as definitive, and I accept the standards used by Freedom House. It rates each of the 193 countries on two factors: political rights and civil liberties, based on the relevant sections of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Basically, democracies are countries in which there are free and fair competitive elections, a rule of law (including protections for the rights of all citizens), access to a free press, academic freedom in educational institutions, and the right to assemble and discuss public affairs freely without intimidation. There also must be freedom for nongovernmental organizations.

To qualify as an electoral democracy, a state must have, inter alia, the following traits:

  1. A competitive, multiparty political system;
  2. Universal adult suffrage for all citizens (with exceptions for restrictions that states may legitimately place on citizens as sanctions for criminal offenses);
  3. Regularly contested elections conducted in conditions of ballot secrecy, reasonable ballot security, and in the absence of massive voter fraud, and that yield results that are representative of the public will;
  4. Significant public access of major political parties to the electorate through the media and through generally open political campaigning.

If you are interested in the methodology of Freedom House’s research, it is described well at this site:

Freedom House’s list of countries in 2008 is as follows:

Cape Verde
Costa Rica
Czech Republic
Marshall Islands
New Zealand
Saint Kitts and Nevis
Saint Lucia
San Marino
United Kingdom
United States
St. Vincent and the
South Korea
Antigua and Barbuda
Dominican Republic
Sao Tome and
South Africa
Trinidad and Tobago
El Salvador
Papua New Guinea
Sierra Leone
East Timor
Solomon Islands
Burkina Faso
Sri Lanka
The Gambia
Central African Republic
Congo (Brazzaville)
Congo (Kinshasa)
United Arab Emirates
Cote d’Ivoire
Equatorial Guinea
Saudi Arabia
North Korea

Next, my friend asks: “It [the United States] has made war on quite a number of nations in my lifetime, with horrendous violence (Agent Orange in Vietnam, for example).” Of course, I criticize American militarism as strongly as she does. The Vietnam War is a fitting example.

My friend continues: “Does it matter so much that democracies in theory don't make war on other democracies, if they do make war on other nations?”

Yes, it matters immensely. And it is not merely “in theory” that democracies don’t make war on other democracies. It is an empirical fact. There is an immense and growing body of research on this linkage, which is called “the democratic peace.” I will refer you here to only one book that addresses the subject, but its bibliography is substantial: Paul K. Huth and Todd L. Allee, The Democratic Peace and Territorial Conflict in the Twentieth Century. It attempts to explain the phenomenon.

The democratic peace research shows that democracies do make war. However, the point is this: A well-established democracy virtually never goes to war against another well-established democracy. This record is incontrovertible — but only if one measures war and democracy consistently. To be well-established, a country must have been a democracy for several years (less than ten, but I don’t remember the exact cut-off figure that peace researchers have used). They classify an armed struggle as a war only if it has resulted in at least 1,000 deaths. Be sure you have ascertained the duration and degree of a country’s democracy and the number of deaths before you dispute the generalization. (I have spent too much time doing the research for friends who haven't checked before challenging me. Look it up for yourself, pal!)

But obviously the consequences of this finding are astounding. If it holds up (and it has for quite a few years now), then all we would have to do to establish international peace would be to convert all countries into democracies. Voila!

And indeed, while the recent third wave of democratization was on the upswing, the number of deaths in warfare around the world declined considerably. According to SIPRI, “In 2007, 14 major armed conflicts were active in 13 locations around the world. Over the past decade the global number of active major armed conflicts has declined overall, but the decline has been very uneven...” (See

But so far I have only discussed the impact of democracy on inter-state wars, whereas most of the struggles going on in the world recently have been internal wars. Even here, democracy confers benefits on a country’s citizens, and it is Rudolph Rummel’s great contribution to have explicated the inverse association between democracy and what he calls “democide” — the murder of people by their own state. (See his web site: He gives us this introduction:

“It is true that democratic freedom is an engine of national and individual wealth and prosperity. Hardly known, however, is that freedom also saves millions of lives from famine, disease, war, collective violence, and democide (genocide and mass murder). That is, the more freedom, the greater the human security and the less the violence. Conversely, the more power governments have, the more human insecurity and violence. In short: to our realization that power impoverishes we must also add that power kills.

Through theoretical analysis, historical case studies, empirical data, and quantitative analyses, this web site shows that:

  • Freedom is a basic human right recognized by the United Nations and international treaties, and is the heart of social justice.
  • Freedom is an engine of economic and human development, and scientific and technological advancement.
  • Freedom ameliorates the problem of mass poverty.
  • Free people do not suffer from and never have had famines, and by theory, should not. Freedom is therefore a solution to hunger and famine.
  • Free people have the least internal violence, turmoil, and political instability.
  • Free people have virtually no government genocide and mass murder, and for good theoretical reasons. Freedom is therefore a solution to genocide and mass murder; the only practical means of making sure that "Never again!"
  • Free people do not make war on each other, and the greater the freedom within two nations, the less violence between them.
  • Freedom is a method of nonviolence--the most peaceful nations are those whose people are free.

The purpose of this web site, then, is to make as widely available as possible the theories, work, results, and data that empirically and historically, quantitatively and qualitatively, support these conclusions about freedom. This is to invite their use, replication, and critical evaluation, and thereby to advance our knowledge of and confidence in freedom--in liberal democracy. It is to foster freedom.

Pray tell, my brother,
Why do dictators kill
and make war?
Is it for glory; for things,
for beliefs, for hatred,
for power?

Yes, but more,
because they can.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Among all the democide estimates appearing on this website, some have been revised upward. I have changed that for Mao's famine, 1958-1962, from zero to 38,000,000. And thus I have had to change the overall democide for the PRC (1928-1987) from 38,702,000 to 76,702,000. Details here.

I have changed my estimate for colonial democide from 870,000 to an additional 50,000,000. Details here.

Thus, the new world total: old total 1900-1999 = 174,000,000. New World total = 174,000,000 + 38,000,000 (new for China) + 50,000,000 (new for Colonies) = 262,000,000.

Just to give perspective on this incredible murder by government, if all these bodies were laid head to toe, with the average height being 5', then they would circle the earth ten times. Also, this democide murdered 6 times more people than died in combat in all the foreign and internal wars of the century. Finally, given popular estimates of the dead in a major nuclear war, this total democide is as though such a war did occur, but with its dead spread over a century.”

I recommend Rummel’s web site. I just wish that his observations were recognized and valued by my left and left-liberal friends.