Can the United States End Killing?


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“Impossible? Not so fast. If we have any doubts about our ability to effect this change, we are condemned to its negative assessment of human potential. We are locking ourselves into a caricature that limits our freedom to ascend to the highest peaks of human creativity. Accepting the challenge, then, how can we unleash the nonviolent potential within ourselves in order to evolve toward a nonkilling world? Here are a few suggestions: …

“One feels that we have only begun to understand the human capacity for identification with the other – for empathy. It is within our potential–indeed our nature–to empathize with the suffering of others; we must not allow anyone, any creator of our popular culture, to deny us this capacity….”

Authors: Michael Nagler, Professor emeritus and founder of the UC Berkeley Peace and Conflict Studies program, and President of Metta Center for Nonviolence; Stephanie Van Hook, former Peace Corps volunteer, Co-director of the Metta Center
Published in: BuzzFlash (at http://blog.buzzflash.com/), Huntington News Network, LeftWord (at http://leftword.blogdig.net/), India Times (at http://iplextra.indiatimes.com/), in USAToday (at http://content.usatoday.com/topics/article/Organizations/Non-profits,+Activist+Groups/National+Rifle+Association/)
Date: September 12, 2010

For the full article:
Can the United States End Killing?
(987 words)
by Michael N. Nagler and Stephanie N. Van Hook

Impossible? Not so fast. If we have any doubts about our ability to effect this change, we are condemned to its negative assessment of human potential. We are locking ourselves into a caricature that limits our freedom to ascend to the highest peaks of human creativity. Accepting the challenge, then, how can we unleash the nonviolent potential within ourselves in order to evolve toward a nonkilling world? Here are a few suggestions:

First of all, we must conceive of ourselves as active creators of our destinies. We cannot accept the image of ourselves as passive agents, biologically and/or historically determined to kill, even though the nation as we know it was made possible by the killing off of the indigenous populations and maintained through the enslavement of people from the African continent. Indeed, the only way that the United States is going to shake off the atrocities committed in its name is to strike them at the very root: to change the culture that makes killing seem acceptable – in other words, that holds up an image of the human being as separate from others.

We must delegitimate the war system, and do so by building alternative methods to accomplish the legitimate need for defense. We must simultaneously shift to an economy of needs and sufficiency rather than wants and scarcity. For the war system feeds on an economy that has us generating ever more artificial wants and rendering us passive consumers for the greed of another.

Killing and violence have remained such potent influences in the United States largely because we make money at the expense of others’ suffering, rendering us more afraid of a “lower” lifestyle than we are of killing. We must escape from this trap where our material wants are literally satisfied and paid for by the suffering, sometimes indeed the blood, of others. And why can we not escape it; it is within the potential of every one of us to reduce our material wants.

Simplifying our material life will set the stage for a badly needed new “story” of human nature and human behavior. More and more, science has been proving that we are not violent by nature. It is possible to trace some stages in this regaining of confidence in our evolutionary inheritance: in reaction to the popularized “innate aggression” theorists of the 1970’s more responsible scientists began to speak of “altruism,” which, while more open-minded than sheer Darwinian competition, still looked at whatever we might call the goodness in animal and human behavior as based on “rational-actor,” cost-benefit calculation. Now behaviorists like Frans de Waal, closely followed by social theorists like Jeremy Rifkin, speak confidently of “empathy” as the reason for prosocial behavior.

Moreover, thanks to a remarkable discovery made in 1988 in Parma, Italy, they can point to a neural basis for empathy in the primate-human brain: the famous “mirror neurons”—or as neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran calls them, “Gandhi neurons”—that fire in response to another’s actions, emotions, and perceived intentions. One feels that we have only begun to understand the human capacity for identification with the other – for empathy. It is within our potential–indeed our nature–to empathize with the suffering of others; we must not allow anyone, any creator of our popular culture, to deny us this capacity.

Third, we must learn about nonviolence so we can understand the better paths to security. We at the Metta Center have experimented with a simple prescription which, if followed, would bring a total change of outlook in its wake: we have proposed as an ethical norm to be kept in view in the design of any institution, “do nothing that degrades a human being.”

For example, without using dehumanizing, i.e. degrading, its recruits “basic training” as we know it would be impossible, and war fighting would necessarily follow suit. This norm we propose has the simplicity of Hippocrates’s primum non nocere, ‘the first rule (of medical intervention) is to do no harm,’ and of ‘nonkilling.’ Who favors degradation, or violence, harm, or killing in most circumstances ; when you take this norm to heart you find that you have ruled out a whole system, in this case the war system – and find yourself forced to come up with another and far better alternative.

When a person makes a commitment not to kill, or as the Buddha said, “not to kill, or cause to kill” she or he will be forced to find alternatives to resolve conflicts, maintain social order, defend her or his country, etc. She or he will thus “back into” a commitment to nonviolence which is, as Gandhi said, only real if it is nonviolence “all round, in every department of life.” At this point learning what those nonviolent alternatives are becomes essential. It is within our potential to learn and to live a life and build from it a world of principled nonviolence – but knowing exactly what such a world might look like and what parts of it have looked like already is a key competence to do so.

Here in California the weather is preternaturally cold – plums are setting only to fall to the ground unripe because there is so little sunshine. The global trend is not just general warming; it is unnatural climate disruptions, as we see manifest in Russian forests on fire, Pakistan’s unprecedented floods, Greenland’s sudden ice losses, and China’s massive mudslides.

The Earth is out of balance, and major forces beyond our control have paradoxically been caused by our attempts to control everything. Likewise, there is a dangerous imbalance in the human psyche between a yearning for peace that can never be repressed as long as we are human and a relentless, artificial conditioning for killing and violence in the cultures of the post-industrial world. We must rid ourselves of the war system before it rids the Earth of humankind. This great job calls out to all of us.

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Michael Nagler, Professor emeritus and founder of the UC, Berkeley Peace and Conflict Studies program, is President of Metta Center for Nonviolence. Stephanie Van Hook, former Peace Corps volunteer, holds a graduate degree in Conflict Resolution and is Co-director of the Metta Center.