Yesterday a man destroyed the Ten Commandments monument that had been installed on the Arkansas Capitol grounds, less than 24 hours after they’d been put up. He appears to be a fervent Christian who believes strongly in the separation of church and state.
I have a complicated set of feelings with destruction of property for political purposes. And my instinct emotion is to cheer this man. Most of this post is scattered thoughts about my intellectual vs emotional reactions to this.
For a long time I didn’t understand why people would riot in their own neighborhoods. Why destroy the infrastructure you rely on? The businesses you patronize, and/or work at? It didn’t make sense. It was wasteful and self-harming. I heard that Riots Are The Language Of The Unheard, but why aren’t they rioting where it would make sense to riot?
Lou Keep provided my answer. That infrastructure is not an economic asset to those subjected to it. It is the tool of the oppressor. The society was functional for its residents, until an outside force came in and imposed order to make the neighborhoods legible to government. While this certainly improves the economic metrics that the government is interested in, it ignores the social destruction that these “improvements” bring. The riots aren’t just empty rage. They are an attempt to purge the controls and “gifts” brought by a power trying to make the area legible to the state apparatus. To revert the area to local control.
Finally, nearly 30 years after the fact, I understood why I loved a key scene of Do The Right Thing. In the middle of a brewing riot, a Korean shop owner screams “I’m black!” at the mob. And they leave him alone. (clip here) It’s a beautiful scene, and still gives me shivers of frissons when I think about it. I was never entirely sure why, until now. It is an affirmation that society can tell the difference between invasion by the state apparatus, and its own members. It will burn out the infection that poisons it, while leaving unharmed those who are a part of it. It is not random violence, it is an entity that protects itself. That is the power of art – to give us that feeling on an emotional level, to impart that knowledge to us beneath the skin without giving us an explicit lecture.
(yes, I know it’s an idealized version of riots, and things don’t always happen this way. It’s still beautiful.)
Property is blood and sweat
Creating anything takes effort and time. Energy that could be used in pursuit of artistic expression, or enjoying social bonds, or myriad other pursuits. Destroying someone’s property is destroying a small part of their life. It may also be destroying a part of their future, if that property is used to enable someone to make a living or continue living (by destroying the car they use to get to work, or torching their house or workplace). I recently had a large amount of money taken from me, money that I could have used to support myself for well over a year, or embark on adventurous new projects with. It sucks.
And I’m very much on the record as being strongly against extra-judicial violence. This post by The Friendly Atheist states in strong words that people should not take the law into their own hands, and we must stick to the civil solutions of court challenges and public speech. Isn’t destruction of property also violence, used to intimidate rather than convince?
Choice of Targets
I get annoyed when attacks on military targets (army bases, warships, etc) are referred to as “Acts of Terrorism.” A military target is a legitimate target in a war. Such attacks are not terrorism, they’re acts of guerrilla warfare. There’s a huge difference. Many of the weapons and tactics that are banned by international agreements (such as chemical weapons and landmines) are banned because they are indiscriminate in their killing. Their use cannot be confined to military targets, and so they are not deemed acceptable tools of war.
Thus, choice of targets matters. It can add a bit more legitimacy to a tactic if its focus is narrow and its target is chosen for strong reasons. In this case, the target was an object that was placed in direct defiance of the constitution. The very document that functions as the foundation of civil life in the United States. It underlays all our laws, at least in theory. An assault on it can be viewed as an assault on all of us, and by attacking an object that undermines it, this man could be said to be working in the interests of protecting civility. His target was specific and well-chosen. And importantly, it was a piece of art that is not vital to anyone’s life, and paid for out of excess funds. This doesn’t excuse that destruction, but it does make it less morally reprehensible. It is a mitigating factor.
Vigilante Justice is the Worst Sort of Justice
That being said, he still went outside the bounds of the law. The law has the power to protect itself, and was in the process of doing so via court challenges brought by the ACLU and others. For random people on the street to decide they have the power to interpret and implement the law themselves, without going through a court, is a recipe for the chaos of all-against-all. Vandalism can’t be excused just because the vandal feels they have a darn good reason for it, this time. There will always be a darn good reason to destroy the stuff of people you disagree with, just this one time.
Yet there is something to be said for principled opposition to laws that are unjust. Martin Luther King Jr and his supporters intentionally and publicly violated laws that they thought unjust. They accepted arrest and legal consequences, so that all could see how the law is being used to destroy the lives of good people without justification. They were holding a mirror to society saying “Look at what you have wrought!”
This man did not try to hide his actions. He posted publicly about what he was doing, and why he was doing it. He accepted arrest, and is now awaiting trial. He might not have been right in his actions, but he has the courage of his convictions. I admire this. I also consider this to be mitigating circumstances in his favor.
(Yes, I would have admired the Richard-Spencer-Puncher somewhat if he’d stayed at the scene of his assault and accepted arrest and trial for his actions. And no, this doesn’t excuse violence. I still think people shouldn’t be punched. Assassinations are still repugnant, even when done in broad daylight and without attempt to flee. Suicide bombers certainly face the consequences of their actions rather than trying to dodge them. But it does say something if someone is willing to stand by their act of vandalism, and defend it, and take the punishment for what they’ve done.)
Corruption in the System
I believe much of the debate comes down to “What Can Be Done When The System Is Corrupt?” Extra-judicial action is what people fall back on when they have no faith that the system will fairly enforce the laws, or that the laws themselves are unjust. As far as I can see, the system is still strongly against any sort of ethnic cleansing. On the other hand, the system has demonstrated that is has some severe weakness in defending itself from encroachment by the majority religion. After all, the Ten Commandments monument was placed with the local state’s approval, and it is outside parties that are in the process of defending the US Constitution that the state claims to support.
Alexander’s Principle states that one should never destroy the tools that society uses to correct errors. Doing so locks you into the errors of the past, without the ability to change them as our ethical systems or knowledge improves. Freedom of speech is a very strong tool used to correct errors. You cannot change what you cannot criticize. So using violence to silence others violates Alexander’s Principle. Destroying the Ten Commandments monument, while certainly uncivil, doesn’t attack the tools we use to correct systemic errors. As far as I can see.
While not in support of vandalism or rioting generally, I can understand how they are at times useful as tactics. I don’t think this man’s destruction of the Ten Commandments will achieve his goals. It’s more likely to anger the majority that doesn’t care about that part of the constitution. However, he’s attempting to fight for important principles, against a system that is unwilling to support those principles. He did so in a narrowly targeted manner, openly and in acceptance of the consequences, via a symbolic attack that I believe doesn’t violate Alexander’s Principle. He didn’t harm anyone’s person or personal property, and the target of his destruction isn’t vital for anyone’s way of life.
All in all, I find myself admiring this crazy bastard, even if I think he would have been much better off donating his car to the ACLU rather than wrecking it against a stone monument. I hope this sort of thing doesn’t repeat itself, though. And I’m not firmly set on these opinions, and very open to having my mind changed. :)