I would like to challenge some of the underlying assumptions upon which much of the argument in “The Meaning of Empowerment” was based.
The author states that much violence is due to greed or hateful religious beliefs. This is a gross oversimplification of reality. The reasons that people commit acts of violence are complex, but I believe that people are driven to violence because they have needs that are not being met, whether those needs be physical, emotional, social, etc.
It may be tempting to classify a group of people as evil, but such a viewpoint neither accurately portrays reality nor has any use in moving toward a peaceful future. I will address the second half of this statement shortly. But first let’s consider some of the deeper causes of violence.
Take the Iraqi insurgence as an example. After the first Gulf War, the U.N. imposed some pretty hefty sanctions on Iraq, ostensibly to prevent Saddam Hussein from producing any kind of weaponry. The sanctions prevented food, medicine, and vaccines from entering the country. Child mortality rate rose from one of the lowest in the world to one of the highest, resulting in the deaths of between 250,000 and 500,000 Iraqi children. Literacy rate fell and the number of people living in poverty drastically increased.
It may be easy to say that hateful religious beliefs are what drive the insurgency, but that would ignore the hugely important socioeconomic factors involved. The economic sanctions implemented in Iraq create a perfect environment for radical fundamentalists to recruit to their cause. People who had been used to a high quality of life were now living on the streets, and it was obvious to them that the United States and the rest of the West deserved some of the blame. The effects of the sanctions contributed to the suspicion and hostility many Iraqis felt, and still feel, towards coalition forces.
My point is this: reducing the causes of this violence to greed or religious fanaticism does not adequately represent the complex reality of conflict. And in addition, this viewpoint is not helpful in moving us towards a peaceful future.
The author suggests that the most effective way to prevent harm to American citizens is to kill the people who would want to commit acts of violence. Using the same logic, one could make the point that many in the Middle East view the American military as terrorists, which justifies their violence against the United States. But such thought only perpetuates the endless cycle of violence.
We need to critically examine our assumption that violence can lead to peace, and whether we think that acts of violence are the best means of achieving peace. The author states that “[t]hanks to the so-called ‘military-industrial complex,’ our nation is much safer from those who would harm or kill its people.” And what about Iraqi and Afghani citizens, are they more safe? Do we think that committing acts of violence will somehow create a world of less violence? Do we think that our actions in the Middle East will bring about peace?
Maybe instead of using violence to disempower people, we could focus on meeting the unmet needs of people in the world, including our own country. Johan Galtung, a prominent peace researcher, proposed two different conceptions of peace, negative peace and positive peace. Negative peace is the absence of violence, whereas positive peace requires the presence of social justice.
When our country is considering cutting funding to programs like AmeriCorps, Planned Parenthood, and the United States Institute of Peace, while not considering reducing any part of the $700 billion spent on defense, we must consider the effects of our militarization on our own country in addition to the effects on the countries in which we perform military operations. Are we content with negative peace?
In our last article, we proposed that there is no place for the military at Olin and, more broadly, in educational institutions. We acknowledged that the incredible scope of the military-industrial complex makes implementing such a proposal difficult and require change on all levels of our society. It would require imagination. I believe that our imagining of a better future requires challenging of fundamental assumptions, which is what I hoped to do with this article.
For information on the sanctions imposed on Iraq, see: