Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Demonstrations: a moral equivalent of war

THE Livermore Laboratory does research and development on nuclear weapons. In recent years, there have been some large demonstrations outside the laboratory. Sometimes thousands come up the road or over the hill with their banners and signs arrayed against the security forces in their uniforms. It looks for all the world like some movie version of a medieval war. It's more than looks. The tactics, the elaborate training, the logistics, the excitement, the mixed feelings about opponents, the memory of having shared in something important, all these are characteristics of a war. The demonstrations are surely to many people on both sides the moral equivalent of war.

Wittingly or not, the demonstrators are doing much the same thing as the US government does in maintaining a nuclear deterrent: putting on a show of war to avoid a much worse war. Of course, the stakes are very different. But the range of feelings and the range of attitudes are not so different. The relation of either activity to peacemaking is the same.

About these ads

In both instances, the means are to some extent sacrificed to the ends. To the extent demonstrators are imbued with the spirit of peace, they cannot feel very good about having called out all these police officers in battle formation. It makes great headlines and TV pictures, but it does not build peaceful feelings among the immediate participants.

The means are in some contradiction to the ends, and the hope is that the means will not corrupt the ends.

The reactions to anticipated conflict are much the same in Washington and in Moscow, in a security briefing room, and in a Berkeley apartment. Before a conflict, the perspective narrows, in space and time as in all the dimensions that human beings live in. The immediate events and their circumstances assume more importance than they normally have. Planning absorbs the attention. The expected participants do not appear to the planners in their full human dimensions, and the planners are therefore somewhat dehumanized.

So are the participants. When we enter into conflict, we leave a piece of ourselves behind. We are partially programmed. We may feel things are simpler, more meaningful, because of the impending battle. But the feeling is illusory. Sooner or later, the rest of us catches up. The person who lies down on the roadway to be picked up by an unwilling officer, like the officer, is programmed. So are we who design the missile warheads, and so are the young people in the services who sit, with their questions only partially answered, in the command posts underground and in the submarines. We are all programmed, for the sake of a better tomorrow, we hope, by our own and others' programs.

This programming and the resulting narrowing of perspective in connection with conflict cannot be entirely done away with. Even in the most enlightened and peaceable of arguments, words are used to attack and defend, and we listen, not only to hear the other party, but also to prepare a response.

Today, the United States and Soviet Union and many other governments, as well as the demonstrators, are in positions intermediate between conversation and war. The demonstrators may resent this analogy. They feel that they are in the right, that they are fighting for peace. But they are only fighting under a different banner, disarmament instead of deterrent. No one is a peacemaker by virtue of adherence to a set of intellectual beliefs, whether the Roman Catholic bishops' letter or the US establishment policy or anything else. Whatever our intellectual beliefs, whatever our emotions, the means we use in the situation we find ourselves in, and not our theories, determine whether we are peacemakers.

I often thought, when entering a room to talk on such subjects as arms talks or nuclear strategy, that my audience and I narrowed ourselves to focus on these large issues, and that the true ``big picture,'' the one that could actually encompass us as complete people, was left outside the room. Only there could we listen to each other without special viewpoints. A joke, a shared experience, as when the public address system would go out, could bring this big picture into the room temporarily, but the arguments over ``larger issues'' would chase it away.

About these ads

Similarly, the ``big picture'' in a demonstration does not consist of the issues underlying the demonstration. Those issues constitute the little pictures, the dry stuff of arguments and politics. The big picture enters with any act of thoughtfulness or restraint on either side, any awareness of the other side as something other than opponents. Bringing this big picture into all the little pictures of arguments and politics furthers peace.

On the international scene also, if the perspective is to be broadened despite the clear possibility of conflict, options must be created that are relevant and useful within the existing network of relationships. We are all bound by ancient webs, many links of which are based on fear. If we try to abolish these links all at once, we arouse more fears than we alleviate, thereby leaving conflict-based, repressive systems more firmly entrenched. As a result, peacemaking is a step-at-a-time business, with heavy reliance on knowing the people and their history. It offers little immediate relief for our fears.

That leaves us with a long road and, some say, too little time. But time in which to do things is created by using the right means. This is not to argue against the peace movement. There are many different evaluations of the situation. History is rich enough to support them all. This is only to point out that, in demonstrations as in foreign affairs, there is an inherent conflict between means and ends. The conflict comes about because we are part of the problem as well as the only hope for its solution. The means used in the situation at hand determine whether the effort will count as peacemaking or not rather than the theories championed.

Michael M. May is associate director at large, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the University of California.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.