The Delicate Edifice of Peace
A man drove from a St. Louis suburb in Illinois to Alexandria, Virginia. He stayed a while until going to a baseball field where Congressmen rose early to practice for their upcoming Congressional Baseball Game. It is a fundraiser for various charities including the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. This morning, that man from Illinois walked up to a Representative in the parking lot who is about to leave and asked “Are they Republicans or Democrats there on the field?”
They were Republicans. He went back to his car, and minutes later, he opened fire with two weapons, wounding five including Representative Steve Scalise, the House Majorty Whip. Either because of Scalise’s leadership position or because of the large number of representatives, Capitol Hill police in plainclothes were present and returned fire. Eventually he was wounded and neutralized, and he later died of his wounds.
So that’s the news today. It was a few hours into it this morning when I realized that the nearby YMCA in the “Del Ray neighborhood” of Alexandria is a place I’ve been many times. It was my place to swim laps before I moved into D.C. and then out to Arlington where I reside now. That was quite a shock for me. I know this place.
Now the buzz is “motive” for the shooting. And while it’s fairly clear what the motive is to me, I want to warn everyone of how little it actually matters in the grand scheme of things.
The Way Things Should Be is Not Normal
America truly is a great country, and it is filled with truly wonderful people. With all the long history of general peace in our world since WWII, and the end of the Cold War without even a shot being fired, it is easy to fall into the belief that such things are normal. This normalcy was broken by a politically motivated man with a gun.
But this morning was not the first time my old stomping grounds received a politically motivated gunman. The other time was Comet Pizza on Connecticut Avenue. It’s right next to Politics and Prose (maybe the best bookstore in the area), and Buck’s Fishing and Camping, whose name obscures an excellent restaurant where I’ve had a few dates (although “few” makes my dating life sound more robust than it is). A man walked into the restaurant, fired a few shots and tried to get to the bottom of an internet conspiracy about a sex-trafficking ring being run in the basement by associates of Hillary Clinton in the election. Obviously to us now (and to him), there wasn’t one.
Luckily, he injured no one and surrendered without a fight. But the peace was still broken.
The peace is being broken in many places and many ways. It’s not good. Our peace seems to be running into a lot of problems.
Now peace is not permanent, believe most people. But peace is normal. Peace is the default. Peace will continue until we screw it up. Maybe some confused or bad ideology screws it up. Maybe some mental illness screws it up. When we see these mistakes, we send in our strong men, our police, or our military, and we restore the order that was lost. Like the old Roman Empire, we can “preserve peace by a constant preparation for war.”
Fight off the bad; keep the good.
That’s why we praise our service-members and police who “keep us safe.” That’s why we laud those who make “The home of the free, because of the brave.” By all means, continue to do this. They deserve our support, and “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” — “It is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country.” (Or just to get shot in its defense, too). All true. These are good men (and women), and their office deserves our support and thanks.
But the job of our “strong men” is not as all-encompassing as it first seems. Their job in our society does not fit in the whole picture this way. We cannot “fight of the bad and keep the good.”
We are not by default peaceful people. Our peace is a great and difficult work, never finished.
The Unfortunate Vanity of Justice by Gun
When an officer is opening fire on a criminal, that officer is not “justice.” That officer is merely “justice cutting its losses.”
Justice is things existing as they should be. As soon as an officer responds to a crime, things are not as they should be. Injustice already exists. The call to police cannot stop injustice in our society, they can only respond. He does not protect America from injustice. That crime is injustice. That officer is not “the” American. He is merely “an” American shooting at “the other” American.
The saddest part of the officer’s actions here, is that they are not fighting some foreign enemy. They’re shooting Americans.
Yes, dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. but terribilis et acerba est si fragmen patria moriatur — It is horrible and painful if a piece of the country dies.
Unfortunately, we cannot have a troop of “good and strong men” protect us from all those “evil and bad men” who desire our harm. It does not work.
Fine. We’re all Americans. But what caused this shooting? What caused the last one? Was he driven by politics? Was he driven by an event? Did his environment influence him? Did his environment cause him to act? Did his ideology cause him to act? Did he believe the wrong things about his ideology? Did he believe right things about his ideology but have the wrong beliefs about proper actions?
Real Justice in a Republic
Plato explained that real Justice is not merely “doing good to friends and harm to enemies” or “giving what is proper to each man, to pay debts and speak truth.” Justice is not those with power exercising it skillfully and truthfully.
Justice is when every part of society, the individual and the group, has the virtues of wisdom, courage, temperance guiding its actions. Justice is all things working as they should. Righteousness is also all things working together as they should. That is why “Justice” — Δικαισύνη — is righteousness.
Do we have justice when a shooter is killed? Does justice reign when one is dead and the rest live? Is that justice in America, when we cut our losses? Is it true that it is “better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish“? Even if it’s better, is it good?
Is it wrong to act on such thoughts as this man did? Is it wrong to have or share such thoughts instantaneously, globally, and permanently as many (including this author) do? Do we share in blame? Are only the actors guilty? Are we contributing to a bad environment? Does a bad environment and opportunity cause bad actions, or can we find those truly guilty actors and make things right by cutting them out?
Will everything be solved if we just individually know and do the right things when the time is right? Is that how we achieve peace through individual correction? It is very easy to screw it up, but maybe we can achieve that peace, even though perhaps not all can.
Can I alone achieve that justice? Can I or we solve things by getting on the right side of these questions and issues? If God himself is on our side, can’t be assured that we are on his? Doesn’t that right action create the righteousness — and the justice — that we need?
When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come.”
Think about this interaction between Joshua and the Angel who appeared to him as a man. How funny it is that Joshua asked him a one-or-the-other question, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” How delightfully ambiguous is the angel’s response: “No.”
“For you? I’m just here, dude.” — That’s the response of the messenger who will tell Joshua how to utterly defeat a walled and defended city. How is he not for Joshua? This is the messenger from God who brought Joshua’s people out of Egypt by miracles, signs of Power, and death to those who opposed the Israelites. That’s the response of the messenger is not “Yes.” It’s not even a “Yes, but…” It’s only, “No.”
“I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come.”
And think about the mind of Joshua, the military leader of God’s chosen people on earth: [Wait…. I thought I was the commander of the…. oh yeah. Right.]
“What does my lord say to his servant?
“Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.”
If only we can be sure God is on our side, then……. what?
The Line of Good and Evil
It is not possible to be comfortable that you are on the right side, even if it is true that you are on the right side. If you want a just society, we have to recognize that these people whose actions we rightly stop — even violently stop — share in the same society as us.
If you truly want a just society, where every part works as it should, we can’t be satisfied with the satisfaction that comes with scapegoating. We can easily find evil, label it, and give it a “just” response, whatever we choose that to mean.
I could easily label the shooter as an evil man (he was) and say that he got what he deserved in a police shoot-out (he did). I could easily lament all the somewhat-related but non-causal influences on the man’s act, and even campaign that they be pushed down in this American republic. I could note that his rants on Facebook are certainly different in quality than my rants on Facebook.
But while shocking, none of these facts are scary to me. The scary thing about the shooter was his description.
He was “politically active, but reserved.” He was “passionate about his beliefs but always appeared to be in control.” He was “pretty well fed up” with the political situation, and the shooting itself was a shocking departure from that norm.
That’s a great many people I know. That’s some very normal people I know. Apart from the shooting, he was….. ……….ME.
If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood. But his name doesn’t change, and to that name we ascribe the whole lot, good and evil.
Socrates taught us: “Know thyself.”
So, America, what are we? There is evil in our country, and I saw it in the news today. But what are we, and what am I?
We can fight people if we like, but if you want to fight evil, you have to fight yourself. You can identify a bad belief if you like, but if your interaction with that belief is a self-satisfying fight and not “justice” — Δικαισύνη — then we aren’t fighting evil, we’re participating in it. We can satisfy ourselves that our evil is not as exuberant as another’s evil — and we can even call that difference in degree “righteousness” — but is that really the same thing as fighting evil? Is that how we have peace in a society?
Our society is broken, and it is hard to fix. It’s hard to fix because our society is not an “it.”
It’s an “us.”
The battle for peace, justice, and righteousness in America is not something in the White House. It’s not something in a court room. It’s not something in a legislature. It’s not a process. It’s not a bill. It’s not a distribution of goods. It is not solved by a Capitol Hill officer in Alexandria. It’s not solved by all the officers in all the towns of America everywhere.
The resistance to evil is not even “being on the side of God.” It’s not just aquiring right knowledge. It’s not in a particular person, group, place, or class. It’s everywhere. It’s in us.
The battle for justice is in this post and the words I choose. It’s in the comment that you leave. It’s in the people I talk to. It’s in the words I refuse to say. It’s in the comment I delete. It’s in the apology I give. The fight for real justice is in every action, every thought, and every word; in every apology, every absolution, and every act of mercy; in every act of respect, in every act of managed anger, and every act of loyal friendship.
The battle for justice is in the resistance to what is evil, and in the association with those who enact it. The battle for justice is both associating ourselves with what is good, meeting with those who enact evil, and recognizing how very similar we are.
The battle for justice is not against flesh and blood. It is against the unseen things that penetrate every man.
Justice is wisdom, knowing what is right and true, what is proper to love and proper to hate. Justice is courage, the act of denying desires, and restraining fears, all to act in the face of opposition: both internal and external. Justice is prudence, taking only what is needed for oneself and not anything more, denying appetites for food, fame, praise, or glory in favor of what is proper. Justice in the person and in society. It is all of these virtues working in all people of the country at all times.
We are not naturally good. We cannot rest in the leisure of peace. We must be taught to be just. Take no comfort in your legal innocence or personal peace. We live in whatever bliss we do because of the knowledge, habits, and institutions formed for us by forerunners. Preserving peace is not an issue of “status quo.” It’s resisting a current. We have to train, like disciplined soldiers, to make what does not want to be just into something that is righteous.
The battle for justice is everywhere, and if you’re not fighting, you’re losing.
We have a Republic, if we can keep it.