Is Violence Justified?

by Peter McWilliams

February 20, 1999

(At the time this was written, Peter McWilliams was dying from AIDS and cancer. He found that only marijuana helped him keep on his stomach the medicines he needed to ease his pain and slow down his march toward death. This article is a response he wrote to an email he received. He died June 14, 2000.)

I have gotten several messages such as this one, and I thought I would circulate widely my response:

"I am curious and I hope you do not think that this is disrespectful. You do not strike me as a man who believes in god (I am an agnostic myself), and surely your cause is just. Since you appear to be condemned to death in the near future, What would be the consequences of your acquiring a weapon, and using it on some of these overzealous people? and have you thought of this?"

[NOTE TO the Drug Enforcement Agency: This e-mail, along with all similar e-mails, has been completely removed from my computer, so please don't come into my house, again, and take my computer, again, just to find out who your enemies may be.]

My response:

Yes, I am an agnostic, but that would make me no more violence-prone than True Believers. Indeed, unlike, say, abortion-clinic bombers, I don't pretend I am "doing God's work" and that I will "find my reward in heaven."

Besides, to "off" those who spout ideas I find harmful is very much like arresting a drug dealer a dozen more are waiting to take his place. And you've created a martyr for an evil cause.

My enemy is ignorance, not individuals.

It is winning the war of ideas though fact, logic, persuasion, and, yes, humor that brings about lasting change.

What we are facing today in America is not an evil dictator, like Hitler, who is the head of a snake, and once removed the snake will perish, but overgrown bureaucracies, like the Drug War, which is more like an anthill. No matter how many individual ants you kill one at a time, the colony goes on.

Any idiot with a gun can kill. It takes clever perseverance to make lasting change.

Socrates, Jesus, and Martin Luther King did more for their causes by dying for them than by killing for them. Not that I'm looking to be a martyr. Not that the Drug War NEEDS another martyr. But the Drug War certainly doesn't need a lone gunman, either.

I am not a pacifist, however. If someone were physically coming at me with violence in his heart, I would have no trouble shooting his balls off. But the people who are coming at me now do so under rule of law, and that means the law must be changed, not that those who follow the law (or even make the law or endorse an unjust law) must be "eliminated" Michael Corleone style.

If there is anything I believe in, it is that we have the right to do with our own person and property whatever we choose, as long as we do not encroach upon the equal rights of others to do whatever they choose with their person or property. This, I believe, is the true definition of "rule of law," the agreement by which we can live in a society that rises above the law of the jungle.

This is heart of the Declaration of Independence:

"WE hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

This is what is laid out in the Preamble to the Constitution. In my view, this country is founded on that.

"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

As has been proven with time and again, to "alter" the government in this country does not take violence, but education. My job is to get the country back into believing and living under the "supreme law" of the Constitution, not to kill those who are, while living under the same Constitutional protections, leading the country astray.

Although I consider, for example, William J. Bennett to be the single most evil and hypocritical person in this country, I will defend with my life his right to be wrong. (In a sense, I am doing just that.) As long as he does not advocate picking up guns and killing the "pagans" such as myself, he can dance naked in front of me on a rifle range (what a distasteful image) and I will not lift my gun. (I might, however, pull out my video camera.) Besides, I'd much rather see him live to watch his ideas (and him) wither and go pathetically out of fashion. (They already are, and he knows it, as his book "The Death of Outrage" clearly indicates. He just pouts and pouts and wallows in his own self-destructive bile. That's much more enjoyable for me to watch than, say, hearing that someone shot him while yelling, "Sic Semper Tyrannous!")

"I would give the devil himself benefit of law for mine own safety sake," Robert Bolt had Thomas More saying in A Man for All Seasons. I believe this to be true.

The Drug War is intellectually bankrupt, and the Internet is getting the truth (as in scientific fact) to millions more than ever before. The Drug War propaganda machine, who can afford to spend billions controlling information, now has thousands of new enemies online, hosting web sites for $14.95 a month, emanating the truth 24 hours a day. 

150 years ago John Stuart Mill, in On Liberty, I think, talked about the "collision" of ideas in a free marketplace of ideas, and from the light of that collision, the truth is there for all to see. I believe in this process. I believe it is happening. I believe change is happening at exponential rates. Murder drags the level of that discussion down to primordial levels and degrades those who take part in it. (Even most of those who are anti-abortion, for example, are repulsed by the abortion clinic bomb that permanently mangled the nurse and killed a doctor.)

I support the high road of truth, facts, debate, and education, even if I'm not along to walk that road much longer, and even if lies, deception, repression, and ignorance are the direct cause of my death.


Peter McWilliams