When Noncivil Disobedience is Just

Feb. 24, 2012. A Free Syrian Army fighter is seen as he aims at an Al Assad Forces position in al-Qsair

By Jay Ruckelshaus.

The world weeps for Syria. To the growing list of atrocious statistics achieved during the Syrian Civil War, we may now add the 100,000th death. While the West twiddles its thumbs, weighing its fear of being embroiled in a prolonged conflict against some moral imperative to intervene, Bashar al-Assad and his regime continue to pass bloody milestones.

When your neighbors are taken prisoner or murdered and your schoolmates are tortured at the whims of the regime, it’s hard to sit by… so many Syrians are not. But the rebels who wage war on Assad have also committed violent acts in their fight against the government that, when viewed in isolation, may be considered extreme and even cruel. And yet we do not view them in isolation. Many of us intuitively consider the rebels’ use of violence to be justified in light of the violence committed by the other side. So, the argument might go, it is only appropriate to judge the cruelty of the rebels’ actions in the context of the greater battle and in reference to the violence that Assad is currently using – violence justified in virtue of reciprocity, what I call “reactive” violence.

I’d like to investigate this intuition a little further, because I think it’s an important one. Do the rebels have a right to use violence only because the government is? I contend that the right of the dissidents to violently fight back is actually grounded more deeply. I believe that the Syrian people have a strong moral claim to engage in violence against those that have pretensions of authority that goes beyond justification in virtue of reciprocity.

To reach this conclusion let’s first consider the prewar state of affairs, when Assad was not waging open war against his citizens.  He still had unjust policies. The regime strictly censored the media, the police force tortured and killed at will, and an air of corruption reigned supreme. Yet despite these violations, if we apply the intuition that dissidents may use violence only in virtue of reciprocity, it seems that the citizenry has no strong moral justification to use violence to protest against the regime.

So what options does the Syrian who yearns for a free, liberal democracy have if violence is not one of them? If political avenues prove fruitless, which seems to have been likely, there is always civil disobedience. Broadly defined, civil disobedience is a public and conscientious refusal to follow the law in hopes of calling attention to an injustice and ultimately correcting it. Many political philosophers, perhaps most famously John Rawls, also stipulate that acts of civil disobedience must be nonviolent in order to be morally justified. It is this last tenet that Gandhi emphasized while resisting the British Raj and Martin Luther King endorsed during the civil rights movement.

I challenge this categorical imperative to resist violence, for two reasons. First, it only seems to make sense in a relatively just state. If the goal of civil disobedience is to draw attention to unjust laws in the hopes of overturning them, it seems to depend on a reasonable degree of certainty that the state might actually respond. This made sense during the civil rights era in the United States, but it is fatally optimistic to assume that Assad and the police state would respond with anything other than an iron fist in cases of civil disobedience.

Second, and more importantly, I think the civil disobedience principle of categorical nonviolence is too shortsighted. The policies that one wants to protest are themselves capable of inflicting violence, broadly defined to include the literal harming of the state’s citizens or more structural forms like discrimination and censorship. If the citizens employed the use of violence and acts of civil disobedience as means of ultimately yielding a more just state, it is possible for their actions to be morally justified. Crucially, the level of violence used by the protesters must be less than the level of violence that would result from inaction. In other words, the cost of rebellion cannot exceed the cost of what would result from the status quo policies. This can be thought of as “proactive” violence.

I have just shown how some degree of violence may be tolerated in acts of civil disobedience against an unjust state even in the absence of open warfare against the citizenry. But what does that have to do with the main contention, that the Syrian rebels are even more justified in using violence than people think? The extra moral justification comes in uniting the separate justifications for reactive and proactive violence against the regime. So the Syrian rebels are doubly justified in using violence because A) the regime is using brutally violent tactics of its own and B) Assad’s original policies would incur structural violence had they been allowed to stand, and so justified a degree of violence in civil disobedience.

To be sure, some political philosophers contend that counter-violence can never be justified, or at least not in this case. They may suggest that the Syrian rebels should opt for dialogue and negotiation with the regime rather than warfare. But to me the evidence seems clear that Assad is too committed to exterminating his opposition to have the patience for a peace deal. After all, at what point of the utilitarian calculus, at which number of dead citizens, should violent opposition become justified? Number 100,000 seems good enough for me. The Syrian opposition should continue to combat Assad’s evil regime, and they should do it knowing that their actions are justified.

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  1. Aly Ricker

    A great piece and point of view! I wish I could say I am shocked by how this article actually made me think, but every thing you write makes me use my mind in a new way. I’m excited to read more.

  2. Botros

    Excellent piece. There is rebellion for socioeconomic and rule of law and rebellion based on religious ground to replace one oppressor by another . Seeing the events unfold in Syria ,Egypt Mali,Nigeria Somali..and how predominant rebel groups do ( eating their victims liver or hearts on camera,as in syria,cutting hands , stonning women on fabricated adultery charges before even attempt to prove them,beheading people without through trial for such punishment …etc.)and how they plan to govern, make u wonder if such rebellion should be supported or condemned ,or is this a real choice.

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