TCS Daily


Violence, Legitimacy, and the Terror War

By Lee Harris - April 29, 2004 12:00 AM

In his review of Civilization and Its Enemies in the New York Times Book Review, dated April 4, 2004, Philip Bobbitt leaves the unfortunate impression that my book advocates violence as a policy that should be single-mindedly pursued by the United States to the exclusion of all other political considerations. Let me quote the passage in full:

"...the shortcomings of Harris's approach are pretty considerable...[t]he successful use of violence, rather the concord with a particular theory of justice, does indeed establish legitimacy, as Harris argues. Violence alone, however, cannot maintain legitimacy. 'The strongest man is never strong enough to be master all the time unless he transforms force into right and obedience into duty,' Rousseau wrote. Our own people, to say nothing of the allies we must have in order to wage a successful war against terrorism, have to be persuaded that the use of violence will in fact result in a safer, more human world."

To begin with, I have no argument with the observation that "violence alone...cannot maintain legitimacy," or with the quote from Rousseau's Social Contract about the necessity of transforming force into right. But to say that force needs to be transformed into right does not give us any clue how this transformation can be brought about. Like the abstract observation that a successful business must turn a profit, Rousseau's dictum does not show us how such a result is to be achieved in practice: we may look at legitimate societies and recognize that at some point force was transformed into right, and yet not be in a position to know how this happened originally, let alone how the same trick could be done again.

Mr. Bobbitt, on the other hand, appears to believe that there is a routine formula by which strength can be transformed into right, and this he makes clear in the sentence that he uses to illustrate Rousseau's meaning: "Our own people, to say nothing of the allies we must have in order to wave a successful war against terrorism, have to be persuaded that the violence we use will in fact result in a safer, more humane world." (Italics mine.)

In other words, the solution to Rousseau's problem, according to Mr. Bobbitt, is to persuade other people that the violence we use will be beneficial to them in the long run, and that it will lead to a better and brighter world.

Persuasion is certainly preferable to the use of force; and yet it is utopian to believe that persuasion, even when backed by violence, is sufficient to maintain legitimacy. How often does rational persuasion work to change the minds of those discussing a purely abstract question in the comfortable stress-free environment of a philosophy seminar -- and if rational persuasion fails to perform under such benign conditions, what chance does it have of changing the minds of whole nations under the stressful circumstances known as the real world?

The remarkable thing is that, from time to time, rational persuasion actually works; but if the legitimacy of a society depended on the ability of those in power to persuade others that to accept their authority, day in, day out, what society could last more than a few weeks? Furthermore, if legitimacy depends on persuasion, what happens when there are sizeable chunks of your society that simply refuse to be persuaded, and even by the very best argument you have? "I can give you an argument," the normally persuasive Samuel Johnson once remarked in a fit of peak, "but I cannot give you an understanding."

The problem of trying to found legitimacy on persuasion is that, when persuasion fails, all that you have left is the option of force. But this puts us right back into the quandary that Mr. Bobbitt rightly finds so objectionable -- the effort to found legitimacy on violence alone; and this, generally speaking, is the pitfall that awaits any political theory that attempts to rely on rational persuasion alone: it is asking reason to perform tricks for which it simply isn't suited.

That is why, in my book, I defined legitimacy not in terms of the monopoly of violence or in terms of a supposed rational criterion for legitimacy, but simply in terms of our visceral habits and customs. On this reading, legitimacy is not reducible to law or moral theory; rather, it is an attribute of a nation's collective psychology. If those in authority are taken for granted as the people who should be in authority by the people over whom they exercise this authority, then their authority is legitimate, and this is true even if we are talking about a bunch of murderous madmen. The Nazi regime was despicable, but legitimate. Louis the XVI, on the other hand, lost his legitimacy a good while before he lost his head, despite being the lawful king of France until the very end.

Legitimacy feels like second nature: that is, it must appear to come naturally, like the manners we find acceptable in our community; and, in a sense, it is actually closer to being a form of etiquette than of politics. It is the deference that people spontaneously show to those who have authority over them, whether this be the deference of a peasant toward his master, or an American citizen before a judge in traffic court. We don't for a moment find ourselves wondering, "What's so special about the guy behind the bench," because we feel that he is special in every nervous fiber the moment we come to stand before him, from the pounding of our chest to the tingling in our toes.

That is legitimacy, the visceral acceptance of authority, without the slightest will to resist it, as when a Bush hater is introduced to the President: he will automatically say, "I am deeply honored to meet you, Sir" even if he had a battered copy of The Bush-Hater's Handbook on his nightstand. There is no helping it.

But if this is what legitimacy is, then it can easily be seen it is not the kind of thing that can be produced by violence at all. Because the first thing almost everyone thinks when he is the victim of violence is, "Why are you doing this to me," and once this question had been asked, legitimacy has vanished in the mind of the questioner.

Those who hold legitimate authority are constantly aware that if they abuse their authority they run the risk of rebellion. Not the actual rebellion of men at arms, but the more insidious rebellion of men in their hearts. The man who believes in the principle of law, and who expects the law to make sense, is forever ruined by the grotesque realities of even the simplest legal suit: he will never quite respect the law again as he did before he knew how it really worked.

And so it is with all legitimacy -- much of it depends on a lack of familiarity with how legitimate power works, even when it is working at its very best; and the rest of it depends, at either extreme, on either illusion in the inexperienced or resignation in the wised up.

This is why those governments that had seemed the most solidly legitimate are often prey even to tiny amounts of violence, as was proven in the fall of the Bourbon dynasty in France. It was not merely from reading the Telemachus of his benevolent tutor Fenelon that Louis the XVI learned to deplore the use of violence against his own people. Rather, he was simply following the first rule of any matured legitimacy: use as a little violence as you possibly can to achieve any purpose that absolutely must be achieved.

Repeatedly during the initial crises of the French Revolution, Louis was implored to use a show of force against the mob. In part, he was too humanitarian to consider this option; but in part, he was acting from the soundest Machiavelli raison d'etat. What better way to squander the accumulated legitimacy of centuries than by opening fire on a crowd of Frenchmen in the streets -- for it was here, in their hearts of these Frenchmen in the streets that Louis knew his legitimacy to reside, and the fate of his throne to rest. If they desert them there, he knew very well that he could not massacre them into loving him again.

This is a lesson that America has been learning the hard way. As the legitimate authority in the world during the Pax Americana, the United States faced much the same problem as Louis the XVI: even when we use violence in a good cause, the fact that we used violence at all was enough to undermine our legitimacy in the eyes of the rest of the world -- or at least considerable chunks of it. Consider the reactions against each of our various efforts to do the right thing through the use of force; in almost all cases, the right thing that America was trying to do was blotted out in the eyes of many by the force that was used in trying to do it.

Here we can see the one point of connection between Vietnam and Iraq: in both cases, we are using violence in the hope of improving the lot of an entire people by eliminating those who threaten their peace and stability. And yet as we escalate our violence in response to the violence of those fighting against us, we inevitably appear to be trying to maintain our legitimacy through violence alone -- and nowhere is this more evident than when our enemies are beyond the reach of negotiation and persuasion, and only understand the language of brute force.

Which leads us to face a tragic and unavoidable dilemma. Either we go on using violence, and risk our legitimacy in the eyes of those we are trying to help; or else we stop using violence, and abandon those we are trying to help to the violence of those who have the least scruples about using the violence to further their own objectives.

Mr. Bobbitt would like to interpret this tragic dilemma in terms of our current domestic political squabbles, framing the question as a choice between the violent and unilateral approach of President Bush, on the one hand, and the persuasive and multilateral approach of the Democratic candidates, on the other. This is simply naïve; and nothing can better demonstrate this truth than a close examination of the alternative policy that, according to Mr. Bobbitt, should have been followed by the Bush administration. To quote it once more: "Our own people, to say nothing of the allies we must have in order to wage a successful war against terrorism, have to be persuaded that the violence we use will in fact result in a safer, more humane world."

In making this demand, Mr. Bobbitt is exacting from the President powers of persuasion that no man -- Republican or Democrat -- could possibly hope to have.

Imagine that you are ill and your doctor says, "You will most likely die unless we perform a risky and dangerous operation on your heart that you may not be able to survive; but, unfortunately, your only chance of a successful recovery is to have that operation." Now suppose you responded, "Well, doc, that simply isn't good enough. I need to be persuaded that the technique you use will in fact result in my complete restoration to health." What answer can the doctor possibly give in response? If the doctor is right, there is simply no way for him to persuade you that there are no risks -- unless, of course, he simply lies to you.

When there are inherent risks to an undertaking, such as heart surgery or war, it is apriori impossible to make an honest case that no such risks exist, much less that the undertaking in question "will in fact result" in a positive outcome.

If fighting a successful war against terrorism depends on our ability to persuade others that our actions "will in fact result in a safer, more humane world," then we should begin to make preparations for surrender at once, because how can we possibly be expected to provide proof positive that a risk will pay off as we hope it will? That is the whole nature of a risk: if you could prove it would in fact pay off, it wouldn't be a risk, but a sure thing.

The President of the United States, no matter who occupies the Oval Office, cannot be expected to sell a risk as a sure thing, especially in a situation where every possible option is loaded with risks, none of which can be calculated with any precision. Indeed, the main criticism I would make of the Bush administration is diametrically opposed to the one that Mr. Bobbitt makes. Instead of focusing on its failure to persuade others that its strategy was a sure thing, the Bush administration should be taken to task for its failure to emphasize the uncertainty and the risk that was inherent in the strategy that it elected to pursue -- and that was equally inherent in any other strategy.

It is upon this uncertainty and risk that both of our parties need to focus, since our only hope of success in dealing with our common enemy is to overcome the delusion that there is some magic bullet by which terrorism may be defeated -- a delusion that permits us to attack our leaders for their failure to find what doesn't exist because it cannot exist. If we win, it will not be because we planned to win; but simply because, somehow, looking back, we will see that we have won, despite, and even because of, all our mistakes we made along the way.

Lee Harris is the author of Civilization and Its Enemies. He recently wrote for TCS about the Iraqi mob.


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