Violence and the Destruction of Property
by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior Editor
Some protestors have been destroying property when they protest and demonstrate. The mass protests and marches opposing the war in Iraq and the World Trade Organization involved property damage, and some animal-rights and environmentalist activists have destroyed property. In demonstrations, they often pick targets that happen to just be there; they smash store windows and wreak cars. In other cases, they destroy the target of their protest, such as a laboratory or crops. Some of these activists and their sympathizers claim that when there is damage to property but not persons, it is not violence.
Dictionaries define violence as the use of force to cause injury or damage, violating someone's rights. To "violate" means to break or transgress, as when one violates a law. Violence breaks or trespasses on the moral rights of the victim. Violence thus excludes direct self-defense. Violence initiates force to violate a victim. "Violent" and "violate" are thus related both in meaning and in linguistic origin.
The meaning of "violence" thus includes damage to others, violations of the rights of others, including their property. Damage to property is damage to persons, because the victims suffer a loss, not just of property, but often also the emotional pain and trauma from the loss of value and, more importantly, from being violated.
If one kills a person's cat or dog, the damage is much more than just the death of one animal. The animal was an important part of the owner's life, and the loss is often similar to, though less in degree, to the loss of a loved person. People also become emotionally attached to their non-living possessions. The destruction of somebody's car ruins something that was part of someone's life, and there can be emotional trauma and despair from the loss.
The destruction of a person's property also has a social cost. It signals that property is not safe, that we are vulnerable to attack. Damage to property destroys the tranquility of life; now we have to be on guard, get stronger locks, watch our possessions, and be suspicious of strangers.
Protestors may scoff that insurance will cover the cost, but insurance does not compensate for emotional loss, and the damage wastes resources. Violence to persons can be mental as well as physical, and damage to property results in mental damage to persons. The destruction of property is violence, an evil violation of the moral rights of the victims.
The damage doers claim that they "need" to be violent in order to call attention to their cause. But ends do not justify means. Doing evil in order to do something good does not cancel out or morally excuse the evil. The thief who gives the loot to his sick mother still commits evil.
Peaceful civil disobedience can call attention to a cause without violating the rights of innocent people. Protesters can get themselves arrested by trespassing or getting naked . Mass arrests clog the courts and prisons, and vividly call attention to a cause. Father Bill O'Donnell, an activist priest in Berkeley who died recently, got himself arrested when he was protesting the School of the Americas. He and others who were arrested for trespassing called attention to this school that trains Latin American police and military in techniques for repression. If they had used violence, the message would have become confused and contradictory.
Violence is successful when it can be used directly to defeat the enemy. Otherwise, violence is counterproductive. If those who protest violence to Iraqis commit violence, they are saying that violence is sometimes OK, so they are not really protesting against violence. Animal-rights activists deplore violence to animals, but if they themselves use violence, they lose their moral platform. If violence is OK, then maybe what they are protesting is also OK.
Violence to persons or property also breeds counter-violence. Government becomes more repressive. The victim arms and may counter-attack. Violence can make the target more stubborn and resistant to change, because the targeted persons do not want to be seen as giving in to violence. Giving in to violence can breed more violence, so it is with good reason that the targets may refuse to yield to the protestors' demands.
Gandhi and Martin Luther King showed how peaceful civil disobedience can win great victories. It does not work when there is a ruthless dictator, but civil disobedience and mass arrests can work wonders in a democracy. Unfortunately, many activists do not heed the lessons of history and logic. The greatest victim of violence is often the protestors' own cause.
-- Fred Foldvary
Copyright 2003 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.
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