Syrians continue to face torture and death at the hands of the Assad regime as international sanctions have either been blocked or shown to have little effect. Lives are lost as global powers thumb their noses at each other in a game of expanding influence. The continued violence shows that when it comes to preventing mass murder it is better to rely upon an armed populace in solidarity than on the state.
When a government wantonly guns people down for peaceably assembling, the populace is fully justified in taking up arms, and members of the regime’s forces must choose between protecting the public and serving the state. In Syria’s case, deadly attacks on protestors have caused some defections and an increasing resort to arms. The Assad regime’s ban on foreign journalists makes it more difficult to see what is going on, but clearly shows what the regime thinks of freedom and accountability.
Considering the broad spectrum of protest worldwide underscores the shortcomings of drawing a binary violent or non-violent distinction. When police and protestors hit each other with sticks and less-lethal projectiles it’s not the same as when they shoot each other.
But the limits of armed uprisings should also be considered. Organized killing and maiming of other people tends to cut deep divisions in a society that will be increasingly colored by militarism, not to mention the risks that an escalation in violence poses to bystanders.
The ability of Syrians to effect regime change apparently needs to be won by arms. But in other places government violence can be restrained by strengthening the cultural conditions that agitate against deferring to authority or the leader, and political conditions that make politicians understand the cost-benefit ratio does not work out in their favor.
The prevention of mass killing is best done by a society characterized not just by its ability to resort to arms, but also by its concern with issues of individual liberty, tolerance of differences, and preference for resolving disputes using arbitration over violence. Planting these values deeper into society is a distinctly anti-authoritarian project, as it means cultivating liberty and solidarity over authority and subjugation. It means building communities that respect the autonomy of the individual, in the face of authorities who see the individual as a means to furthering their own power.
Foreign military intervention rarely turns out well for the people who live in the battlefield. More firepower and destruction is unleashed in their neighborhoods by people who don’t live there. States use conflict to further their own interests in the region. States that deploy military forces pursue their own interests, and the interests of those who back their ruling party.
Ultimately people need to rely on themselves and on each other, not on any state. Deadly force is the last tool that people should resort to in preserving life, regardless of whether the would-be murderer is in uniform or not. But the best environment for human development needs to rest on more than the ability to shoot people. It needs to rest on the values of liberty and solidarity.