When brainwashed to commit violence, your conscience doesn’t prick when you kill.
The barbaric actions at the Capitol on January 6, 2021 were taken by Americans convinced by Donald Trump and others that violence—even war—is essential to secure the nation, democracy, and freedom.
Consequently, when rioters killed one police officer, savagely beat another, tried to gouge out the eye of another as he was crushed, and injured more than fifty, it’s unlikely that the vicious attackers believed they were behaving badly. Instead, they probably felt brave and heroic. This is critical to understand—not to excuse them, but to watch out for this loophole of conscience in us all.
Those who wage war perpetually believe their enemy’s violence is malicious but their own violence is good. Yet war is ineffective as a means of improving society. Any great thing wars have supposedly achieved—freedom, justice, unity, prosperity, security—could have been achieved more effectively and economically without war.
War doesn’t deliver the goodness and glory it’s advertised to offer. War brings despair, trauma, destruction, insanity, poverty, disease, starvation, rape, torture, bodies blown to bits, dead animals, leveled trees, unseen explosives, slaughter, and a seething distrust that cripples society’s ability to ever be peaceful.
War spawns roving gangs of criminals who utilize the chaos to kidnap, murder, and steal. War condemns to death those who refuse to take sides and so are killed as traitors by violent extremists.
War unleashes self-hatred within individuals, propelling them to commit unspeakable atrocities. Above all, war slickly and undemocratically places the reins of power in the hands of believers in violence. Once out of Pandora’s Box, it’s hard to get war back in.
Yet developing non-violent conflict resolution skills is challenging in a nation that has been mesmerized since birth by the notions that war destroys evil and violence is the key to freedom and the proof of pseudo-masculinity. In response to conflict abroad, US policymakers typically send money and weapons for the “good” side to kill the “evil” side. Even within our borders, the form of discussion between opponents, the debate, is only verbal war, with goals, not of truth or harmony, but of conquest—beating the other side.
What we really need to develop is cooperative dialogue, in which opposing sides sincerely work together to express themselves clearly and step into the other side’s shoes to try to understand their feelings. The purpose of cooperative dialogue isn’t to dominate, cave in, or find a compromise down the middle. The purpose is to heighten caring, relieve alienation, deepen understanding, and develop solutions that address each side’s major fears and goals. Dialogue brings to life the very heart of democracy: caring equally for all. Whether fears are rational or irrational, they’ve got to be addressed with caring. Otherwise, they’ll continue to haunt future generations.
Obviously, cooperative dialogue can’t be facilitated by certain Republicans or Democrats who, infamous for their bullying and pointless displays of machismo, just don’t have what it takes for dialogue. However, plenty of other people undoubtedly possess the relevant skills, logic, creativity, and personality.
After 9/11, for example, US policymakers should have pounced on the opportunity to initiate cooperative dialogue, not to excuse 9/11, but to thoroughly understand and address the grievances behind it with practical solutions. Dialogue need not spotlight violent militants, but it should include members of the numerous peace-loving Middle Easterners who condemned 9/11 yet sympathized with al-Qaeda’s grievances.
Similarly, the violence of January 6 was reprehensible. There’s no need to give public status to violent rioters with a TV interview, but there is reason to engage in dialogue with Trump’s supporters, particularly the non-violent, and tend to their fears.
January 6 has raised many questions about double standards of behavior, such as whether authorities would’ve reacted differently to rioting blacks or Muslims. But we should acknowledge another horrific double standard that pertains—not to the behavior of police towards rioters—but to the compassion we’re allowed to feel for victims.
For there’s another group of patriotic Americans that kills—without a prick of the conscience—in the name of democracy and freedom. Who are these Americans? Our very own US foreign policymakers and troops. Where is the outrage and compassion for the suffering of foreign targets of these Americans?
“But they really are protecting the nation, democracy, freedom, and values! Their violence really is necessary!” some may protest. “Troops and policymakers cannot be compared to pro-Trump treasonous criminals!”
Obviously, there are major differences between the groups and even within the groups. But there’s one specific feature they share: their belief that their violence, or at least intimidating force, is necessary to protect the US, democracy, freedom, and values.
Who’s to say that both groups aren’t deluded?
To his disgrace, Trump goaded his patriotic followers into committing violence in DC.
But guess what. Before Trump, two centuries of presidents goaded patriotic Americans into supporting and committing violence on several continents.
Are we expected to believe that right-wing rioters are brainwashed by falsehood when storming the Capitol but US policymakers, troops, the media, and the public have been fully informed when storming indigenous and foreign nations?
To justify funding the Contras, we’re to believe lies that they were fighting for freedom in Nicaragua. To justify the Persian Gulf War, we’re to believe lies that Iraqi troops tore Kuwaiti babies from incubators. To justify the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan, we’re to believe lies that the Taliban supported the 9/11 strikes and that Afghan women want US troops to secure their equality. To justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq, we’re to believe lies that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and supported Al Qaeda and that US troops could improve life for Iraqis.
Killing for goodness and God is deeply rooted in our culture—and so is the deluded mind that accompanies such unholy convictions. The Salem witch trials in seventeenth century New England were led by Puritans convinced of the goodness of their actions and the necessity of violence to rid their community of evil. Four years later, with refreshing candor and humility, twelve Puritan jurors admitted that they’d been wrong and their minds had been clouded:
“We confess that we ourselves were not capable to understand, nor able to withstand, the mysterious delusions of the Powers of Darkness and Prince of the Air. . . . Whereby we fear we have been instrumental with others, though ignorantly and unwittingly, to bring upon ourselves and this people of the Lord the guilt of innocent blood.”
Will any perpetrator of violence amongst US policymakers, troops, protestors, and counter-protestors ever have similar courageous insight?
How do we expect rioters to reject all they’ve been told by Trump when Americans themselves—or at least their political leaders—gobble up all they’re told about allegedly evil, “freedom-hating” Afghans, Iraqis, and Iranians and the “necessity” of war to save the US, democracy, freedom, and values?
If we want our behavior to be any better than that of the Capitol rioters, then we’d better get serious about searching for the full truth and not accepting the skewed fraction of it that promotes violence. The US War on Terror has directly killed more than 800,000 Middle Easterners since 9/11, has indirectly killed many more, and has placed millions in a state of trauma, destruction, and despair far worse than the January 6 riot.
Notice that it’s easy to feel sorrow and rage over the horrendous suffering of police and US legislators in DC. Why? Because the media showed it all to us with detailed descriptions, videos, and victims’ names.
Without diminishing our sympathy for the DC horror, it’s vital to acknowledge that Americans have been deliberately blindfolded to the trauma wreaked on foreign populations by US wars. If Americans saw that pain and suffering, public outrage over these wars might finally enable us to truly care equally for all.
Why not interview Afghans and Iraqis whose lives have been pulverized by war? Why not interview Iranian civilians so we can learn to sympathize with potential victims of US wars instead of sympathizing with war aims? Wouldn’t it help US policymakers create better policy if they understood the negative consequences of their actions so they could better evaluate the net effect of policy options?
Or are reporters considered unpatriotic traitors if they inform viewers of enemy civilians’ suffering and perspectives—information that might prick the conscience?
If patriotism requires us to have faith in the goodness of killing without searching for the full truth, then we’ve no business condemning the violence of pro-Trump “patriots.” Or is such uninformed, violent patriotism admirable only when we attack foreigners but not when we attack fellow Americans? If so, patriotism isn’t even a quality worth acquiring.
Some won’t like this parallel of patriotic violence between pro-Trump rioters and US policymakers and troops. They’ll view the parallel itself as unpatriotic. But which killing is right and which wrong? Who’s brainwashed and who’s not? Better that we all question ourselves and permanently check the hand that would tie a noose, shoot a bullet, or drop a bomb. Don’t let injustice slide. Engage in dialogue. Create dynamic solutions. But don’t be violent.
And beware: if you commit violence and your conscience doesn’t prick, if you believe your killing is necessary to preserve democracy, freedom, and values, search further for greater understanding to help withstand “the mysterious delusions of the Powers of Darkness and the Prince of the Air.”
 “‘I Would Have Done That for Free,’: DC officer at Being Crushed against Door,” Jan. 15, 2021, https://www.nbcwashington.com.
 The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., Jane Polley, ed., American Folklore and Legend (Pleasantville, NY: Reader’s Digest, 1978), 20.
 Neta Crawford and Catherine Lutz, “Human Cost of Post-9/11 Wars: Direct War Deaths in Major United States War Zones,” Nukewatch Quarterly, Winter 2019-2020. Originally published in “Costs of War,” Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown Univ., posted Nov. 13, 2019, https://watson.brown.edu.
Kristin Y. Christman is a contributing author to the anthology Bending the Arc: Striving for Peace and Justice in the Age of Endless War (SUNY Press).