Swedish Peace Activists Vandalise US Arms

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A few hours ago, activists broke into two Swedish arms factories and vandalised weapons destined for US and Indian military forces. Among other things, they rendered twenty m/48 Carl Gustaf bazookas inoperable.

This really takes me back. An older cousin of mine used to be an activist in the Plowshares Movement. In 1993 him and some friends broke into a military airfield outside Linköping and, using hammers, disarmed a number of JAS 39 fighter planes. They made no attempt to escape afterwards, quietly got arrested and spent a year in jail.

While in prison, my cousin was called “Jesus” by the other inmates. I corresponded briefly with him. When I voiced doubts about his actions he called me “more a passivist than a pacifist”. Not very charitable of him perhaps, but then, he was in a stressful situation. And he was way more idealistic than I am. Today he’s a priest in the Swedish church, working on a PhD thesis in theology, analysing the Gospel of Matthew from a post-colonial perspective.

Pacifist or passivist, I really don’t like the arms trade. I think it’s a disgrace that the state I’m a citizen of allows the selling of arms to nations at war. But I do like democracy and the rule of law. And so I’m no fan of destructive direct action. There’s nothing built into direct action that ensures that it will only be employed by people whose opinions I support. Indeed, I don’t think Swedish law should recognise adherence to my personal opinions as grounds for special rights. If we allow peaceniks to vandalise arms factories, then we can’t in all fairness forbid neonazis to vandalise synagogues or satanists to burn down Medieval churches.

So, to the people who just got arrested for pacifist vandalism: I admire your commitment, but I think you’re hurting our cause. Not least by getting thrown into jail where you can’t do any useful work for peace.

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Comments

  1. #1 paddy
    October 16, 2008

    “Indeed, I don’t think Swedish law should recognise adherence to my personal opinions as grounds for special rights”:

    Exactly. Which is why I always get so annoyed by leftist people who will not allow Nazis and nationalists to speak in public, because they think they are protecting us all from their evil words. And they can’t seem to understand that the concept of democracy must apply to everybody in the same way, even people they don’t agree with. ESPECIALLY people they don’t agree with!

  2. #2 bob koepp
    October 16, 2008

    Martin – I share your distaste for violent protests against violence. But the idea that jail is a place “where you can’t do any useful work for peace” is off the mark — google “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”.

  3. #3 Martin R
    October 16, 2008

    Pat, glad we’re on the same page. I’ve decided not to vandalise your apartment anytime soon.

    Bob, not every peace activist is an MLK. As for violence, I believe the activists in question here are expressly opposed to violence against people.

  4. #4 Italo M. R. Guedes
    October 16, 2008

    Dear Martin,
    I admire you a lot and have come to like your opinions, but in this case I really think you are wrong. First of all, comparing pacifists with neonazis and satanists means that you consider their worldview equivalent, does it not? By your descrption, I believe the unjust world in which we live needs more people like him. You should make a visit to undeveloped countries like Brazil to see that words only will not change the world.

  5. #5 Martin R
    October 16, 2008

    Italo, I rather not have vigilantes deciding for the rest of us what is just and unjust. The definition of justice should be a collective endeavour.

    In her novel Malafrena, Ursula K. LeGuin says that for a liberal, the means justify the end.

  6. #6 paddy
    October 16, 2008

    Italo: I think you are missing the point. No one person, no matter how “smart”, “kind” or “just” they are, or think they are, can decide that their particular ideology deserves special treatment. There is no objective definition of “right”, only generally accepted morals and laws.

    And yes, in some ways reclaim-the-streets people and neo-nazis ARE equivalent as they both think their causes are so important as to be above the law.

  7. #7 Dunc
    October 16, 2008

    I don’t think Swedish law should recognise adherence to my personal opinions as grounds for special rights.

    Presumably the people in question agree, or they wouldn’t have gracefully accepted imprisonment as the consequence of their actions. And it’s entirely possible that they regard getting thrown in jail for their actions as an essential part of of their work for peace – to demonstrate that they’re so committed to the cause that they’re prepared to accept imprisonment for it. In some cases, such an example can be very inspiring.

    There is an argument that as long as your protest doesn’t really inconvenience anyone, you’re not actually achieving anything.

  8. #8 Martin R
    October 16, 2008

    to demonstrate that they’re so committed to the cause that they’re prepared to accept imprisonment for it

    To my mind, that’s a bit like proving the depth of your love to a woman by amputating your penis.

  9. #9 Andrew
    October 16, 2008

    Italo, it does not. It only starkly highlights the equivalence of the actions.

    If I were to burn down a building because of my beliefs, I would be an arsonist. Whether that building was an arms factory or a synagogue and what exactly my beliefs were doesn’t change that.

    What they *do* change is how my arson might be received by the public and, usually, the authorities. But I still burned down someone elses property because I felt my opinions were more important than their rights, or the law.

  10. #10 RG
    October 16, 2008

    Martin – you’re spot on with the idea that “nothing built into direct action that ensures that it will only be employed by people whose opinions I support.” However, one might argue that the eventual use of those bazookas is a direct action with an outcome far worse than than the costs of time and material lost in their destruction. “Monkeywrenching” can be viewed as vigilantism or justice, depending on the point-of-view.

  11. #11 Martin R
    October 16, 2008

    So since war and vandalism are the same thing you argue that we should allow both? I think we should outlaw both.

  12. #12 RG
    October 16, 2008

    War, vandalism, monkeywrenching, arson, etc. are all arguably “direct actions” but placing them into a single category doesn’t make them “the same thing.” To do so ignores context.
    (I will try to check in a little later – gotta work now. Thanks!)

  13. #13 Dunc
    October 16, 2008

    To my mind, that’s a bit like proving the depth of your love to a woman by amputating your penis.

    Yeah, it’s not like that loser Gandhi achieved anything ever again after he got imprisoned the first time.

  14. #14 Randy
    October 16, 2008

    An excellent point, Martin.

  15. #15 Nomen Nescio
    October 16, 2008

    “those who beat their swords into plowshares usually end up plowing for those who do not.”

    it’s a regrettable, wasteful, but unavoidable fact that countries still need armies and weapons. protesting against that fact is a fool’s errand — sad but true.

    protesting against supplying other countries with weapons, now, that’s another matter entirely. there are good arguments to be made that non-involved third party nations shouldn’t arm countries acting belligerently elsewhere in the world. i myself may or may not agree with such arguments, but i can see that there’s a real, and serious, debate to be had around weapons exports.

    however, i’m not convinced that the people Martin mentions committed acts that usefully contribute to any such debate. how did their civil disobedience harm (or even criticize) weapons exports, exactly? especially the 1993 vandalism of those aircraft. back then, the Gripen had not (AFAIK) been exported anywhere at all, and so far it has never been exported to any country involved in any actual conflicts. (that i’m aware of, anyway. corrections?)

    breaking a few dozen individual weapons — out of an export contract of how many? hundreds, thousands? — seems ineffective at best. doing it at the cost of painting oneself, and by extension the goals and political platform one is working for, as being those of a bunch of vandals and criminals instead of any serious political movement, seems like it could very easily do more harm than good. are there really no more constructive ways to protest? after all, wanton destructiveness is why wars and weaponry are considered bad things.

    (“nätverket Ofog”… talk about painting yourself in the worst possible light. i hadn’t even spotted that yet when i wrote the previous paragraph. for non-Swedish speakers, the very name of the umbrella organization these folks claim to belong to translates roughly as “network of mischief/petty crime”.)

  16. #16 johannes
    October 16, 2008

    > disarmed a number of JAS 39 fighter planes

    How great was (or is) the probability that a Swedish Air Force JAS 39 will ever fight in a war? Those planes are largely symbolic (and keep aerospace tekkies gainfully employed :-)). The last shooting war of the Swedish Airforce was in Kongo, in the early sixties, and the enemy was the mighty airforce of Katanga, consisting of five de Havilland Doves, eight T-6s, a de Havilland Heron, an Alouette II, a Piper Cub, 5 Piper Carribeans, 5 Dornier Do 28s, a single S-55 helicopter and 4 Fouga Magisters (shudder). Of those, only the T6s and the Magisters remotely resembled what you might call a warplane.

    Your friend might have had the best intentions, but in fact he probably just added to the profits of the arms industry by destroying arms, thus causing a need for buying replacements for them.

    If he really wants to do something for peace, he could do so inside the Swedish church, which wields quite a bit of political influence through the Swedish Association of Christian Social Democrats.

  17. #17 Dunc
    October 17, 2008

    are there really no more constructive ways to protest?

    Well, I’m sure they’re open to suggestions. Got any?

  18. #18 Martin R
    October 17, 2008

    One method that’s proven effective is investigative journalism. Swedish Peace & Arbitration has a long glorious track record of uncovering shady arms deals and blowing the whistle. The papers love it.

  19. #19 Pär
    October 17, 2008

    Sweden is the world’s fourth largest per capita exporter of weapons. Switzerland #6. Not bad for a couple of neutral nations.

  20. #20 Marcus
    October 19, 2008

    “The definition of justice should be a collective endeavour.”

    Unfortunatly I think that is a bad argument. Because it implies that when a racist collective thinks its just to have an apartheid community it is just. I´m not a fan of vandalism either btw, but are there other cases of civil disobediance that you think is ok?

  21. #21 Martin R
    October 20, 2008

    Why should this apartheid community allow me to break their laws just because of my anti-apartheid opinions?

    I’m not a perfectly law-abiding person myself. For instance, it happens that I drive a little too fast now and then. If an act of civil disobedience is small enough a trespass on the law, I tend to shrug at it or even smile if it’s a witty action. I don’t know where the boundary line is for me.

  22. #22 Marcus
    October 20, 2008

    “Why should this apartheid community allow me to break their laws just because of my anti-apartheid opinions?”

    Well, because an apartheid community is immoral perhaps.. And forcing people to follow immoral laws is equally wrong.

    Wouldn´t you agree?

    “I don’t know where the boundary line is for me.”

    I agree, it´s hard to draw a line. Another problem is that what counts as a “small enough act of civil disobedience” is quite subjective.

  23. #23 Martin R
    October 21, 2008

    an apartheid community is immoral perhaps.. And forcing people to follow immoral laws is equally wrong.

    In a true democracy, very few people are forced to abide by laws they find immoral. Historically, apartheid situations haven’t arisen in such democracies. But if we imagine a community that establishes apartheid by majority vote, then I maintain that there would be no reason for them to accept criminal activity aiming to overturn this legislation. There are tens or hundreds of millions of people worldwide who find Swedish legislation on the topics of abortion and sexual freedom immoral. Still, we Swedes reserve the right to make our own laws. That is, to collectively construct our own morality.

    We’re just monkeys on a ball of rock. Morality does not exist independently of those monkeys and that rock.

  24. #24 Nomen Nescio
    October 21, 2008

    other than the, in my opinion hasty and perhaps thoughtless, near-equation of laws with morality, i’d like to support Martin’s major point. mores, like laws, are human constructs. part of the notion of “law” is that it’s a set of rules which those who are subject to it don’t get to break without repercussions. part of the notion of “morality” is that the repercussions for violating it are different — usually less severe, or even effectively nonexistent. but both of them are usually constructed collectively — laws often expressly so, mores a bit less so or sometimes not at all so.

    breaking the law can be a moral good, certainly. but you should indeed expect to be punished for it; that’s one thing these plowshare activists get right, and they deserve moral recognition for that much.

  25. #25 Tim Abbott
    October 21, 2008

    “In a true democracy, very few people are forced to abide by laws they find immoral.”

    Not at all sure this is a defensible point, Martin. A “true” democracy is still based on that which the majority of voters will support. Minority views and opinions may well be protected under law, but may not end up being the law of the land. You still have to comply with laws that may run counter to your value system in a democracy if you wish to remain within the law.

    In the US, for example – and let us not quibble about how true its democracy is for the moment – there are doctors at Catholic hospitals that oppose the legal requirement that they provide RU-486 “abortion pills” to victims of rape. They have a choice: practice your profession while complying with a law you find immoral, or abandon it. Practicing polygamists are another example, and there are certainly more than a few others that come to mind that prove the point.

  26. #26 Martin R
    October 21, 2008

    OK, let me emend that: in a true democracy, each individual law will force very few people to abide by rules they find immoral. Though the overall sum of such people may be considerable. Few individual laws will meet this kind of opposition.