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In a democratic society, political violence is unacceptable

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | DECEMBER 09, 2009 7:30 AM

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People around the world participate in the political process in a variety of ways. Some vote in elections. Others stage protests or contact their legislator. Still others opt for the more extreme approach of committing violent acts to serve a political end. Political violence occurs all over the world, and Iowa City is no exception. Extremists since the 1960s have committed acts of violence on campus — one of the most recent being the Spence Labs break-in in 2004.

The ongoing trial to prosecute the alleged wrongdoers is a reminder that violent acts, no matter their political intent, have no place in a democratic society.

The debate over the legitimacy of political violence has been going on since the days of the Greek philosophers. Proponents of political violence will argue that the ends justify the means and that they must combat what they view as an unjust world.

History, for the most part, has sided with the political pacifists over those who choose violence — and so do we. History champions great thinkers like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gandhi as the driving force for change, while marginalizing people who advocated change, “by any means necessary,” like Malcolm X.

Still, there are groups who continue to justify their violent strategies with historical precedent.

While Jerry Vlasak, a press representative for the Animal Liberation Front, denied those accused of breaking into Spence Labs were affiliated with the central office, he defended their actions as means of liberation. He even compared their acts to those of the abolitionists and Nelson Mandela.

He said people will not give up power unless they have to and won’t stop abusing others unless forced. Conventional forms of participation — voting, lobbying, etc. — were useful, but not enough, Vlasak argued. Violence would need to supplement those actions.

Comparing the Animal Liberation Front to Mandela and his African National Congress is beyond a stretch. While it is true that Mandela did organize a militant group to try to overthrow the apartheid government in South Africa, he did so only after the South African government banned the African National Congress — his last means of legal political participation. Groups like the Animal Liberation Front can still use other forms of participation like lobbying, voting, or staging protests. They do not need to commit acts of violence to further their goals.

In addition, committing these violent acts is myopic from a simple effectiveness standpoint. UI political-science Associate Professor Frederick Boehmke called such acts a “very risky method.”

Groups run the risk of inducing a backlash, as the damage could harm more than just those the groups targeted. Boehmke also placed committing violent acts as one of the least effective ways of creating real political change. A group would have much more success lobbying a congressman than committing a violent act, he said.

There is no doubt that people who commit political violence are passionate about what they believe in. Violence is a drastic tactic and is not to be taken lightly. But these acts come at a price, a price that is too much to bear. A democratic society has many outlets for people to participate, and the further a person or group moves beyond these outlets, the less chance they’ll have of changing the system.

For the sake of themselves — and, more importantly, for society — groups who wish to commit political violence should realize the ineffectiveness of their methods.


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