You can’t save people by force

By Nathan Goodman

During the Vietnam War, a U.S. major justified bombing and shelling civilian areas in Bến Tre by saying “it became necessary to destroy the town to save it,” leading to the famous saying, but with “village” instead of “town.” 

This quote explains a litany of state actions. Government officials and their supporters embrace a mindset of humanitarian imperialism, and justify violence against innocent people, claiming that it is necessary to save those they brutalize.

Aggressive foreign policy causes more bloodshed and chaos

This mindset is most obvious during wars of aggression euphemistically termed “humanitarian interventions.” For example, during the Iraq War the U.S. government fired depleted uranium at civilian areas in the name of “Iraqi Freedom.” This process of “liberating” Iraq also involved thousands of civilian casualties, as well as torture of detainees.

In order to fulfill their “responsibility to protect” Libyan civilians from Muammar al-Qaddafi’s violence, Western governments bombed civilians. This “responsibility to protect” also apparently entailed supporting forces that engaged in mass executions of political enemies and arbitrarily arrested and abused black Africans based on their race.

Similar dynamics apply to the U.S. government’s war in Afghanistan. While this invasion was largely in response to the 9/11 attacks, many commentators also supported it as a means to “save Afghan women.” The Feminist Majority Foundation, for example, has supported NATO interventions in the area. 

Feminists who actually live in Afghanistan, such as the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), oppose these interventions. They note that the Feminist Majority Foundation’s talk of “peacekeeping forces” is a euphemism, and in reality “coalition troops are combat forces and are there to fight a war, not to preserve peace. Not even the Pentagon uses that language to describe U.S. forces there.” 

Furthermore, they argue that “waging war does not lead to the liberation of women anywhere. Women always disproportionately suffer the effects of war, and to think that women’s rights can be won with bullets and bloodshed is a position dangerous in its naïveté.”

Policing vices causes more violence and criminality

This desire to save people by using force against them is particularly pernicious in foreign policy, but it also poisons domestic policy. Many vice laws are examples of this phenomenon. To save people from getting addicted to dangerous drugs, governments wage a wildly disproportionate War on Drugs

Peaceful people languish in prison for decades. People of color are stopped and frisked on the streets of New York. Militarized police invade people’s homes in the middle of the night. All for what? To prevent individuals from making unhealthy choices? To protect people from getting addicted to drugs? That’s destroying the village in order to save it.

Or take prostitution. Prostitution is prohibited largely in the name of protecting women from being exploited, sexually abused, and trafficked. But the reality is that criminalization enables violence against women. Police have been known to sexually harass, assault, and even rape sex workers.

According to INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, “Extortion of sexual acts in exchange for avoiding arrest or further violence, public strip searches, physical violence, as well as overtly sexist homophobic, racist and transphobic verbal abuse of sex workers by police officers is an all too common experience for indoor and street-based sex workers.”

Criminalization also deters sex workers from reporting acts of violence to the police. In some jurisdictions, sexual health is put at risk as police use possession of condoms as evidence against suspected sex workers.

All of these destructive and violent policies are examples of the worst kind of state paternalism. It’s time to realize that we simply can’t save people by force.

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This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions.

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