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Beyond War: A Proposal

Yesterday we did a Q & A with Douglas P. Fry author of Beyond War: The Human Potential For Peace. Fry, a renowned anthropologist and a leading authority on aggression, conflict, and conflict resolution, weighs in on judicial systems below.

Today, we take the courts, police, and prisons for granted. As citizens of nation-states, we accept that the administration of justice lies in the hands of the justice system and rarely “take justice into our own hands.” This dramatically reduces the amount of violence in society. Thus a homicide in a modern state rarely leads to a revenge homicide. When it does, the judicial system treats the act of vengeance as a new crime. States claim the right and duty to deliver justice.

A cross-cultural comparison of justice-seeking–one of the many topics explored in Beyond War–reveals that self-redress is most common in societies that lack a strong centralized authority. An anecdote recounted by anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon highlights the difference between seeking justice via revenge and the adjudicatory mechanisms typical of states. “A particularly acute insight into the power of law to thwart killing for revenge was provided to me by a young Yanomamö man in 1987. He had been taught Spanish by missionaries and sent to the territorial capital for training in practical nursing. There he discovered police and laws. He excitedly told me that he had visited the town’s largest pata (the territorial governor) and urged him to make law and police available to his people so that they would not have to engage any longer in their wars of revenge and have to live in constant fear. Many of his close kinsmen had died violently and had, in turn, exacted lethal revenge; he worried about being a potential target of retaliations….”

Anthropologist E. Adamson Hoebel studied justice-seeking among the Comanche. As a society lacking a central governing authority, the Comanche system also relied on each aggrieved individual pursuing his own justice. Hoebel draws a parallel between this self-redress system and international relations. Comanche justice-seeking is “…exactly comparable to that observed among nations which recognize certain practices of international law, but which reserve to themselves the sovereign right to resort to force if things don’t suit them. Then, in the words of [a Comanche man named] Post Oak Jim, ‘Lots of trouble, lots of people hurt’.”

A major problem with a self-redress system is that one person’s, or one county’s, “justice” may be perceived by the recipient as “un-just,” as an unwarranted or over-zealous attack. This is one reason why self-redress can lead to the escalation of conflict between individuals or between nations. Consider the following example from anthropologist Jan Brögger’s fieldwork in southern Italy. To make charcoal, Domenico cut down some trees along the property line he shared with Guiseppe. Guiseppe requested some of the charcoal, thinking he had partial claim to this common resource, but Domenico refused to give him any. As a result of an ensuing argument, Guiseppe became furious and stole some of Domenico’s rabbits. Domenico retaliated by cutting down Guiseppe’s vineyard late one night. Ultimately, an enraged Guiseppe killed Domenico. It is easy to predict the occurrence of similar escalation scenarios between nuclear powers in the future–with much graver consequences–if we continue on the path that accepts international self-redress.

Anthropology shows that with increasing authority and leadership, adjudication of disputes in court becomes feasible, largely eliminating justice seeking through self-redress. Herein lies one lesson with potential for moving humanity beyond war: The types of judicial principles currently used within nation-states could be applied among nation-states to create institutions for resolving disputes and assuring international justice that do not rely on each nation’s self-claimed right to use force. This judicial solution has been implemented repeatedly within nation-states as an alternative to self-redress. As explored in Beyond War, applying this tested principle at the international level offers a viable alternative to the global self-redress war system that continues to result in “lots of trouble, lots of people hurt.”

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