The State Is a Firing Squad

Column by JGVibes.
Exclusive to STR
Although the common perception of human nature is very negative, the truth is that most people who aren’t mentally ill have a very difficult time committing acts of violence. Usually it takes a sizeable payment and a fair amount of manipulation to convince someone to act violently, and even then a tremendous amount of guilt typically follows regardless of the circumstances. This factor of personal guilt always came into play in executions, so over the years, they devised different ways of killing people that allowed for the executioner to become more and more detached from the physical violence. On a greater scale, we see this same kind of mentality today in the development of drone warfare.
As far as executions are concerned, one of the most effective methods of detaching the executioner from the act of murder is the firing squad. In a firing squad, a line of executioners unload their firearms on the prisoner, but some of the weapons are filled with blanks and others with live ammunition, so no one can be sure who it was that delivered the deathblow. Personally, I can’t even imagine taking part in one of these, but the anonymity seems to allow people to divert the responsibility in their own conscience, at least temporarily.
Interestingly enough, if we look at the compartmentalization that takes place within government agencies, they work in very much the same way. Everyone performs a specific task that is designated to them, and that task plays a minor role in a greater act of violence. Many times this role is so minor that the greater violence goes unnoticed by those who are carrying it out. I understand that the following analogy is not going to work exactly like a firing squad, with a line of shooters and one bullet. However, the idea is still the same: dispersing responsibility throughout a collectivized group, in order to downgrade the burden of guilt in the minds of those individuals who are carrying out acts that they know in their hearts are wrong.
Imagine a giant gun that has thousands of different gears and mechanisms, all of which require a team of people to manage. This gun is of course representative of the government. Every person in every team isn’t really sure of the big picture or the final consequences of their actions, but they get paid to do their very specific task, so they do so without asking too many questions. Very few of these people realize that they are playing a small but significant role in firing a bullet at an innocent person, but in the grand scheme of things, that’s what’s actually happening.
When comparing this description with how our government operates, we can see how extreme compartmentalization detaches people from the greater aggression that their job plays a part in committing. The endless paper trails, waiting periods, and various different bureaucratic offices act as the different gears and mechanisms in the giant gun from our earlier analogy. These different offices and tedious procedures work to distribute responsibility between so many different people that everyone is able to pass the buck onto someone else without ever coming to terms with the consequences of their actions. 
When someone gets arrested for violating one of the thousands of preferential laws that put nonviolent people behind bars, they are handled by people who accept no responsibility whatsoever for results of their actions. Every step of the way from the arresting mercenary to the final executioner, every bureaucrat says the same thing, “I’m just doing my job.” They are not allowed to have an opinion about the moral values of the laws that they are enforcing and they are not trained to use their discretion when dealing with nonviolent code breakers.
This process of compartmentalization ensures that there will be no mercy for anyone who happens to be caught up in the system and allows for enforcers and bureaucrats to psychologically disengage with the effects that their everyday actions are having on the lives of others. When it comes down to it, not one victim of war, the police state, or the tax code has the liberty of being able to point out an individual who is responsible for their situation. Although there seems to be so many different people in charge of different things, no one is truly held accountable. When there is praise to receive, everyone in government lines up for their reward, but when something goes wrong, there is no one to be found, aside from those who are blaming and pointing fingers.
For the most part, everyone who keeps that state well-oiled and in working order is able to maintain a safe and healthy distance from all of the violence that is taking place. Most people are involved in filing paperwork, sending out letters and things of that nature. These people are very much still a part of the violence, but they aren’t directly on the front lines where they can see what’s going on. I’m not at all saying that all state employees are evil, I’m simply saying that their contribution is helping a violent machine run. Maybe they feel that they have no other options, maybe they think they are doing a great thing, but the fact still remains that they are accomplices to violence, whether they realize it or not. 
Most of the people who are in these secondary roles sustain very little psychological trauma as a result of their involvement with government, but those on the front lines aren’t so lucky. This firing squad scenario may allow those on the front lines to deny personal responsibility for their actions, because unlike those with secondary roles, they are actually coming in contact with the people they are hurting, so they have a harder time escaping the shame and guilt that accompanies their position.
Even though the enforcers on the front lines always rationalize their actions or blame their transgressions on supervisors and legislators, deep down they usually have an extremely difficult time coping with the violence that they are forced to inflict on others, day in and day out. Eventually many of these people end up with severe depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, narcissism and other extreme psychological problems as a result of the physical encounters that they have had with other human beings. 
This enforcement element of state power can be compared to the executioners in a firing squad who are packing live ammunition. Imagine being one of the executioners who feels that extra kick from the end of his rifle, which gives him the subtle indication that he has just taken a human life. Think about how you would spend the rest of your days attempting to rationalize and repress the reality of what you have done. 
By allowing some the ability to commit violence without consequence for the sake of “solving problems,” we are simply setting a standard that problems actually can be solved with violence. On the other hand, if we hold everyone to the same standard of non-violence and handle disputes on a case by case basis, we will actually be encouraging peaceful interactions. Without the nebulous justifications of the state to fall back on, everyone would be forced to rely on their own conscience to make decisions and they would actually be held personally responsible for their actions.
If certain behaviors and social customs lead to psychological trauma and require a great deal of mental acrobatics to justify, then they are obviously unnatural and most likely detrimental to human health and wellbeing. The state itself is one of these erroneous social customs that are actually holding the human race back from a world of abundance and peaceful interactions. If new tactics are constantly being developed to shield people from the shame and guilt that comes along with their day-to-day activities, then there is obviously something very wrong about the way we are doing things.

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JGVibes's picture
Columns on STR: 6

J.G. Vibes is an author, and artist -- with an established record label. In addition to featuring a wide variety of activist information, his company -- Good Vibes Promotions promotes for electronic dance music events. You can keep up with him and his forthcoming book Alchemy Of The Modern Renaissance, at "" . AOTMR will be released this spring, thanks to Leilah Publications. This project features nearly 100 different essays that give historical and philosophical insight into the many important issues that our generation faces. From ethics and voluntary interactions to banking, eugenics and the drug war, AOTMR offers a complete and comprehensive breakdown of the counter culture’s struggle.


John deLaubenfels's picture

Good discourse, slightly weakened by the fact that actual firing squads have mostly live rounds, with possibly one or two blanks:

Your points about the rationalizations enforcers engage in are right on target.

JGVibes's picture

thanks for that correction! i must have had a slight misunderstanding of how they worked... i hope the metaphor wasn't too much of a stretch...thanks for the feedback, i was just able to edit it!

Paul's picture

Excellent article. I would like to suggest an extension to this idea though.

At the risk of being accused of blaming the victim, I think part of this machinery of compliance is the citizen himself. Just as the bureaucrat files papers and sends mail to people, seemingly innocent actions, the recipient of that mail usually complies with no visible sign of resistance. You write, "...everyone who keeps that state well-oiled and in working order is able to maintain a safe and healthy distance from all of the violence that is taking place." What does that not describe, but the citizen himself?

What if, rather than automatically complying with laws and regulations, citizens simply ignored them and waited for the threat that must follow, and then complied? If nothing else, it forces the bureaucrat to actually issue the threat and face up to the violence he is involved in. It would also slow down the machinery in general, and since so much of it is barely on the edge of functional, might push it over the edge.

One favorite example is homeschooling. Homeschoolers are required to register as such, almost a pro-forma requirement, yet a significant fraction simply refuses. One might ask what areas of human behavior have become even more free over time, unlike what seems normal, becoming less free? Homeschooling is one of them. Noncompliance is arguably the reason.

John Ross, in his book "Unintended Consequences", noted that the feeling of guilt often accompanies being the victim of a rape. Why would a victim feel guilt? He thinks because the victim did nothing at all, not only to stop her own rape, but that of others who would be sure to follow hers.

Every time we find a chance at a law or regulation to ignore or break, we seriously ought to consider it.

Jim Davies's picture

Good job, JGVibes, these are analogies I'd not seen before. To my mind the big-gun idea is the better of the two, for the large numbers taking part in its construction and well-oiled operation are distanced somewhat from the blood and gore its firing will produce, and so can more easily take pride in their work. That's exactly how millions of government employees function.

It reminds me of a popular WW-II image: Rosie the Riveter. After men had been drafted, the resulting shortage of labor was met by ladies, working for the first time in factories, often building munitions - riveting bomber wings for example. They could all marvel at the precision of the machine they were assembling, and take pleasure when it was flown off the factory airstrip. The resulting firestorms of Hamburg and Dresden, with ruined buildings (which had earlier been constructed by others with equal pride) and mangled bodies of children and mothers, were horrors to which they could easily close their minds.