My local mass transit has this sign posted inside:


It is much easier to ignore a problem, especially someone else’s problem, than it is to get involved. And this “see something, say something” campaign is set up for the weak or cowardly. After all, it doesn’t require that you say anything to the perpetrator; you can call in an anonymous tip and hope someone else will fix the problem.

One of my favorite lines from Wes Anderson’s film The Fantastic Mr. Fox is when Kristofferson confronts a beaver who is bullying his cousin, Ash:

Kristofferson: Are you a bully? You’re starting to sound like a bully.

He saw something, he said something. He spoke directly to the bully, not to some absent authority figure. Later, the beaver is again bullying his cousin:

Beaver’s Son: We don’t like you and we hate your dad. Now grab some of that mud, chew it in your mouth, and swallow it.

Ash: I’m not gonna eat mud!

Beaver’s Son: Cuss yeah you are.

[He picks up a large glob of mud and shoves it in Ash’s face. Ash makes a gagging sound but does not react further]

Kristofferson: [takes off his shoes] Don’t do that.

Beaver’s Son: Why’d you take your shoes off?

Kristofferson: So I don’t break your nose when I kick it.

[He proceeds to take Beaver’s son out with some precision karate moves, ending with a throwdown in the mud. Beaver’s son walks away quietly sobbing]

Ash: I can fight my own fights.

Kristofferson: [turns to Ash] No you can’t…


I like this decisive, direct example of anti-bullying, even though I personally do not like confrontation or physical violence. As every kid who has suffered the brunt of bullies at school knows, just talking about a problem as often as not only serves to delay and intensify further nastiness. Adults are powerless to protect children, and in some cases, adults, the people with power and authority, are the bullies. Roald Dahl’s oeuvre is filled with such miserable and misery-generating degenerates.

I remember reading Ender’s Game for the first time. When Ender was confronted by a bully in the bathroom, he decided immediately to attack, to inflict such damage that the bully would never bother him again. He followed through, killing the other child. I was impressed by the strategy–win one battle decisively to avoid an endless series of altercations. And I was horrified by the idea of one child killing another, shouldering the responsibility of ending another’s life.

Ender acted out of self-preservation. Kristofferson acted out of altruism. Neither was willing to be complicit with bullying. Both effectively ended the bullying through violence. But Kristofferson was much softer than Ender, perhaps because he was coming from a position of power and respect that the subject of the bullying did not have. He gave the bully fair warning. He tempered his violent response to avoid inflicting permanent physical damage. In the film, Kristofferson’s method seems to have been as effective as Ender’s, but without the psychic toll of realizing one has become the aggressor.

I’ve been thinking about Syria and the horrors of sarin gas. I’ve been thinking about Iraq and Afghanistan and the Third Reich. And I’ve been thinking about the war chapters in the Book of Mormon. Pahoran wrote to Moroni

Therefore, my beloved brother, Moroni, let us resist evil, and whatsoever evil we cannot resist with our words, yea, such as rebellions and dissensions, let us resist them with our swords, that we may retain our freedom, that we may rejoice in the great privilege of our church, and in the cause of our Redeemer and our God (Alma 61:14).

That we need to resist evil, violently if necessary, is clear. But the military strategy divinely approved in the Book of Mormon is defensive. Preemptive strikes either do not end well (Teancum’s assassination of the Lamanite king in Alma 62:36) or pose serious moral dilemmas (Nephi killing an unconscious man in 1 Nephi 4:10-18). And as for warring on behalf of others, the people of Anti-Nephi-Lehi were protected by the Nephites from their common enemy. The Nephites did not go to war solely to save the people of Ammon. They were fighting primarily to save themselves.

Kristofferson and Ender and Moroni all had certainty that what they did was right and necessary. That certitude made them strong and allowed them to stand confident and act without hesitation. It’s one thing to know that what you are witnessing is wrong; it’s another thing altogether to know what to do about it. I don’t know what our country’s course of action ought to be now. I do know that inaction is often taken as tacit approval, and I do not want to be guilty of the sin of complicity, not these atrocities that I hear about. My lack of conviction makes me hesitate, and to my shame, it makes me complicit.

23 comments for “Complicity

  1. You bring up a problem that most parents must deal with. However, the mass transit sign does not deal with bullies. It is dealing with criminals and crimes they are willing to commit in a public place. Nephi’s actions toward Laban does not bring up any moral problems if it is viewed from the point of view of one who has been attacked, had his property stolen and hss has been threatened as Nephi and his brothers had been, should they returned. Nephi’s life was in danger and the law gave him the right to defend himself.

    It is my opinion that seeing someone at a metro station who might be willing to steal from another passenger, sexually assault a woman, plant some kind of harmful device or push someone under an oncoming train are breaking or going to break the law. It is a civic responsibility to report what you see or hear to the police especially if you have witnessed a crime.

  2. The conceit of fiction is that the author has the right to dictate the reality within which the events play out. The conceit of science fiction, more than any other form of literature, is that the reality will be artfully constructed in such a way as to specifically examine certain concepts, ideas, or questions. This is why science fiction is “the literature of ideas”.

    “Your move,” Ender said.
    “This is no game,” said Bernard. “We’re tired of you, Ender. You graduate today. On ice.”
    Ender did not look at Bernard. It was Bonzo who hungered for his death, even though he was silent. The other were along fo rthe ride, daring themselves to see how far they might go. Bonzo knew how far he would go.

    In this case, the other kids might not know that Bonzo will kill Ender, but Bonzo knows that he will kill Ender and Ender knows that too. What’s more, they each know that the other knows. The violence of Ender’s reaction is justified out of necessity and the total absence of uncertainty. There is no possibility that Ender has misread Bonzo, or that Bonzo himself may shrink from the awful crime of killing a child at the last moment. These alternatives, impossible to rule out in the real world, are obviated by Card’s decisions as an author. That is the whole point of his exercise.

    All I’m saying is that I really appreciate this post, but I wanted to point out that comparing yourself to fictional events is an awful, awful standard to apply.

    (The case of the Book of Mormon is different, but there again Moroni faced responsibility for an imminent existential threat to his people. We face no such threat from Syria today.)

    Still, I feel your sense of frustration with self and world. It would be better, perhaps, to live in a fictional world where certainty was available.

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    The Second Coming

  3. I agree with the main idea of the article, but I also need to express a pet peeve of mine in Mormonism. The Nephites did not always use defensive action but actually launched an invasion of disputed territory, drove out the Lamanites in the area, and then colonized it. They did this under Captain Moroni, the man who can shut the gates of hell. Furthermore, Moroni threatened Ammorron with genocidal war (to prevent the enslavement of Nephite prisoners), Pahoran with eternal civil war, and used brutal counter-insurgency tactics against the king-men. Thus, with the added context it would seem that strategic realities as well humanitarian obligations should be considered in military actions. Merely waiting to be attacked is not the only option.

  4. YvonneS, I agree that the mass transit sign was not intended to be read as an anti-bullying sign. But it does illustrate the notion that in our civilization, we are not vigilantes. We rely on others to do the work of policing and maintaining order for us.

    As for Nephi, I think he felt a moral conflict in killing Laban. That’s why it takes him 8 verses of rationalization to do as the Spirit commanded him. And while Nephi’s life may have been in danger in a general sense, requiring him to sneak around the city, in an immediate sense, the drunken, passed out Laban was not a present mortal threat.

    Nathaniel, thanks for putting the fiction back into perspective. Our world is much, much messier, and we must compromise daily to live in it. We must somehow be principled and idealistic and yet pragmatic.

    kd, thanks for sharing your pet peeve. You are right that there is not a single model in the text. My favorite response is the pacifism of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies. It seems to me to be the most faithful and despairing, the most noble and horrible, and the least practical or sustainable response possible.

  5. Rome acquired an empire through fighting a long series of defensive wars. Well, to the Romans they were all defensive wars. Neighboring states pose a (potential) threat. You demand they take steps to eliminate that (potential) threat. They decline those (to their eyes, unreasonable) demands. And voila, the Romans start another defensive war. All parties involved in a conflict are likely to view their actions as defensive.

  6. I, too, have been thinking about Syria in the context of what obligation we have to act in the world.

    I have yet to meet anyone who takes a very principled moral stand in terms of the scope of their actions in the world. We all play favorites in what we pay attention to and what outrages we tidily ignore.

    Proust says it well in speaking of his father going upstairs when the son was unjustly sent to his room. He did what all men do when they meet injustice, they choose not to see.

    But in seeing the way forward, there seems to be a disconnect between our role as citizens of the USA and our role as citizens of the world. We have very little ability to “call the police” on users of poison gas other than through influence on nation states.

    Most of us don’t trust or seek to create an effective world police, but that leaves us very complicit in an unjust arrangement of nation states and citizenship.

    The future will show whether this is temporary or not. Certainly the technology of communication, transportation and war, have made it ever more difficult to mind one’s own business. We’re connected whether we like it or not.

    Another of my favorite descriptions of this is JG Ballard’s description in the Empire of the Sun of the reaction of the Chinese house servants to the Japanese invasion and to him as a young boy whose parents were lost in the invasion, i.e. smacking him in the face. What other people seem to think we are complicit in almost always goes beyond what we ourselves think we are complicit in.

  7. If the Lamanites split into opposing parties and started killing each other, would the Nephites be complicit in the deaths for not choosing a side?

    I think not.

    Let’s stay out of a civil war and let our own people have peace, even if others do not.

  8. Jax,

    You probably think the same thing about gangs in Chicago too, right?

    Or what about mormons in Illinois in the 19th century? Not my problem, just a little extermination order what would that have to do with people in New York or Quebec.

    It may be advisable to stay out of it but we’re all complicit because all men are brothers, right?

  9. MtnMarty, Yep! Agree with Chicago gangs.

    I don’t live in 19th century Illinois, but I don’t think that people in Moscow, New York, Quebec, Beijing, or Buenes Aires will be held responsible for it.

    Now I do know that if I’m (or you, or anyone else) not faithful I’ll be held accountable for “the blood and sins of this generation.” But being faithful doesn’t mean stepping in to stop every fight everywhere. Why not? because I didn’t covenant to do that, did I? My keeping the covenants I DID make will free me from that stain – not interfering with other peoples problems.

  10. @Jax 10 — How about to mourn with those that mourn and comfort those that stand in need of comfort? Isn’t there an argument that preventing more atrocities is comforting those who need it?

  11. Yes, Anon. We should comfort those that need comfort. Does having my gov’t join a foreign civil war fulfill that duty for me?

    Also, I would think that both sides are in need of comfort; that both sides have people mourning the dead, with illnesses, with all sorts of pains and losses. Are we talking about going in as peace keepers here? Where we act like a parent breaking up a fight between to kids and sending them to their rooms?

    Or are we talking about killing other people in order to aid a different set of people? Who does that comfort? and how? If the rebels today are suffering more than the gov’t forces, are we comforting those in need of comfort by shifting that balance, so that tomorrow the gov’t forces are worse off and have more dead? Does that fulfill our Christian duty in your eyes?

  12. Rachel: There is no question that Nephi had to be convinced to kill Laban. Once he had decided to do what he was told to do he did not act like he was conflicted. When the congress votes to punish Assad the decision will be made. Some won’t like it, but most will be satisfied that the USA acted correctly.

  13. Yvonne,

    If the US votes to NOT punish Assad will most still be satisfied that the USA acted correctly? Are we positive it is Assad as the offender here? Just a few weeks ago we had reports of rebels taken into custody on the Turkey border with canisters of Sarin gas… are we sure that they didn’t use it?

    If I were to pick a side here I’d personally pick Assad’s. Evil he probably is, but stable as well. We helped get rid of a stable evil in Egypt (Hosni Mubarak) already, and that has been a disaster. We’re now complicit in the death, torture, and suffering of an entire nation’s population of Christians by getting rid of the gov’t that was protecting them from the Islamists who are now burning down their churches. Do we want to be responsible for another nation’s Christians being told to accept Shari’a or die?

    So… do we accept complicity in letting Assad (maybe) use gas on his people? Or do we become complicit in helping the Muslim Brotherhood commit atrocities on all of the Christians in Syria?

  14. Does knowing that there is a just and merciful God who will eventually judge the actions of all men reduce the exigency of achieving justice in the here and now? I ask this while pondering Steven Covey’s concepts of “circle of concern” and “circle of influence”.

  15. You were thinking Covey??? I was thinking Gandalf

    “many that live deserve death, and some who die deserve life. Can you give it to them…?”

    Let’s not be too eager to use our military to deal out death and judgment.

  16. Jax: Yes, whichever way it goes the populace will decide to say it is OK. There are bunch of people who presently have not made up their minds. After whatever is decided is decided they will choose to say they agree and will then say they always felt that way.

  17. Wait, so if the US doesn’t undertake military action in Syria, it is somehow complicit in its crimes? Yeah, I don’t know about that argument. Where was the US when Assad was killing tens of thousands with bullets and not chemical weapons?

    Anyhow I think it is funny how many conservatives formulate their positions on intervention in Syria based on what Obama’s position is. If Obama is against intervention, they’re for it. If Obama is for it, they’re against it. Of course whatever position these types take, irrational Islamophobia–expressed in the citing of random obscure articles, in making overstatements about the threat of radicals taking over the country, and in lumping together all Islamist groups into one dangerous and radical whole–pervades their discourse.

  18. It should be borne in mind too that radical Islamists aren’t just going to up and take over Syria if Bashar al-Assad is toppled. Although the violent radicals are organized and do have a number of operatives in Syria and do threaten Christians (as well as other Muslims who disagree with and try to stamp them out), if hypothetically representative democracy were to prevail in Syria (which it probably won’t, at least not immediately), the radical Islamist groups wouldn’t gain much of a presence in the parliament/assembly/congress, let alone win enough votes to place one of their members in the presidency and/or prime ministry. Maybe a more moderate non-violent Islamist group would be able to make way. But the vast majority of Muslims don’t support the radicals.

    In the case of Egypt what happened was that the Freedom and Justice Party, which has strong ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, did win the election. However, it should be noted that the Muslim Brotherhood is not a moderate, non-violent Islamist movement that is committed to working alongside other parties in a democratic environment. Not all Islamists supported the FJP or the Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, there is another more socially conservative Islamist Party, the al-Nour Party, which is opposed to the MB, and backed the ouster of Muhammad Morsi in July. The violence against the Coptic Christians in Egypt is mainly the doing of violent Islamist radicals, such as the Gamaa Islamiya. There is no evidence linking the MB or FJP to these attacks.

    Hence the idea that we must support Assad or else we may inadvertently usher in a takeover of radical Islamists is unfounded. For even if an Islamist party does win an election in the event that Assad is ousted and democratic elections are held, they will more than likely be non-violent moderates, much like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey’s AK Party, and Indonesia’s National Awakening Party, who are able to represent a broader base of Syria’s diverse population.

  19. About two weeks ago I escorted a group of 75 teenage home-school students to the Museum of Tolerance / Holocaust Museum in Los Angeles.

    The leading theme of this facility is identical to Rachel’s article here. They talked about bullying on a individual level and on a national level. Their presentation was very powerful.

    Their presentation revolved around two keywords : Words and Responsibility. Evil WORDS can easily motivate people to terrible acts. And Good People everywhere have the RESPONSIBILITY to NOT let them go unanswered.

  20. The best commentary I’ve seen recently about pre-emptive strikes is the comparison to Pearl Harbor. The Japanese raid was a “limited airstrike” with “no boots on the ground”.

    And how did the other side respond?

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