(Digression: We need a name for readers of the Solipsist--"Rots?" Nah. But, y'know, something to distinguish such exemplars of good taste and erudition. We're open to suggestions. End of digression.)
When is violence justified? This is the central question at the heart of Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means by William T. Vollman.
Short answer: Seldom.
Vollman, a Bay Area-based novelist and journalist, was preoccupied with this question, and he produced a seven-volume (!) answer for McSweeney's. These seven-volumes are here condensed into a "slim" 700+ pages.
Vollman is a good writer, and his approach is to use case studies, both historical and current, to develop a "moral calculus" of violence. Not surprisingly, and not too controversially, he suggests that imminent self-defense or defense of others is a reasonable justification for a violent response--although he does qualify that the response should be proportional; if a dangerous situation can be resolved without violence, it should be.
The author wants to provide a set of instructions, an algorithm if you will, for evaluating when violence is allowable. He tends to hedge a bit, though, "In short," he tells us at the beginning, "you have the right to make up your own mind." One would hope so. At the same time, one feels that, after wading through hundreds of pages, one should be provided with a more definitive answer to the book's central question.
Vollman claims that he is no philosopher, merely a writer who has undertaken a great deal of reading and some travel to various zones of violence (Bosnia-Herzegovina, the slums of Jamaica, rebellious provinces of Thailand). Still, the main impression one is left with at the end is that self-defense is a fairly indisputable justification, and that other justifications for violence (e.g., defense of creed, defense of homeland, defense of race, etc.) are more or less justifiable to the extent that they approximate imminent self-defense.
This hardly seems ground-breaking.
At the same time, some of Vollmann's sketches are worth reading. He opens the book with "Three Meditations on Death," which are among the most accessible and interesting sections of the book. His account of time spent hiding out in a bombed out dormitory in Zagreb is compelling. In sections set in Southeast Asia and Jamaica, however, his quest for verisimilitude--specifically, his attempt to approximate the speech of the residents--becomes distracting.
One provocative conclusion, though: When it comes to attitudes towards violence, Vollmann is more sympathetic to the abolitionist John Brown--whom many would deem a terrorist--than he is to Gandhi. And he makes a good point: While John Brown engaged in possibly avoidable violence, he was pursuing what most would consider a worthy aim: the end of slavery. Gandhi, a moral exemplar to many, took non-violence to an almost satirical level, claiming, for example, that the proper moral response of Jews to Hitler's policies should have been to voluntarily go to the gas chambers, so as to prove themselves of a higher moral nature. Vollmann has it right when he claims that non-violence, as an end, is no more justifiable than violence, and that a truly moral actor must consider it a (hopefully avoidable) means to a moral end.