While I was reading Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes (post here; interview with the author here), I thought a lot about what freedom means. What it means to be a free person.
Hill's novel explores slavery, the slave trade, and the journey of the African peoples to North America and beyond. In one part of the book, some slaves are able to earn money through their own skills; their owners allow them to hire themselves out for day labour. So for a tiny portion of their life, they are paid for their work.
But they are still slaves - because the condition of involuntary servitude isn't only determined by whether or not a person gets paid for his work.
Although these people are temporarily earning money, they are not free to make the decisions that determine the course of their own lives. They are not free to marry as they choose. Not free to raise their own children. Not free to refuse to have sex with their owner. Not free to get up and leave.
They are still owned.
In those days, some people rationalized slavery by pointing out that slave owners provided slaves with food and shelter. But it's clear people would rather starve "on their own bottom," as a character in The Book of Negroes says, than eat and be sheltered but be owned.
So if slavery is not only about being paid for one's labour, what is it about?
What is freedom?
When I tried to answer that question for myself, two things came to mind: bodily integrity and freedom of conscience.
Bodily integrity is the freedom to own one's own body. It includes reproductive freedom, sexual freedom, and the freedom to form relationships. It includes freedom from rape, and from torture. It includes freedom from the fear of death by execution.
Bodily integrity includes freedom not to be killed, and from knowingly putting oneself in a situation where there is a great likelihood of being permanently disabled or killed. It also includes freedom from being forced to kill.
If bodily integrity is freedom of the physical body, freedom of conscience is freedom of mind. Freedom of thought, freedom of expression, and freedom of belief. Freedom of religion or the absence of religion. Freedom of moral judgement.
Refusing to participate in war is the intersection of the two. People have the right to refuse military service both for reasons of personal conscience and for reasons of bodily integrity.
Every human should have the right to refuse to kill, or to be in a position where she or he may have to kill. If at one point in life, that person felt that military service was the right course, but later changes his mind, he should be allowed to do so.
How can a government compel a person to fight a war against his will? Conscription, whether written in law or done in practice, is a completely inappropriate intrusion of state into our bodies and our minds.
* * * *
Long ago, I wrote about the moral illogic of supporting peace, but not supporting war resisters.
The claim that a signed contract - no matter how many times it was broken by the military, no matter what lies were told to compel the recruit to sign, or under what conditions the contract was signed - should take precedence over a moral decision to not participate in an invasion, war and occupation is sheer lunacy.
Yet the most frequent argument we hear from Canadians who oppose allowing US war resisters to stay in Canada (a minority of Canadians, to be sure), is "but they volunteered".
So they volunteered. Even if I concede that highly questionable point, if they volunteered, should they never be able to un-volunteer?
How can a government compel a person to fight a war against his will?
* * * *
Last week, I had the opportunity to listen to a recording of a war resister's IRB hearing. (I was transcribing it for his lawyer.) I heard about what the resister experienced in Iraq, and what the Iraqi people are experiencing at the hands of their US occupiers. Then I heard how the US soldier was abused and persecuted by his own military when he tried to get out.
Then, as one of my sister Campaigners said, to cheer myself up, I went to see the film "Body of War". I cried through the whole movie, and only later realized that part of my sorrow was from the story I'd been listening to for two days.
This morning, I heard another resister's story. And I thought, this is a form of slavery.
The US won't let these people exercise their human right to refuse to kill or be killed. The US will put them in prison. Canada must let them stay. It's the only humane thing to do.