From The Tribunal November 1, 1917
We print here in extenso, a leading article entitled “Conscience Recalcitrant” which appeared in the “Times” of October 25th…
“Our columns continue to give evidence that the problem of the conscientious objector is not yet satisfactorily settled, and we understand that more is likely to be heard of it in the near future. The popular attitude of indifference, blazing at irregular intervals into spasmodic indignation, would be all very well if the question of conscientious objection to military service was a static question, which could be disposed of once for all on rigid lines. Unluckily it is not; it rests on the beliefs, convictions, or prejudices of men whose mere presence within the community is a perpetual interrogation. It is out of the question to dispose of these men, as so many would like to dispose of them, with an impatient wave of the hand and a dictatorial ‘Off with his head; so much for conscience in war time”’ We are not pleading the case of the conscientious objector, irrespective of its individual bearings; very much the contrary. But it is necessary to remind people that these cases cannot be judged in an undiscriminating and summary way. Conscientious objectors may be divided into three main classes. There are those who have accepted non-combatant service, have agreed to “work of national importance”; and those who have refused both, have been compelled to go into the Army, have declined to perform their military duties, and are serving – as a penalty of their refusal – successive terms of hard labour. It is the case of this third class we desire to direct attention. Most of us may think it an impertinent query, but it is a query all the same, and sooner or later will have to be answered. How long are these men to be compelled to serve successive terms of hard labour because they refuse to submit to the discipline of the Army into which they have been forced?
“Before we attempt an answer let us reflect on one or two circumstances in their case. First, they have deliberately turned their backs upon the comparatively easy avenues of escape offered by acceptance of either ‘non-combatant service’ or ‘work of national importance.’ They are thus self-condemned to a lot far harder than that of those who have escaped military service by one or other of those avenues. It may be said that the dominant motive with many of them is the itch for notoriety. Possibly it is; but even so they pay the price in hard labour, though that price is small compared with the long-drawn trial of service in the trenches. Next, they are being punished again and again for what is essentially a single offence. And, once again, they are punished thus repeatedly for that rebellion of the individual conscience against the claim of the State to rule conscience which experience has shown to be rather fortified and propagated than exterminated by punishment. They are useless where they are; if released, some of them might be useful to others, if not to the State; and if any of them are dangerous to the State, the law has its remedy. And it is possible that their present treatment supplies the disaffected with gratuitous arguments which it is difficult to answer. Many of them no doubt glory in their punishment, reckoning it is a persecution easy to be borne for conscience sake, and certain – as in the case of the early Christians – to promote the doctrine that it hopes to exterminate. We do not endorse these arguments on behalf of this particular class of conscientious objector, but we feel bound to state them for the calm consideration of a community that justly prides itself on its tolerance. The difficulty, of course, is to test the real motive that inspires the objection to military service. It is so easy, as every one knows, to assume the cloak of conscience which covers, in many cases, an abysmal degradation of selfishness, or of treason, or of mere pitiable fear. But it is at least worth considering whether circumstances have not provided an automatic test. When a man has deliberately refused to avail himself of two alternative ways of escape from prison labour; when he has more than once, of his own deliberate choice, gone back to gaol; when he shows himself resolute to go back again and again rather than submit to that military service against which he asserts that his conscience raises for him an insuperable barrier – when he thus proves repeatedly his readiness to suffer for what he proclaims to be his belief, is it either justifiable or politic to go on with the punishment? The question seems to us to be worth a good deal more thought than the complacent generalisation of the public about conscientious objection has been willing to give it as yet. One point is, however, clear. Men who, for whatever reason, decline to do their duty as citizens place themselves permanently outside the community and have no title rights. But between these disabilities and the constant infliction of positive punishment there is a distinction. And it is this distinction that is worth considering.”