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Timothy Leary: Violence Is Killing With Machines at a Distance

Although many will dispute his exclusion of other forms of aggression as violence, few will argue that Timothy Leary’s assertion is more valid than ever now: Violence is killing by machines at a distance.

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(Excerpts from an essay originally published in Alternatives to Violence, 1968)

Alternatives to Violence was published in August, 1968, the same month that a peaceful protest organized by the Yippies (Youth International Party) at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago was met with brutal resistance by the police in riot gear – one of the iconic events in a year that saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the Tet Offensive by the North Vietnamese army against the United States and South Vietnam forces (the peak of fighting of the Vietnam War, which began to turn popular opinion against it) and the re-election of Richard Nixon, who continued the war for nearly five more years.

November 1968 marked the end of the Rolling Thunder air assault campaign that began in 1965 and featured the most sustained aerial bombardment by the US Air Force and Navy since World War II, with nearly one million tons of bombs dropped on North Vietnam.

Time-Life Books invited a group of distinguished philosophers, political scientists and technocrats (including Robert S. McNamara, a prime architect of the Vietnam War) to contribute to the book, along with Timothy Leary, who was living with wife Rosemary in a tipi in the mountains behind Laguna Beach awaiting the Supreme Court’s ruling on his marijuana conviction (possession of a half-ounce), which carried a sentence of up to 30 years. As a leader of the psychedelic wing of the counterculture, he had spoken at anti-war rallies but was unconvinced of the tactics of civil disobedience. In these excerpts from his essay, Leary analyzed the mindset of the technicians of war, whose latest version of “killing machines at a distance” are combat drones. He argued instead for a revolution in consciousness through the agency of psychedelic plants and drugs. (Michael Horowitz and Lisa Rein)


The search for alternatives to violence requires, at the outset, some definitions. Frogs eat butterflies; snakes eat frogs. Self-righteous, conservative parents whip their children. Husbands beat wives. The Hiroshima bomb cremates 80,000 civilians. A man is knifed in a barroom. A boxer swings a left hook.

The life process evolving over two billion years is, in essence, a matter of rough, ruthless, lethal contact. Every form of life is, at all times, in dangerous skin-membrane contact with hostile organisms. Every living creature is killing every second of its existence in this DNA-directed lively dance of death. All human beings have moments of cruelty, anger, maliciousness and psychological weaponry. But these are not the central concern of this discussion.

How shall we define and specify the plague of murder that has converted this planet into a fearful and guilty nightmare? We see all around us today a form of killing completely novel and alien to the evolutionary process. A brand new form of lethal aggression that violates every morality of the genetic plan and torments our serenity.

What is violence? Violence is killing by machines at a distance.

Maiming, killing, devouring other forms of life with whom you are in direct physical contact, whom you touch, with whom you struggle, whose cries and writhing and panic you see and hear and smell – these are the inevitabilities of life. Hand-to-hand fighting is an instinct built into our genes. Evolution has worked for two billion years to provide each species with muscles of offense and defense. Direct skin-to-skin killing or maiming is not violence. Violence is long-range murder and wounding by means of machines. Violence is the other side of the technological coin, the perversion of the Promethean power granted to humans by an experimental divinity. Men who construct, distribute, possess and use violence-machines, and distance-weapons, are violent.

We note here that it is the human male, not the female, who is violent. Women can be impossibly mean. They can drive us cruelly to despair. But the human female is too close to the rhythms and roots of life to use violence-machines. Women are not violent. Neither are men who attack me in face-to-face confrontation. Those who hit me, rush at me with sword or stick, men who wrestle me down with their own muscle power. They are aggressive, but not violent. They do not violate the ancient cellular rules of the life game. They may be murderous, dangerous, but my DNA code has prepared me for two billion years to expect and deal with close contiguous assault. I am genetically guarded against this possibility. It is the distance killing that violates my animal security. John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King never saw his assassin. Neither does the napalmed Vietnamese mother or child.

Which men are violent? Which men specialize in killing at a distance? Government agents account for most of the violence that devastates and terrorizes this planet. Branches of the American military are responsible for 90 per cent of the machine killing and possess more than 90 per cent of the killing technology. It is interesting that in almost every country, our own included, the first function of the military and police is to employ violence or the threat of machine-violence against its own citizenry. That is, to protect the Establishment against the restless and aggrieved who protest their policies.

During the last 20 years, which has seen a tremendous acceleration in the manufacture and possession of killing-machines, only a small percentage of these distance-weapons have been used in defense against equally armed foreign invaders. America supplies the juntas of the world with violence-equipment to maintain the civil order. Greek, Guatemalan, South African agents crouch in city streets behind machine guns. African politicians war for civil control. Violence in defense of invasion is actually a rare event. It’s more likely to kill unarmed civilians.

It is also relevant to mention the trite but always awful fact that violence is profitable: that the manufacture of violence-machinery absorbs the overwhelming majority of our national budget, that the professional military make a good living off violence, and that the violence-industry of this country has developed the most powerful political lobby in the capitol.

Contrary to the impression given by the Establishment’s mass media, criminals account for an insignificant percentage of the armed mayhem in this country and the world. Gangsters today are businessmen who invest in armament stock issues. The petty hustlers, the armed robbers, comprise less than one per cent of the violence.

We are told by the media that the key issues in the 1968 political campaigns are violence in Vietnam and violent crime at home. Dissenting youth, black and white, are the vulnerable targets of the get-tough crack-down and end-this-permissiveness program. The Nixons and Reagans and Wallaces and Daleys wish to mobilize military-police forces to deal with the antiwar protesters and the hippies.

The facts, however, will surely show that the hippies, campus protesters, long hairs, dope smokers, acid heads and detached dropouts (already the victims of discrimination and harassment) are the least violent of any group in the country.

Dissenters don’t arm. There was no gunfire in the love-ins, or at the barricades at Columbia. There was never any danger to the skins of the multi-millionaire trustees of Columbia. Nor of the Sorbonne. Nor of San Francisco State. Remember, too, that over 50,000 young Americans have been led off to jail by gun-toting policemen for violating the draft and marijuana laws. Peaceable people, busted for crimes of conscience and personal behavior.

The obvious truth about violence in the United States is this: It is the rulers of this country and their patriotic partisans who are committed to a society of violence, and the first target of their violence (in this country as in other countries) is the nonviolent, pacifistic, unarmed majority. Civilians who own violence-machines are exactly those who are most identified with the government and the military establishments.

The American military-industrial complex manufactures violence-machines, distributes them to violent men throughout the world and keeps the American populace conveniently addicted to movie and television orgies of machine-murder. The American government is fatally sick from metal-weapon poisoning.

How pious we all are. In politics there is an implacable Gresham’s Law: The violent drive out the gentle. The wicked drive out the good. In the name of the state every emerging leader of the peaceful majority is routinely assassinated by a patriot. Gandhi is shot by an ultra-patriotic Brahmin who thinks the Mahatma is too tolerant to the Arabs. Malcolm X, advocate of Black Nationalism, is gunned down by some group that is strangely protected by the government. The tousled-haired young president, JFK, is killed by a man trained in sharpshooting by the US Marines and loyal, in his twisted fashion, to someone’s secret service. Martin Luther King is assassinated by a Southern patriot who hates communists and blacks. Robert Kennedy is gunned down by a man fanatic in his devotion to the Palestinian cause.

The violent seek power. The violent get power. Who is violent? Governments are violent. Any patriot who supports, belongs to and identifies with a violent government is violent.

The violence problem is simple. If you want to get rid of violence on this planet, just disarm. Just destroy all death-dealing machines. Each government must disarm. There is no excuse, no explanation to God or to the DNA code that can justify the existence of one distance-killing machine on this earth.

(The continuation of this essay and more writings by and about the author can be found here at

Published by permission of the Timothy Leary Estate.

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