Charles Petzold

Summer Reading: "Nonviolence"

September 11, 2007
New York, N.Y.

In the days following the attacks on the World Trade Center, people tended to gather in the evening in Union Square Park, right above 14th Street. It was an ideal location: Fourteenth Street was the northern border of the downtown zone that was closed to non-emergency vehicles, and police checked IDs for anyone crossing into the zone; if you didn't live there, you were turned away. For anyone living above 14th Street, Union Square Park was as close as you could get to the World Trade Center site.

These impromptu evening gatherings in Union Square Park were mostly about grief, and about being with our fellow New Yorkers to deal psychologically and emotionally with what had happened. I remember much sadness, many families and children, a lot of candles, photographs, and communal art works of sorts. Despite the random appearance of an occasional angry crazy person muttering about revenge and frightening the children, the gatherings were very quiet and peaceful.

If these gatherings could have projected a sentiment to the world beyond the borders of the park, it was that reaction to the attacks on our city should not involve war or continued violence. "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind" was a commonly seen slogan. The President and his administration was already engaged in saber rattling, so some kind of war seemed inevitable. To us in the park, the destruction of the World Trade Center was a indescribably horrible event, but to impose that same type of destruction on people in other countries seemed even worse.

Of course, it's easy to scoff at such notions. I'm sure that to many people, the idea of responding to the World Trade Center attack without angry avenging violence seemes positively perverse. I can hear people asking in amazement: Are New Yorkers really so fruity to suggest a non-violent reaction to these attacks? It's completely off the chart of any type of realistic behavior! As history has constantly proven, non-violence simply doesn't work.

As we all know now, no one listened to a group of mourning New Yorkers gathered in Union Square Park. Instead, the administration went with a conventional, realistic approach: Begin with "shock and awe," let the soldiers "be greeted as liberators," and then declare "mission accomplished." It works every time!

These were some of my thoughts prompted by reading Nonviolence: Twenty-Five Lessons from the History of a Dangerous Idea (Modern Library, 2006) by Mark Kurlansky, a journalist best known for his critically acclaimed books on the histories of cod and salt. This short, 200-odd page book is a good introduction to the history of nonviolence both as a moral principle and a pragmatic political tactic.

Kurlansky traces the roots of nonviolence to ancient religions, and particularly Christianity. The early Christians recognized the principles of nonviolence inherent in the teachers of Jesus, and refused to participate in the wars of their governments. The big change occurred with Constantine. Under Constantine, Christianity was allowed to become a mainstream religion, but at the cost of betraying the moral teachings of its founder. The Just War theory of Augustine later became part of Christain theology, and has been used to justify pretty much every war since then.

The Protestant Reformation gave people to opportunity to read the Gospels on their own and decide for themselves, and Kurlansky traces the history of several religions that re-incorporated nonviolence into their theologies. Historically most notable is the Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers. For centuries, Quakers have been in the forefront of resisting war and bringing about social change through nonviolent resistance, most notably in the anti-slavery movement.

Kurlansky also identifies principles of nonviolence at work throughout history. For example, although the American Revolution was largely a bloody affair, one event still celebrated in popular histories of the conflict is the Boston Tea Party — an archtypal act of nonviolent resistance. The Boston Tea Party was certainly a revolutionary act but nobody was harmed during its commission. Kurlansky believes that many revolutions are essentially completed by such acts of resistance before the violence even begins. The revolutionay war then serves merely to consolidate the populace. After the shooting starts, you can no longer categorize yourself as "undecided." You're either a patriot or a traitor.

Kurlansky also focuses also on the two major victories of nonviolence in the twentieth century: Gandhi's program to liberate India from British colonial rule, and Martin Luther King's leadership in the liberation of African Americans from the oppression of Jim Crow. (The histories of both compaigns reveal the high levels of bravery, courage, and perseverance required in a non-violent struggle. Nonviolence is not for wimps!) Kurlansky also devotes some time to a little-known episode in the history of World War II when Denmark resisted Nazi control largely by nonviolent noncooperation with the invaders.

In a fascinating analysis, Kurlansky also credits nonviolent activity as instrumental to the dismantling of the Soviet bloc, beginning with the Prague Spring of Alexander Dubček and the Soviet reaction. "When the world saw the Soviet Union invade one of its closest allies, and saw its tanks stared down by unarmed students, its defeat had already begun. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, years later, after his country had collapsed, agreed that nothing was ever the same after the 1968 invasion." (p. 172) The non-violent activities of Solidarność also played an important role.

Young people whose only experience with war is the current one in Iraq must be wondering: Is this an aberration or are all wars like this? Pretty much the latter: All wars involve dead and maimed soldiers; all wars involve dead and maimed civilians of all ages; all wars involve dehumanization of the "enemy"; all wars rachet up the level of government misinformation; all wars go on much longer than anticipated; all wars are justified with a series of shifting arguments; all wars are accompanied by domestic spying and repression; all wars mess up the economy; all wars create a generation of disillusioned and psychologically scarred veterans; and all wars perpetuate violence rather than stopping violence.

One of the few benefits of a particularly ill-conceived and mismanaged war — and the Vietnam War played a similar role 40 years ago — is that it brings the true nature of war into a sharper focus. Nonviolence and its 8-page bibliography is a good place to start for anyone who wants to learn about the long tradition of people who question both the morality of war and its utility.