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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.


It sounds from your post that you view all war, and every war, as counter-productive, even defensive war (as for example WWII), irrespective of the wisdom of the current conflict in Iraq, which reasonably people may well disagree about.

I’m sure I’m misreading you, but in case I’m not, I can do no better than quote Herbert Spencer, from his “Duty of the State” (1850):

“Unquestionably, war is immoral. But so likewise is the violence used in the execution of justice; so is all coercion… There is, in principle, no difference whatever between the blow of policeman’s baton and the thrust of a soldier’s bayonet…. Policeman are soldiers who act alone; soldiers are policeman who act in concert. Government employs the first to attack in detail ten thousand criminals who separately make war on society; and it calls on the last when threatened by a like number of criminals in the shape of drilled troops. Resistance to foreign foes and resistance to native ones having consequently the same object- then maintenance of men’s rights, and being effected by the same means- force, are in their nature identical; and no greater condemnation can be passed on one than the other….

“Defensive warfare (and of course is solely to this that the forgoing argument applies) must therefore be tolerated as the least of two evils. There are indeed some who unconditionally condemn it, and would meet invasion by non-resistance. To such there are several replies.

“First, consistency requires them to behave in like fashion to their fellow-citizens. They must not only allow themselves to be cheated, assaulted, robbed, wounded, without offering active opposition, but must refuse help from civil power; seeing that the who employ force by proxy are as much responsible for it as though they employed it themselves.

“Lastly, it can be shown that non-resistance is also absolutely wrong. We may not carelessly abandon our rights. We may not give away our birthright for the sake of peace. If it be a duty to respect other men’s claims, so also is it a duty to maintain our own.”

— David Docetad, Wed, 12 Sep 2007 11:47:36 -0400 (EDT)

Classifying WWII as a purely "defensive war" assumes that it just sprung up without warning in the late 1930s. In reality, WWII arose from the ashes of WWI. Pretty much everybody agrees that had there been no WWI, there would have been no WWII. Indeed, WWII might have been prevented by a better treaty with Germany following WWI. Japan gained much of its military power during WWI, which enabled it to wage war against the U.S. in WWII.

And while WWII was successful in the aims of subjugating Germany and Japan, it left the Soviet Union in a much more powerful and dominant position, causing many of us to grow up knowing that at any moment the whole world could be engulfed in a nuclear holocaust.

The failure of the U.S. and the Soviet Union to renounce nuclear weapons has led to many other countries developing nuclear weapons, and now we live in fear of local nuclear wars that could escalate into global nuclear wars, or nuclear bombs used as terrorist weapons.

In more recent years, the U.S. has constantly found itself fighting against countries it helped arm! The U.S. was so sure Saddam had weapons of mass destruction because they were provided by the U.S. in Iraq's war against Iran. And in Afghanistan, the U.S. had supplied arms for the previous war against Russia.

War is self perpetuating. What is required in this world is not more war "to end war" (a ridiculous concept), but world leaders intelligent enough and compassionate enough to prevent wars from happening, and people courageous enough to resist the wars their governments begin.

Surely you can't agree with Herbert Spencer characterization of "ten thousand criminals who separately make war on society"? Criminals? Criminals? Those are ten thousand draftees who were coerced into fighting, or ten thousand inductees forced into fighting because of rampant unemployment, or ten thousand young people who have been lied to by their government and enticed with words like "honor" and "duty." They're 17 and 18 years old. Those are not "ten thousand criminals." Those are ten thousand victims, and it is unconscionable to kill them.

Charles Petzold, Wed, 12 Sep 2007 12:30:56 -0400 (EDT)

“Those are ten thousand draftees who were coerced into fighting, or ten thousand inductees forced into fighting because of rampant unemployment, or ten thousand young people who have been lied to by their government and enticed with words like "honor" and "duty." They're 17 and 18 years old. Those are not "ten thousand criminals." Those are ten thousand victims, and it is unconscionable to kill them.”

Unfortunately, and I mean that sincerely, I don’t see that it makes a bit of difference. If ten thousand nice young, unemployed and disadvantaged men have been brainwashed or lied to by, say, Osama Bin Laden, and then attempt to highjack airplanes and fly them into buildings in the US, or otherwise make war on the US, I certainly don’t think is it “unconscionable to kill them. ” It would, in fact, be unconscionable not to. The same holds true for the many fine young German and Japanese men who fought in WWII.

If you were sitting next to a good-hearted but misguided terrorist on the subway, and he attempted to blow up a subway train, would you not attempt to stop him if it meant taking his life? Would you not approve of a police officer taking this man’s life in an attempt to stop an attack?

But I certainly agree with you that wars don’t occur in a vacuum and often result from previously made bad decisions. However, it is often the policy of appeasement that gets us into war. Wilhelm Ropke said it well:

“This experience [of WW1 and WW2] brings us to the distressing conclusion that pacifism, merely as an attitude of the mind which rejects war, is not only sterile but indeed dangerous to a tragic degree, since at the very moment when the danger of war is greatest it further increases that danger immeasurably by encouraging the attacker.”

— David Docetad, Wed, 12 Sep 2007 13:45:09 -0400 (EDT)

"It is often the policy of appeasement that gets us into war," you say.

Often? Perhaps you'd like to list a dozen examples. (No fair mentioning Chamberlain twelve times!).

Charles Petzold, Wed, 12 Sep 2007 14:26:37 -0400 (EDT)

I won't defend our hopeless, self-sacrificing war in Iraq, nor most of the foreign policy of U.S. history. But when you say that what the world needs are "world leaders intelligent enough and compassionate enough to prevent wars from happening", I think it begs the question: *how* do we prevent foreign aggression once we renounce self-defense? Adopting a philosophy of pacifism will not force our enemies to suddenly respect our individual rights. We would be quite foolish to test that.

— Brad Williams, Thu, 13 Sep 2007 15:23:15 -0400 (EDT)

Ah, Brad, how silly of you to think that a country could have "enemies" without having created them through its own foreign policy and economic exploitation. "Intelligent and compassionate" leaders by definition promote foreign and economic policies that preclude the possibility of a "enemies". ;)

— David Docetad, Fri, 14 Sep 2007 09:00:01 -0400 (EDT)

David Says:

"Intelligent and compassionate" leaders by definition promote foreign and economic policies that preclude the possibility of a "enemies".

This is not possible so long as there is greed, lust for power, domination and other deadly sins in the hearts of man.

— Carl, Sat, 22 Sep 2007 16:52:54 -0400 (EDT)

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