This post has been percolating for some time, and recent events in Baltimore inspired me to try to get it down on paper.
I am a supporter of non-violence and of peacemaking and reconciliation over war. I believe that human life is sacred, and that we do not have the moral right to decide to deprive another person of life. In answer to the first question always asked of pacifists: no, I do not have an answer to World War II once it was underway, although there were an abundance of ways to prevent it prior to 1933. But we know that there have been exceptional people in history who looked at injustices that seemed impossible to resolve without killing, and chose to give up their liberty and their lives to find a better way.
The three greatest, or at least most well-known, examples of non-violent civil disobedience in action are satyagraha in India, the Civil Rights movement in the United States, and anti-apartheid in South Africa. (Yes, I know that the anti-apartheid movement was not 100% non-violent; but it was primarily, even overwhelmingly so, given what it faced.) We often like to think that these movements succeeded because the people perpetrating injustices were open to having their consciences moved, that in some way it was the virtue of the persecutors that enabled the movements’ success. Used against Al Qaeda or ISIS, we claim, such endeavours would obviously be failures, and beyond naïve. So let us review the facts.
The American Civil Rights Movement was pitted against men who murdered young children at their churches for the crime of being black — men and women who considered the murder of black people a form of entertainment, to be represented on ‘lynching postcards’ depicting a cheerful family day out watching a man struggle for breath until the last of life was twisted out of him. South African apartheid, in addition to the grinding oppression of everyday life, included such atrocities as burning the body of a murdered man over a fire, while holding a barbecue over the same fire to pass the time. It included countless brutalities and mutilations. Non-violence triumphed over people and regimes who regarded the people they oppressed as sub-human, who carried out horrific acts of brutality. It did not succeed because the oppressors were virtuous. It succeeded because we are all human, and capable of having our consciences affected; and because it also touched the consciences of people hundreds or thousands of miles away who were capable of bringing moral, political, and economic pressure to bear.
So, knowing this, let us look at when and where we demand non-violence. We demand it from black Americans who see black men killed by the officers of their government, and see the killers walk free without trial. We demand it from First Nations people who are the victims of the single greatest and most systematic campaign of state-executed violence in all of North American history, and who continue to feel the effects of that violence. We demand it of the Palestinians in the face of fifty years’ occupation and continual violence against them by Israel.
Who do we not demand it from? We do not demand it from the police – the authority to carry out violence is inherent in their purpose. We do not demand it of nation-states – we regard it as ludicrously utopian to suggest that the United States or Canada should disarm and abolish their armies, or even that they should refrain from retaliating when attacked. No credible politician in the United States would think of saying that the USA should have responded to 9/11 by trying to reach the consciences of Al Qaeda members through non-violent resistance. Because the constant refrain is that, whatever evils our societies and governments may commit, we are the good guys, we are basically decent people, and we will eventually reform if prompted to do so – while our enemies, they are evil and must be destroyed by the sword lest they destroy us.
This is not non-violence. No person who claims to support non-violent civil disobedience, but demands it from the weak while sanctioning violence by the strong, is a supporter of non-violence. The true supporters of non-violence opposed violence by the powerful as well as violence by the powerless. Gandhi opposed World War II, whether or not you regard that as virtuous of him. Dr. King stood strongly against the Vietnam War, which killed thousands of Americans and at least a million Vietnamese people.
Not only that, even the greatest supporters of non-violent resistance, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., said frankly and openly that in the face of injustice, violence was preferable to inaction. While wholeheartedly advocating non-violence, King stated that, “Violence exercised in self defence…all societies accept as moral and legal. The principle of self-defence even involving weapons and bloodshed has never been condemned, even by Gandhi, who sanctioned it for those unable to master pure nonviolence.” Non-violent action is superior to violence. Inaction in response to injustice is not superior to violence; it is moral cowardice.
To those of you who say, “But the Baltimore riots hurt innocent businesspeople; they don’t target those responsible,” I ask: truly, then, would you support the people of Baltimore if they came with guns and attacked the police station? Would you say that they were justified in their actions and the government should not respond to that? But the police are not the straightforward cause of this wave of shootings; they are only the symptom. The cause is the same oppression that Dr. King fought, the same oppression that has continued for four centuries in America. Precisely how long do you believe that people should be obligated to hold their tempers if they wish to be listened to?
And the same question to those who demand non-violence from the Palestinians as a condition for even the least amount of support for ending the occupation. They suffer violence from the Israelis every day. Their children are pelted with stones by settlers; their homes and wells are destroyed by the Israeli occupying forces in order to drive them from their lands; their orchards are destroyed; their brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, and children as young as 12, are taken by Israelis and imprisoned without trial for unlimited times. In contradiction to even the Old Testament Law of “an eye for an eye”, thousands of their civilians are killed for any single Israeli killed by Palestinians. And yet in response to this violence, their non-violence is demanded as a precondition of being treated even with basic humanity. What international governments are demanding the cessation of Israeli violence and occupation as a precondition for even starting negotiations? Not even the Palestinian government demands that. But that is the precondition required from the Palestinians. And even meeting that precondition, still they gain nothing; still they are persecuted; still they are ignored if they refrain from violence, and condemned if they commit it. From any egalitarian perspective, this is a ludicrous double standard.
The non-violence movements in India, in the United States, and in apartheid South Africa are laudable, but they have set a pernicious precedent that their leaders and activists never intended. They were overwhelming acts of grace: men and women willing to sacrifice their freedom, their bodily integrity, and even their lives, and to change the hearts and souls of their persecutors and pursue reconciliation. Their actions, rather than serving as inspiration to others who hold power, have become a minimum standard imposed on the powerless: if you want us to pay attention to you, if you want us to even consider your cause and actions legitimate, you must accept to be imprisoned and beaten and murdered without raising a hand against your oppressors. Meanwhile, the powerful treat non-violence only as something to demand of the weak, not as a principle by which they themselves should seek to live.
This is not non-violence. This is not justice. This is the blind or cynical use of a movement and principle that once served liberty and equality, justice and reconciliation, as a cover for refusing to opposite the injustices and oppressions of the present day. If you will demand non-violence of others who face suffering and discrimination at the hands of your government and governments it supports, then demand it likewise of yourself, demand it your nation, demand it of every powerful individual, group, corporation, or nation that uses it to demand what they call their interests or security. Because I believe it is morally right to refuse to use violence, but never to demand of others what you will not do yourself, and never to demand that the oppressed refrain from using tools that we grant without question to their oppressors.
[Picture: Screen shot from the YouTube video, No More: The Children of Birmingham 1963 and the Turning Point of the Civil Rights Movement.]