Thursday, July 07, 2005

The Nonviolent Response to Terrorism

I have always been reluctant to embrace the label "pacifist," because for most people it implies accepting an absolute rule which one must cling to in all situations, those involving violence between states and those involving violence between individuals. This understanding is illustrated in an old anecdote about British conscientious objectors to WWI. Supposedly, to get CO status, you had to answer one question: "What would you do if a German soldier was coming to rape your sister?" The correct answer was "reason with him."

When it comes to violence, I have no time to consider background-free hypotheticals. My only concern is the vast range of real situations in which nonviolence is both the most effective and the most ethical response. I also think that we have deep defects in character and vision that keep us from seeing the power of nonviolence. In that sense I am very much a pacifist. I think we need to cultivate our wisdom to see the peaceful, powerful, alternative.

Right now the NYT is reporting 33 dead and a thousand injured in terrorist attacks in London. Many--most--will want to respond to this injury with self destructive actions that all appear to "harden our resolve." But we will not end the current global war by rounding up more suspects or by invading another country. We've been doing that for several years now, and it should be clear to all that we are just digging a hole for ourselves.

But what is the alternative? How else can we fight terrorism?

I see, broadly, three steps to the nonviolent response. The first step in nonviolence is simply to end the violence. The surface definition of nonviolence is negative: it is not violence. And indeed, what immediately presents itself as the definition is one face of the whole of nonviolence. Currently this means we must withdraw militarily from the Middle East. We must abandon hopes for a permanent military base in Iraq. (You were wondering why Bush won't give an exit strategy? It's because leaving was never his goal.) We must pull our troops off the Arabian peninsula. Above all, we must stop regarding Israel as our military outpost and put real pressure on them to withdraw from the occupied territories.

But that’s just what they want us to do! You are saying we should give in!

Certainly many of these actions are the stated demands of terrorist groups, but I’m not sure they are what the hardcore jihadists really want. If anything, the hardcore like the occupation of Iraq because it is such a recruiting tool. By pulling out, we remove the reason most of them resent us.

If this still looks like appeasement to you, it is only because this is only the first step. Nonviolence, if you limit yourself to the negative conception of it, is simply appeasement, and is rarely effective.

The next step is inward. People resort to violence because they are afraid, and they are afraid because they are attached to something. A drunk picking fights in a bar has an image of himself as a tough guy, and he fights because he is afraid of loosing that image. What are we attached to in the Middle East? Oil. Right now a military withdrawal from the region is unthinkable to many because the US economy would be subject to the whims of hostile governments and the vicissitudes of an unstable, underdeveloped region. But of course we are fooling ourselves when we think that we can feed our oil habit forever. The oil is running out, and as it runs out, it will become more and more costly to secure. There has never been a better time to quit.

Once we are free of our economic interest and military ties in the region, we can begin to practice true nonviolence. I am not so idealistic that I think we should shower the region with love. I only ask that we shower the region with common decency. We need to assist real economic and democratic development in the region. I do not know enough about development to pontificate on how this should be done, but I know enough to say that the economic and democratic development must go hand in hand. I also know that this will seal the peace. We won’t have a reason to fight them, and they won’t have a reason to fight us.

But you can’t think that this would stop the bin Ladens, the religious fanatics, the people who hate us because they hate freedom!

No, but most people in the Middle East are not hate driven fanatics. Pacifists are always accused of underestimating how monstrous people are. I will not deny that there are monsters. But without a social movement, bin Laden is just another rich guy. Were the conditions for war not ripe, he’d be a Phil Spector or an O.J. Simpson: a wealthy psychopath who can get away with murder, for sure, but not someone who can drive the whole world to war.

You don’t really think the US will do any of this, do you?

Only on the days when I think this war might end.

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