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February 15, 2003

Non-Violence is More Difficult

As "anti-war" protesters gather in cities around the world, Jason Rylander agrees with Jeremy Hurewitz that the anti-war left has failed to offer alternatives in the face of threats to peace. Hurewitz makes some good points, and he's right that progressives desperately need quality leaders with coherent, concrete, and comprehensive plans for addressing the complex problems we face today. While Hurewitz offers no evidence for one of his central claims—that the left has praised U.N. sanctions against Iraq (where? when? who?)—the fact that he can make the claim shows the desperate need for expanding the agenda: Progressives shouldn't think of themselves as "anti-war" or "anti-American" [1], but as "pro-peace" or simply "strident activists for non-violent conflict resolution." But see, there it is: Nonviolence seems complicated. It doesn't fit well into nice little soundbites and conceptual bon-bons. Well, actually it does, but those bon-bons have been poisoned by a cultural narrative that dismisses as "flower power" and "hippy dippy" the idea that non-violent solutions can effectively address the world's problems. When we're confronted with a situation like that in Iraq, we want a concrete solution. What should we do? That's where violence has a lot of appeal—it's simple. What do we do? We bomb them; problem solved via elimination. Of course, what the "anti-war" people are saying is that it's never that simple. Massive bombing of Iraq might end Hussein's regime, but it won't end the problems in the region or the world. So what should we do instead of bombing and killing and violence and physical, material force? Well, we could start by returning again to Ghandi's eight rules for making nonviolence work. To me this would mean we should:
  1. Vigorously support robust inspections. No violence involved.
  2. Flood Iraq with humanitarian aid: food, water, medical supplies and personnel. Withdraw our troops immediately and instead of spending millions (perhaps billions) massing troops on Iraq's borders, we should start spending that money building hospitals and distribution networks for food and other material goods in Iraq. Think about that for a minute. What do you think would happen? Could Saddam Hussein remain in power if he tried to prevent these humanitarian measures? Probably not. And what this food and medicine (and perhaps education) would give Iraq is a healthy, thinking population with a sense of possibility and an ability to work for its own improvement. Plus, this strategy would answer the critics who say the anti-war movement seems oblivious to the continued suffering of the Iraqi people. (Again, I think this charge is completely unfounded, but the perception exists, so it's a good idea for the left to actively counter it.)
  3. Immediately stop humiliating and making fun of the U.N. and our allies in Europe. Go to them with hats in hand, apologize, and make genuine efforts to regain their trust and to work with them to douse the flames of the violent rhetoric we've been spouting.
  4. Ask the U.N. to create an international panel of experts—politicians, historians, academics, intelligence people, etc—to identify the situations, events, and policies that motivate terrorism around the world, and to suggest strategies for changing or eliminating those situations, events, and policies to reduce or eliminate terrorism. Call this panel something like the International Terrorism Council (ITC). Currently the "war on terror" is a "war" being run by Bush and Co., "terror" is whatever Bush and Co. says it is, and the methods of this "war" are to kill, crush, and imprison suspects. This is a little like putting band-aids on skin lesions that are really being caused by a cancer that you don't even try to treat. The ITC would diagnose and treat the cancer, eliminating the need for all those bloody band-aids.

Of course, who am I to make these suggestions? I'm just some guy. But here's the thing: If we're going to demand alternatives, we have to be willing to consider them, to discuss them, to have good reasons for rejecting them or for preferring other alternatives. Taking non-violent, humble, cooperative foreign policy seriously in the U.S. is difficult for most Americans to do because there's such a powerful set of forces massed against it.

It's easy to find reasons to go with the flow, or at least not to actively obstruct its progress. It's easy to take issue with A.N.S.W.E.R. because you disagree with the views of some of its members. And it's easy to think that violence and physical force will solve our problems. These things are easy because the are simple and because many elected and otherwise prominent people are constantly tell us to do them. What's hard is to face the fact that we face complex problems without simple solutions. It's hard to have the courage to stand up to dominant cultural narratives and to take seriously alternatives that you're constantly encouraged to dismiss. We have to stop taking these easy routes and choose instead to take the higher road.

Footnote: [1] All the progressives I know are also the most patriotic people I know. This "anti-American" business is a ludicrous charge on its face. What does it mean? Why would people who are against "America" go freeze in the cold to protest policies they fear will only hurt America in the long run? Like those crazy kids over at Buzzflash argue, a strike against Saddam Hussein is a gift to Al Qaeda since it will only create more hatred for and resistance to American global hegemony. So people who say "no war" are saying "Save America," even when they don't have a concrete, step-by-step program for doing so.

Posted February 15, 2003 10:13 AM | general politics

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