© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

october 2: international day of nonviolence

We interrupt our week-long series on the AAI Convention to bring you a PSA in praise of nonviolence. Just 900 words. Humor me.


I have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and nonviolence are as old as the hills. All I have done is to try experiments in both on as vast a scale as I could.
Mohandas Gandhi

Nonviolence is not inaction. It is not discussion. It is not for the timid or weak… Nonviolence is hard work. It is the willingness to sacrifice. It is the patience to win.
Cesar Chavez

Within 24 hours of the 9/11 attacks, the US was in a nearly unprecedented position as the sympathetic victim, rather than the perpetrator, of violence. Virtually the entire world rallied to our side.

We had an astonishing opportunity. And I knew we were going to fritter it away. Who could doubt it? I knew that we would never be able to muster the national will to even discuss an alternative to military force. I was phenomenally depressed by 9/11, and by the sound of 200 million Americans dropping tribally to their knees in response, but I was even more depressed by the knowledge that we would soon head into a protracted military endeavor that would fail to achieve its goals while killing countless innocent people. It’s what empires do — they lash out with power, and in the process screw whatever chance they had of surviving in the long run.

I wrote an essay on September 22 and sent it to the Secular Web. It called attention to the incredible opportunity in that moment, noting that our momentary status as the victims of violence would be lost when we lobbed the first cruise missile. The violence would squander that precious global goodwill, redirect outrage away from the terrorists and onto us, kill hundreds of thousands of innocents, fail to achieve its goals, and spawn new, intractable violence and more terrorism. That’s what I thought would happen, anyway.

Gee, let’s tally up my scorecard.

Instead, I said, we should preserve and focus the outrage against the terrorists by keeping it absolutely clear that the evil resided solidly on one side of the equation. The entire world would have joined together to put an economic and political stranglehold on the Taliban until they gave up bin Laden and the rest. The moment we answered violence with violence, we would lose the moral high ground and the opportunity it afforded TO WIN.

I advocated responding on a national level by making use of the proven principles of nonviolence. Why? Not because they are nice, but because THEY WORK.

Sorry I keep shouting, but I get incredibly frustrated when I discuss nonviolent action. It is almost always seen as a softheaded passivity, a kind of wishful daisies-in-the-rifle-barrels approach to the hard realities of the world. That’s what the disgusted, angry readers of the essay seemed to think as they ladled out fallacy after misconception after misreading.

daisies in rifles

Some readers called it “feel-good superstition…a kind of naive wishfulness that thinks the good shall triumph because it is good.” Hmm. Maybe if Gandhi and King had actually succeeded in their struggles, nonviolent action would have a better reputation.

Oh wait. They did succeed.

The fact is, violence — though it makes one feel awesomely powerful and ever-so-active — almost never works on any level. Corporal punishment creates more discipline problems than it solves. Capital punishment has no deterrent effect on crime. And the destabilizing effects of war — especially its inevitable “collateral damage” — create the necessary conditions for more violence and hatred for generations after the fighting stops. Half of all countries emerging from violent conflict relapse into violence within five years, and more than half of war deaths are civilians.

There were countless violent attempts by the people of India to kick out the British between the 1840s and the 1940s. All failed. Gandhi brought nonviolent resistance to bear, especially in the Quit India campaign of the early 1940s, and succeeded where violence had failed.

Isn’t that interesting?

Nonviolent resistance relies in part on the fact that everyone, from Hitler on up, sees him/herself as good and his/her cause as just. When the British responded brutally to the nonviolent resisters, the world recoiled in horror. It was patently clear who was in the wrong. The British, accustomed to seeing themselves as a civilizing force in the world, were ultimately unable to retain the national political will to remain — and they walked out of the Jewel of the Empire.

Martin Luther King Jr. adopted the same tactics in the American South. Had blacks responded with violence to Bull Connor and his dogs and firehoses, the American public would have seen violence on violence and been unable to discern who was right and who was wrong. Instead, they allowed themselves to (are you ready?) turn the other cheek, and in so doing received the powerful moral endorsement and active compliance of the wider world.


The black protestors seemed so reasonable and the white police so unreasonable, it was a no-brainer. The civil rights movement took an enormous leap forward.

If we had pursued active but nonviolent means to respond after Sept. 11, we would have robbed the terrorists of whatever claim they had to moral justification for their sucker punch.

Nonviolence has worked, over and over and over. Violence has failed, over and over and over. So why is it that we roll our eyes at the concept of nonviolence as if it equates to rolling over and playing dead?

Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP) is at work in Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Colombia, Guatemala, and Uganda, building the infrastructure for nonviolent alternatives to war. Today is Gandhi’s birthday, and the International Day of Nonviolence — and the final day of NP’s Work a Day for Peace campaign. As secularists, we know that no one’s up there keeping us from killing each other. We have to do that ourselves. Pop over to the Work a Day for Peace site and contribute what you can.

Imagine the power of teaching our kids a response to violence that actually works. But remember that there are specific principles and strategies involved. You have to do a bit of study to really unlock its potential. It isn’t just a matter of telling kids not to hit back on the playground, or telling armies not to shoot back when shot at. That’s the cartoon version.

Check your local library to learn about nonviolent theory and practice as it has slowly developed through the 20th century. Or watch Gandhi. At some point, the lightbulb usually goes on, and violence loses another cheerleader.

Gandhi and Beyond: Nonviolence for an Age of Terrorism by David Cortright

Nonviolence in Theory and Practice by Barry L. Gan (auth) and Robert L. Holmes (ed)

Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential by Gene Sharp

A classic:
Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg



This was written on Tuesday, 02. October 2007 at 08:29 and was filed under peace. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

You can leave a Comment, or Trackback.

«  –  »

Comments »

  1. I’m in complete agreement with you here and wish the response to 9/11 had been drastically different, as you suggested. In thinking about the successes of nonviolent action that you mentioned I can’t help but wonder about resolution of the situation in Burma (Myanmar) where a military government refuses to concede defeat to a party elected overwhelmingly by the majority and has used brutality and force to maintain their authority for years. Over three thousand people were massacred in Burma after nonviolent protests almost twenty years ago and in these past few days more nonviolent protests have been quashed with more killing and violence by the military junta. A hundred thousand people were marching in the streets only days ago and now the protests have been quashed with more killing, arrests and violence by the military.
    Certainly, the world’s attention has been briefly drawn to the plight of the Burmese people but sanctions will do little for a country that is so insular and whose main trading partners (China & India) refuse to strongly condemn the military’s actions (and to condemn the refusal of the military junta to concede defeat to the rightfully elected party).
    Change in Burma will have to come from within but without threat of force to the military junta, nonviolent protests may simply continue to be wrongly and horrifically quashed. Although for the Burmese, I wish for (and advocate)peaceful change, I’m not sure how it will be successful there without more bloodshed.

    Comment: mackrelmint – 02. October 2007 @ 12:16 pm

  2. Yes, that’s a sobering example — but remember that every situation in which nonviolence ultimately worked looked similarly intractable. British out of India? The end of Jim Crow in the US? It’ll never happen! Yet it did. But not without bloodshed. Nonviolent resistance doesn’t preclude more bloodshed, unfortunately. It practically guarantees it, and all on one side. Many Indians died in the course of their struggle for independence, as did many blacks (and non-blacks) in the US civil rights movement. That sacrifice is what sharpened the moral clarity and brought about the result.

    The key is to find ways in which the Burmese junta can be reached other than violence, which always impacts the innocent more than the guilty. Violence can take away life and power, but there are other things of value to the junta. If the world can keep its attention focused — I know, a tall order — we can find other pressure points. They always, ALWAYS exist.

    Part of the formula may entail finding the pressure points for China and India, both of which are more internationally interdependent, so that they feel the heat of the moral indignation of the rest of the world. The goal is to keep from unleashing the unintended consequences of war, including the deaths of exponentially more innocents.

    Comment: Dale – 02. October 2007 @ 12:27 pm

  3. […] october 2: international day of nonviolence ? Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP) is at work in Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Colombia, Guatemala, and Uganda […]

    Pingback: Colombia » Blog Archives » october 2: international day of nonviolence – 03. October 2007 @ 12:19 am

  4. Re: #2.
    Yes, of course Dale and I really do appreciate the reminder of how hard the struggle can be. I am reminded of how easy it once was to simply pray about situations like this and feel that I had done my bit. Now that I’m fairly sure such prayers have no effect, writing my government, signing petitions and donating to appropriate charities (etc.) are the only usual ways I can actively participate. It’s necessary but simultaneously a bit frustrating. One response gives the immediate feeling of help; the other has the potential to actually be helpful but also feels powerless and sometimes a bit hopeless. Thanks for the reminder of how necessary the latter actions are, and how hopeless they are not.

    Comment: mackrelmint – 03. October 2007 @ 10:23 am

  5. Thanks for the great post, Dale. I wonder, do you have any examples of non-violent successes (or even attempts) by a group that was not the “powerless” group? By power I mean means (money, military, etc.). In both the India-British and Civil Rights examples, the non-violent response came from a group that most likely would never have been able to out-power the other.

    I’m not suggesting that only the “powerless” (for lack of a better term) should act non-violently, but only that history seems to play out this way. Has a Powerful Entity ever responded to a conflict with a Powerless Entity with non-violence?

    Comment: Jim Lemire – 03. October 2007 @ 11:55 am

  6. It’s one of the great questions in nonviolent discourse. The answer is technically, but not meaningfully, yes.

    Lemme splain. Governments (for example) often respond to conflicts from protest groups nonviolently. But once those groups cross into violent protest, the gov’t generally responds with force of one kind or another.

    The use of international inspectors in Iraq was a type of nonviolent action, and one that was working brilliantly, according to inside accounts including Hans Blix — until our trigger finger just got too damn itchy.

    But that doesn’t get to the spirit of your question, which I think is Has a powerful entity ever made use of the principles of nonviolence — that is, attempted to allow itself to absorb harm without violent retaliation for the purpose of establishing moral clarity and focusing third-party support. I can’t think of a single example. The exertion of force is just too easy in the short run, and we haven’t bothered to learn anything from its failures in the long run.

    That, in fact, was the concluding statement in my 2001 essay — that I knew our national imagination was so limited that we could not even bring ourselves to consider exploring powerful nonviolent options before resorting to force. Shit! What a lost opportunity! Imagine the precedent!

    Comment: Dale – 03. October 2007 @ 12:28 pm

  7. Yes, that was the spirit of my question. Thanks for reworking it much more eloquently than I could. It is disappointing, though not surprising, that the answer is “No”.

    I also wonder if the success of non-violence is tied to a more global awareness. For a group to be able to survive the absorption of harm for the purpose of establishing moral clarity, doesn’t someone else have to be paying attention? A powerful someone else none-the-less? I have no doubt that nonviolence as a philosophy has been espoused for millennia, but how successful have they been? Would Gandhi and India have succeeded 200 years earlier?

    The scientist in me sees an algorithm in all this. Plug into the algorithm values for the degree of power imbalance, population numbers, estimate of risks and benefits, the probability that another group is paying attention, the relative power of that group, etc. The algorithm spits out the probability of a successful outcome to the use of nonviolence. I’m sure it’s not this simple (though, I’m also sure that a complex enough model would be quite accurate) and I’m not sure what you do if the probability of success is low (take up arms? give up? wait till next year?). Of course, algorithms are difficult and geeky, not to mention wussy. Much easier to drop bombs. You get a big explosion, regardless of whether or not you hit your target.

    Comment: Jim Lemire – 03. October 2007 @ 9:40 pm

  8. For a group to be able to survive the absorption of harm for the purpose of establishing moral clarity, doesn’t someone else have to be paying attention?

    That’s the most heartbreaking sentence I’ve seen in some time. That may well be the greatest obstacle.

    Comment: Dale – 04. October 2007 @ 7:16 am

  9. Jim: “For a group to be able to survive the absorption of harm for the purpose of establishing moral clarity, doesn’t someone else have to be paying attention?”

    I agree with Jim. Nonviolent protest by an oppressed minority has zero chance of success in the absence of third party observers that are (perhaps only collectively) more powerful than the oppressor.

    So, in the end, might still makes right, doesn’t it?

    Comment: Theo – 05. October 2007 @ 1:08 pm

  10. We’re all in agreement that the third party is key, but let’s see if we can stave off that conclusion.

    I would suggest that there is always a more powerful observer: the international community. One of the defining principles of the UN is that even if war might benefit a given nation, peace is always in the collective interest of the community of nations. We simply need to keep improving our ability to organize and focus our collective interest and power to make violence less and less workable as an option. We’ve come a long way in the past century.

    Comment: Dale – 05. October 2007 @ 3:17 pm

  11. “I would suggest that there is always a more powerful observer: the international community.”

    Would you say the International Community (IC) is more powerful than (say) the US? Let’s say the IC disagrees with the US on Iraq, or Guantanamo Bay, or the death penalty, or farm subsidies, whatever… What power could it muster to make the US (say) change its errant ways?

    Comment: Theo – 06. October 2007 @ 5:54 pm

  12. The same question was raised about the British Empire at the height of its power. How could that power ever be challenged? Yet the Empire was dismantled primarily without violence.

    The international community is quite a bit more powerful than the US any way you slice it — economically, politically, and in sheer numbers — but lacks the organization and political will to channel and exert that power against its most powerful single member. That’s a failure of political will, not of actual power. If it is difficult to even imagine the UN slapping punitive sanctions on the US, the obvious question is Why is that so hard to imagine? There is nothing intrinsically preventing such a thing, and I look forward to the day that the moral courage is mustered to do so. The US will react with a tantrum, of course — at which point it is up to people like me to pressure our government to behave like a community member rather than an autocratic bully.

    Comment: Dale – 07. October 2007 @ 10:17 am

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.