Case for Nonviolent Action Is Strong

Published on
the Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Case for Nonviolent Action Is Strong

Nicholas Mele

This campaign season, we heard about everything from Alaskan independence to the return of the Cold War. The list includes diplomacy, economics, immigration, taxes, terrorism, values, war, you name it. One topic that was not mentioned, indeed is rarely mentioned in the course of mainstream discussions or news coverage, is nonviolence. Because I am committed to nonviolent action, I find its omission from public discourse both puzzling and troubling.

Of course, I mean practical, effective nonviolent action. Our blindness to it is astonishing since over the last 50 years, we have experienced the civil rights movement in this country and witnessed the triumph of nonviolence in ending apartheid in South Africa, the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines and the Soviet Union's hegemony over much of Eurasia.

Ironically, the stockpiles of nuclear weapons, ever-present throughout the Cold War, had little to do with ending 40 years of East-West confrontation. Civil society groups, labor unions and nonviolence training accomplished what "mutual assured destruction" could not.

Yet the nuclear stockpiles are still with us, while nonviolence remains invisible and discounted as a policy tool. Even the U.S. government discounts diplomacy, as evidenced by the declining resources the federal government devotes to it. There are several reasons for this, including perhaps the role violence played in our successful evolution from forest primates into the dominant species of our planet.

As a retired diplomat and current nonviolent activist, I wonder why we cling to war when the case for nonviolence has so often been demonstrated in recent decades.

Partly, it is the constellation of symbols and emotions with which we group war: patriotism, the flag, defense of our homes from threatening others, heroism. Another factor is the truths we choose not to remember:

When was the last time you saw a recruitment poster or television spot with the message, "Join the Army/Navy/Air Force/Marines to kill and be killed!"? All our images of war are sanitized, and validated by war's false positive associations with hearth, home, freedom. (The only freedoms war allows are the freedoms to fear, to frighten, to kill, to maim and to destroy the hearths and homes of others.)

In contrast, we mostly associate nonviolence with impractical idealism, weakness, and passivity. We remember that both Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated but conveniently forget that each had achieved ambitious goals through nonviolent action. Moreover, each was embarking on even more ambitious campaigns when he was killed. When we remember, we canonize them as if to say ordinary people like us could never accomplish what they did, forgetting that neither would have succeeded without the work of thousands of ordinary people.

In their recruiting efforts, groups like Peace Brigades International and Nonviolent Peaceforce stress the difficulty and danger of nonviolent action, yet have no difficulty finding people to join peace teams, who enter conflict zones unarmed and unarmored. If military recruiters were as honest about war, would they be as successful?

Nicholas Mele of Bellingham is a retired U.S. diplomat and former communications director for the Nonviolent Peaceforce.

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