Protests along the Israel-Gaza border with smoke in the distance.

Protests along the Israel-Gaza border continued for the fifth straight Friday on April 27, 2018.

(Photo: Ma'an News Agency)

Nonviolent Rebellion Is the Way off the Hamster Wheel of War

Where is the wisdom in doing the same murderous thing again and again, each time expecting a different outcome?

When I was in my early 20s, I seriously considered murdering someone. He had given my best friend genital herpes, which many health practitioners then believed was the agent responsible for causing cervical cancer in women. (It wasn’t.)

Back in the 1970s, though, I believed that, by infecting my friend, he might have set in motion a process that would someday kill her. That he was an arrogant jerk made it that much easier for me to contemplate murdering him. But there was a larger context to my private dream of revenge. My anger was also fed by a growing awareness that so many of us were just then acquiring of the history of systematic patriarchal threats to, and constraints on, the lives of women. And in those heady days of second-wave radical feminism, I could imagine killing that man as a legitimate response, however brutal, to the male violence that seemed to surround me, and as part of a larger uprising of women.

Lest you think that my sense of systemic, state-supported male violence was nothing more than a fever dream of the times, remember that, in the 1970s, domestic violence was still often treated as a predictably normal possibility in marriage. Men’s white sleeveless T-shirts were known as “wife-beaters” and, on reruns of The Honeymooners, I could still watch comedian Jackie Gleason threaten to use his fist to send his wife Alice “to the moon.” Oh, and should you think that everything has changed since then, today, more than half a century after my murderous daydreaming, the Supreme Court is considering a case that could overturn a federal law prohibiting someone from buying a gun while still under a domestic-violence restraining order.

My murderous intentions then might serve as a miniature version of President George W. Bush’s epistemic certainty in 2003 that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

When I remember what I considered doing at the time, however, I’m now horrified. Even then, I was an antiwar activist, a proponent of nonviolent action against the still-ongoing American war in Vietnam and in the struggle for Black rights here at home. But truly grasping the level of woman-hatred then drove me a little crazy and gave me the urge to fight back in kind.

Epistemic Certainty and War

Was I overreacting to the idea of my friend getting a sexually transmitted disease? Of course I was, especially by trusting so completely my “knowledge” about the connection between herpes and cervical cancer. In fact, what I “knew” would prove dead wrong decades later. Indeed, I didn’t even know (with what a philosopher might call “epistemic certainty“) that my friend had gotten herpes from that particular guy in the first place. But someone gave it to her, and someone, I thought, should pay.

My murderous intentions then might serve as a miniature version of President George W. Bush’s epistemic certainty in 2003 that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. (It didn’t.) Did Bush and his vice president, Dick Cheney, truly believe in those weapons of mass destruction? My guess is that they just wanted to invade Iraq and didn’t care one way or the other. Nonetheless, enough people in this country did believe in them—including that illustrious flagship newspaper The New York Times—for the invasion to take place with the support of a majority of Americans.

According to the Iraq Body Count project, at least 300,000 people would die in that war, a substantial majority of them civilians. Brown University’s Costs of War Project has tallied up the human costs of all of America’s post-9/11 wars of revenge and found that “at least 940,000 people have been killed by direct war violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and Pakistan. The number of people who have been wounded or have fallen ill as a result of the conflicts is far higher.”

Millions more, Costs of War’s research suggests, were killed indirectly through economic collapse, the disruption of public services and health systems, and environmental contamination. And 38 million people were displaced from their homes thanks to Washington’s post-9/11 “Global War on Terror.” That’s about 1,300 people made homeless for each of the almost 3,000 who died in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Those 9/11 attacks were a hideous crime. But none of the 19 men directly responsible for them were citizens of any of the countries against which the United States launched its wars of reprisal. (Fifteen were Saudis, two were from the United Arab Emirates, one was Egyptian, and one Lebanese.) Still, it didn’t matter to the people of this country. Someone had killed almost 3,000 of us that day, so someone had to pay.

Horror from Gaza, Horror in Gaza

On October 7, 2023, as the world watched in horror, the military wing of Hamas launched a surprise attack from Gaza, murdering about 1,200 people, most of them Israelis, most of them civilians, significant numbers of them children. They kidnapped as many as 240 others, a few of whom have since died and a few of whom have been released. I must admit that I’m glad my father, raised as an Orthodox Jew in this country, didn’t live to see that day.

Like the U.S. in 2001, Israel has now launched its war of reprisal. The announced goal is the complete destruction of Hamas, which, whether achievable or not, now seems to entail the destruction of much of Gaza itself.

More than 12,000 people, nearly half of them children, have already been killed as of this writing. Half the population—over a million people—have been forcibly displaced from the northern to the southern part of Gaza, supposedly to avoid a crushing aerial war. Meanwhile, an estimated 45% of all housing units in the north have been damaged or destroyed. On November 16, however, Israel began warning people in Khan Younis, a town in southern Gaza, that they would have to move again, as its ground war continued to expand.

Modern wars almost always kill more civilians than combatants, especially when collateral effects like the destruction of infrastructure are taken into account, and they rarely achieve their stated objectives.

To understand what this means, it’s helpful to look at a map of the area. It’s called the Gaza “Strip” because it’s a roughly rectangular little strip of land, less than 25 miles long and 10 miles wide at its widest point. Yet it houses 2.2 million people (half of whom are 18 or younger). It’s surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea on the west, Egypt to the south, and Israel on the east and north. Because most Gazans can never leave and communication with the rest of the world has largely been controlled by Israel, it has been described as the world’s largest open-air prison.

Epistemic Certainty (and Bombs) Strike Again

Despite the fact that international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions, absolutely forbids attacks on medical facilities in wartime, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) launched repeated raids on a number of hospitals and health centers, including the Al-Shifa Hospital, a sprawling medical center in northern Gaza. Here we encounter another instance of how epistemic certainty is used to justify wars and their inevitable collateral damage. In this case, the Israeli government maintained that Al-Shifa sat atop a major Hamas command-and-control center, part of a network of underground tunnels. Just as certainty about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction justified American crimes in those post-9/11 wars, certainty about a command center that may well turn out not to exist justified attacks on one of northern Gaza’s last functioning hospitals.

There’s no need to further catalog the horrors of this war here. The world’s media has done little else for the last month and a half. Meanwhile, wars continue elsewhere: an ongoing conflict in Sudan has killed thousands and displaced millions to almost no notice in the U.S. media; Europe is living through a World War I-style conflict in Ukraine, where Russian and Ukrainian armies continue to chew through the lives of thousands of soldiers to advance a few yards in one direction or the other.

War Works—for the Weapons Companies

“War! What is it good for?”

That’s the question the Motown group the Temptations asked back in 1968. Their answer, as people my age will remember, was: “Absolutely nothing!” Modern wars almost always kill more civilians than combatants, especially when collateral effects like the destruction of infrastructure are taken into account, and they rarely achieve their stated objectives.

And yet, today’s wars are regularly fought because people believe war is the best, often the only method of protecting innocent people from violent death. Collective human experience would seem to suggest the opposite. As a means of preventing death, war really does leave something to be desired. Even if you’re willing to treat the deaths of enemy civilians as a “necessary” price to pay for your own people’s survival, history suggests that, in the long run, those deaths won’t protect you. Unless the IDF is prepared to kill everyone in Gaza, it’s unlikely that those who live through the present nightmare will come out of it with less desire to kill Israelis than they had before it started.

It turns out, however, that wars—big and small—are good for something: enriching the corporations that manufacture weapons. As the Los AngelesTimesreported in September, the war in Ukraine has been a boon to weapons manufacturers, especially in the United States:

Weapons companies are seeing their shares rise on the stock market to their best level in years, with indexes for the defense sector outperforming those tracking the broader market by a wide margin… The combat in Ukraine, now in its second year, has jacked [up] the global arms trade, fueling a new appetite for matériel not just in Moscow and Kyiv but also around the world as nations gird themselves for possible confrontations. The war has rocked long-standing relationships within the weapons industry, rejiggered the calculations of who sells what to whom and changed customers’ tastes in what they want in their arsenal.

One example of this realignment: Israel and the United Arab Emirates have started a joint weapons development project. European governments, too, from the United Kingdom to Germany, have raised their weapons-production game, with Germany pledging to spend $100 billion to re-equip its armed forces in the next few years.

Now, Ukraine seeks to kill two birds (and a lot of people) with one stone, by partnering with U.S. companies to turn the country into what The Associated Presscalls a “weapons hub for the west.” As the Ukrainian Minister for Strategic Industries Oleksandr Kamyshin told the AP, “We’re really focusing on making Ukraine the arsenal of the free world.”

War may not be healthy for children and other living things, but it’s great for the arms industry.

Is There No Alternative?

Why, when war so rarely seems to achieve its stated aims, are the people who seek alternatives to it invariably considered naïve or stupid? Where is the wisdom in doing the same murderous thing again and again, each time expecting a different outcome?

War, we are told, is necessary because there is no legitimate alternative. Refusal to use violence when you’ve been attacked or when you live under a regime of grinding oppression is at best stupidity and at worst cowardice. Yet for decades, as journalist Peter Beinart wrote eloquently in TheNew YorkTimes after the October 7 attacks, Palestinians, who are neither stupid nor cowards, have done precisely that—employing time-honored strategies like the 2018 March of Return, a series of massive peaceful demonstrations at the Israeli wall surrounding Gaza. In the nonviolent Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, or BDS, Palestinians have adopted a method once employed by the African National Congress to bring pressure on South Africa’s apartheid regime. As a senator, Joe Biden voted for sanctions on South Africa, but as president, he’s condemned the BDS movement as “too often veer[ing] into antisemitism.”

In Israel/Palestine, it turns out there is an alternative to war, indeed more than one. It’s not easy or safe, however. The Israeli organization Standing Together, for example, unites Palestinians and Jews in concrete work, like running a bilingual hotline for people affected by violence or racism, in an effort to bypass what they see as the stagnation miring both major NGOs and the leftist parties in Israel. In the wake of the October 7 attack, they wrote to their supporters:

After over a month in this horrific reality, the feelings of despair are starting to creep up on everyone. It’s in moments like these that solidarity and hope are more important than ever. If we let despair win, we lose our ability to act, and if we don’t act, we won’t have an impact on our reality. We know that, in these incredibly difficult times, we must continue to act—by strengthening the partnership between Jews and Palestinians—and working together to start to think about what happens the day after this deadly war ends, and what kind of society we want to build.

Standing Together is not alone in seeking another way. One of those killed by Hamas was peace activist Vivian Silver, who spent her life building connections between Palestinians and Jewish Israelis. She served on the board of B’tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, and routinely drove Gazans in her car to healthcare appointments in Israel. In her newsletter, her friend Dana Mills, a former director of the Israeli group Peace Now, wrote that “the only way to avenge this horrific loss of Vivian’s life” is to continue to support her demand for justice and peace for everyone “between the river and the sea.”

That response to Silver’s death continues the tradition of nonviolent action as the only possible means of interrupting a deadly cycle of revenge and counter-revenge.

In her essay “On Revolution and Equilibrium,” written at the height of the Black Power movement, the nonviolent activist Barbara Deming addressed a number of critiques of nonviolent action by her comrades. Far from being a coward’s way out, Deming argued, nonviolence in response to aggression is so difficult precisely because it’s so dangerous. On the other hand, nonviolence doesn’t condemn your own side to mass suicide. Take the long view, the one that might extend beyond our own personal deaths, and you’ll see that eventually those who oppose violent oppression with nonviolent obstruction will take fewer casualties than those who choose armed struggle. Eventually (though never soon enough), we’ll wear out the opposition. Yes, some of us will certainly die in the process, because we face real violence. But we’re already dying. The only question is how to prevent more death.

As Deming wrote,

In nonviolent struggle, the violence used against one may mount for a while (indeed, if one is bold in one’s rebellion, it is bound to do so), but the escalation is no longer automatic; with the refusal of one side to retaliate, the mainspring of the automation has been snapped and one can count on reaching a point where de-escalation begins. One can count, that is, in the long run, on receiving far fewer casualties.

I am glad that I encountered this tradition of vigorous nonviolent struggle back when I was in the grip of that murderous rage. It convinced me that I could take more effective action against the systems that demeaned and constrained me than any of my nightmare dreams of violent revenge could offer. The longer I live, the surer I become that, in a world filled with deadly armed struggles, nonviolent rebellion is the only way off the hamster wheel of war.

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