Muhammar Khaddafy’s brutal reaction to the aspirations of his own people is becoming a textbook case in the futility of opposing the citizens from whose consent a leader’s political authority derives, however illegitimately. Instead, his stubborn egotism has led to absurd violence, even civil war. At moments like this, the world trembles with indignation and apprehensive hope.
The non-violent invincibility of people power, the argument of Jonathan Schell’s underrated masterpiece of political philosophy, The Unconquerable World, may be coming true before our eyes again as it did in the Philippines in 1986 and Czechoslovakia in 1989. We do not yet know which model will dominate in the short run in the Middle East and Northern Africa, the violence of state power, or the non-violence of citizens seeking their rights as leaders abdicate peacefully. Citizen invincibility is not manifesting in all cases without additional tragic sacrifice to the callous will of dictators. But in the end it will prevail.
Meanwhile we Americans need to acknowledge our own role in the stagnation and double standards pervading desert autocracies. Our subtle oppression has been as abundant as the oil underneath those sands that we covet and even assume is rightfully ours, obtainable by any means necessary. As we condemn Khaddafy’s brutality, let’s not forget our own over-reliance on military “solutions”—rationalized by our own desperate conviction that we can only fight fire with fire, only prevail with raw power, with weaponized drones over Pakistan or million-dollar-a-year soldiers attempting to kill people and win their hearts and minds at the same time.
The subversive and hopeful message of Egypt’s Tahrir Square is that change does not have to come by violence, just as the message from Tripoli—or Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq—is that violence only cycles into worse violence. If unarmed citizens in Tahrir Square can create positive change, why can’t the most powerful democracy on earth choose to bring about change not with military violence, but with magnanimous humanitarian aid and adherence to international laws and institutions? Khaddafy, if he survives, could be brought before the International Criminal Court to be tried for crimes against his own people, no thanks to the U.S., which does not recognize the Court’s legitimacy (though our Ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, did express her happiness that Khaddafy’s case had been referred to the Court).
From what source does civil authority ultimately flow? Isn’t it the deep truth, with variants found in all the texts of the world’s major religions, of the golden rule?
We have already come close, with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, to the polar opposite of this universal rule: if you try to destroy me totally, I will destroy you totally, and if we really let fly with everything we have, we will all be dead ten times over. Khaddafy’s refusal to accept less than absolute control may well lead to his own death.
Enough Egyptian citizens understood that as they wished to be done to, so should they do. In this they demonstrated that the Gandhis and Kings of this world are not some idealistic exception. The strategies of non-violent change have become just as realistic and practical as the notion that dictators can deny their citizens’ aspirations by brute force has become unrealistic and impractical. Building schools for girls in Afghanistan is not only a more realistic way to increase U.S. security than 800 foreign bases; without so many bases we could afford to pay our own teachers and civil servants a living wage in Wisconsin and elsewhere.
“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable,” asserted President Kennedy in a resonant aphorism. This applies universally, to protestors and the governments trying to appease or oppose them, to near-failed states and to great powers. Non-violent alternatives are available to all governments as well as all protestors. Autocrats can capitulate peacefully and fly into exile, and free and fair elections can, with forbearance and hard work, fill the power vacuum. The mother of all might-have-beens comes to mind—what is happening now in the region could eventually have happened in Iraq without disastrous U.S. meddling.
After 9/11, stereotypes of a mysterious, unknowable ‘other,’ an other who hates us for our freedoms, quickly took over. The “enemy image” gripping the collective American psyche morphed from Soviet communists who tried and failed to make peaceful revolution impossible in Eastern Europe, into suicidal Islamic martyrs who tried and failed to make violent revolution inevitable.
Now these Arab and Persian and Sunni and Shia and Coptic Christian ‘others’ not only have faces and names, they are martyring themselves for the same liberties we ourselves hold dear. On a planet so small that that the news flashes instantly from Wisconsin to Bahrain, Tripoli to Jerusalem, isn’t it time we gave up enemy-images altogether? We are one human family. In the spirit of Tahrir Square, isn’t it time to reject the illusory authority of violence and embrace the unconquerable authority of non-violence?