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Passivity or Violence: Is That the Only Choice?

Michael Nagler

 by Waging Nonviolence

Between Libya, which has endured more than 2,000 NATO bombings, and Syria, where more than 2,000 civilians have been killed by their own government so far, we see the two traditional responses to a perceived need for intervention by the international community in regimes gone wrong. It’s a grim picture—invaded Libya and abandoned Syria—and a sad comment on the paucity of human imagination, at least when that imagination is squeezed into the narrow confines of “realism.”

Fortunately this Hobson’s choice, and the comment it delivers on the creativity of our concern, is not, in fact, all humanity can come up with.

In the 1922, when Hindu-Muslim tensions were threatening to tear down everything Gandhi was building in India, he proposed that volunteers could go to villages in insecure districts and live there as a kind of resident third party to proffer good offices, abate rumors (a frequent escalator of conflict there and everywhere), and in extreme cases interpose themselves between parties in open conflict. He called an important meeting to put this institution, which he called the Shanti Sena (Peace Army), into practice for February, 1948 but, as we know, was assassinated days before it could take place.

Shanti Sena did nonetheless come into being. Despite various problems, it served creditably well in a variety of districts and the 1962 Chinese border incursion. More to the point, the idea spread throughout the world, where it was picked up by organizations as diverse as the World Peace Brigade, Peace Brigades International, India’s Swaraj Peeth, the colorfully named Rainbow Family of Living Light and even the Guardian Angels, known for riding the subways of New York to prevent crime. It also deepened into a force that could intervene across borders: not just in local communities but around the world.

The unheralded growth of this idea and its on-the-ground institutions is probably typical of how the best ideas in the modern world have to grow: from the bottom up. The movement for “protective accompaniment,” for example, which became the main focus of groups like Witness for Peace and Peace Brigades International (the former being explicitly a religiously based organization, the latter explicitly not) was carried out by remarkably few individuals, negligible financing and even less coverage by the press. Nonetheless, it saved lives from death squads in Central America and equivalent forms or terror in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. In one case, that of Guatemala, it seems to have created space for a real peace process to unfold when it saved individuals in a key human rights group from systematic assassination simply by being with them day in and out, so that anyone who did them harm would have to do so before the eyes of the world.

The improbable hope represented by protective accompaniment and other functions of Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping (as it’s now called, or UCP) did eventually percolate upwards to the attention of more official bodies: an international norm (not yet a law) called the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) has come into play after the shame of passivity in Rwanda, stating that “If a State is manifestly failing to protect its citizens from mass atrocities and peaceful measures are not working, the international community has the responsibility to intervene at first diplomatically, then more coercively, and as a last resort, with military force.” While not nonviolence, this does open the door for more UCP activities even as it breaks down the wall of absolute state sovereignty. More to the point, the UNICEF has made a grant of one million dollars to the most ambitious of the UCP organizations, Nonviolent Peaceforce, to do training for child protection in South Sudan and the Philippines.

In the penetrating light of Gandhi’s vision, passivity and violence are really two sides of the same coin. On the spiritual plane, they emerge respectively from fear and anger—both drives of the private, separate self. The only really different coin is that of nonviolence, or selfless love in action (to paraphrase Martin Luther King). The only meaningful choice, then, is not between intervening (with blind force) or not intervening, but between violence and nonviolence as a guiding principle.

As I write these lines, black Africans are being harshly persecuted in “free” Libya, usually for no reason. We should not be surprised. This is what violence does: it cannot but grope blindly after victims, as history so often shows. And it also shows, if we know where to look, that nonviolence does the opposite: it spreads hope and toleration, preventing enemies from oppressing if not actually converting them into friends. And now, as institutions emerging from this principle slowly find themselves and reach across borders into realms that formerly were reachable only by force—or by neglect—we get to choose.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

Michael Nagler

Michael Nagler is Professor emeritus of Classics and Comparative Literature at UC, Berkeley, where he co-founded the Peace and Conflict Studies Program, and the founder of the Metta Center for Nonviolence.

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