March article

CHAPTER 3: On What Nonviolence Can Teach Us

In January I wrote about U.S. policy towards Iraq from 1991 to 2003. From the public record it is not difficult to show that bombing Iraq’s civilian infrastructure and re-imposing economic sanctions – to overthrow Saddam Hussein at the cost of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children’s lives – constitutes international terrorism according to the U.S. legal definition of that crime.

In February I wrote about how the U.S. courts and the mass media responded to this policy: The courts ruled that even if the U.S. government pursues a policy which knowingly kills 500,000 Iraqi children – as long as Congress passes the necessary laws and the Executive executes those laws as written – it is legal. And if it can’t be made legal – as with genocide – Congress then legislated that no one has any legal rights in the matter.

The mass media dealt with this issue mainly by repeating the many common myths and misrepresentations about what was happening in Iraq – and refusing to question or investigate them. Even more frequently, the mass media simply ignored crucial, well-documented information. In the words of Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen, our democracy is being endangered because of the “untold stories.” He is right – even though his paper often failed to tell those same stories.

The Iraq sanctions issue covers 12 years. But the response of the courts and media is relevant to a great many other issues. What can we do … whether it’s the use of lethal sanctions again, or global warming, nuclear proliferation, or the selling of our democracy?

A remarkable example of what can be done was shown to us by the Egyptians. I was totally enthralled by the uprising in Tahrir Square in Cairo. It was such a communal expression of goodness, truth and physical nonviolence overcoming a government’s cruelty, lies and the use of lethal force.

As Adrienne Maree Brown wrote in YES! Magazine of her own reaction, “My heart is bursting from my chest today, tears on my cheeks, my skin covered in waves and waves of goosebumps as my body integrates the beautiful revolution in Egypt.” I felt just the same way. Here is what I have come to understand from my own feelings and thinking about events in Egypt.

On goodness and badness in our culture

I grew up on cowboys and Indians and the Lone Ranger. I grew up on good guys and bad guys! Fifty years later, I heard the U.S. President announce that we need to go to war with the bad guys – the so-called axis of evil – so that we can destroy evil in the world.

If there are only these two choices, of course we will call ourselves the good guys. It is not surprising then that our media and our courts have been unwilling to consider evidence that our actions have sometimes been terribly cruel and hurtful – such as when we committed a massive act of terrorism against Iraqi kids.

We can joke at the comic-book characterization of good guys and bad guys, but our culture is awash in this perspective in many subtle ways as well. For example how often do we hear the very sensible question, What motivates a person to commit an act of terrorism? How often do we hear questioned, as an appropriate moral response, the calls to hate terrorists? “The bad guys don’t deserve such thoughts” we are told. “Bad guys” are not like us, they are less human, they are untermenschen, we are told.

An alternative view: nonviolence

A serious study of nonviolence has much to teach us about wiser ways to think … and to act.

Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is leading what she calls a nonviolent “Revolution of the Spirit” in her home country of Burma. (Burma, which is ruled with extreme ruthlessness and violence by a military junta, has unilaterally renamed the country Myanmar.)

In the book Voice of Hope – in conversations with Aung San Suu Kyi – she talks about the ruling junta: “But you know, I have never felt vindictive towards [the junta]. Of course, I have been very angry at some of the things they have done. But at the same time I can sense their uneasiness – their lack of confidence in good, as it were. And I think it must be very sad not to believe in good.”

In this very simple, brief statement Aung San Suu Kyi offers two very important principles of nonviolence. The first is the importance of making a distinction between the actions of persons and the persons themselves.

The second follows from the first: anger or hatred which is felt can wisely be directed at the actions, while the persons can still be understood, their condition even sympathized with, and effective responses, if possible, can be chosen.

Mahatma Gandhi made these same two points: “I hold myself to be incapable of hating any being on earth. … But I can and do hate evil wherever it exists. I hate the system of government that the British people have set up in India. I hate the ruthless exploitation of India even as I hate from the bottom of my heart the hideous system of untouchability for which millions of Hindus have made themselves responsible. But I do not hate the domineering Englishmen as I refuse to hate the domineering Hindus. I seek to reform them in all the loving ways that are open to me. My noncooperation has its roots not in hatred, but in love.”

As Gandhi himself says of his claim not to hate, “I know this is a big claim. Nevertheless, I make it in all humility.” The point for me is not to ask, Do I still hate anyone? – but rather to ask, Do I really, deeply want to give up hating anyone? Given Gandhi’s statements about what true nonviolence means, do I really want to become truly nonviolent? My understanding and motivation will determine my thinking … and then eventually my actions.

On not believing in goodness

Aung San Suu Kyi’s second observation has a particular resonance for me. She thinks that the leaders of Burma’s regime do not really believe in good or have confidence in it. I do not, of course, compare my own actions to those of these rulers, but growing up in the culture that I did, I still think that some deep part of my consciousness doesn’t believe that the good can survive in the world as I conceive of it. Part of me still believes (as the common saying goes) that “good guys finish last.”

Yet evidence continues to mount showing how effective nonviolence can be: how one can realistically have confidence in the good. Remember how effective Gandhi was in accomplishing the removal of the British empire, the most powerful empire in the world at the time, from India, its “crown jewel.” And there are many other recent examples in world history.

Tahrir Square is just the latest example of how confidence in the good can unleash immense positive energy. We may not know how changes in Egypt will end up, but compare Tahrir Square with the so-called liberation of Iraq by force and the staged toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square.

Gandhi said, “I seek to reform them in all the loving ways that are open to me. My noncooperation has its roots not in hatred, but in love.” I hold that that is true nonviolence. This is a central difference between the current dominant view within our culture and the view of Gandhi, King, and the many other advocates of nonviolence.

Look at the difference in outcomes when cultivating hatred and turning to violence is used. I believe that if we had not demonized one man, Saddam Hussein, and cultivated our hatred for him, we would not have caused the deaths of half-a-million children in trying to overthrow him. Eventually we ended up committing “the supreme international crime, initiating a war of aggression” (quoting Justice Jackson at Nuremberg) with disastrous consequences for Iraqis – and disastrous consequences for the United States as well.


There are many excellent books written on nonviolence. I would recommend Gandhi, the Man by Eknath Easwaran, The Search for a Nonviolent Future by Michael Nagler, and Voice of Hope by Aung San Suu Kyi and Alan Clements. The Metta Center in Berkeley offers many publications and free downloads, including the important booklet Hope or Terror: Gandhi and the Other 9/11. Also the works of Gene Sharp (referenced in The New York Times as influencing nonviolent strategies in the recent Arab uprisings) can be found at this site.

“Establishing lasting peace is the work of education …” – Maria Montessori

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