Response to: “Even Pacifists Benefit From War”

November 8, 2009

This post was originally published  in December 2001, and is included here without changes.  Sadly,  I believe it is at least as relevant today as when it was written.

Kathleen Parkers recent column, “Even Pacifists Benefit From War” (11/30/2001), cries out for a response.  I write as a pacifist and a Quaker — and must say that I don’t benefit in any way from this war.

Part of my pacifism is spiritual and moral.  Believing, as a Quaker, that there is that of God in each person, I feel that killing — for any reason, in any situation — is wrong.  That means that war is wrong, regardless of the justification that may be offered.

As a religious pacifist, I must say “no thank you” to those who offer to fight this war in my name, with my tax money, and for my supposed benefit. There were so many lives lost (in New York, in Washington DC, and in Pennsylvania), and so many lives disrupted.  The war we are waging only adds to the carnage, and seriously disrupts many more lives.  I believe it is morally wrong, whether or not it offers any security benefit.

That brings me to my second point:  that the war makes me feel less secure — not more.  By adding to the level of violence, by further inflaming passions, by linking the name of America with the bombing and other destruction, this war invites more terrorism.  Those who feel that we’ve somehow destroyed the terrorists’ ability to play havoc in our society seriously underestimate both their determination and anger, and our own vulnerability.

Many think of pacifism as simply the denial of weapons.  “How can we fight the enemy”, they ask, “when we deprive ourselves of the very tools we need for that task?” Others think of pacifism as passive-ism, in which we do nothing in response to outward threats, provocations, or serious violence. And others, who may concede that nonviolence has sometimes been effective, still believe it is only relevant in small situations which involve minimal violence or threat.  All of these views seriously minimize the possibility of deliberate nonviolent action.

Gandhi referred to nonviolence as “satyagraha” which, loosely translated, means “truth force”.  Active nonviolence is a productive way to bring about significant social change.  The noted scholar Eugene Sharp has catalogued hundreds of cases where purely nonviolent struggles have resulted in governments being replaced, oppressed social conditions being changed, and people being freed from tyranny.  Much of the power of nonviolence comes from the fact that it focuses on the long term goals, and does not complicate that picture with lots of moral compromise.

Is nonviolence a simple and guaranteed solution to all social ills?  Of course not.  But, then again, neither is violence or war.  People ask me, as a pacifist, whether nonviolence will work, but they assume all the time that violence does.   Violence hasn’t worked on either side in the Israeli / Palestinian conflict.  It hasn’t stopped the flow of drugs coming into the US.  And it seems unlikely that it will really stop the operations of decentralized terrorist organizations in the US and elsewhere.

Following our faith in military solutions, America spends huge amounts on training soldiers, developing battlefield technology, and refining strategy and tactics.  The amounts spent perfecting nonviolent strategy and tactics are minuscule in comparison.  Nonviolence often has little chance to succeed because we give it little chance.

Still, think of how often nonviolence has succeeded.  Much of America’s racial justice came as a direct result of a concerted campaign of nonviolent resistance.  The labor movement, which brought many Americans more dignity, safety, and salary in the workplace was primarily a nonviolent movement (although there was certainly some violence).  Earth day demonstrations moved our nation toward much more environmental awareness, and a whole new set of laws.  Indeed, nonviolent action has done much to improve America.  Perhaps I should turn around the headline, and suggest that militarists have benefited from pacifist initiatives.
Kathleen Parker mistakenly suggests that, “Pacifism in the face of terrorism is strictly an emotional response”.  In fact, it can be a very rational response, using means and serving ends which are consistent, defusing rather than exacerbating conflicts, and helping connect people to people.

So … how should we respond to September 11th?  First, let’s be clear that our goal is (or should be) a safer society, a safer nation, a safer world. That means defusing anger, minimizing violence and counter violence and counter-counter violence, etc.  We need to look at our impact on the world, and see how we might become a gentler world citizen.  War has no place in this endeavor.  In this case, our attack on a Muslim nation has given pause to Muslims around the world — people who might have supported the simple justice of our original plea for an end to terrorism.

Some tightening up at home is also justified.  Here we need to protect those values that we hold dearest in America — which certainly include our concept of civil liberties, our notion that criminal defendants are presumed innocent until clearly proven guilty, and that a system of open scrutiny and regular appeals helps maintain the integrity of our justice system.  We can’t fight for our principles with one hand, while destroying them with the other.

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One Response to “Response to: “Even Pacifists Benefit From War””

  1. jma said

    What is the pacifist response to genocide?
    What is the pacifist alternative to local law enforcement?

    We should always let millions of Armenians, Jews, Rwandans, Cambodians, or Kurds die at the hands of homicidal aggressors?

    What about Fort Hood, Virginia Tech, Columbine? Should we stand idly by the blood of our neighbor while a murderer finishes his ammunition, rather than asking a cop to kill the murderer before he’s completed his rampage?

    You’re right, violence is not a panacea. But my inclination is to support the use force in acute situations when lives cry out to be saved.

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