Pacifism remains a worthy alternative


Since the attacks of Sept. 11, and Oct. 7 when retaliating U.S. pilots began bombing people and buildings in Afghanistan, those of us who are pacifists have found ourselves denounced for bystanding in a time of national peril. We are scorned for not waving flags or supporting the president and his war council. We are damned for being complicit in evil, which is what pacifism, to many critics, clearly is.

The script is followed, as written by Hermann Goering, the Nazi leader: "The people can always be brought to do the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism."

For 20 years, I've taught pacifism and nonviolence -- its history, methods and practitioners -- to more than 5,000 high school, university, law school and prison students. During those two decades, U.S. presidents, members of Congress and military leaders have also been teaching: warism and violence. Their classroom has been the national lectern of Washington from which a lesson plan has sent American troops to kill people or threaten to kill people in nearly a dozen foreign sites: Lebanon in 1982, Grenada in 1983, Libya in 1986, Panama in 1989, the Persian Gulf in 1990 to present, Somalia in 1992, Haiti in 1994, Sudan in 1998, Afghanistan in 1998, Yugoslavia in 1999, and Afghanistan in 2001.

A familiar pattern has been followed: glamorize, demonize, victimize, rationalize.

U.S. leaders glamorize their interventions by naming them Operation Just Cause (Panama), Operation Restore Hope (Somalia), Operation Desert Storm (Persian Gulf). They demonize the latest enemy: Panama's Noriega was "a drug kingpin," Somalia's General Aidid "a warlord," Saddam Hussein "another Hitler," bin Laden "the evildoer." U.S. pilots victimize defenseless citizens who are trapped in those countries and helpless to escape the bombing runs. Finally, it is all rationalized: Americans are a peace-loving people but, if pushed, will take action.

In the current war, pacifists are asked, often goadingly, "Ok, you're opposed to violence, but what's your solution instead?"

Fair question. We have a three-part answer based on political, legal and moral solutions.

The political response to Sept. 11 would have been to follow the U.S. government's longtime advice to Israeli and Palestinian leaders: talk to each other, negotiate, deal, compromise, stop the killing and reconcile. The same advice has been repeatedly dispensed to the factions in Northern Ireland. If that advice is fit for those conflicts, why not for ours with the Taliban government, which the U.S. armed and supported in the 1980s during the Afghanistan-Soviet war. Other precedents exist for nonviolent political responses. In the early 1970s, Richard Nixon dealt, negotiated and compromised with the once-demonized Chinese government. In the mid-1980s, Ronald Reagan did the same with the evil empire Russians. Both communist regimes were once portrayed as out to annihilate the U.S., threats far more lethal than the current demons, the ranting ragtag Talibans. Now Russia and China are trading partners.

The legal response to Sept. 11 is to use international law and the world court at the Hague, where due process now has Slobodan Milosevic on trial. Due process brought Manual Noriega to a federal court in Florida and imprisonment. It recently led to life sentences from a New York court for those responsible for the first attack on the World Trade Center.

The moral response would be to follow the core teachings of the historical figure who President Bush claimed during his candidacy he most looked to for guidance, Jesus: forgive the Sept. 11 attackers for their violence, ask them to forgive the U.S. government for its long history of military and economic violence, and then seek reconciliation through mutual dialogue, not one-sided monologue.

Political, legal and moral responses have been proposed by a long list of pacifists and pacifist organizations for centuries: Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Leo Tolstoy, Dorothy Day, Helen Balch, Jeannette Rankin, A. J. Muste, Abdul Aziz Said, Mubarak Awad, Isaiah, Eugene Debs, David Dellinger, Gene Sharp, Philip and Fr. Daniel Berrigan, Andre Trocme, David McReynolds, Michael Nagler, Michael True, John Dear, Thomas Merton, Thich Nhat Hanh, Joan Baez, Adolfo Perez Esquivel, Vincent Harding, Maired Corrigan, Mulford Sibley, Joan Bondurant, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Catholic Worker, the War Resisters League, Pax Christi, Quakers, Mennonites, the Church of the Brethren, the Bruderhofs, and many others.

The ideas and ideals of these pacifists are either unknown or casually dismissed by much of the public. Only a few schools pay academic heed to alternatives to violence. The rest are content to graduate peace illiterates year after year. Rarely are pacifists given space on the nation's op-ed pages, or airtime on radio and television programs. During the Persian Gulf War, a survey found that the four television networks ran 738 interviews with experts analyzing the conduct of the war. Only one interviewee was from a major peace group opposing the war. For the media, that was balance: 737 to one.

It appears to be no different today, with each network having its pet retired general on hand for a nightly strategy rap on how to flush out the slippery bin Laden and his fellow cave dwellers.

My own plan is to keep teaching and writing, and resisting the urge to blame those who believe that violence is the solution to conflict, whether among nations or in families and neighborhoods. I blame only one person for the persistence of violence: myself. If I work to be a better husband, father, teacher, writer and informed citizen, I've done all I can to try to decrease the world's violence and increase its peace.

Admittedly, it's not much. But while few of us are called on to do great things, all of us can do small things in a great way.

Colman McCarthy, a former Washington Post columnist, directs the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington. He teaches at Georgetown University Law Center, American University, the University of Maryland and two public high schools.

National Catholic Reporter, November 16, 2001