Nonviolence: The Discipline and Challenge of Love
Aly Wane

I recently read Anna Baltzer's moving book Witness in Palestine: a Jewish American Woman in the Occupied Territories. In it, she describes the horrors and humiliations endured by Palestinians day in and day out. The litany of suffering is extensive: the indignity of waiting for hours at "checkpoints" designed more to subdue than to protect, the beatings and shootings by overzealous Israeli settlers, the scorn and derision of Israeli Defense Force (IDF) officers, the demolition of houses, etc.…As I finished the book, I was filled with rage. Rage at IDF soldiers, rage at the self-righteousness of the settlers and even rage at the mass of Israeli citizens who refuse to know about these human rights abuses and even condone them.
Outside Caen World War II Memorial in Normandy, France. Photo: Tico on

Then I did what nonviolent discipline requires. I pictured each soldier, each settler and each Israeli citizen as a complex human being who should not be reduced to his or her worst actions. I tried to picture soldiers being kind fathers, settlers as humans with their own history of trauma. Even the "oppressor" has a story. Simply put, I refused to de-humanize the "oppressor." Instead, I turned my rage into analysis. That is what nonviolence requires: the refusal to look away from tragedy, coupled with a desire to avoid simplistic either/or solutions that choose self righteous "camps."

Nonviolence is more than a political tactic: it is a way of life. It is a promise, a dedication to the idea that every life is sacred and deserves respect and consideration. Nonviolence is a rejection of chauvinism, the idea that one class, group of people or adherents of a particular philosophy or religion are inherently more "deserving" than any other. It is a practical attempt to implement the value we refer to as "Love." Why are there so few people willing to adopt this philosophy of nonviolence? I believe that there are three explanations for this: the innate human instinct of aggression, the difficulty of resisting a "black and white" view of the world and the disease of militarism.

Natural Aggression vs. Warfare
When I was 16, I got into an altercation with a friend. He started to hit me on the shoulder. At the time, I was training myself to respond nonviolently to aggression, and I tried not to retaliate. As the punches continued, however, my anger grew and before I realized it I had pinned my friend on the floor and was about to hit him. I was stunned at the rapidity and fierceness of my response. I learned from that experience that I am not nonviolent because I am above aggression; I am nonviolent because I know how my potential for aggression can lead to disastrous consequences.

As human animals, one of the evolutionary legacies is the "fight or flight" response. When threatened, to survive humans respond with fear and aggression. This response is hardwired into us. Our aggressive feelings are natural. Warfare, the organized use of violence to destroy individuals toward whom we have no natural animosity , however, is unnatural. There is nothing wrong with anger - when properly harnessed it is a necessary, useful emotion. When one witnesses injustice, anger is an appropriate response. Zack De La Rocha, lead singer of the political rock band Rage Against the Machine, tells us that there are times when "Anger is a Gift." To remain silent in the face of injustice and inequality is cowardly. And contrary to popular opinion, nonviolence is not passive.

Some activists use the terminology of warfare to describe the discipline of the nonviolent individual; they speak of nonviolent "warriors" who are as dedicated to peace as some soldiers are dedicated to war. The main difference between the nonviolent "warrior" and the soldier, however, is that while both may be willing to die for their ideals, the nonviolent warrior refuses to kill for that ideal. While the soldier is indoctrinated into using his natural aggressive tendencies to destroy the enemy, the nonviolent warrior channels that aggression into action that liberates both parties. This, however, takes courage and discipline. When Martin Luther King unleashed the force of nonviolent organizing in the South, he knew that it would require the "soul force" of many determined individuals. It was an experiment and a gamble, with successes, as well as many painful "failures."
A nonviolence training session held in the West Bank in March 2007. Photo: delayed gratification on

Love and Self Righteousness
The second reason why nonviolence is so difficult to embrace, is the tendency of humans to think of themselves as being in the absolute "right." While righteous indignation can be a part of nonviolent activism the true adherent of nonviolence refuses to claim that he or she is in any way "better" than the perceived enemy. She recognizes that there is goodness even in the oppressor, and that no human being is above committing acts of evil. By being compassionate towards the enemy, she is also being compassionate towards herself. She recognizes that she has also been wrong at times and that there is potential for good in all. As human beings, we are addicted to the belief that we and our immediate community are in the right, while "outsiders," those who come from different cultural and religious backgrounds, are "wrong."

It is difficult to adopt a nonviolent stance because it is easier to believe in moral absolutes than it is to accept ambiguity. We all know activists who have become so enthralled with their "cause" that they lose the ability to work effectively with others and accept the compromises necessary to build a broad movement. Dorothy Day, the great Catholic nonviolent activist who founded the Catholic Worker movement, often said that the greatest sin of the nonviolent practitioner is arrogance.

The Pressure of Militarism
The third reason nonviolence is so hard to adopt is the pressure put on the individual by our militaristic nation states. From early in life we are told to obey the laws of the land and that our nation is the "best" nation in the world. The US is one of the most militaristic empires the world has ever seen and we are the only nation to have ever used the atomic bomb. Yet we are told this is justified by our "national interest to preserve our way of life."

The goals of the US empire (which are no different than any other empire) are to maintain military and economic interests at the expense of the rights of other nations. Recall the 1948 quote of George Kennan, one of the greatest US diplomats: "We have about 50% of the world's wealth, and about 6.3% of its population…our real task…is to maintain this position of disparity….We should cease to talk about vague and…unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization."

Maintaining this self-interest requires a military force to protect "our" multinational corporations abroad. As the "liberal" commentator Thomas Friedman wrote in The New York Times: "The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald's cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley's technologies is called the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps." Paradoxically, the military itself is proof that warfare is not a natural state of affairs.

In order to convince most recruits to participate in warfare, they must undergo "basic training," a program designed to break down all the natural impulses to resist killing while not in a state of personal enmity towards others. The recruit has to be made to lose his/her sense of agency, rely on superiors for guidance and be subjected to awful, dehumanizing stereotypes about the enemy. (In Iraq and Afghanistan for example, our soldiers are taught to think of "Arabs" - a deliberately vague racial term - with the derogatory epithet "hadji." Ironically, hadji refers to a Muslim who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca, a duty and great honor for Muslims. Here, however, the term is meant to emphasize the "otherness" of the enemy. This de-humanization is necessary to suppress the natural tendency of the soldier to feel compassion for the other; in other words, to neutralize the instinct to love and connect.

Militarism pervades other aspects of our culture which celebrates violence through TV, film, video games and paramilitary local law enforcement. We are conditioned from an early age to think of violence as the solution to our ills. It is hard to resist this.

The abolition of war must be the ultimate goal of the nonviolent resistance movement. While war seems ubiquitous, it is not an inherent part of human nature. As noted, we need to coerce or indoctrinate people to perform the duties of the soldier.

We are at a dangerous moment in human history. Nowadays far more civilians die in war than soldiers. The human race now possesses enough nuclear weapons to wipe ourselves off the planet. The US spends twice as much on the military as all other nations in the world combined. This is a suicidal waste of resources. War itself must be the "target" of our struggle. This may seem Utopian, but it is simple logic. The "realists" would have us keep building bombs and tanks and simply "hope" that fear will keep us from destroying one another. We can no longer afford that gamble.

Just as the abolition of slavery was once seen as a pipe dream, the abolition of war as a goal will be ridiculed. That should not deter us from pressing on towards that goal. We must learn to love the planet and ourselves before it is too late. I am not optimistic, but I am hopeful.

Aly is a longtime SPC intern.