New Clear Vision


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Libya: Acid Test for Nonviolence?

March 28, 2011 By: NCVeditor Category: Current Events, Michael N. Nagler, Politics

Practicing Peace Before Wars Break Out

by Michael N. Nagler

The nonviolent revolution in Egypt has spread across the Mideast, but unfortunately in many other countries, particularly Libya, “revolution” was picked up without “nonviolent.” I have been asked whether there is anything that nonviolence could nonetheless do in the face of the bloodbath that is going on before our eyes in that country. There is, but I would like to consider not one but two questions: what can we do now (which is very little), and what could we be doing if we lived in a more nonviolence-aware world. As we will see, the two questions fold together at one point.

Libya’s convulsion once again caught the “international community” (it’s more like an international schoolyard) flat-footed. Open warfare broke out very quickly, and the scale and stage of the violence are extreme. Yet there is still a way to respond that, while extremely difficult to pull off, could be called nonviolent.

We in the nonviolence field will recognize this as a “madman with a sword” analogy. Gandhi said flatly that if a madman is raging through a village with a sword (or any deadly weapon), he who “dispatches the lunatic” will have done the community (and even the poor lunatic) a favor. Here are Gandhi’s exact words, from The Hindu (1926): “Taking life may be a duty…. Suppose a man runs amok and goes furiously about, sword in hand, and killing anyone that comes in his way, and no one dares capture him alive. Anyone who dispatches this lunatic will earn the gratitude of the community and be regarded as a benevolent man.”

From other writings of his, however, we see that to use lethal force without actually being violent is extremely tricky. Remember always, by the way, that we are talking about an extreme emergency. One cannot prepare to use lethal force against such a situation because if one has time to prepare at all one can prepare nonviolence. Arming airline pilots in case there are hijackers does not count. That understood, several other conditions must be met:

1) One must act as far as possible without anger or fear. One must harbor no hatred of the deranged party; even lunatics are people. 2) One must not complain if one is injured in the process. Life will not always appear fair to our limited vision. And by far the most important condition: 3) One must not feel that s/he has solved the problem once the maddened person is successfully stopped and innocents protected. Instead, one must make a serious effort to determine how we have created a world where things like this can happen — and how to change it.

This last, crucial point brings us squarely to the second question. As things are, we have very few options that are not military. Conceivably, the Arab League or some other trusted party could offer to mediate; if the tension were to somehow subside a superb mediation agency like TRANSCEND could also be used. But hatreds are so high now that neither side is likely to call in such a resource. If, or to the extent that, one could intervene with force in the spirit described above and, for example, impose a ceasefire, it could be considered a nonviolent act. Remember that the literal meaning of ahimsa (nonviolence) is actually “the absence of the desire to injure.” In other words, if one really acts to protect and not to punish, one is being nonviolent even while using coercive force. But how many of our military personnel are trained not to hate and dehumanize their intended victims? Alas, their training is precisely the reverse. It’s as bad as the “training” young people get from video games — but that must be the subject of another article.

Our options are very thin because we have not explored more creative ones than brute force, applied after conflict has already flared. Military intervention is now the least bad solution from the point of view of nonviolence, but it is very bad. What else is left to us? Of course, we grieve for the victims on both sides. Of course we pray, repeat our mantram, or do whatever turns our compassion toward the suffering.  Because we do not have intervention teams ready to go, and the Libyan people themselves are not trained or very much in the mood for nonviolent resistance, the most nonviolent thing we can do now is to ask ourselves how we could have been better prepared to head off this tragedy. Nonviolence is slowly coming into the world’s attention, but it is agonizingly slow. For what we spend on bombing Libya in 48 hours we could be building a nonviolent peace force of worldwide effectiveness (more on that in a second). Here are some other suggestions.

Learn all we can about nonviolence, particularly but not exclusively its applications to large-scale conflict. In a nonviolence-aware world, the Libyan people might have begun with a Constructive Program (i.e., action taken within the community to build structures, systems, processes, or resources that are positive alternatives to oppression) instead of falling in right away with the “days of rage” scenario. They might have trained themselves for organized nonviolent resistance when the latter became necessary. And we might have been ready to give them much-appreciated support.

We can use our influence to get peace and nonviolence education into our schools and colleges – all the more urgent now, as Congress is trying to defund the only official government peace education institution, the U.S. Institute of Peace. We can get involved with or at least support a group such as Nonviolent Peaceforce or Peace Brigades International. These groups, doing what is now called Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping, have been operating in some of the world’s most serious conflicts for over twenty years, with great success, and if the world had known about them we could have sent teams into Libya — and Yemen, and Bahrain, and so forth — and turned impending disaster to creative progress. And it is critical to inform ourselves and act upon measures that can address the root causes of large-scale violence in our world. In Libya, for example, our “need” for oil has caused us to play with a dictator and ignore the plight of his people.

Gandhi claimed that he “knew of no case” in which nonviolence had failed, or could in principle possibly fail, although it was perfectly possible that people could fail to understand it or use it incorrectly — which is what we have been doing. But at least, as the Dalai Lama said, “if you lose, don’t lose the lesson.” The lesson of Libya is to learn about nonviolence and start vigorously building its culture and institutions before tragedies like this happen again.

Michael N. Nagler, Ph.D., is Professor emeritus of Classics and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley where he co-founded the Peace and Conflict Studies Program. He is the founder of the Metta Center for Nonviolence, and serves as co-Chair of the Peace and Justice Studies Association. Among his many publications in the field of nonviolence, Dr. Nagler is the author of The Search for a Nonviolent Future: A Promise of Peace for Ourselves, Our Families, and Our World (New World Library), winner of the 2002 American Book Award.

1 Comments to “Libya: Acid Test for Nonviolence?”


  1. Mary Nelson says:

    U.S. Corporate/State Empire is a madman raging over Earth brandishing swords, earthmovers, earthdrillers, earthscrapers, bombs, missiles, toxic soil, toxic air, toxic rivers, toxic oceans, species extinction.

    No, it’s Western Industrial Civilization do this…..

    No, it’s civilization itself.

    How silly to be harping about non-violence when the dominant culture is bringing to an end the 4.5 billion years of the evolution of life on what may be the only life-supportable planet in the Universe

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