What does nonviolence mean in the face of violence? This was a question asked a lot in the United States in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks. People came to workshops I co-facilitated on nonviolence with this question. We are currently in a cultural milieu where no one I know is asking this question. The people in my communities have skipped over pondering how nonviolence might work when faced with violence. Instead, they are looking for signs indicating which side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict their friends and family members are on. At this moment, there’s no room for them for anything in-between. As George W. Bush said, “You’re either with us or against us.” You may be reading this post only to parse out which side I’m sympathetic to so you know whether to click like or accuse me of supporting mass murder.
But I’ve never been one to support peace only in-between wars. That’s not peace; it reduces “peace” to a decorative accessory that you wear only when the occasion calls for it. Which brings us back to the question of what a nonviolent response to violence is and how you can even talk about nonviolence when people you love are being attacked and killed.
“Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people.” That is Martin Luther King Jr.’s first principle of nonviolence. King was very clear that nonviolence does not allow you to ignore evil; you have to confront it, though you use tools other than violence, tools that have historically proven to be effective. But to go there — to suggest that there is an alternative to bloodshed in a time of war and patriotic or tribal fervor is to open yourself to hatred and vitriol from people on both sides of a violent conflict. That’s where the courage comes in; it’s far easier to put aside your doubts, even your long-held moral beliefs and just go along with the opinion and rhetoric of the group you have the most affinity to.
When George W. Bush was preparing to take the United States into a war with Iraq, I organized a peace vigil. I received a death threat from an employee at the local newspaper after I told them about the event, and the police callously said that they couldn’t protect demonstrators from being run over. When we took our peace flags out into the pubic, people spat on us and called us terrorists. Earlier on, when…