Presented By: Douglas Allen
Department of Philosophy, University of Maine, Orono, Maine 04469 U.S.A.
For the past fifty years, nonviolent peace and justice activism, shaped by the formative influences of the philosophy and practice of Mahatma Gandhi and often expressed most clearly and strongly in Hind Swaraj, has greatly defined my life. Such nonviolent activist “experiments with truth” reach back to the Civil Rights Movement in the South of the U.S.A. and include the Vietnam/Indochina Antiwar Movement, the Women’s Rights Movement, the Anti-Apartheid Movement, environmental struggles, and more recent antiwar activism focusing on the Iraq War and the Afghanistan War. I had intended to provide four, very diverse illustrations: the Vietnam Center struggle at Southern Illinois University illustrating resistance to the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex, the response to 9/11 terrorism and especially to the post-9/11 terrorism, my nonviolent civil disobedience illustrating a response to the U.S. war on Iraq, and our Peace and Justice Center of Eastern Maine illustrating successes and difficulties in organizing and maintaining peace and justice groups. Because of my unexpectedly detailed formulations, I’ll restrict my presentation in this paper to the first two illustrations. In describing some of the vision and methods or approaches in each illustration, especially as related to Gandhian nonviolence and Hind Swaraj, I shall include some assessment of the considerable strengths and successes, as well as the limitations and failures, of these experiments with truth.
The Struggle Against the Vietnam Center at Southern Illinois University: Resisting the Modern Military-Industrial-Academic Complex
My first full-time academic position, 1967-1972, was with the Department of Philosophy at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois, U.S.A. In 1969, some of us were shocked to learn that SIU had received a huge grant from the State Department’s Agency for International Development to establish a Center for Vietnamese Studies and Programs. As with all peace and justice understanding and practice, our reaction was structured by our past and present contexts in which some of us had devoted years to antiwar efforts to end the Indochina/Vietnam War and hence were motivated to question Washington’s economic, political, and military intentions and objectives. We quickly became more concerned as we learned that the key individuals who gave SIU the funds, appeared on our campus, and even assumed academic positions at our university were some of the same key individuals who had gotten the U.S. involved in and helped to plan the Vietnam War and who had been identified with the previous, infamous, Michigan State University project in Vietnam. We grew even more alarmed when we studied the contract to establish the Vietnam Center, read hundreds of pages of correspondence and internal minutes of the Center’s meetings, and acquired a tremendous amount of background information.
It became evident that the Vietnam Center at SIU was primarily intended to become a useful part of the U.S. war effort and especially part of plans for victorious postwar reconstruction to achieve Washington’s objectives. This included plans for SIU to provide retraining of U.S. military veterans to be sent back to Vietnam, planning Vietnam’s police and security apparatus, planning Vietnam’s educational system, providing resources and expertise for technological development and agricultural projects, etc. Whether seemingly benign or blatantly militaristic and coercive, such intensions and objectives were violent and often similar to British formulations justifying the Raj and the economic and political domination of India. Indeed, as with the British colonial rule, there was an assumed ideological justification that many Vietnamese were not only hostile and dangerous to U.S. interests, but that they were generally backwards, irrational, immoral, undeveloped, and uncivilized. What Washington and the Vietnam Center were doing was thus good for the Vietnamese, civilizing them, whether they appreciated it or not.
What ensued, without providing details, were five years of exposure, education, organizing, resistance, and diverse forms of mobilization and struggle. This became one of the most intense and effective antiwar struggles at any U.S. campus, and it became the major university antiwar issue in Asian Studies. Articles and books were written on the Vietnam Center struggle; numerous antiwar students and other activists met, organized, marched, demonstrated, were arrested, and had their lives and careers dramatically changed; and the objectives of Washington and SIU were completely thwarted through the anti-Vietnam Center antiwar struggles.
Looking back, and now greatly informed by Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj, it is evident, as it was in the late 1960s and 1970s, that we experienced two, diametrically opposed conceptions of civilization with their contrasting visions and methods. On the one hand, the Vietnam Center clearly illustrated what Gandhi labeled Modern Civilization. Such a modern vision was highly materialistic with the emphasis on money, power, economic and political control and domination. It expressed a theory and worldview of adversarial relations in which “the enemy” had to be pacified, controlled, and often destroyed in order to achieve our objectives. Such a vision utilizes a modern instrumentalist view of reason and technology and other resources including nature. As means to achieve ends, the ends are separated from the means, and any means are justified that are effective for achieving the desired ends. In this regard, planners at SIU repeatedly emphasized how the university should position itself as useful and hence appreciated by those with external sources of funds and power, and the Vietnam Center could provide such means to achieve U.S. war and postwar ends or objectives in Vietnam. In short, SIU with its Vietnam Center could function as a valuable part of what Senator William Fulbright, developing President Dwight Eisenhower’s warning, labeled as the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex.
In this regard, this modern vision and approach did emphasize interconnections, interlocking integral relations, but not as in Gandhi’s holistic, relational vision. Instead we were presented with top-down, highly concentrated and centralized, interconnected structures of power, coercion, and domination in which the Vietnam Center would not question the vision or means, but would instead be a small but useful and rewarded contributor to the anti-Gandhian ends of control, exploitation, and domination.
What was evident was that this modern vision with its methods or means was lacking in morality, which was never an essential part of the university’s calculations. Let Washington, big corporations, and the military define the ends; we’ll show that we can provide the technology and other useful means. Ethical analyses of the vision and ends, the means, and the means-ends relations are irrelevant and would only complicate our useful contribution to those with power. After all, just as the British did not fund Indian civil servants and police so that they could resist the Raj, those with power did not fund the university so that it would then critique and possibly resist their militaristic, neo-colonial, and imperialistic war policies and postwar objectives.
Indeed, it became evident that true education, leading to deeper analysis and understanding, was also not part of this modern vision. It turned out, for example, that SIU had previously had two big government contracts in the 1960s for work in Vietnam through its College to Education. Although 50 professors were involved, not one had ever written an article or book about Vietnam. Revealing was the fact that the Director of Vietnam Center was a professor who did not speak Vietnamese and had published nothing on Vietnam. An appropriate vision of education was not a priority.
In most general educational terms, the university, its Vietnam Center, its students and technology and other resources were viewed in corporatized terms of commodities, as a good investment, as means that could further the war and postwar objectives. There was no concern with Gandhi’s central educational concerns of Hind Swaraj of the need for character building, for an ethical foundation, for self-control and the development of selfless service, courage, fearlessness, and other virtues. From Gandhi’s perspective, what the Vietnam Center, in its role as part of the socialized education of Modern Civilization, was perpetuating were multiple dimensions and structures of educational violence. For Gandhi, such an education that was not grounded in dharma would have represented a dangerous and destructive educational failure. Indeed, regardless of academic degrees, professional status, and financial benefits of the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex, in Gandhi’s vision and approach, the professors, students, and administrators who identified with the Vietnam Center were not truly educated and were not truly civilized human beings.
The Vietnam Center and its major funding source, the Agency for International Development, constantly emphasized “development” for Vietnam. For Gandhi in Hindu Swaraj, this illustrates the modern, narrow, reductionistic, violent conception of materialistic development. The more you produce, the faster you produce, the larger the economy, the more technology and displacement of labor, the more you consume, etc., are the criteria used to determine more advanced development, as essential for a more developed civilization and mode of conduct. Gandhi rejects this and contrasts this modern conception of economic development with real development, which has an ethical basis and is grounded in dharma and swaraj. This fuller, qualitatively different conception of real development does not worship and sets limits on the quantity and speed of production, sets limits on uncontrolled self-indulgent consumption, and accepts the introduction of new technology only if it leads to greater well-being, freedom from suffering, and moral and spiritual development. For Gandhi, unlike the developmental conception of Vietnam Center as part of the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex, real development, grounded in the commitment to truth and nonviolence, is the basis for real intellectual, economic, social, cultural, educational, and moral development.
In gradually developing our vision and methods, it became evident that we offered a radical critique of and resistance to this dominant view of Modern Civilization. It is not as if many of us were deeply aware of Gandhiji’s contrasting formulation of civilization in Hind Swaraj, and we would have rejected some of his theory. Nevertheless, there are remarkable similarities between what emerged through our experiments with truth and what Gandhi expressed.
Although we only gradually developed a new language for our vision and methods for confronting the Vietnam Center issues, several of us finally presented our position as an anti-imperialist, anti-neocolonial, democratic struggle for self-determination free from economic class exploitation, racism, and other forms of oppression. My vision and methods were defined by my commitment to nonviolence. My practice of nonviolence in the Civil Rights Movement and my teaching of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s philosophy shaped much of this. I was also influenced by my limited knowledge of Gandhi’s philosophy and methods. However, not everyone involved in the antiwar movement in general and the antiwar Vietnam Center struggle in particular shared my vision and approach. All of us active in this particular antiwar struggle shared a commitment to some vision of peace, justice, self-determination, and a transformed world that would be much less violent. However, we were a diverse, pluralistic, inclusivistic resistance, and there were always active participants who believed that violent resistance, by Vietnamese and by those in the U.S., was sometimes necessary, justified, and even admirable.
Without providing details, suffice it to indicate that as part of our contrasting vision, we tried many diverse methods and approaches. Some were mild, reformist, and expressed within the dominant structures of the status quo. Others were at a heightened level of resistance, took considerable personal risk, and challenged the status quo. These methods included many hundreds of hours of weekly and daily meetings, extensive research, formulating and distributing informational literature, discussion groups, educational teach-ins, local and national and international conferences, publication of letters and articles and books, media work, rallies and other demonstrations, boycotts and other forms of noncooperation, dramatic exposures and interventions, creative artistic and theatrical resistance, and nonviolent civil disobedience. The fact that we could organize not only around an unjust destructive U.S. Vietnam War but also direct our focus to a specific visible manifestation of this on our campus allowed us to continue an intense struggle of resistance for years after antiwar efforts had dissipated at most other universities. It was powerful and effective to assert that our university was committed to the vision and methods of the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex, that SIU was complicit with the death and destruction of Vietnamese and Americans, and that we could make a significant difference in resisting the plans of the Vietnam Center, saving lives, alleviating suffering, and transforming our university.
In general, few of us in this antiwar movement or in the Vietnam Center struggle had a developed vision of swaraj. Looking back, it’s clear that some of us had glimpses or insights into swaraj, but not a broad and deep vision and approach. Most of the thousands who participated in our anti-Vietnam Center struggles did share a simple moral imperative: the Vietnam War is wrong and our university is wrong in supporting this immoral war and postwar commitment. For Gandhi, such simple moral insights are essential in providing an ethical foundation for our philosophy and methods for realizing our vision. However, this by itself is not sufficient for bringing about a new world of transformative nonviolent relations that are centered on a vision of swaraj.
The Vietnam Center struggle illustrates, in microcosmic form, a much larger situation that Gandhi certainly confronted but that has developed and increasingly dominated all of life, from the individual to the global, since his lifetime. Gandhi gradually gained a deep understanding of the functioning, dependencies, and domination of the Raj in an unjust and exploitative British Empire. His emphasis on the spinning wheel and his campaigns focusing on independence with regard to salt and cloth brought out the essential dimension of swadeshi as part of swaraj. However, in our dramatically transformed globalized world, there are fewer and fewer examples of self- sufficiency and independence. As illustrated by the modern Military-Industrial-Academic Complex, we live in a globalized world of corporate, industrial, financial, media, and informational relations of interconnected, concentrated structures of power that determine what we eat, what we wear, what jobs are available, how we are socialized, what our sources of information and recreation are, and, in short, all aspects of our lives with little sense of independence, self-sufficiency, or meaningful swaraj. The Vietnam Center struggle, while centered at SIU in Carbondale, Illinois, necessarily involved the challenge of understanding and resisting larger relations that encompassed new state, national, and international structural relations of economic, political, military, and cultural power and domination.
This brings me to an assessment of some of the strengths and weaknesses of the Vietnam Center struggle. In order to understand why the Vietnam Center was established at SIU, its vision, and its methods and objectives, we had to analyze how the university had become increasingly corporatized and education increasingly commodified in radically anti-Gandhian ways. The Vietnam Center, as an illustration of the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex of Modern Civilization, had to be understood as large, well funded, highly bureaucratic, and intended to provide the means for ends defined by those with power outside the university. What this also meant was that the bureaucratic functioning of the Vietnam Center was usually predictable, and this could be transformed into a strength in organizing our resistance.
In this regard, we had to analyze our contrasting strengths and weaknesses. We lacked the forces of Modern Civilization defined by money, capital, technology, and those with power at our institution. What we had were all kinds of potential alternatives based on labor-intensive mobilization and resistance, grassroots relations, moral fervor, courage, and creativity. Without the top-down, status quo relations of power, we were far less predictable. In many ways, this was reminiscent of Gandhi’s approach in which the British and even his allies in the Indian National Congress, with their assumed modern bureaucratic ways of relating, were continually startled and frustrated by his creative unpredictability. Our evolving alternative vision and methods consisted of open-ended experiments with truth in which we attempted to integrate theory with practice. The focus was local but also had an “Oceanic” dimension with necessary state, national, and international mutual interacting relations.
Multileveled, creative, alternative methods included marches, demonstrations, sit-ins, the willingness to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience and to be arrested, expelled from the university, and fired from one’s academic position. They included extensive research, publications, media work, the distribution of informational literature, and the organization of remarkable conferences. They included working with the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars to organize an extremely effective boycott of SIU in which scholars were educated about the Vietnam Center, were encouraged not to accept tainted money or be complicit in any way with the Center, and were confronted and exposed if they identified with the Center. They included organizing a “Vietnamese Invasion of Carbondale” in which antiwar Vietnamese courageously came to SIU to oppose the Vietnam Center, and they included all kinds of alternative cultural programs of resistance consisting of art, poetry, music, and theatrical presentations.
In the short term, the struggle to expose and resist the Vietnam Center was incredibly successful. It was one of the most effective antiwar struggles at any university. SIU’s Vietnam Center never achieved its vision and any of its objectives as outlined in its initial contract, endless committee work and planning sessions, and its increasing preoccupation with how to counter our unexpectedly effective resistance. The Center, which was finally forced to move off campus, never organized its planned conferences, never received acceptability among scholars of Vietnam and Asia, never succeeded in implementing its plans as part of the U.S. war effort, and, with the U.S. defeat in Vietnam, never received the multi-million dollar contracts for postwar reconstruction. Of course, the major reason for the Center’s ineffectiveness was the resistance, courage, and sacrifice of the Vietnamese because the Center’s vision and methods presumed a U.S. victory in Vietnam. The strength of the growing U.S. antiwar movement was also a major influence. However, the resistance against the Vietnam Center would not have been so successful without the essential dedication, perseverance, and effectiveness of the local antiwar struggle.
At the same time, it must be acknowledged that the antiwar struggle against the Vietnam Center also revealed serious weaknesses, and this was most evident in the general lack of a long-term sustained antiwar and anti-imperialist commitment. There had not been a widespread, deeper, peace and justice analysis, transformation of consciousness, and commitment, and when the war in Vietnam formally ended in 1975, most scholars, students, and other antiwar activists went back to business as usual. It should be remembered that in terms of the vision and methods of Hind Swaraj, Gandhi himself faced limits in controlling even his so-called followers, and he experienced failures in satyagraha campaigns. Short-term successes were often followed by defeats, and Gandhi himself often attributed these to his miscalculations in not recognizing weaknesses in his followers, the determined and often violent and unethical responses of those opposing his vision and methods, and the difficulty and complexity of specific contextualized struggles. However, when compared with Gandhi, our antiwar anti-Center movement showed severe limits in overall training, preparation, and levels of consciousness. We had a dedicated core, but we were not in a position to require that most of the diverse antiwar forces agree to Gandhi-like vows or accept strict disciplined methods of Gandhian nonviolence.
In this regard, antiwar activists had many mixed motives. Most had a strong desire to act, to make a difference, to end the war, to resist the university’s complicity. Motivated by simple antiwar slogans and appeals to conscience, this by itself was not sufficiently transformative to bring about long-term change. In addition, many of the young people were motivated by an admirable imagination, a desire to imagine peace and embrace an alternative vision of what a university and a true education could be, but when the hard reality of modern power relations confronted them, and the war and the Vietnam Center withstood their often utopian vision and approach, they frequently withdrew and became passive and cynical.
In addition, weaknesses can be related to certain excesses of the 1960s and 1970s, that defined the lifestyles of students and other antiwar activists, continue to this day, and are at odds with Gandhi’s analysis of swaraj. Often as a reaction to previous, rigid, oppressive socialization, a view of liberation emerged as freedom from all restrictions and restraints, whether defined by authoritarian economic and political powers, institutions, and structures, social and religious prohibitions, academic rules, or traditional ethical norms. Self-determination often meant that “if it feels good, do it,” and freedom often meant “doing your own thing.” Excessive indulgence of all kinds became a virtue. What this meant was that such self-indulgent, unrestrained excesses by individuals, even with a sincere antiwar, anti-Vietnam Center commitment, provided obstacles in organizing a unified, disciplined, perseverant, responsible struggle. By way of contrast, Gandhi submits that true freedom, liberation, self-rule, and independence are possible only when we control our passions, limit our self-indulgences, and live lives of selfless service informed by an ethical commitment to dharma.
Finally, although our antiwar and anti-Vietnam Center movement was overwhelmingly nonviolent in its vision and methods, this was also limited and revealed weaknesses. As with most of Gandhi’s followers, but without his influential authority, many participants were willing to accept nonviolence on pragmatic grounds, but not as an absolute creed or philosophy. Some believed in the need for methods of violent resistance, and we had examples of violent language with personal verbal attacks, rock throwing, and violent retaliation against police and other violent oppositional forces. Some romanticized spontaneity and violent individuals and struggles in the name of some higher purpose. In short, we sometimes could not control the violent reactions of antiwar anti-Center individuals, or of occasional unknown provocateurs, and this weakness clearly limited the development of a disciplined, long-term, sustainable nonviolent movement.
However, I cannot overemphasize that we should not equate this violence with the violent vision and methods of the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex as illustrated by the Vietnam/Indochina War and SIU’s Vietnam Center. Some of this violence was physical and overt, not only in the death of 3 million Vietnamese, but also as manifested on our campus. At one point, in May 1970 before SIU was finally shut down and students sent home, there were 1,200 armed National Guard stationed at SIU, with tanks and other military vehicles on campus and armed guards stationed outside classrooms. In many confrontations, students and others were tear-gassed, beat up, arrested, and severely punished. Classrooms and meetings were infiltrated with spies, and agent provocateurs were used to incite violence and foment division in the antiwar anti-Center struggle. But most of the violence was indirect, structural, and pervasive. The Military-Industrial-Academic Complex, with the role of SIU’s Vietnam Center, was inherently violent. It revealed multidimensional violence with its methods and structural objectives of domination and control: restructuring Vietnam’s educational and legal system, restructuring Vietnam’s economic and agricultural system and technological relations, planning Vietnam’s police and security apparatus, and so forth. And these methods of restructuring and planning were meant to meet the needs of and be rewarded by the power elite, as evidenced in their status quo, dominant, violent vision and methods.
Compared to this dominant modern vision and approach, the antiwar struggle against the Vietnam Center was overwhelmingly nonviolent and effective. It revealed strengths, related to Hind Swaraj and relevant today, while also exposing limits and weaknesses.
The Response to the 9/11 Terrorism and the Post-9/11 Terrorism
On 11 September 2001, armed terrorists hijacked civilian airplanes and crashed two planes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City (symbolic of economic power), a third plane into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia (the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Defense, symbolic of military power), and a fourth plane was downed in the fields of rural Pennsylvania. Approximately, 3,000 people were killed. U.S. citizens were shocked, even traumatized. They had felt terrorism was something that happened in places like India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, the Middle East, Japan, and parts of Europe, but not in the U.S.A.
The immediate reaction in the U.S. was surprisingly constructive: courageous heroism, grief, compassion, selfless service, solidarity, and a sense of national unity transcending divisive differences. This was accompanied overwhelmingly by international concern, compassion, solidarity, and pro-American feelings.
Unfortunately, this reaction was quickly hijacked by those with power in Washington who saw 9/11 as an opportunity to impose their anti-Gandhi agenda. Appeals to understandable fear and insecurity became motivating factors. In Manichean ways, the world was divided into a rigid black and white dichotomy, the forces of evil (them) versus the forces of good (us). You are either with us or with the terrorists. In simplistic, ethnocentric, violent terms, we were repeatedly told that “9/11 has changed everything,” and we now live in a radically changed post-9/11 world. Such a reaction to 9/11 terrorism was now used to justify violence and war, the invasion of Afghanistan and the Iraq War, the suspension of legal and Constitutional rights, the use of torture and illegal surveillance, and other repressive measures. If you opposed the violence, wars, and other repressive actions of Cheney, Rumsfeld, and others in the Bush Administration, you were unpatriotic, hated the U.S., and supported or provided assistance to the terrorists. In Gandhi’s terms in Hind Swaraj, appeals to brute forces that exist within all of us as part of our lower nature overwhelmed appeals to love force or soul force that constitute our higher, truly human, ethical and spiritual nature.
In responding to 9/11 terrorism and U.S. so-called counter-terrorism, which was in reality another form of even greater terrorism, many of us learned from Gandhi’s analysis in Hind Swaraj. First, unlike Bush and his allies, Gandhi did not simply stereotype and dismiss the Extremists, including violent anarchists and others terrorists, as “the enemy” and as “evil.” Gandhi started with the assumption and conviction that all of us have the potential for good and that what unites us as human beings is more fundamental than what divides us. Gandhi was interested in trying to empathize with and understand why individual Indian expatriates—who were often intelligent, driven by moral considerations, capable of self-sacrifice and death, and patriotic in their desire for an India independent of foreign domination—would turn to violence and terrorism. He was interested in establishing a dialogue with them with the hope of showing them that their approach was pragmatically inadequate and self-defeating and morally and spiritually indefensible. He attempted to show them that they were replicating the violent features of Modern Civilization that had enslaved India. In this sense, as I submitted in talks and publications, George Bush and Osama bin Laden were much more alike, oppositionally defining and reinforcing each other’s violent vision and approach, than either was to Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi would have made both of them very uncomfortable.
Second, and more significantly, Gandhi provided us with a post-9/11 way of broadening and deepening our understanding of and response to violence and terrorism. The explicit acts of 9/11 certainly illustrated direct, explicit, violent terrorism. But with Gandhi’s vision, methods, and analysis, I was able to broaden and deepen my approach to include the many other dimensions of violent terrorism and the structural violent terrorism of the status quo. Indeed, even our theory and approach to war should not be restricted to killing, injuring, and other direct, explicit violence. The fact that there may be a surfacial calm, peace, and nonviolence does not mean that an unjust situation is not violent and that violent forces are not at war. There are many economic, political, psychological, cultural, religious, and educational forces that express complex, often indirect, multidimensional and structural violence, and these express devastating ways of waging war that kill and destroy the lives of many millions of human beings.
With this broader and deeper conception of violence and terrorism, we could address corporate and other forms of economic terrorism, military terrorism, psychological and cultural terrorism, state and political terrorism, religious and educational terrorism, and so forth. We could talk about “normal” poverty and other humanly caused and hence avoidable suffering as involving the structural violence and terror of the unjust status quo. In Gandhian ways, we argued that massive U.S. violence after 9/11 trapped us in endless, causal, escalating cycles of violence, terror, and insecurity. We could talk about the need for real security, which went beyond protection against the violent acts of 9/11 and other individual terrorism, and meant raising consciousness about and resisting growing economic inequality, concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few, lack of well-paid meaningful work, lack of adequate affordable health care and education, and lack of the means for real self-determination of one’s life. And we could talk about how inaction, passivity, and acceptance of the status quo meant that one was complicit with and responsible for the relational world of this deepened and broadened conception of violence and terrorism. In short, an active commitment to swaraj is essential for real security from violence and terrorism.
During the past eight years, this has led to an evolving, post-9/11, peace and justice vision with many nonviolent methods. Starting in early October of 2001, we organized a weekly vigil by the Federal Building in Bangor, Maine, and this has continued every week for eight years. Peace and justice activists hold signs with such messages as “Honk for Peace,” “End the War in Iraq,” “Support the Troops, Bring Them Home,” “No War in Afghanistan,” and “Health Care, Not Warfare.” Some participants hold quotations from Gandhi. At first, in the violent and intolerant post-9/11 atmosphere, responses by motorists and others were mixed. Now they are overwhelmingly positive and supportive.
Especially remarkable have been our ACTs (Active Community Teach-ins), starting with one several months after 9/11 on “Real Security.” Political candidates and others were invited to listen to the testimony of representatives of diverse groups focusing on war and peace, human rights, workers’ rights, sexism, domestic violence, racism, homelessness, poverty, problems of veterans, environmental crises, etc., as to what real security would mean to them. These different presentations addressed the different dimensions and structures of violence and terror that are obstacles to real security. Recently, as evidenced during the economic meltdown, scandals, and widespread, suffering, we’ve noticed that some politicians and others with power have begun to talk about a broader conception of real security, violence, and terror (as in the terror of foreclosures and being evicted from your house or the terror of not being able to afford desperately needed health care).
A particularly moving event, organized several times, involved a solemn gathering in which participants for hours alternately read the names of individual dead Iraqi civilians and individual dead U.S. soldiers to mark the death and suffering of the Iraq War. After each name was read, we rang a Tibetan bell and made a mark on a very long banner that was finally covered with the death marks. While this was taking place below, small delegations visited the offices of our Congresspersons above, asking them to work to end the violence and terror the U.S. government, military, private contractors, and oil and other corporate interests had inflicted on Iraq.
As part of our daily lives, many of us attended meetings, did research, arranged speakers and movies and discussions, wrote letters and editorials, did extensive media work with the mainstream media as well as with our alternative media, organized rallies and marches, and organized acts and campaigns of noncooperation. In extreme cases, the latter involved some of us in well-planned and publicized acts of nonviolent civil disobedience.
Reminiscent of Gandhi’s struggle for communal harmony in South Africa and in India, we had to counter the post-911 anti-Muslim stereotypes (Muslims as terrorists), racism, and religious intolerance and violence. Working whenever possible with nonviolent, ethical, humanistic Muslims, we had to emphasize the need for tolerance and mutual respect in combating violence and terror. It was imperative to show that anti-Muslim stereotyping and violence were not exclusively or primarily “a Muslim problem.” They were primarily a problem for the majority who were not Muslim and either perpetuated the hatred and violence or, far more often, were decent human beings who remained silent and were thus complicit with and part of the problem.
As with Gandhi, we had successes but also failures confronting the diverse forms of religious violence. First, and most seriously, there are Christian and other religious forces, as well as nonreligious forces, that ideologically, politically, and religiously promote anti-Muslim feelings, policies, and actions. To them, Islam and its followers really are “the enemy.” This may take the form of a violent “clash of civilizations” or a violent religious vision with violent methods in which Muslims are viewed as sinful, evil, dangerous deniers of the religious truth.
Second, a minority of Muslims does believe in violent jihad and engages in acts of terrorism. Every time Al Qaeda or some other violent Islamic group engages in terrorism or issues a violent proclamation, there are those who will exploit this in promoting anti-Muslim feelings and policies and who will use this to justify their position that in our post-9/11 world only an overwhelmingly violent response can protect us.
Third, there are far more devout Muslims who have ethical principles, are not violent, and do not support terrorism. However, they do not share Gandhi’s vision or methods regarding their own religion and their relations with other religions. They are religiously very conservative, often taking a fundamentalist approach, and they believe that they have the absolute, exclusive truth. They do not agree with Gandhi that all religions are at their foundation the same, that different organized religions represent different relative paths to the truth, that all scriptures are imperfect, and that religions can learn from each other. Of course, these Muslims should not be victimized by anti-Muslim reactions and policies, and they have the right to feel safe and practice their religion. However, they often resist any Gandhian appeal to become involved with others in combating religious violence on the basis of, tolerance, mutual respect, and shared open-ended experiments with truth.
With regard to Mahatma Gandhi and his vision and methods in Hind Swaraj, I often had to counter a common stereotype: that the nonviolent Gandhi, whether you admire him or despise him, is completely separate from contemporary concerns about terrorism. In combating terrorism, Gandhi’s philosophy and methods are completely irrelevant, at best, or complicit and part of the problem, at worst, since he opposes the necessary violent means for dealing with terrorists. This was the same view taken by many Indians after the 26/11 Mumbai terrorism.
In terms of our antiwar, peace, and justice work, some of us have been able to show that the nonviolent Gandhi, in confronting diverse forms of violence and terror, is often highly nuanced, complex, flexible, and insightfully relevant. In some cases, he even writes of “killing as ahimsa” and the necessity for violent force as part of a relevant, relative, contextualized nonviolence. But in dealing with terrorism, we must always uphold Gandhi’s vision and ideals of nonviolence, so that the adoption of violent means is always a last resort, is the least violent option possible, is never moral, and is always tragic, should never be glorified, and is an indication of human failure. We should then take preventative means to transform the conditions that gave rise to such violence.
In such an approach, justified by Gandhi’s complex analysis, I have submitted that Gandhi would have favored active physical forceful intervention, even killing if necessary, to stop the 9/11 or 26/11 terrorists as they were about to slaughter so many innocent civilians. Such a Gandhi, countering the stereotype that he would simply, naively, and ineffectively always give the terrorists flowers or tell them to kill him, regardless of the intentions and circumstances and results, makes for a more complex and relevant Gandhi when dealing with violence, terrorism, and other contemporary issues.
This counters the common view, at first surprisingly shared by many devotees of the Mahatma as well as the most virulent anti-Gandhi critics, that he offers us some rigid absolute vision, philosophy, and theory of the truth; that he offers some absolute blueprint of ethical and spiritual reality that we then supposed to mechanically or deterministically apply. It’s as if Gandhi gave us some Gandhian recipe which, when simply and accurately applied, automatically produces a perfectly nonviolent meal. For some dogmatic Gandhians, who view the larger-than-life Mahatma as a saint and often produce hagiographies, the true Gandhi vision and approach means rejecting most of the modern world with its violent Modern Civilization, and this, in my view, renders such a Gandhi marginal, ineffective, and largely irrelevant when struggling with post-9/11 terrorism and other contemporary crises. Severe critics, also embracing such a conceptions of a rigid, dogmatic, Gandhi vision and method, agree that such a Gandhian blueprint rejects most of the modern world and is thus irrelevant for dealing with contemporary violence and terrorism, but not because Gandhi is too good for the world.
In my work on 9/11 and post-9/11 terrorism and other contemporary issues, I have maintained that this is a false interpretation of Gandhi, his vision, and his approach. It ignores the fact that Gandhi was always engaged in dynamic open-ended experiments with truth, in which he repeatedly learned from his failed experiments and often modified his analysis and application. It ignores the dialectical relational nature of Gandhi’s vision and methods in which he had absolute ideals but maintained that we live in an imperfect world moving from one relative truth to greater relative truth with only temporary glimpses of the absolute. It ignores that Gandhi, on the one hand, had little patience with abstract and detached theory that was not put into practice in ways that transformed our selves and our relations to others and to nature and led to greater swaraj; and, on the other hand, also rejected approaches that dismissed theory or vision and detached and glorified spontaneity, action, and practice without the need for rational analysis, deeper understanding, and hence informed practice. In short, such common approaches to Gandhi and his vision and methods misinterpret or ignore how Gandhi, while upholding his philosophy of truth and nonviolence, struggled with understanding and applying his ideals and values to actual contextualized practice. Such a nuanced, complex, imperfect, dynamic, presently relevant and future oriented Gandhi is indeed insightful and indispensable when dealing with post-9/11 terrorism and violence.
The growing strength and successes of our nonviolent response to 9/11 terrorism and the post-911 reactions of greater violence and terror were considerable and continue to this day. With little funds and limited access to and control of powerful modern technology, we had a profound influence on shaping public opinion in resisting the fear, insecurity, violence, and terror of Washington’s political, military, and big corporate policies. As I’ve tried to emphasize at various gatherings, the antiwar forces, with their resistance and alternative vision and approach, may not be given much credit by those with power. However, Barack Obama would not have been elected President without the post-9/11 seven years of daily meetings, letter writing, vigils, demonstrations, marches, and other actions that created the evolved context of an unpopular President Bush, an unpopular war, unpopular economic and political policies, the feeling that we were less secure, and a strong desire for dramatic change, cooperation, and diplomatic and other nonviolent means to resolve conflicts. As Gandhi stated in Hind Swaraj, all significant change always comes from a dedicated, concerned minority challenging the status quo.
Of course, our nonviolent responses to 9/11 and ensuing violence and terrorism also revealed limited successes and clear failures. Although there is a widespread feeling about the oppressive nature of concentrated corporate, state, and military power and a lack of what Gandhi meant by true swaraj, we do not have some unifying vision or philosophy and we do not have agreement on methods, objectives, and means-ends relations. There is little sense of a unified, disciplined, dedicated, transformative, nonviolent movement. There is a core of dedicated nonviolent activists, but most who identify with peace and nonviolence do not make this a center of their lives.
It is easy for most of those who have responded nonviolently to the 9/11 terrorism and the post-9/11 terrorism to become discouraged, passive, and cynical. This happened when the predictable U.S. bombing and invasion of Iraq took place in March 2003. Most who had worked hard to prevent the war felt that they had failed. This happens every time a terrorist action or proclamation by Al Qaeda or some other group is exploited by those with power to justify and further their violent and terrorist policies. This happens when those with some political and economic power verbally oppose the violent and terrorist polices of the structural status quo and then make their compromises or are funded by and support the powerful economic, political, and military interests. This primarily happens when individuals, often feeling alienated and insecure, attempt to resist or just think about resisting the policies of multi-billion dollar interests and structures of power. The problems of violence and terror are so great that such individuals feel impotent, hopeless, and discount as impossible engaging in a post-9/11 nonviolent movement with effective nonviolent methods.
This condition of alienation, passivity, and cynicism is exacerbated and reinforced by the fact that those with power use that power to define what is possible in relating to terrorism and other forms of violence. This leads not only to an impoverishment of the imagination, of what is truly possible, but also to a top-down system of rewarding acquiescence and punishing resistance.
Finally, this condition among most post-9/11 students and other antiwar activists that contributed to limited successes and some failures can be related to the fact that most of participants had directly experienced, alienation, suffering, and impotence in confronting dominant power structures, but they had not experienced the power of nonviolent activism. In many ways, they had experienced the power of love force, soul force, compassion, and selfless service in their personal lives, but they had not been socialized to experience how the dedicated, disciplined, dynamic process of nonviolent, antiwar, peace and justice activism can overcome the brute forces of violence and terror, be empowering, and transform alienation into a meaningful life.
Gandhi, of course, had little patience with such self-defeating reactions that perpetuate the violence and terrorism. Violence and terrorism in all of their forms could not continue without our acceptance and complicity. Even one individual can make a huge difference. And when individuals work together cooperatively and lovingly and truthfully, motivated by a shared nonviolent vision and disciplined nonviolent methods, they can make an even greater difference in working for swaraj free from violence, fear, and terror. It is such an approach that has limited our sense of failure and helped us to strengthen our commitment to nonviolent resistance and transformation.