Choosing the Neither Path


by John Tyler Connoley

March 30, 2004


One of the questions I often get asked is how I can still be against war, considering September 11 (and now March 11). Islamist terrorists are out to destroy the western world, so the argument goes, and we must fight back. If we don't, we're in for a worse attack sooner or later. The alternative to war, it seems, is to stick our heads in the sand and pray the terrorists go away -- or, worse yet, to give in to some of their demands in the hopes of appeasing them.


But I find both the dove and hawk approaches equally inadequate.


If we follow our instinct to flee or fight, we'll feel safer in the short run, but the result will certainly be more bloodshed, death, and violence. And, eventually, we'll still experience that terrible nuclear or biological attack that everyone fears. For me, the only tenable solution to violence is not war or pacifism, but creative nonviolence. This is a policy I chose at an early age, and it's still the only one I believe really works.


In the eighth grade, there was a boy named Mike who decided he was my enemy. The entire first semester of that year he pestered me with spitballs, knocked me down in Gym class, and lobbed dirty names in my direction, while I silently submitted to everything he could muster. At the time I still believed that war and appeasement were the only alternatives. Even though he was smaller than me, I knew if I fought him, it would lead to black eyes and skinned knees, and probably detention and expulsion. So, I remained passive, thinking he'd eventually stop. He didn't. Up to the last day of school, Mike continued to torture me, and I continued to ignore him. Thankfully, my family moved that summer.


We moved again the next year, and in tenth grade I came across another Mike -- this time named Raul. Again, I had an enemy who chose me. I didn't choose him. It started in Gym class, where he knocked me into a locker. The next day, he tripped me flat on my face, and as I picked myself up, I thought, "Here we go again." I knew my family wasn't moving this time, and even if we were I didn't want to put up with Raul's terror tactics for the entire year. I knew violence wouldn't work, and after Mike I knew that pacifism wouldn't either. I needed some other path.


Instead of ignoring Raul or fighting him, I decided to shower him with kindness. I went out of my way to pass him in the hall between classes. And every time I did, I'd smile and say, "Hey, Raul! How's it goin'." In Gym, I didn't move to another locker. Instead, I walked into the class confidently, and smiled. "Hey Raul, did you have a good weekend?" In trying to be nice to him, I unnerved him. He didn't know what to do with an enemy who would neither cower nor fight, and eventually he moved to a different locker and stopped catching my eye in the hallway. Accidentally, I'd discovered what has always been the best tool for dealing with bullies: creative nonviolence.


Of course, the main difficulty with creative nonviolence is that it is creative and not instinctive. Our animal instincts call for flight or fight, while nonviolence calls us to embrace our human creativity and look for alternative solutions. It's much easier to let our fear or rage take over, and in the short term this makes us feel better, but we've all seen the results of these choices in the 9/11 and 3/11 attacks. In the face of these events, my faith in creative nonviolence is not shaken. It's emboldened.


Those who advocate war are right when they argue that the attacks on September 11, 2001 were the end result of a policy of ignoring terrorism in the hopes that it would go away. Too many years of discounting terrorist threats emboldened the 19 men who carried out those attacks. And like ostriches with our heads in the sand, we Americans were caught by surprise when the lion pounced on us anyway.


Likewise, the pacifists are correct to point to an escalation in terrorist sympathy in the Arab world since the invasion of Iraq. The terrorists who carried out the March 11, 2004 attacks had only a tenuous link to Al Qaeda, and demonstrate that even if we could rid the world of Osama Bin Laden, there are hundreds of new terrorists who would gladly take his place. A recent Oxford Research International poll found that Iraqis are evenly divided on the question of whether Iraq was liberated or humiliated by the invasion of coalition forces. Like the Reconstruction South that birthed the Ku Klux Klan, an Iraq that is still in the process of rebuilding, and where half the population feels humiliated, is a perfect breeding ground for new terrorist organizations.


With a global terrorist threat upon us, I wish I could side with the hawks or the doves and follow one of the well-worn paths into a brighter future. But I can't. Looking around the corner, I see both paths leading to more terror. The only real solution to violence is the difficult road of creative nonviolence. It means bushwhacking a new trail, but the alternative is to walk over a cliff to our own destruction.


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Copyright 2004 by John Tyler Connoley

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