Nonviolence in the Real World


by John Tyler Connoley

April 13, 2004


A couple weeks ago, I reaffirmed my faith in creative nonviolence. I pointed to the attacks of 9/11 and 3/11 as evidence that the dove and hawk paths will likely lead to more terrorism. I called us to give up these two paths and embrace a third way of creative nonviolence, because I believe this is our best hope for the future. However, I didn't offer any concrete examples of what creative nonviolence would look like on a corporate level, or against an opponent who is ideologically motivated. I believe there are ways to make creative nonviolence work in these situations, but I think some explanation is in order.


First, I must reiterate what creative nonviolence is -- and is not. Creative nonviolence looks somewhat like pacifism, in that it renounces violence. In embracing this third way, I affirm the notion that there are nonviolent solutions to every problem. I don't always know what those solutions might be (that's where the creative part comes in), but I'm committed to finding them.


Creative nonviolence also looks somewhat different from pacifism, in that it doesn't avoid conflict. It's not always about "nicing" one's opponent into changing course. Sometimes creative nonviolence means confronting one's opponents and exposing their violence. The hope is to convince them that it's in their best interest to give up violence. Of course, one difficulty with this is that it requires a belief that everyone is redeemable.


Now to some real-world examples: In a 2001 Atlantic Monthly article, Bruce Hoffman told the story of what I believe to be the only known instance of a terrorist organization being completely disbanded. He recalled a conversation with a Palestinian Authority brigadier general, who told him how PLO leadership managed to rid itself of the terrorist group known as Black September. The PLO had originally organized and funded Black September. However, after the hostage taking and murders at the 1974 Olympics, the Palestinian leaders realized that Black September was a dangerous liability. They needed to disband the group.


The PLO authority knew who the members of Black September were, and one option was to kill them. But, this was seen as impractical. Though the PLO was not inherently nonviolent (to say the least), they needed a creative nonviolent solution to the Black September problem. They knew that the greatest danger of Black September was that its members were suicidal in their fervor. So, the leaders of the PLO figured that if they could give the terrorists something to live for, they could more easily disband the organization. The solution was to arrange a series of Black September social events with eligible young Palestinian women. The terrorists fell in love, got married, had children, and gave up their suicidal passions. Black September was effectively dissolved.


Fortunately, the members of Black September were not religious zealots who believed their martyrdom would result in a one-way ticket to paradise, and I doubt tea dances are the way to disband Al Qaeda. However, this story illustrates the possibility of reaching our goals nonviolently by putting our minds to creative solutions.


Still there's the question of what to do with ideologues, particularly when their ideologies are shared by a large percentage of the population. This is the situation that faced Martin Luther King Jr. in the mid-twentieth century. Racism was not just a way of life in Alabama -- it was a religion. Dr. King knew that many southern racists were willing to go to any lengths to continue their way of life, but he also believed that everyone is redeemable. He knew that most white southerners were good people who could be persuaded of the horrors of racism, if they were given a chance. The bus boycotts, marches, and lunch counter sit-ins were designed to highlight the violence of the racist culture. Dr. King knew that his actions would be met with fire hoses and police dogs, and he knew that if his people were willing to publicly suffer, they could turn the hearts of the decent majority.


Dr. King didn't succeed in changing the minds of every member of the Ku Klux Klan (though he did redeem some). Racist terrorism still exists in the United States, but those who support equality have overwhelmed it. In 1962, who could have guessed that in 2002 Trent Lott would feel obliged to publicly apologize for supporting Strom Thurmond's presidential bid?


I believe the same type of creative thinking could one day make Islamist terrorism as outmoded as American racism, but it will require nonviolent creativity to get the decent majority on our side. Imagine how different the United States would be today if Dr. King had not won the debate with his more violent brothers and sisters, and a race war had erupted. I'm sure we would still be at war today, and the Ku Klux Klan would be a terrorist organization par excellence.


Our history with violence and pacifism is enough to convince me that there must be a better alternative. And, though we can't take the creative solutions of the past and transport them directly into the future, I do hope that we can use these stories as a stepping-stone for finding creative nonviolent solutions to our present problems. These stories teach us that creative nonviolence can work against terrorism and ideology -- we just have to figure out how.


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Copyright 2004 by John Tyler Connoley

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