Terrorism and the Practical Idealist

When I encountered Quakerism for the first time as a young man, I was struck by the sheer boldness of early Friends in following the Light. I tried to imagine, for example, an argument between a Quaker who had decided to take his family to farm in the new colony of Pennsylvania and his non-Friend neighbor:

But surely you’re not going to that wild place without a gun? The savages will kill you! Even if you’re willing to risk that possibility for yourself, will you let your scruples get your family slaughtered?

With historical hindsight, we now know that the nonviolent Quakers were the safest people on the frontier. It turned out they were very practical idealists. At the time, however, they must have been amazingly brave—or faithful to their calling.

As a Quaker attender I was also introduced to Gandhi, another practical idealist, who was determined to put "the ploughshare of normative principle into the hard soil of political reality," as Martin Buber put it. These days we might say Gandhi thought outside the box. He said about himself that he was "a politician trying to be a saint."

Gandhi confronted nonviolently the largest empire the world had ever known, not to mention countless evils in his own backyard. Even during World War II he launched a nationwide offensive against British rule (the 1942 "Quit India" campaign) and sent associates to the part of India where the Japanese would most likely invade, to begin to organize villagers for nonviolent resistance to threatened Japanese invasion.

No one could say Gandhi was an idealist removed from the power struggles of his time. As an activist, I’ve read Gandhi over and over to inspire me to out-of-the-box thinking. These days I ask, what might he, the father of his nation, have advised U.S. power holders who carry responsibility for our nation in the wake of September 11?

He surely would have advised national leaders to assist us to grieve deeply and to set aside time for praying and searching. Gandhi’s style was "from the inside out"; he expected wisdom to emerge from the inner surrender to Truth, and he found that this spiritual work could be a collective process as well as individual.

I imagine he would have urged putting the response to al-Qaida in the framework of law enforcement rather than war. It is obvious that normal conditions for law enforcement don’t exist for this case, and he might see that as both a challenge and an opportunity. Gandhi’s genius as a visionary leader was to make his immediate actions point toward the emergence of something-not-yet-realized. He was one of the most effective nation-builders the world has seen, in a subcontinent rife with bewildering diversities and hostilities, because he believed in the consistency of ends and means.

Not unlike William Penn in this way, Gandhi’s brilliance lay in a two-fold strategy: first, to be able to perceive the possibility of a new emergent order in the midst of chaos; and second, to refuse to undermine that possibility by means that make the emergence impossible.

This strategy is what most marks the difference between political innovators and the leaders who run their people off cliffs by operating within conventional wisdom. Gandhi knew that without a vision the people perish. And he insisted on the means/ends linkage; he saw means or methods of action as ingredients that largely determine the future. He had no faith that figs will grow from thistles.

Gandhi, like another amazing nation-builder, Nelson Mandela, liked to operate politically from the moral high ground. He would surely have pointed out to U.S. power holders that a window appeared in September in which the U.S. held the moral high ground—an unusual circumstance as those of us who get out and about in the world will know. That’s precisely the moment for visionary initiative, for rallying the anti-terror energy and creating structures of accountability that enable law enforcement to proceed.

Begin, as Gandhi and Jesus preferred, with ourselves: join the treaty for the international criminal court, join the land mines agreement (land mines may be the most murderous of terrorist instruments, and the U.S. wants to keep making and using them), join the Kyoto agreement on pollution, forgive Third World debts, fundamentally revise our approach to the Middle East, and on and on. Gandhi liked to bring humor to the table, so he would probably have a twinkle in his eye as he’d point out to U.S. power holders that we can’t be both one of the world’s greatest impediments to community and also expect global community to be there when it’s convenient for us.

Even as we would be getting our own house in order, becoming an accountable state among states, new kinds of collaboration would become possible for bringing criminals to justice, including al-Qaida.

In addition to seizing the opportunity for immediate initiatives toward global structures of accountability, Gandhi would surely advise a response to Afghanistan along these lines: "Those of us with family members and friends killed on September 11 know the harsh pain of loss. We wouldn’t want others to have to go through the suffering of the needless loss of their loved ones. Yet we are newly aware that famine and decades of war confront millions of Afghans with the possibility of starving this winter. We realize that previous U.S. governments played a role in causing this crisis, both by what we have done and also by what we have left undone. Let’s forge a new relationship that’s not about the Cold War, not about oil, but about the interdependence that provides the only path to security for all our peoples. We begin today to work with the UN and international nongovernmental organizations to be sure you can eat this winter. We propose the creation of a peace zone throughout Afghanistan, where the focus is on food, shelter, healthcare, and infrastructure. We want to make sure those who died on September 11 did not die in vain: it is time the world learns that ‘the security of each lies in the security of all.’"

The terrorist’s strategy

When terror is used as an instrument of mobilization, which is how movements against colonialism often used it, the basic dynamic is obvious: I kill, you retaliate disproportionately and move to protect your privileged friends, the people who lean toward my cause but haven’t been active are propelled into motion, my movement grows.

In Vietnam the National Liberation Front used terror for this goal: as an instrument for mobilization. A favorite tactic, for example, was to kill the village chief; the government’s army then comes and wipes out the village in retaliation, and people in adjoining villages, having seen the government’s disproportionate violence, then join the National Liberation Front. For years the power holders in France, and later in the U.S., made the same, predictable response to terror: violent retaliation, until each in turn was thrown out of Vietnam.

Osama bin Laden clearly wanted to mobilize a vast movement, and like so many before him, he knew that terror can help to do this. Again, the success of terror depends on the reaction of the opponent, a condition the U.S. power holders are dutifully satisfying. As in Vietnam for the National Liberation Front, the violent behavior of the U.S. could turn out to have been a giant recruiter for al-Qaida.

Given the self-defeating character of massive violent retaliation, creating a nonviolent alternative does not seem to me as big a risk as even those early Quakers took coming to Pennsylvania.

Strategy for Quakers

I notice that some of today’s advocates of violent retaliation take a tough-minded tone: "The U.S. must be strong and do whatever it takes."

My challenge would be: How tough are you? Are you really willing to do whatever it takes? What about getting out of the box, giving up the dominator role, addressing poverty, and supporting the growth of world community rather than empire?

As someone who loves my country, I am not delighted to call attention to its character as an empire. The great British historian Arnold Toynbee, however, was even 40 years ago gently suggesting that many in the U.S. acknowledge its imperial character. U.S. power holders have military bases circling the globe, from which violence is repeatedly threatened and used, when nations or groups do something that doesn’t fit our game plan.

Business practices backed by the military are used to increase U.S. wealth at the expense of already-poor countries. The way the U.S. uses power to dominate is not actually related to the American people’s value of democracy, since the U.S. power holders frequently support dictatorships (as in Saudi Arabia and apartheid South Africa) while overthrowing democratic governments (as in Guatemala or Chile). In my most objective moments, I’m forced to concede that these are the behaviors of an empire.

To those, therefore, who urge Quakers to support military action because we need to use "any means necessary," I would challenge them to extend their own argument and ask whether—if they found that imperial behavior by the U.S. invites terror—they would be willing to give up that behavior, or urge the power holders to do so.

"Everything has changed," I hear, and maybe the power holders can make a creative leap and give up empire. Human security is a basic need; perhaps it could prevail over power and greed.

Then again, maybe those who run our nation will continue to rely on violence and the protection of privilege. The airline bailout passed by both parties in Congress was chilling: at a moment of national crisis when flags were being waved in support of "togetherness," the Congress protected those with million-dollar salaries while doing nothing for the 100,000 employees laid off.

If the power holders continue to cling to empire, I propose that a representative group of U.S. Friends gather to consider how to ground ourselves as Quakers who are willing to let go of empire while remaining U.S. citizens. It is first of all a spiritual challenge, with many ramifications for our lives as citizens. We might call it "the Woolman Project" after a Friend who pointed the way.

The Religious Society of Friends was born before anyone thought of the U.S. empire, and I expect we’ll survive the empire’s demise. How to accomplish that? We’ll need each other.

George Lakey

George Lakey is a member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting, under whose care he is performing a ministry of nonviolence. He is director of Training for Change (http://www.trainingforchange.org) and is coauthor of Grassroots and Nonprofit Leadership: A Guide for Organizations in Changing Times. © 2002 George Lakey