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Nonviolence is a practical strategy

Two weeks and no retaliatory strike. An armada of U.S. battleships and bombers gathered ominously within striking distance of Afghanistan, though no one in Washington ventured to suggest a target. Meanwhile, led by Secretary of State Colin Powell, the Bush administration was making gains putting together a worldwide coalition to counteract terrorism.

It was a rare enlightening moment. The strength of the U.S. position rested in the fact it had not fired a single bullet. In not retaliating, the United States continued to be viewed as a victim capable of winning sympathy and support. Moderate Islamic nations, such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, precisely because no bombs had dropped, were finding it easier to ally with the United States as they attempted to balance that position with clamorous fundamentalists in their own countries.

Diplomacy, for the moment, had the upper hand.

The world was still reeling in the wake of the magnitude of terrorist acts and what they said about the potential for even more lethal terrorist plots. The unprecedented nature of the actions and the need to respond had ethicists scratching their heads and returning to their textbooks and scriptures. It was all unsettling. Even as President Bush declared “war” on the terrorists, an early consensus seemed to be emerging that history had reached a new and critical moment calling for new language and definitions and answers to complex questions.

In that swirl, where to look for answers? In times of confusion it is helpful to return to basics. Jesus taught nonviolence. The earliest Christians followed the way of nonviolence. Nonviolence teaches that violent acts have practical consequences: They cause harm to the person who engages in them. They add to the cycle of violence and they do not achieve their stated purpose. Nonviolence is not simply a goal, an end; it is a way of life. It has many gradations and expressions. In all of that complexity, however, it has consistent qualities of patience, of seeking truth. It is open; it listens; it attempts to learn.

But is it practical? How is it applied in a “war” against terrorism? Military strategy is not our field. At the same time, history can be instructive. It suggests that in both the Vietnam War and the Gulf War awesome might failed to gain the objectives sought.

On Jan. 16, 1991, two days before the outbreak of war in the Persian Gulf, John Paul II still hoped war could be avoided. With U.S. jet aircraft waiting the word, the pope sent urgent messages to President George Bush and Saddam Hussein. He told Bush war could be “devastating” and would “only give rise to further injustices.”

After the war, the pope pleaded: “Never again war! No, never again war.” He said the killing “leaves behind a trail of resentment and hatred, thus making it all the more difficult to find a just solution of the very problems that provoked the war.”

In his 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, the pope listed “among the signs of hope” in the world growing efforts toward “finding effective but nonviolent means to counter the armed aggressor.”

One might criticize aspects of this papacy, but certainly no one has ever accused John Paul II of being politically naive. So, then, is he merely voicing a wish or is there a realistic vision behind his insistent pleading?

The nation, indeed, the world faces a new moment calling for new applications of old ethical evaluations. The most prominent 20th century wars involved nations and battlefields even as distinctions between civilians and military forces became less and less plausible. How to stop the lethal acts of cells of terrorists, belonging to no single nation, but capable of mass murder around the globe is something altogether different.

In the meantime, the patience shown by the United States seems to have increased its stature in the matter, showing that power is more than a matter of military might. That might is formidable, but whether the country also acquires the authority to battle terrorists in the Middle East is quite another matter. For that would require consideration of the questions beyond the battlefield, some of the questions raised by experts and readers in these pages over recent weeks. It would require an international consensus built on more than might.

While sorting out such abstract notions we would urge strongly that nonviolence be kept before us as not only a metaphysical preference but also a practical strategy. It is worth trying because it is capable of setting a climate that allows injured parties to get to and root out the causes of violence. It works because the alternative -- violence -- leads only to more violence. This is the message that Washington needs to hear.

National Catholic Reporter, October 5, 2001