Gandhi vs. Osama: Who Wins?
If you're Peter Gelderloos, then the answer might be: Neither, because both of them are just as dangerous to real peace and justice in the world today. Gelderloos is the author of "How Nonviolence Protects the State". The main purpose behind this book is to try to shake off the supposed stranglehold that nonviolent theory has upon political activists in the United States and point out that nonviolent movements have never accomplished any significant social change in modern history. In a few short chapters, Gelderloos argues that nonviolence is 1) ineffective as a means of transforming society, 2) racist, 3) patriarchal and sexist, 4) tactically inferior to other methods of social change (read: direct action), and 5) statist (that is, instead of standing up the institutional injustices of the nation-state, nonviolence theory and its practitioners actually do everything to make sure that the state remains as an organization to inflict harm upon communities). You can read an exerpt from the book here.
What is most frustrating and seemingly contradictory about the thesis of this book is this: Gelderloos claims to want to open up the discussion of social change to include the possibility of a "diversity of tactics" and that peace activists today are so wedded to nonviolence that they immediatly rule out the use of sabotage, property destruction, and other forms of potentially violent ( to persons and property) action. But the argument quickly turns into how nonviolence is NOT an option in the world today and if you think thing are going to change using nonviolence, you are either 1) seriously deluded or 2) morally corrupt and part of the structures that need to swept aside. An passage from Gelderloos:
"Our options have been violently constrained to the following: actively supporting the violence of the system; tacitly supporting that violence by failing to challenge it; supporting some of the existing forceful attempts to destroy the system of violence; or pursuing new and original ways to fight and destroy that system. Privileged activists need to understand what the rest of the world's people have known all too long; we are in the midst of a war, and neutrality is not possible. There is nothing in this world currently deserving of the name peace. Rather, it is a question of whose violence frightens us most, and on whose side we will stand." (p. 134)
What is most frightening about this rhetoric is how closely is matches the language of world leaders used to justify war and violent retaliation (for instance, in the "war on terror"). The world is us against them, and the only morally relevant question is: whose side are you on?
For what its worth, most of the major theorists of nonviolent direct action, Gandhi, King, and Chavez for instance, rejected thinking of the world in these terms. Gandhi would have said the stark choices laid out by Gelderloos might be appropriate as part of the law of the jungle, but we are no longer in that kind of existence. We would not have survived as long as we are today if we had not learned different forms of cooperation and creative means by which to live with one another. The task for nonviolent activists, say these figures, is to push ourselves to learn more and more creative ways to resolve conflict peacefully.
Toward that end, I really appreciate Mark Juergensmeyer's article which attempts to point out how Gandhi might approach the problem of terrorism today. Juergensmeyer points out that Gandhi was certainly not passive and would not have allowed anyone to be taken advantage of (Gelderloos continually conflates the idea of pacifism and passivity), and might even have justified the use of some force to contain violent offenders like Osama bin Laden.
Hopefully the world is more complex than having to decide which forms of violence are more appropriate for the work of justice today.