On a crisp autumn morning nearly two months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, less than two dozen students, faculty and community members calling themselves the ‘Peace and Justice Coalition’ gathered on the campus of Illinois State University (ISU) in Normal, Illinois. They were about to do what pacifists around the world have done for centuries: publicly announce their moral opposition to war and express their desire that people work for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
Set to commence a 48-hour ‘peace fast’ in opposition to the ongoing war in Afghanistan, the demonstrators shouted slogans in favour of peace and non-violence vaguely reminiscent of those indelible chants that had once rallied much larger crowds during the Vietnam conflict.
The general mood in the country, however, was not exactly pacifistic. In the weeks and months following the al-Qaeda strikes, politicians, media pundits and even some left-leaning intellectuals openly expressed their contempt for pacifists, sometimes going so far as to accuse them of giving aid and comfort to the enemy. In the pages of the Washington Post, for example, syndicated columnist Michael Kelly characterised the position of ‘American pacifists’ as ‘objectively pro-terrorist’ — a terse phrase he appropriated from George Orwell’s famous assessment of World War II pacifists as being ‘objectively pro-Nazi’.
While simplistic in its argumentation, Kelly’s anti-pacifist diatribe had nonetheless the virtue of refusing to beat around the bush. A war had been declared, he reminded his readers, which meant that one was either for doing what was necessary to capture and kill those who control and fund and harbour terrorists, or one was not for doing this. If one was against it, one allowed the terrorists to continue their attacks on America. ‘That is the pacifists’ position’, Kelly concluded curtly, ‘and it is evil’.
Many political leaders in the US, too, seemed to enjoy giving pacifists a healthy verbal thrashing. Asked for his opinion on the escalating protests against the looming war in Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld quipped that those ‘unpatriotic ghouls’ on America’s streets should consider themselves lucky to live in an open and tolerant society. Playing on deeply ingrained stereotypes, President George W. Bush assured the American people that he had no intention of listening to the peaceniks and appeasing ‘history’s latest gang of fanatics trying to murder their way to power’. Vowing to ‘act decisively’ in the face of injustice and evil, Bush insisted that America could not afford to stand by and ‘do nothing while dangers gather’.
As daisy-cutter bombs slammed into Osama bin Laden’s cave complex at Tora Bora and a series of anthrax-laced letters disrupted business-as-usual in New Jersey post offices and on Capitol Hill, pacifism indeed appeared to most Americans an even more outlandish and unpatriotic doctrine than during less turbulent times. What was the use of pacifism, they wondered, in our age of global terror? Surely, if there ever was a moment in history when it had become necessary to resort to arms for legitimate reasons of national self-defense and the just punishment of the wicked, this was it.
Yet, the motley crew of campus pacifists in Normal refused to be swayed by the passionate pro-war sentiments gripping the conservative heartland. For two long days and nights, these activists — many of them inexperienced — engaged a few sympathetic passers-by, throngs of pro-war students and occasional hecklers in heated debates about the morality of war and the role of violence in society.
In the middle of the second night, a small contingent of Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) students dressed in their combat fatigues and equipped with bullhorns made a raucous appearance. Hoping to scare their peers into abandoning their post, these self-appointed patriots threw dirt on the tents and brandished gas masks. ‘Fucking cowards’, they screamed, ‘Osama appreciates your support! Get out of here or we’ll teach you a lesson in patriotism you’ll never forget!’
A few angry campers returned the invective, calling the reservists ‘stupid war mongers’ and ‘child murderers’. Others took a less confrontational stance by trying to involve at least some of their opponents in brief discussions about the moral legitimacy of the war.
The next morning, campus police stopped by the peace camp to inform the freezing, hungry and sleep-deprived tent-dwellers that their ‘shameful display’ had drawn the wrath of many townspeople. One prominent radio shock jock called pacifism an ‘un-Christian doctrine’ practiced by ‘communist yellows’ and other ‘misguided puppets of Islamic terrorists’. He encouraged ISU students — on the air — to ‘piss in a bucket and throw it on the peace camp’. Grinning in apparent approval at the end of their juicy report, the cops vanished, leaving the pacifists to their uncertain fate.
Why Do We Reject Pacifism?
The events in Normal bear out an old truth: public hostility toward pacifism intensifies in a time of war. Suddenly, even mild expressions of pacifist dissent like setting up a peace camp on a college campus draw the ire of an edgy citizenry.
Granted, it would be a gross exaggeration to suggest that there is no longer any room for pacifist dissent in post-9/11 America. By the same token, though, it would be far too sanguine to write off public hostility toward pacifist dissent as sporadic and spontaneous discharges of nervous energy that will fizzle out as soon as the terrorist threat subsides.
The rejection of pacifism can be traced to three key factors: ‘common sense’ attitudes, a culture of violence and the actions of irresponsible pacifists.
Today’s common sense on the subject of pacifism resembles the same potent mixture of unthinking prejudice and political interest that buttressed the institution of slavery during the first eight decades of the United States or excluded women from political life well into the twentieth century. Laden with negative stereotypes, pervaded by derisive caricatures and filled with pejorative meanings, conventional wisdom has it that pacifism and its proponents are naïve, misguided, unrealistic, moralistic, passive, appeasing, impotent, irrelevant, unpatriotic, cowardly, effeminate, dangerous, radical and treacherous.
Interestingly enough, though, these less-than-flattering adjectives were first hurled at the adherents of the small Christian sect at the height of the Roman Empire. In other words, our current negative views on pacifism originated in the anti-Christian diatribes of Roman pagans. Even highly respected thinkers like the second-century Greco-Roman philosopher Celsus wrote vicious treatises that ridiculed Christians’ moral renunciation of war and branded them as treacherous enemies of the state for their reluctance to serve in the Roman army. Despite periodic persecutions that often ended in the martyrdom of thousands, many Christian believers held fast to the pacifist example of their founder.
It was only after Emperor Constantine’s active patronage of Christianity in the early part of the fourth century that ecclesiastical authorities — eagerly seizing the golden opportunity to make their religion hegemonic in the Empire — began to incorporate the Roman rejection of pacifism into official Church doctrine. St Ambrose, St Augustine and other early Church fathers succeeded in forging a novel theological approach to the problem of war and violence that offered the faithful a stark choice between an ascetic withdrawal to vocational forms of pacifism or fighting limited ‘just wars’ in defense of Christian states.
As a result of these new Church teachings, pacifism as a moral doctrine applying to lay people entered a long period of dormancy. It was not until the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance that some Christian sects resurrected ancient pacifist ideals. Tightly knit communities like the Waldenses, the Unity of Czech Brethren, the Mennonites and the Quakers attacked the official Roman-Catholic perspective on war and violence as a sinful betrayal of Jesus Christ’s message of non-resistance and unconditional love. As Conrad Grebel, a leading Swiss Anabaptist, put it in 1525: ‘True Christians use neither the worldly sword nor war, for among them killing has been totally abolished’.
However, the long-term impact of these small Christian churches on their broader social environment was negligible. In the New World, imported forms of pacifism were quickly linked to the grand failure of the Quaker’s ‘holy experiment’ of setting up a peaceful commonwealth in Pennsylvania. A century later, pacifist attitudes in America were further devalued as they became associated with unpopular and ‘radical’ causes like abolitionism, women’s rights, temperance and social reform.
But it was not until the twentieth century that the influential cliché of pacifists as cowardly draft-dodgers, unpatriotic troublemakers and naive appeasers of tyrants became indelibly impressed upon the public mind. As modern nation-states mobilised large citizen armies to fight each other in fully mechanised wars of global reach, governments could hardly afford to sympathise with those who refused compulsory military service.
The word ‘pacifism’ — coined in Europe in the first years of the new century as a relatively neutral term to describe those who worked for international peace — quickly turned into a derogatory label for those who would not sanction even a supposedly ‘just war’ like World War I. Pacifists were smeared as ‘subversives’ and ‘yellowbacks’ who lacked the proper patriotic sentiments and weakened the nation’s resolve to defeat the enemy. War resisters were often treated as traitors and deserters.
During World War I, at least seventeen conscientious objectors died in American jails as a direct consequence of torture and poor prison conditions. Dozens more committed suicide. After the outbreak of World War II, American war resisters who refused alternative service suffered once again the deprivations of prison life, including solitary confinement, poor diet and physical abuse.
Today — long after the abolition of the draft at the end of the Vietnam conflict — these pejorative labels attached to pacifism still prevent many people from seriously considering alternatives to war. To make things worse, most people know embarrassingly little about the remarkable success of nonviolence movements in the twentieth century. Many people readily associate pacifism with British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s ‘appeasement’ of Hitler at the 1938 Munich Conference, but how many of us know that pacifist direct action in Berlin at the height of Nazi power led to the release of hundreds of detained Jews bound for Auschwitz? And who remembers the few dozen middle-aged women in Buenos Aires, Argentina, who brought down one of the most vicious South American military dictatorships of the 1970s by peaceful means?
We even seem to have forgotten the amazing lesson of successful ‘bloodless revolutions’ in Eastern Europe and the Philippines in the late 1980s. The failure of our educational system to teach our youngsters these remarkable examples of pacifism’s political potency not only explains the persistence of the negative stereotype but also reveals the degree to which education has been impacted by the normalisation of violence.
Warism and the Culture of Violence
Anti-pacifist clichés draw much of their strength from a deep social acceptance of war and violence as legitimate means of conflict resolution. Some peace researchers have used the term ‘warism’ to refer to the dominant outlook on war as a generally acceptable social practice subject to some moral regulation.
Pushing warism to its extreme, militarists embrace war as an ethical force and celebrate martial qualities as positive social goods necessary for the fulfillment of the community’s highest aspirations. Drawing on potent religious symbols or ideological slogans to generate moral enthusiasm in people, militarists conjure up apocalyptic battles in which the forces of light engage the legions of darkness to vindicate their superior worldview.
This grim task requires from all community members a total commitment to the military campaign. Criticism of the leadership must cease; military commanders must be given broad powers to pursue the war in most effective ways; and internal enemies must be sought out and incapacitated.
In American society, more moderate warist attitudes have always co-existed with militaristic impulses. Postulating the inevitability of armed conflict, representatives of both extreme and moderate warist perspectives frequently support the idea that violence is sewn into the very fabric of human nature. Naturalised as biological fact, human aggression is presented in scientific language as an ‘innate instinct’.
Over time, such views rigidify into cultural dispositions that circulate in public discourse as ‘universal truths’. As a result, we take armed conflict for granted to the point where periodic confrontations between ‘us’ and ‘them’ become part of our sense of normalcy. No other way of resolving large-scale human conflict appears to be a realistic option because the military option represents the only socially recognised mode of responding to acts of aggression like the 9/11 attacks. War and violence are raised to the level of the ‘real’ while love is demoted to what America’s most influential theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once called ‘the impossible possibility’.
Narrow pragmatic considerations are at the core of such scathing judgments — especially in an age of global terror. After all, what we want most desperately is to return to our old pre-9/11 routines and breathe the familiar air of existential security: family afternoons in the park unencumbered by terrorist threats, a vacation minus the airline security hassles or emptying our mailbox without thinking of anthrax. No doubt, the enormity of the terror right here at home has pierced the armor of our existential forgetfulness in more profound ways than we realise.
As we watched — first in real-time and then in endless reruns — the destruction of the great symbols of American wealth and power, the demise of everything dear suddenly appeared to us as a real possibility. Confronted with the closeness of suffering and death, we recoiled in horror at the thought of seeing our loved ones perish, of losing it all. Like frightened children who whistle in the dark to keep the evil ghosts away, we tried to shake off the horror by engaging in rational debates on how best to eliminate the terrorist threat. For a brief moment, some of us may have even felt a sudden yearning for meanings larger than those pragmatic concerns that drive our consumerist society. As our spiritual sentiments faded, our existential fear pulled us in the opposite direction. It felt good to possess the military strength and the moral clarity to put the rest of the world on notice that they were either with us or with the terrorists.
There is no way, we thought, for pacifists to come up with a sensible response to such extraordinary acts of injustice as the random killing of thousands of unsuspecting civilians. Like it or not, Bush was right: the West must stand firm and act in unison. We must respond to the terror with overwhelming, lethal force. Let’s not be soft on bin Laden and his henchmen. Pulverise al-Qaeda. Period. Pacifism? Ridiculous! Naïve! Debilitating! Impotent! Complicit in injustice! Unpatriotic!
But how, exactly, did we know that these uncomplimentary adjectives expressed the truth about pacifism? Well, we didn’t know, really. But that was beside the point. After all, everybody sort of knows that pacifism is ineffective and dangerous. It’s common sense, after all.
Attuned to our fervent desire to make terrorism go away and be safe again, the media, the state and many members of the clergy told us that war was the only way to security. Our craving for normalcy at any cost made it easy for them to seduce us into believing that the War on Terror would surely lead to peace, that our violence was lawful and theirs illegitimate, and that power and love were not mutually exclusive. To sustain a perpetual global war effort against an intangible enemy, the US and its allies must reject pacifist ideas and instead nurture the belief that killing is necessary and just. As New York Times foreign correspondent Chris Hedges has documented so powerfully, war gives citizens purpose, resolve and meaning.
Indeed, recent polls tell us that the War on Terror engendered in many Americans a warm sense of connection to the war machine. The percentage of US citizens who expressed a ‘great deal’ of confidence in the military rose from 58 per cent in 1975 to 79 per cent in 2002.
After a brief period of fatigue at the end of the Vietnam conflict, war has once again become ‘cool’ in America, particularly with young people. ‘Patriotism is big now,’ confirmed Bryan Auchterlonie, the twenty-four-year-old executive director of the Collegiate Student Network, in a recent newspaper report. Interviews conducted with college undergraduates revealed that more than two-thirds of them supported the 2003 Iraq War. When asked to ‘write down the first word that pops into your head connected to the military’, most students in a Maryland High School wrote ‘strong’, ‘brave’, ‘proud to be an American’, ‘heroes’, ‘really hard workouts’, ‘service’ and ‘Bush’.
The third reason why many Americans reject pacifism so adamantly can be found in the unbalanced and dogmatic attitudes of some anti-war groups who often respond in kind to the relentless stereotyping of their opponents. In some cases, all supporters of the War on Terror are indiscriminately painted as bloodthirsty warmongers and murderers of innocent civilians.
Designed to punch holes in the dominant ideology of warism and militarism, these caricatures tend to produce the opposite of what they were intended to achieve. Instead of inspiring ordinary people to ponder the moral legitimacy of war, such stereotypes alienate them from all forms of pacifism. To make things worse, the mainstream media have been doing their best to portray such self-defeating views as the essence of the entire peace movement. No wonder, then, that most believe that pacifist views, in general, are immature, insensitive and uninformed.
And there is some truth to this accusation. Take, for example, the Student Peace Action Coalition Network. Confining their criticism of war and violence almost entirely to American foreign policy, this politically liberal organisation insinuated on its website that ‘homicidal psychopaths of the United States Government’ actually engineered the terrorist attacks as a pretext for ‘imperialist aggression’.
Other groups showed similar lack of judgment as well as disrespect for the 9/11 victims and their families when, within a few days of the terrorist attacks, they organised peace demonstrations that dwelled on the evils of the American government and downplayed the abominable atrocities of the terrorists. Their blanket condemnations of the evils of the United States hardly persuaded the pro-war majority to give pacifism a closer look.
Still others, like Global Exchange, a well-respected, California-based human rights organisation, issued level-headed moral statements denouncing terror and violence in general, but failed to articulate a new pacifist vision for an age of global terror. Aside from their general criticisms of the Bush administration’s decision to attack Afghanistan and Iraq, anti-war groups like Global Exchange have been unable to spawn a sustained public debate on what, if any, valuable insights pacifists might bring to the table.
Indeed, the peace establishment’s failure to generate fresh ideas and insert them into the public debate complements the poor image of pacifists as either unpatriotic malcontents or debilitating moralists. Examining the public discourse on war and peace in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, University of Illinois theology professor James Burke found what he called a ‘remarkable speechlessness’ on the part of traditional pacifist organisations like the American Friends Service Committee, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and the Mennonite Central Committee. Their silence was made even more untenable by the enormity of the 9/11 atrocities.
As Burke put it, most of these groups ‘engaged in public discourse primarily by letting their actions speak louder than their words’. Obviously, this is not to downplay the crucial importance of organising large-scale nonviolent demonstrations, drawing up anti-war petitions, dispatching all-volunteer peacemaker teams to the Middle East, providing training in mediation and conflict resolution, and building coalitions among like-minded secular and religious groups. While immensely valuable on the pragmatic level, these initiatives failed to provide the American public with a clear idea of pacifism’s contribution in the fight against global terrorism.
Likewise, brief, pacifist-sponsored TV and radio spots that expressed sadness for the loss of innocent lives and then reiterated moralistic jingles like ‘violence breeds more violence and solves nothing’ never managed to shift the terms of the public debate on global terror. Struggling to find a new message, the growing international peace movement lost much of its momentum once the bombs started raining down on Iraq.
Responding to Global Terror: The Case for Responsible Pacifism
Meeting the novel challenge of global terrorism requires us to reconsider our long-standing views as we reach for new solutions, including the reflexive dismissal of pacifism. To establish the salience of pacifist ideas in our post-9/11 world, pacifism must break down the walls of dogmatism and silence and instead show philosophical balance, ideological flexibility, moral nuance, political feasibility and historical relevance. Weaving together relevant insights drawn from history, philosophy, religion and current affairs, a responsible pacifism reaches out to moderate warists to find common intellectual ground in the attempt to counter the threat of militarism posed by both Islamist terrorists and the proponents of American Empire.
The traditional mode of responding to acts of aggression with high doses of conventional military force may cure the disease but kill the patient. Convinced of waging a ‘just war’ against terrorism, the United States has begun to respond in kind to the scourge of Islamist militarism.
Expressed most boldly in Robert Kaplan’s recent Atlantic Monthly article, the realisation of this militarist version of American empire requires fundamental changes to our democratic principles: higher levels of citizen surveillance and government secrecy; the transfer of power from the people’s representatives to the military; the neutralisation of the critical media; and the launching of a permanent, state-directed propaganda campaign to mould public opinion and keep the opposition as divided as possible. Kaplan’s idea of keeping the opposition divided stands a fair chance of success only if pacifists and moderate warists refuse to let go of the old discordant clichés that exaggerate their disagreements.
The task for responsible pacifists is to build conceptual bridges to the other camp without abandoning their centuries-old ideal of moving toward a more co-operative global order in which large-scale warfare has become but a distant memory. In an age when unimaginable acts of terrorist violence have dashed our hopes for a more peaceful world and instead conjured up the old ghosts of militarism, people committed to peace can no longer afford the luxury of wasting their energy fighting each other instead of the militarist mindset. Their common concern for the fate of our planet leaves both pacifists and moderate warists with no choice but to engage in a creative exchange of ideas. The refusal to reconsider entrenched positions that no longer fit our current situation would only aid the forces of terror and war.
The growing appeal of militarism in public discourse must be vigorously opposed by a responsible pacifism that acknowledges the centrality of fighting global terror —not just by means that transform the United States into a militaristic global hegemon. In this endeavour, it is essential not to dodge such sticky issues as the nature of the relationship between pacifism and nonviolence, the possible uses of violence by pacifists, the legitimacy of self-defence, the relevance of just war doctrine, and the morality of means and ends.
Foreboding as it may seem today, the crisis brought on by global terror contains an opportunity to break down the pacifism-versus-warism dichotomy that, for much too long, has divided those who choose peace over war, co-operation over domination. It is time to develop a new synthesis — a responsible pacifism — or the future may belong to the furies of militarism.
Manfred B. Steger is Professor of Global Studies at RMIT University and a Research Fellow of the Globalization Research Center at the University of Hawai’i-Manoa. His books include Globalism: Market Ideology Meets Terrorism (Rowman and Littlefield 2005), Judging Nonviolence: The Dispute Between Realists and Idealists (Routledge 2003), and Globalization: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford 2003).