What Part of: “Violence Doesn’t Work”
Do You Not Understand?

Dear Virtual Editor:

I regret to inform you that I must restate many of the arguments made in to “How Not to Make a Country Safer” (See, December 7th, 2014) Delete Zehaf-Bibeau  and Couture Rouleau. Add Cherif and Said Kouachi.  Delete Ottawa. Add Paris. Add more civilian victims in Paris and Syria.

I recently watched again a documentary on Joan Baez, who is one of my heroes (outtakes below). Her visits to Chapel Hill in 1969 were the greatest influence on my decision to make a permanent commitment to non-violence.  Now, like me, a “senior” she reminds us again in the piece that violence simply doesn’t work.  It didn’t work in 1969 and it doesn’t work now. Recent events in Paris confirm this truth yet again, though few seem to be listening. I was reminded also that Joan has been making this point for 50 years with simple good grace and humor. Even though the Paris attacks, and the reaction to them, make me want to throw something or put my head in my water dish, I can do no less than try to follow her example.

I think that phrase, “What part of _____ don’t you understand?” originated in country music, which by the way is an under-appreciated source of simple wisdom. (Who can forget lines like “I’ve enjoyed as much of this as I can stand”, and “I shaved my legs for this?”)

I am reminded also of another popular phrase. I attribute this one to the great Sarah Palin and modify it only slightly: “How’s that violence thing working out for ya?” The answer is, still not very well. I will not pick on the former half-term governor of Alaska further. In fact, I truly thought her response to PETA criticism of her son standing on the family dog was pretty cool. She told them to chill out, the kid didn’t eat the dog.  I had been half expecting her to respond that he stood on the dog to get a better view of Russia. You have to keep an open mind about these things.


Paraphrasing the truth spoken by my mentor, Joan Baez, I have often said that there is no good violence and bad violence, only violence and it is all bad. That is the truth that the politicians and pundits responding to the attacks in Paris cannot bring themselves to discuss.  In fact, they will talk about almost anything except the appalling failure of everyone’s violence, including their own.  They will talk about the bad violence of terrorists and how there is no justification for it. (All true.)  What they cannot bring themselves to do is to discuss the practical, much less the moral failures of their own violence and the possibility that a change of course might be best for everyone.  So, the brutal circle game continues.

Canada’s stalwart PM, Stephen Harper, resurrected the old  “They hate us because of our freedoms” pitch, as his government continued working on legislation to take more of them away from Canadians, as well as to keep feeding our newly burgeoning prison industry.   Harper, and others, also threw in a real puzzler this time.  Somehow, the crimes were an “assault on democracy everywhere”.  Wow!  Let’s all hope that Parliament members can somehow survive the assault and make their way back to Ottawa. images-1Harper also made another telling observation.  Without any consultation or authority from the democracy that the criminals purportedly hate so much, he declared that Canada is at war with the Islamic State. Press reports noted that the use of the term “war” was important because it had legal significance and the government had avoided using it to describe the war in Afghanistan.

What the reports might also have noted is that when you declare war on someone you implicitly recognize the authority of people on both sides to try to kill each other.  Even so, as I have said repeatedly, war should not carry the right to kill civilians under any circumstances.  Except that these days it does—again, on both sides. How shall we reconcile “their” violence and “our” violence? The day after the first Charlie Hebdo murders, a US led “coalition of the willing” airstrike killed more than 50 innocent civilians in Syria. We know they were “innocent” civilians because they were being held prisoner by ISIS. In addition to these victims, the Syrian Network for Human Rights, an independent organization opposed to the same Assad regime that the US has condemned, counts 40 more civilian deaths from the bombing campaign.

What were these killings?  Were they acts of war? Crimes? Something else? Does “Oops” distinguish them?  Do the usual platitudes about how hard the bombers try to avoid collateral damage?  Are civilian deaths from drone strikes different?   I put aside the daily Jumble and NY Times Crossword and tried to come up with some common answer other than: “My violence is good. Your violence is bad”, but at the moment I am stuck. Feel free to give it a try.  Years ago, I was arguing to a state senate committee for more lenient treatment of kids who murdered. I just didn’t want them executed. One senator shot back a question about whether their victims were any less dead. Another one of those freedoms that the western narrative has the enemy hating is freedom of speech, press and association.

It has been undeniably heartwarming to see hundreds of thousands of people displaying “Je Suis Charlie” in solidarity with the journalist victims of Paris and I do not question their sincerity.  But given the tangled web into which the west has gotten itself in the Middle East, there may be a few problems with that one also. The French government has now arrested 54 people in a campaign to crack down on offenses that include expressing “anti-Semitism” and “glorifying terrorism”.  Ah, the French have always been so charmingly vague!  Along with their legendary savoir faire, I’m sure the people will quickly develop a certain savoir parler. along with understanding Ce que c’est interdit  parler. (Sorry, non-violence does not forbid murdering a language.)  

The US, of course, has the great 1st Amendment. Its speech and association rights, however, are subject to “reasonable time, place and manner” restrictions that oddly do not apply to the exercise of 2nd Amendment gun rights. 'Take me to your least insane leader...'Things get even a bit stickier when we consider the team the west has chosen to play for it in the Middle East. While all the “Je Suis Charlie” signs were beginning to appear, Raif Badawi was getting the first 50 of the 1000 public lashes he is to receive (only 50 per week), while serving a 10 year prison sentence.  After that, he can figure out how to pay his $266,000 fine.   Badawi is a blogger in Saudi Arabia who operated a website that invited people to discuss religion. That is his crime. (Crowd funding the fine money is probably not an option.)

On the plus side, the Saudis have a lot of oil and, save for that unfortunate slip of citizen Osama Bin Laden, they have been on the side of the west in the “global war on terror”. And that democracy thing really worked well for everyone in that great pillar of western-supported stability Egypt didn’t it?  A mass uprising overthrew a long time dictator even though his forces killed many demonstrators in 2011.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which had been trying to participate non-violently in the political process for 80 years, was freely elected. But… the elected government abused its power—an absolutely unheard of occurrence in a western democracy—and was itself overthrown by a crowd- supported military coup. Association with the Muslim Brotherhood became a capital offense, as 500 or so Egyptians learned in a mass trial, and just this week the former dictator was absolved of all his crimes.

Maybe if those who oppose western policies could just calm down and learn to do as the western powers wish, they could also have such a wonderful government! If sorting out the players on the “good violence” team is cause for some concern, so is dealing with the “bad violence” team.  After the Paris attacks, Iran issued a statement that violence and terrorism is reprehensible, whether in this region, in Europe, or in the US. Iran, you will recall, is the country the Republicans are terrified that the US will make peace with. The one Israel has threatened to bomb… the one that is on the US side in opposition to both ISIS and the Syrian regime, and is a de facto member of the coalition bombing campaign.

Hamas, once the democratically elected government of Gaza, the world’s largest outdoor confinement facility, said differences of opinion are no justification for killing innocents. Even Hezbollah, a Shiite extremist group formed in the Israeli province of Lebanon after the 1982-83 invasion and an ally of Syria, issued a statement that Sunni jihadists had caused more offense to Muslims than any cartoon, book or film. This was a remarkable statement in its breadth, even considering that it was an opportunity to take a shot at rival Sunnis.

Who to kill?  Who to kill?
Any Hope?

m_120614mgYes. As my hair and Joan’s gets whiter, real voices of reconciliation are beginning to be heard.  The overall response of the French people, as opposed to that of their government, has been inspiring. One day, children may have trouble understanding that great cartoon showing inmates in an asylum frantically bailing a flooding room with buckets while nobody thinks to go over and turn off the tap. Adults may bow their heads in gratitude that their leaders finally grasped Einstein’s definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

For that to happen, more people will have to appreciate the wisdom of what figures like Hannah Arendt have said for more than 40 years.  Arendt was a Jewish scholar who was interrogated by the Gestapo and interned by the collaborationist government of France in World War II.   She was later condemned in many circles for saying about Adolph Eichmann that one did not have to forgive an evildoer in order to try to understand him. Hannah Arendt was really onto something and there are more voices today pointing out the pragmatic advantages of getting beyond “that’s no excuse” and trying to see the world as an adversary sees it. If one does this, one of the first things that becomes apparent is that the adversary is probably not motivated solely or even primarily by religion. 051-cross-promotes-insanity

People have been using religion as a justification for violence since long before the Catholics gave Spanish Muslims the options of converting to Christianity or being executed, sometimes throwing in a little torture to help with the decision making process.

Like Zehaf-Bibeau, Cherif Kouachi, the Paris killer about whom we have the most information, was not a practicing Muslim. He was about as religious as the Catholic who faithfully shows up at mass every Easter. But both had connections to civilians killed and abused in Iraq. Kouachi was convicted in 2008 of recruiting fighters to send to Iraq, motivated by outrage over the torture of inmates at Abu Ghraib.  To many in the Middle East and Afghanistan, what is going on in the west is not a counterterrorism operation, it is a foreign military invasion. It is not necessary to resolve that argument to conclude that violence is indisputably not working.  Instead of arguing how much more horrible gunning down journalists is compared to killing families with drone strikes, it might be useful to recognize that neither practice is getting anyone anywhere.  Maybe it is time to rethink the whole enterprise. Here are a couple of ideas.

  1. How about a massive humanitarian invasion?  The only even arguably valid use of violence is in immediate self defense.  Believe it or not, the UN (Remember those guys?) has valuable experience in humanitarian assistance operating under just such a mandate, with both military and civilian elements.
  1. The big geopolitical struggle in the Middle East has produced more than 3.5 million refugees from the Syrian conflict alone.  Canada has agreed to take in 10,000. How about if Canada at least adds a zero to that number and other western nations follow suit proportionately?

Compared, not with some idealized peaceful region, but rather compared realistically with the results of current policies, any chance these measures would help to isolate and “degrade” violent extremists? Giving Muslim women the last word  What passes for moderation in some circles is the notion that “not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims.”  Sorry Bill Maher, not even that is true.  To deal with that issue, and the meaningless term “terrorism” in general, I am giving the last word to two Muslims.

If you have not paid attention to anything so far, please watch this video clip. It is fitting that it is a conversation between two women. It is women who have always borne the brunt of violence. I also like the clip because it features an articulate young Canadian lawyer.  I often think law students are the hope of the world, and I always appreciate articulate lawyers of any age.  Finally, some of the content is drawn from studies done at UNC Chapel Hill. What could be more reliable than that? Content Warning:  This video is rated R for Reality and contains uncontested factual material that may not be suitable for all audiences. (Though we can hope for a G one day.)


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