March 25, 2011
One of the arguments that is being forwarded by proponents of military intervention in Libya is that Qaddafi is literally crazy and therefore cannot be reasoned with or expected to step down without force.
In an article for Tikkun, entitled “Libya: Acid Test for Nonviolence?,” Metta Center for Nonviolence president Michael Nagler, who I deeply respect and have personally learned a great deal from, makes an argument for war along these lines:
We in the nonviolence field will recognize this as a “madman with a sword” analogy. Gandhi said flatly that if a madman is raging through a village with a sword (read: assault rifle — or Glock Automatic) he who “dispatches the lunatic” will have done the community (and even the poor lunatic) a favor. Here are Gandhi’s exact words, from The Hindu, 1926:
Taking life may be a duty…. Suppose a man runs amok and goes furiously about, sword in hand, and killing anyone that comes in his way, and no one dares capture him alive. Anyone who dispatches this lunatic will earn the gratitude of the community and be regarded as a benevolent man.
Later in the piece, he goes on to say essentially that in this “acid test” for nonviolence, nonviolence has come up short.
Our options are very thin because we have not explored more creative options than brute force, which always operates after conflict has already flared. Military intervention is now the least bad solution from the point of view of nonviolence, but it is bad. What else is left to us?
To be honest, I was very disappointed to read this. Military intervention can by definition never be a solution from the point of view of nonviolence. Killing people is not nonviolent.
It has truly been amazing that so many progressives, even in the nonviolence world, have given up on nonviolence so quickly, especially on the heels of the incredible victories for nonviolent action in Tunisia and Egypt. Can anyone argue that Libyans or the international community really exhausted every nonviolent alternative in the last few weeks?
“People try nonviolence for a week,” as Theodore Roszak says, “and when it ‘doesn’t work’ they go back to violence, which hasn’t worked for centuries.”
To address Nagler’s argument more directly, however, there is a major flaw with the “madman with a sword” analogy that seriously undercuts its applicability to the conflict in Libya.
While I’m thankfully not in Qaddafi’s head, I don’t doubt that he could be crazy. And he has obviously proved to be willing to use great violence against his own people to hold on to power. But just because Qaddafi may be crazy doesn’t mean that those who are following him or carrying out his orders to use violence are crazy. In fact, I would bet that the vast majority are regular people who signed up to be a part of Qaddafi’s security apparatus because it was where they could find work.
This is true not only in Libya, but of the vast majority of folks who take up arms in any conflict, whether they be with the US military or the Taliban, as I was told by Afghans while I was in Afghanistan in December. As Srdja Popovic, one of the leaders of Otpor, the student-led movement that brought down Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, told Waging Nonviolence, we must remind ourselves that “policemen are just men in a police uniforms.”
The opposition in Libya, therefore, does not need to try to reach Qaddafi’s heart per se, but should be taking steps to create a wedge between him and his armed forces. If more of the security apparatus decided that it will not use force or follows orders, it wouldn’t matter how crazy Qaddafi is or how much blood he is personally willing to spill. He would not have the authority to carry out his will. This understanding of political power is basic to nonviolence.
The problem in Libya is that both the indigenous opposition and now the international community have turned to violence, which plays to Qaddafi’s strengths and has an incredibly poor track record in creating such defections within the opponents’ ranks. In On Killing, for example, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman writes that in World War II massive aerial bombings of cities were:
…surprisingly counterproductive in breaking the enemy’s will… Indeed, bombings seemed to have served primarily to harden the hearts and empower the killing ability of those who endured it.
As Otpor’s Popovic explains, the bombing of Serbia by NATO had a similar effect:
Attacking a country from the outside always results in rallying people around leadership. That happened during the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999, clearly strengthening Milosevic… So whoever in the US administration had the idea that bombing Serbia would weaken Milosevic was absolutely wrong. It only ended up hurting the country and its civilians. Even worse, Milosevic used it to attack and destroy whatever was left of the opposition under a state of emergency (martial law was proclaimed during the bombing!).
Why will the bombing of Libya be any different?
Nonviolent action, on the other hand, has proven to be the most effective way to divide repressive regimes’ security forces and ultimately dissolve their power. Nonviolent movements have brought down some of the most brutal dictators in the world over the last several decades, including Pinochet in Chile, Marcos in the Philippines, Suharto in Indonesia, Milosevic in Serbia and now Mubarak in Egypt, to name but a few.
All of these rulers clearly demonstrated that they had no qualms in taking the lives of their own people. Is Qaddafi so much more powerful than these other brutal regimes that nonviolent resistance would be futile? Why should he of all people be an exception?