One of the most emotionally charged topics in modern activism is the debate over the use of violence on the part of those trying to make the world a better place. Many argue that a strict policy of non-violence is the only acceptable option, but there is also a vocal minority who proclaim that all tactics must be on the table if we are to succeed. The purpose of this three-part series is to delve deeper into the nature of violent tactics and violence itself, so we can form more nuanced opinions on this important topic.
In part one, the various types of violence were examined. It was found that violent tactics are not, and cannot be treated, the same. There is emotional violence, where people's self-worth is attacked; there is social and economic violence, where the victim's standing in society is targeted; and finally there are various levels and types of physical harm, which include causing people to be put in prison and the use of lethal force, for example.
This article, part two, will concentrate on the victims of violent tactics.
You may know the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a prominent Lutheran theologian and church leader who lived and worked in Germany during the 1930's and 40's. Bonhoeffer was proudly and publicly against the Nazi regime and opposed all violence. In 1937 he wrote, "The only way to overcome evil is to let it run itself to a standstill because it does not find the resistance it is looking for. Resistance merely creates further evil and adds fuel to the flames. But when evil meets no oppression and encounters no obstacle but only patient endurance, its sting is drawn, and at last it meets an opponent which is more than its match."
Dietrich Bonhoeffer with a group of his students. by Wikipedia
Despite his pacifist beliefs, Bonhoeffer was heavily involved in the German-resistance movement and participated in conspiracies to assassinate Adolf Hitler, including a 1944 attempt that narrowly failed.
Bonhoeffer never changed his pacifist views but was, nevertheless, willing to participate in actions that not only sought to end Hitler's life, but also jeopardized the lives of many other Nazis, Bonhoeffer's co-conspirators, and his own.
Without delving into his theology, I would simply suggest that, given the extreme circumstances before him, Bonhoeffer reluctantly accepted that the identity of the victim must be considered when evaluating violent tactics.
The possible victims of violent tactics can be placed into several groups, the first of which is the most obvious: perpetrators of injustice. The German conspirators who attempted to take the life of Hitler had a unique situation. While there were many guilty individuals among the Axis forces (and the allies for that matter) there was one chief villain. Hitler was such a prominent figure in WWII that his death may very well have ended the entire war, but this is not typical. Generally the greatest perpetrators of injustice are not individuals but institutions, and these too can be targeted.
Another group of possible victims are bystanders. In the military, they call hurting bystanders "collateral damage." Generally this violence is not done purposefully, but the possibility of hurting uninvolved parties is nonetheless calculated into the military strategy. So too, seemingly harmless political actions have the potential to affect unrelated people. When you protest in front of a bank or public building, the action affects not only those running these organizations, but also the lowest-level employees, customers, and regular citizens. Boycotts, petitions, and even nasty editorials in the paper can affect the lives of many people, and their points of view need to be taken into account.
Closer to home is the damage violent tactics can have on allies. In the case of the assignation attempts on Hitler, thousands of people were arrested and hundreds executed in retaliation for the plot. Many of these people were only remotely connected and didn't even know about the plans. Again, the tactics we engage in can affect many people, including friends and family. If you get arrested at an action, who is going raise money and bail you out at two in the morning? If your organization engages in controversial strategies, how will this affect your coalition partners?
On April 8th, 1945, Detrich Bonhoeffer was executed for his role in the assignation attempts on Hitler and other resistance activities he had been involved in since the early 30's. His death did not come literally from his own hand, but he freely chose a path that risked this fate.
Few activists are forced to risk their lives, but it does happen; Bradley Manning was certainly taking his chances when he chose to download top-secret files. There are even cases of people taking their own lives for the sake of their cause, such as Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor whose public self-immolation marked the beginning of the Arab Spring.
More commonly, activists risk (or even seek) being arrested or fired. They also allow themselves to be harassed by authorities or shunned by their families. Another activity that some activists choose is self-imposed poverty. Many activists also courageously work in unstable parts of the world, or their own communities, that most people avoid for their own safety.
Violence is subtle and varied. The vast majority of violence in our lives is simply taken for granted as part of life, or goes entirely unnoticed. When strategizing and evaluating tactics, we must be honest about the subtle forms of violence we experience everyday as perpetrator, bystander, and victim.
Rather than taking a hard stance for or against violent tactics, we must look at every situation individually. What kind of violence is being suggested, why is it being suggested, and who are the potential victims?