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Nonviolence on Veterans Day?

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In a few minutes I want to speak about nonviolence. But on Veteran’s Day, allow me to speak first about the truth, goodness, and beauty of violence; because if violence could be none of these things, how would Hollywood bake its bread?

I have sometimes confessed to the joys of war games on computer, so now I admit to the thrill of action movies, whether lo-tech Westerns or hi-tech Terminators. In Westerns, violence of the false, bad, and ugly kind gets sprayed onto our faces early in the show, so that a more satisfying violence may follow.

Thousands of frames must be exposed to the construction of villains, proving them incorrigible and irredeemable in this world, the better to experience salvation in the moments their celluloid bodies are shot to the dirt. But in order for cinematic killings to achieve that cheering experience, nonviolent alternatives must be thoroughly discredited and the villain must always pull his gun first.

For the lone gunman who faces the villain, moreover, the issue must ever exceed the crucial matter of mere self-defense. In the killing by which he saves himself (sic) the hero also redeems the rule of law and preserves some innocent community from black clouds of dread. Whew. For the audience, perspiration gives way to relief in the last millisecond of a villain’s life, as the eyes of a human monster register mortality realized too late.

In the Terminator versions, the formula is only slightly adjusted. A beautiful and vulnerable woman, veritable vessel of truth herself, must be proved to have an array of enemies who, again, can neither be redeemed nor deterred. As the biceps of the hero bear the responsibility of mega-caliber arsenals, we wish only for the kills to come a little quicker than they do as Hollywood stretches out our pleasure time.

These are the archetypes that also inform our passions on Veterans Day. We speak of heroes who were dropped to death by incorrigible forces of evil during great confrontations between darkness and light. They died so that other heroes could prevail. So far as that archetype goes, it comes empowered with force irresistible. I make no pretense to immunity. Nonviolence does not require me to pretend.

And when it comes to the right of self-defense or defense of the innocent, the power of the hero proves that there can be no moral culpability in necessary violence of this sort. For oneself alone, one may renounce self-defense as a pure matter of conscience, but it is a rare pacifist who would argue that anyone is compelled to surrender one’s own life by some other kind of higher law. At any rate, such pacifism I could not believe. Self-defense is something like an inalienable right. While in the case of aggressive violence, you have a right to expect others to refrain, there is no similar moral obligation that you can place in the way of someone else’s right to a violence of self-defense. Nonviolence does not contradict this.

But if nonviolence can neither deflect the power of the hero nor refute the inalienable right to self-defense, what’s left? And here we begin to leave Hollywood and the purity of its archetypes behind. Because we can’t be caught forgetting that the cheering experience of a happy Hollywood killing rests upon a precisely scrubbed image, created from scratch in the interplay of light, lens, film, and artistic direction.

So the first problem we face as we hit the light of day with nonviolence is our addiction to the image of the incorrigible villain. If we are going to continue enjoying our participation in violence, we need him; but nonviolence denies the incorrigibility of the human spirit, period. So the dynamic of our process in nonviolent struggle is the reverse of Hollywood manufacture. Instead of refining a character down to an incorrigible core, the nonviolent activist looks for glitches of complexity and contradiction. In every which way possible we set out to multiply dimensions of character.

Maybe this is difficult sometimes, to pick out transformative shreds of possibility in a living human being. Everyone has their favorite example. I remember a civil rights activist telling me that extensive research into one president of the USA yielded a core personality of no commitment whatsoever. It was chilling to hear this as memory; it must have been terrifying to discover it in action. But even a power-monger has some sense of self-interest, which brings us to the second problem for nonviolence by comparison to Hollywood scripts.

When it comes to imagining nonviolent alternatives to terrible situations, illiteracy is what we share. Of the hundreds of nonviolent tactics actually used already in history (as documented by Gene Sharp) who can name more than five? Requirements for the time limits of your average Hollywood film would discourage getting very entangled at this stage of nonviolent activism. Negotiation, information gathering, organizing, education, and mobilization require Soap-Opera-like patience, not feature-film impact. So if we are used to seeing action films (and playing action games) we have grown quite used to feeling that alternatives to violence are neither very numerous nor effective in resolving actual conflicts of real life.

Yet Veterans Day reminds us of the price we pay for failing to do better in the nonviolence department. If heroism is an archetype of Veterans Day, so is abject loss of life; death come knocking; lives and loves interrupted forever. War on film may be a stage for heroic character, and on-screen killings might provide certain air-conditioned thrills, but war lived through is horror by the second, and the sight of an authentic human body etches the mind. Veterans Day therefore is a most logical time to decide that we can create better arts of peace.

A failure of American literacy contributes to the 2,000 sons and daughters whom we now add to the rolls of Veterans Day. As a people we never demanded serious attention to the corrigibility of our opponents. The image of the Muslim Terrorist fits our minds like a snap top. Where there is such a thing as a Muslim Terrorist, a suspected Muslim Terrorist, or a possible ally for a suspected Muslim Terrorist, our imaginations lock down into scrubbed stereotypes of villainhood. Yet if we do not learn to look for corrigibility, fallibility, and real human individuals, we will continue to set death traps for ourselves.

A powerful political strategist accuses peaceniks of preferring indictments and therapy in the aftermath of 9/11, and we certainly preferred arms inspections during the run-up to war on Iraq. In retrospect, we can claim that peaceniks were only exposing their literacy in matters of nonviolence. Who actually agreed or disagreed back then is no longer important. But it is crucial to never forget that we as American people never demanded a serious nonviolence debate. We could not weigh with any patience the costs or benefits of alternatives to outright war. Racism played a decisive role in this, as we usually stand willing to sweep with broad suspicion any image of threat from the pan-Muslim world.

Not that we have to learn to disengage ourselves from images of violence, but we must learn how to engage those images in more complex fields of understanding, where they are connected to histories of real people like us.

This is the meaning of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s insistence that human equality is an essential value for nonviolence. In the being and actions of others we must learn to see people equal to ourselves, and in the glaring inequalities of social practice we must learn to feel the outrages of injustice that will sooner or later erupt among peoples whose equality has been denied.

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Greg Moses is a member of the Texss Civil Rights Collaborative and editor of The Texas Civil Rights Review. He writes about peace and Texas, but not always at the same time.

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