Belmont Club

The Limits of Myth

Pundita argues that the efficacy of nonviolent resistance to tyranny is vastly overstated. Consider Malala Yousafza, “a 14 year-old Pakistani girl who idolizes Barack Obama and became famous in Pakistan and the U.K. as a critic of the Taliban and advocate for girls’ rights in her country — and received a national award for bravery for her effort”.

She also got a bullet from the Taliban for her troubles. She has survived the initial attack and is being treated in the UK but a “spokesman for the Taliban said that if she survives they’ll keep trying to murder her because she’s anti-Taliban and a secularist.” The Taliban are firm believers in the principle that “if at first you don’t succeed try, try again”.

And so are the Syrian secret service. Lee Smith, writing on the recent car bomb attack in Lebanon, notes that when Assad’s goons want to get rid of the Lebanese secret service they just keep killing them until no one is left to take the place of the dead.

Wissam al-Hassan was chief of the internal security force’s information branch, and the third top officer of the unit to be targeted. The first was Samir Shehade, who survived a bombing in 2006 and left the country. Next was Wissam Eid, whose number-crunching detective work on the Hariri assassination provided the international investigative team with several leads. Eid survived two attempts on his life before he was killed in January 2008. Hassan himself had been threatened repeatedly. Just this week, an editorial in a pro-Syrian Lebanese newspaper identified Hassan as an enemy, likely foreshadowing his murder …

He had just returned from abroad the day before the bombing, passing through the airport, which is controlled by general security, headed by Hezbollah ally, Abbas Ibrahim. Some speculate that general security alerted Hassan’s hunters, who had him followed and killed, a modus operandi matching the murders of parliamentarians Gebran Tueni (killed in 2005) and Antoine Ghanem (killed in 2007), both of them Syrian regime opponents slain shortly after their re-entry into Lebanon.

Stalin was apocryphally said to have concluded, “no man, problem”. The Islamists have the same idea. The British writer Salman Rusdie has been living under an order of death since 1989. That the order has not been carried out may be due to the fact there are other fish to fry or that his demise cannot as yet be conveniently arranged. But it is not due to the warrant’s lapse.

His death remains an ardent desire among some Jihadis and it was fictionally fulfilled in Pakistani movie titled International Guerillas. Here is a movie excerpt showing Rusdie being killed by flying Korans.

One day Rushdie may in fact be killed after the long years have lowered his guard, but not the ardor of his persecutors. Pundita argues the notion of bloodless resistance has been oversold by the advocates of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. It was a convenient alternative narrative to that perennial problem solving algorithm, war.

By skipping over the War of Independence and the Civil War and emphasizing the Salt March and Selma, Alabama they gave the mistaken impression that resistance was all about speeches and heroic poses.

As for the great triumph of Mohandas Gandhi’s nonviolent approach: I hate to be the one to break the news but his approach had nothing whatsoever to do with the British decamping India.

The real story is that the British government was rightfully scared that the Indian activist Subhas Chandra Bose was preparing a full-scale armed insurrection at a time when the British military was least prepared to deal with it. That’s why they finally capitulated to Gandhi’s demands. Everything else is another fairy tale.

Maybe nonviolent resistance works  — if you’re up against the British Empire or a American State Goverment — or against a regime which has lost all popular support. But maybe not if you’re up against Hitler, Stalin or Assad in their prime.  But nonviolence is a useful myth she argues, because it gives diplomats an excuse not to act. It makes a virtue of doing nothing by characterizing it as actively breaking the cycle of violence and counseling that eventually the tyrant will die of shame. But not before you die of a bullet.

It’s the kind of fairy tale the State goes to great trouble to promote for the obvious reason that no government, including the U.S. one, wants to see replays of the American Revolution every time a large number of citizens become disgruntled with their government.

The State has a point. So what’s the tiebreaker between myth and reality? The tiebreaker is when the State is clearly unwilling or unable to protect its citizens from brazen terrorists, criminals and rioting mobs.

It’s times like these that citizens have to take matters into their own hands, and by this I don’t mean peace marches or writing letters to the editor to demand that the State do something to better protect its citizens.

It ignores the fact that the concrete threat of violence requires a concrete response. Thus, the collapse of the “King’s Justice” eventually provokes a return to private justice because somebody has to do it. The Associated Press recently described Josephine County, Oregon’s reaction to the inability of the sheriff’s department to enforce the law due to budget cuts. They’ve re-instituted the posse.

“I believe in standing up for myself rather than waiting for the government to do something for me,” said Sam Nichols, a retired marina manager.

Nichols has organized a posse of about a dozen fed-up residents who have started patrolling the small community of O’Brien, which has about 750 residents.

Force is part of this world.

The truth is that every resistance movement — even largely nonviolent ones — carry with them the implicit threat of force. The police and army of the regime often switch sides when they see that the cost of dealing with impending storm of popular violence exceeds the cost of turning on the tyrant. They fear force and therefore decline to exercise it.

The idea of consequences was once deeply rooted in the public consciousness. Yahweh thundered. And even Christ came to save us from the fires of hell. But hell there was. The opportunity for non-violent change was always understood to be the ‘last chance’ prelude to violent consequences.

But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. — Romans 2:5

And now the LORD has brought it about; he has done just as he said he would. All this happened because you people sinned against the LORD and did not obey him. — Jeremiath 40:3

There but for the grace of God go I.

This kind of reasoning is now out of fashion. But should it be? Or is the sad truth this: if Malala Yousafza cannot be protected by the West by more than a press release; if the Lebanese can find no relief in peaceful protest then sooner or later their enemies will find themselves facing strong measures. Because if the King can’t protect them then they’ll protect themselves.

In that sense events in Syria are no surprise at all. What goes around comes around. A car bomb here becomes a car bomb there. Who lives by the sword dies the same way. And there is no action but that generates an equal and opposite reaction. All commonplaces, it’s true, but that does not make them any less valid — even though we’ve forgotten them.

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