The Need to Diversify New Zealand’s War Narratives

On 11 November 2018, many thousands in countries all around the world stopped to commemorate the end of World War I. In New Zealand, as elsewhere, the date marked the end of a four-year long series of national remembrance activities designed to acknowledge the war’s centenary and its lasting legacy on the country’s history and society. Included in these activities have been special commemorative events on important dates of the war, educational activities for schools, museum exhibits, conferences, books and articles, radio and television programmes, pilgrimages, new monuments and many more.

These diverse activities have been encompassed within an over-arching narrative of noble sacrifice for the nation, the protection of national values like freedom and democracy, the shaping of national identity, and the tragedy of so many promising young people lost to war. Importantly, in all of this there has been an effort to expand the official narratives of the war to include the voices of ordinary soldiers and other support personnel. For example, diaries and letters from serving personnel have been published and New Zealanders have been encouraged to participate directly in the construction of archives about their relatives who served.

These narratives from ordinary people have done a great deal to expand and diversify the voices which make up the broader narrative of the war. Yet a number of other important voices of people intimately involved in the war, and deeply affected by it, continue to remain largely unheard. [To continue, please go here…}

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The Pacifism Papers 3: Now is the time for Pacifism…

Looking back at the previous one hundred years, it would be easy to think that pacifism and nonviolence has been a complete failure, and that it has had little if any influence or impact on our history. After all, following the mass slaughter of WWI, the world was plunged into the even greater conflict of WWII, with its accompanying genocide of European Jews, the carpet bombing of German cities, and the atomic attacks on Japan – among countless other atrocities. In the years after the end of WWII, the world experienced the Cold War, with its nuclear brinkmanship, as well as more than 290 major wars and conflicts in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe, and Oceania. The current 17-year long War on Terror has engulfed a number of Middle Eastern and North African countries, including the tragic war in Syria, and has killed in excess of a million people, with millions displaced and many others tortured, imprisoned and killed in drone strikes. In fact, the list of wars, conflicts, terrorist attacks, genocides, and government repression over the past century seems almost endless.

Looking at this history, and at the militaries and weaponry possessed by virtually every nation, the extent and reach of the global arms trade, and all the ongoing violent conflicts today, it would be tempting to think that pacifism and nonviolence has become an entirely irrelevant idea, and that perhaps war and violence is simply an inevitable part of human society and history.

However, such a conclusion would obscure the often hidden but important parallel history of thinkers, activists, groups, and even governments, who have employed nonviolence and pacifism to real effect over the past century. Missing from the history books, and often ignored by the media and popular culture, the reality is that pacifism and nonviolence has played a significant role in our history and continues to grow as a force for positive change in the world today. I don’t have time to talk in any detail about the role of pacifists before and after WWI who were conscientious objectors, who led disarmament campaigns, or worked to establish the League of Nations (the precursor to the United Nations), or who drew up international humanitarian laws and conventions, and established the international Court of Justice in the Hague. But the foundations of much international law today, as well as international institutions like the United Nations and international conventions to do with human rights and disarmament, were the result of a great many pacifists who struggled against the tide of militarism and war, particularly following WWI.

Nor do I have time to talk about the role of nonviolent resistance by countries like Denmark to the Nazi occupation of Europe during WWII, or the way in which nonviolent movements were able to save tens of thousands of Jews in places like Bulgaria.

Nor do I have time to talk about the influence of pacifists and pacifism on the anti-colonial struggles in places like India, where Mohandas Gandhi led a nonviolent movement, or Zambia where I grew up, and many other former colonies who won their independence through peaceful struggle – or, indeed, the nonviolent struggles of the Moriori, Waitaha, Parihaka and other indigenous movements who resisted colonisation in Aotearoa.

Related to this, I don’t have time to talk about the role of nonviolence in struggles for racial and social justice, such as Martin Luther King’s civil rights struggle in the United States, or the struggle by the church in places like South Africa, Poland and Latin America.

I don’t have time talk about the role of nonviolent movements in bringing down dictators or winning freedom and human rights – such as the People Power movement which brought the Marcos regime in the Philippines, or the Carnation Revolution which ended the military dictatorship in Portugal, or the peaceful revolutions in Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, Mongolia, and the Baltic Republics which brought down the Iron Curtain and threw off Soviet domination.

I don’t have time to discuss the role of pacifists and nonviolent protestors in the anti-nuclear movement in Europe, America and New Zealand.

Nor do I have time to talk about the continuing influence of well-known pacifists such as Leo Tolstoy, George Bernard Shaw, Mahatma Gandhi, Bertrand Russel, Aldous Huxley, Martin Buber, Albert Einstein, Vera Brittain, Sophie Scholl, the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Cesar Chavez, and many, many more – including our own Archibald Baxter.

Nor do I have the time to talk in any detail about the nonviolent movements which erupted across the Middle East and North Africa during the recent Arab Spring, or the recent Colour Revolutions across Eastern Europe.

Finally, I don’t have time to talk about the millions of pacifists and the pacifist traditions in all the major religions – Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and so on – or the way in which violence has come to be seen as having no part to play in family life, in education, in politics, in social life and in public institutions. In our everyday lives and relationships, we are now all convinced that violence is something negative and nonviolence is the healthiest and most ethical way to live together. In practice, every single day, we are in some respects all pacifists.

The point I am trying to make is simply that an objective look at politics and history over the past one hundred years reveals that pacifism and nonviolence has been just as influential, and has shaped our world in important and positive ways in equal measure, to war and militarism, even if this is rarely acknowledged or celebrated. In fact, there is little doubt that pacifism and nonviolence, particularly following the rise of Nazism and WWII, has occupied a marginal position in Western society, and is often viewed as naïve, unrealistic, out-dated, sometimes even as immoral and dangerous. When the term ‘pacifist’ can be employed as a term of abuse in public discourse, and used to mark someone as unfit for political office – as happened to Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party in 2015 – then you know that it is a thoroughly marginalised viewpoint.

My own research conducted as part of a three year Marsden funded project clearly shows that pacifist theory and practice – despite all the successes it has achieved, and the influence it has had on the modern world – is largely ignored or openly dismissed and denigrated in the academic field, in the political realm, in the media, and even among ordinary people. I would think pacifism also occupies a marginal place in the Anglican and wider Christian Church.

In any case, the main argument I want to make tonight is that not only is pacifism a credible doctrine, it is also an approach desperately needed today to deal with the problems that ongoing and persistent violence has created. Perhaps more importantly, I want to argue that there has not been a better historical moment in the past one hundred years to promote its cause.

First, if you examine its philosophical, empirical and ethical basis, as I will touch upon shortly, there is no question that pacifism and nonviolence stands up as the credible equal of any other philosophical and practical approach to politics, such as Realism, Socialism, Liberalism and so on. In relation to doctrines of war and the use of military force, I believe pacifism is much more credible than just war theory.

Second, the costs of violence today – the immense suffering and misery caused by wars, the spread of weapons, and repressive governments – and the opportunity costs of global military spending and the human and scientific resources currently going into weaponry, make finding peaceful ways of living together and resolving disputes and conflicts an urgent imperative. One hundred years of war have cost well in excess of a hundred million lives, and generated countless refugees and displaced people, as well as incalculable environmental costs, cultural costs, development costs, and the loss of opportunities to improve human welfare and well-being. This violence has become entrenched in our politics, our entertainment, our history, and our belief systems, and past wars – including WWI and WWII – continue to generate new wars and conflicts today.

This brings me to the main reasons why the situation in the world today presents the best opportunity we have had since the inter-war years – the years following 1918 when the “war to end all wars” created a widespread consensus that peace was a better alternative to war – to struggle for nonviolence and a pacifist future. I suggest that there are four reasons for optimism at the present moment in regards to the future of pacifism and nonviolence.

The first reason is that scholars in particular, but also the wider public, are beginning to better understand the limitations and failures of violence and the use of military force. Although it may seem obvious when looking at how two world wars, 290+ local wars and the most recent war on terror have all failed to bring about a more peaceful and secure world, academic research is starting to reveal more precisely how ineffective and unsuccessful violence is. We know from academic research that: states with powerful militaries don’t win wars any more often than states with small militaries, and that powerful states are winning less wars than they used to; that violent movements for social and political change hardly ever succeed; that terrorism rarely if ever achieves its goals; that using violent repression to suppress anti-government protest is largely ineffective; that torture and drone killings have little to no effect on stopping terrorism; that capital punishment does not deter crime; and so on. In short, we know with increasing certainty that violence doesn’t really work, particularly when it aims to achieve something positive. It does work well as a tool of destruction, chaos and for a time, oppression.

Added to this, we now know with greater certainty that the capacity and use of violence does not translate into power or the ability to coerce people into doing what you want them to do; actors like governments or terrorist groups don’t have or wield power because they have the capacity to kill, and using violence produces unpredictable results. The reality is that the use of extreme violence can provoke submission or resistance, despair or rage; the outcome cannot be predicted. Instead, we know that power through consent or persuasion is much more productive and predictable. This is because power flows from relationship, while violence destroys relationship. Violence actually destroys power.

We also know that military force can never be used simply as a tool of statecraft for a limited objective such as humanitarian intervention or toppling a government. This is because to use force in this way requires a whole range of other supporting structures, including arms suppliers and manufacturers, military scientists, trained soldiers, medical support, and social acceptance of state-sanctioned violence and sacrifice in war. It also cannot be used as a tool because means and ends are not separate, but the ends of action are always entwined in the means; all events occur in a never-ending, continuous chain of cause and effect. This is what Gandhi meant when he said “we cannot get a rose through planting a noxious weed… The means may likened to the seed, the end to a tree; and there is just the same inviolable connexion between the means and the ends as there is between the seed and the tree… we reap exactly what we sow.” This is why every war seems to sow the seeds of the next war; and it’s why peace needs to be built through peaceful means.

Further related to this, we know better now that violence is anti-democratic and the opposite of politics. The use of military force requires the centralisation of power, following orders, commanders and hierarchy, and the elimination of debate and dialogue. In contrast, nonviolent movements are radically democratic and participatory, and rooted in dialogue and debate – as all grassroots politics should be.

Finally, we know that the use of violence poses deep ethical challenges because: it treats people as means to an end rather than ends in themselves; it is irreversible and therefore requires moral certainty and absolute conviction to enact; it is dominating, humiliating and world-changing to its victims; and it requires the moral construction of enmity and what Judith Butler calls “grievable versus ungrievable lives”. That is, it requires the production of different categories of human beings – those who are worthy to be protected, and those who can be legitimately killed without grief or remorse.

A second reason for optimism about the prospects of pacifism today is the polar opposite of what I have just talked about – the failures and limitations of violence – and that is the strengths and successes of nonviolence. In 2011, two academics by the name of Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephen published a book entitled Why Civil Resistance Works. It contained the results of a major study comparing the success of nonviolent resistance movements with violent resistant movements over one hundred years. Some of its most important and surprising findings included: that nonviolent movements were twice as successful as violent ones in reaching their goals; that nonviolent movements were highly successful even when facing the most brutal and oppressive opponents, and even when making the most maximalist demands such as regime change or secession; and that nonviolent movements produced societies characterized by greater democracy and respect for human rights, even when they failed – while violent movements most often produced societies characterized by a lack of human rights and lack of democracy.

Other recent research has similarly demonstrated that nonviolent responses to terrorism are more effective at reducing levels of terrorism than violent responses; that unarmed peacekeepers can effectively protect civilians, even in the midst of brutal civil wars; and that communities can use nonviolent methods to create peaceful zones in the midst of violent conflict. In other words, scholars and researchers are beginning to accumulate a body of evidence which demonstrates that nonviolence can be highly effective for bringing about progressive political change, protecting vulnerable civilians, creating secure nonviolent communities, and even for national self-defence. From this perspective, we could also say that we understand more fully now how nonviolence can provide genuine alternatives to war and the use of force.

At the same time, we are starting to understand more fully that nonviolence and pacifism is also more ethical than the use of force because: it maintains consistency between means and ends, and it is the change it seeks to create; it treats people as ends in themselves and maintains their dignity; it is a reversible kind of action and is based on humility rather than moral certainty – it involves experimentation and the search for truth, rather than the certainty which accompanies killing; and it is democratic and empowering of ordinary people.

The outcome of this growing knowledge we have about the successes and strengths of nonviolence is that nonviolent movements are actually spreading around the world, and a number of formerly violent movements are choosing to give up armed struggle in favour of nonviolent resistance. The spread of this knowledge about how to bring about change through peaceful means makes it an ideal time to be working for a nonviolent world.

A third reason for optimism about the current historical juncture, and one which I don’t have time to go into, is simply that the Catholic Church, one of the most influential organisations in the world, has recently rejected the Just War Doctrine and is preparing to embrace nonviolence as its ethical stance. In my view, this is a significant development that provides real impetus to all who want to see an end to war.

Finally, I am optimistic about the potential of pacifism today because I perceive that there is a global wave of resistance to the current international order which rejects the domination of elites, militarism, neoliberal capitalism and the harm being done to the environment. This wave can be traced in some respects to the Occupy movement. While some expressions of this resistance have resulted in increased populism and the empowerment of xenophobia and neo-fascism in some places, elsewhere we are seeing large numbers of particularly young people who can see the connections between inequality, militarism and climate change, and who are looking for ways to contest and transform their own societies and the international system. In this moment of change and resistance, there is a great deal of space for discussing and exploring nonviolent and pacifist ideas of social transformation.

To conclude, I want to ask you to join me in two related endeavours aimed at ending militarism and war, and establishing a more pacifist world society. The first is that we must make a concerted effort to get states to not only give up their nuclear weapons, but give up all their weapons and completely de-militarise. Here, I believe that New Zealand could lead the way, as it did with its opposition to nuclear weapons, by following the example of Costa Rica, which abolished its standing army in 1949 after a violent civil war. Costa Rica’s military budget was subsequently re-allocated to security, welfare and culture, with extraordinary results. A recent article in the Guardian newspaper reported the following:

Every few years the New Economics Foundation publishes the Happy Planet Index – a measure of progress that looks at life expectancy, wellbeing and equality rather than the narrow metric of GDP, and plots these measures against ecological impact. Costa Rica tops the list of countries every time. With a life expectancy of 79.1 years and levels of wellbeing in the top 7% of the world, Costa Rica matches many Scandinavian nations in these areas and neatly outperforms the United States. And it manages all of this with a GDP per capita of only $10,000 (£7,640), less than one fifth that of the US. In this sense, Costa Rica is the most efficient economy on earth: it produces high standards of living with low GDP and minimal pressure on the environment.

The article went on to suggest that the reason for this extraordinary success was

all down to Costa Rica’s commitment to universalism: the principle that everyone – regardless of income – should have equal access to generous, high-quality social services as a basic right. A series of progressive governments started rolling out healthcare, education and social security in the 1940s and expanded these to the whole population from the 1950s onward, after abolishing the military and freeing up more resources for social spending.

It is not that Costa Rica is today some kind of utopia, but simply that dissolving the military is a viable and realistic goal that would result in a great many tangible benefits if the New Zealand people chose to do it. Most importantly, it would be an example to other countries to follow suit.

A second endeavor you might consider supporting is the effort to build a national peace memorial to New Zealand’s Conscientious Objectors in Dunedin. The Archibald Baxter Memorial Trust, which I sit on, is organising this effort. We have now reached the stage where we have a site, resource consent, a design and a project manager. We only need the financial resources to start work. Part of the task of ridding the world of war and militarism involves recognizing the importance and legitimacy of conscientious objectors and the alternative to war that they symbolize. Until we honour the peacemakers and war resisters as much as we honour the warriors and war makers, and until we can collectively remember the people and successes of nonviolence as much as we can remember the history of war, it will be an uphill struggle to promote the cause of pacifism. Today might be the best opportunity in a century to make pacifism and nonviolence the foundation of a more just, more equal and more sustainable society.

Rangimarie kia koutou

[This talk was given at the Christchurch Transitional Cathedral, Sunday 26 August 2018 as part of the Prophets in the Cathedral series.]



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The Pacifism Papers 2: The Pacifist State

In the last couple of years, I have been working on a project funded by the Marsden Fund of New Zealand about how pacifism is suppressed and subjugated as a theory and practice of politics. During this time, I have given lectures to different groups about my findings. The following talk was given recently in October 2017 at a Study Day in Auckland, New Zealand, organised by the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship.


The recent decision of the Catholic Church to repudiate the theological justification for war deals a powerful blow to the idea of ‘just war’ – an idea entrenched in our society and culture, and considered by most people to be nothing more than commonsense. At the same time, it raises the important question: should nation states possess the weapons and means of war? Should they even have military forces? After all, if there are no circumstances in which war can be initiated and conducted justly, then why would we need militaries trained and equipped to fight war?

Interestingly, the idea of dismantling state militaries and replacing them with what is called “social defence”, or “civilian-based defence” – leading to what we would call a Pacifist State, one which no longers possesses the means to wield military force – is not new. It was an idea studied and discussed widely up until the 1990s. Some of the books written about this topic include: Baradford Lyttle’s 1958 book, National Defense Through Nonviolent Resistance; Adam Roberts’ 1967 book, The Strategy of Civilian Defence: Non-violent Resistance to Aggression; the 1974 book, War Without Weapons: Non-violence in National Defence by Anders Boserup and Andrew Mack; Gustaaf Geeraerts’ 1977 book, Possibilities of Civilian Defence in Western Europe; Gene Sharp’s 1985 book, Making Europe Unconquerable: The Potential of Civilian-based Deterrence and Defense, which was followed by his 1990 book with Bruce Jenkins called Civilian-Based Defense: A Post-Military Weapons System. In 1993, Brian Martin wrote Social Defence, Social Change; the 1996 book, The Strategy of Nonviolent Defense: A Gandhian Approach by Robert Burrowes; and in 1996, Franklin Zahn published a book called, Alternative to the Pentagon: Nonviolent Methods of Defending a Nation. All these books, as well as many more articles, papers and conferences, were given over to the idea that nation states could dissolve their military forces and replace them with civilian-based forms of nonviolent defence.

However, since then, it is true to say that peace scholars and activists have made little progress in advancing this revolutionary idea. Certainly, apart from Lithuania to a limited extent, no governments have taken it seriously as a possibility, and it is virtually unknown in the world of international relations scholarship or public political discourse. In fact, the obvious lack of attention to the idea led Brian Martin to publish an article in 2014 entitled, “Whatever happened to social defence?” in the journal Social Alternatives. There are of course, many reasons for this widespread neglect: it would threaten the profits of the military-industrial complex, it challenges our cultural values and commonsense ideas about violence, it would empower ordinary people against the forces of social control, it would give the government one less tool to control the masses, it would challenge our war-based sense of national identity, and so on.

Nevertheless, I would like to suggest today, following the pacifist scholar Brian Martin, that we are at an opportune moment for bringing back the proposition that states should completely disarm and dissolve their military forces and commit to a radically nonviolent kind of politics. In addition to the repudiation of just war by the Catholic Church, there are other good reasons for arguing that it is time to take the Pacifist State seriously, and to consider dissolving the military as an institution.

First of all, the last few years, as well as an honest appraisal of the last few centuries, have clearly demonstrated that war and military force is hugely destructive and largely incapable of achieving positive political goals such as creating peace, strengthening democracy, enforcing human rights, defeating fascism, and so on. Instead, it has the tendency to perpetually create the conditions for the following war, not least through the logic of the security dilemma – the fact that building up arms in one state produces anxiety in another, leading to a spiral of insecurity and tension. The war on terror is a perfect example of this broader failure, with millions killed, increased instability, and no reduction in the levels of terrorism and violence.

Second, the existence of nuclear weapons and the continual development of other forms of destructive weaponry makes it extremely risky for the whole world. The dangers of escalation and misperception, and the psychology of crises – such as the current crisis on the Korean Peninsula – make disarmament and demilitarisation a critical priority at the present time.

Third, the costs of war and militarism are unsustainable in a time of climate change and austerity. Global military spending of over a trillion dollars per annum could, and should, be better spent on mitigating the effects of climate change, poverty reduction, healthcare, education, housing and the like. We should also note that militaries are one of the largest producers of greenhouse gases in the world; dissolving them would go a long way to towards reaching carbon reduction targets and perhaps pushing back the worst case scenarios of climate change. Militaries are also a poor form of economic investment: dollar-for-dollar, investing in green technology, for example, produces more jobs and more wealth than investing in the military.

Lastly, as I and many others have shown, today we know that everything that militaries claim to be able to do – such as national defence, humanitarian protection, security, and so on – can be done by other nonviolent means. In other words, we don’t actually need the military anymore. We could do perfectly well without it, and without its risks and costs we could make a much better society and a much better world.

Is Military Force Necessary?

Of course, the idea that nation states need military forces – for self defence, for peacekeeping, for a sense of identity – is so widely accepted these days that it is little more than common sense. Therefore, the first objection that someone will make to the notion of the Pacifist State will be: Does the idea of a demilitarised, unarmed nation state make any sense? Does the prospect of replacing military defence with forms of nonviolent social defence make sense? Related to this, does it make any sense to think that we could protect vulnerable civilians in situations of civil war or genocide without using military forces? I have already suggested some reasons – that militaries are horribly expensive, they haven’t done a good job of creating peace, they contribute to climate change, and so on. But are there are other reasons why it would make sense to dissolve the military.

I would argue that it does make sense – it actually makes more sense than keeping the military in place – if you understand a few things about the nature of violence, and the nature of nonviolence. First of all, it makes sense when you recognise some of the prevalent myths that surround our collective understanding of violence and what it can purportedly do. Most people think that having military force and the ability to use violence means that we have power, and that we can force others to either stop doing something we don’t like (deterrence) or do something we want them to do (compelance). The belief is that with violent capabilities we can deter others from attacking us, force others to stop committing abuses, or establish the conditions for peace and democracy. According to this belief, violence can be used as a predictable tool of politics: bomb ISIS and you will deter them from attacking the West; invade Gaza or Iraq and you will stop terrorist attacks; overthrow Gaddafi and you will bring democracy to Libya; arm the police and you will prevent attacks on tourists in Paris; and so on.

However, this is a belief that misunderstands and confuses the relationship between violence, force, and power, and particularly, the relationship between brute force and coercion. In fact, the effectiveness of violence to deter or compel depends entirely on how people respond to the violence, not the violence itself, and the capacity to kill and destroy actually bears little relation to the ability to coerce. Just because you can threaten me with violence does not guarantee that I will obey you or submit to your wishes. In reality, the application of violence can provoke either deterrence or retaliation, intimidation or rage, submission or resistance, and the desired response can never be assured. Even when force is used for purportedly good reasons – such as intervening to protect civilians from violent attack – the response by the actors involved and those who are witnessing it cannot be predicted. In a great many cases, including Kosovo, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Libya, and elsewhere, so-called well-intentioned interventions have ended up killing large numbers of civilians and provoking more widespread violence and instability. Military force and violence, is therefore, an unreliable tool of politics because it produces a great many unpredictable outcomes – as the rise of ISIS and the defiance of North Korea indicates.

More broadly, a realistic understanding of the current global balance of forces (in which most states cannot realistically defend themselves from the large states), and a realistic understanding of the security dilemma demonstrates that the common faith in military force is misplaced. The truth is that New Zealand, or most other countries in the world, could not use their military forces to protect the nation from invasion, especially if it was from a powerful nation. Out of the world’s 200 or so nation states, only a handful could successfully use military force to repel an invasion. More importantly, in a world of nuclear weapons, the military would be impotent to stop a nuclear attack.

Added to this, we know that the possession of military force actually makes other nations nervous and anxious, because they cannot be sure of the real reason why we possess military forces. We may claim it’s solely for defence, but other states cannot be sure it’s not for a preemptive attack. This is called the “security dilemma”, and its internal logic dictates that states must keep up a sufficient level forces to deter other states from being tempted to attack them first. So, if we combine nuclear weapons with the security dilemma, the result is a world where the possession of military forces makes arms races inevitable and misperceptions, tensions and crises much more likely. In other words, military forces actually contribute more to international insecurity than to security; they make us more likely to be attacked – and if we were attacked, they are unlikely to help us much, anyway.

So much for the myths of violence and what it can do. Nonviolence, on the other hand, can do all the things that violence purports to do, and it has a better record of successfully achieving its goals over the past one hundred years or so. For example, nonviolence can be used to exert power, to deter actions, and to coerce – through things like boycotts, mass demonstrations, the threat of sanctions, physical interposition, and the like. It can make even powerful states change their behaviour. Gandhi and King demonstrated this in their struggles in India and the United States. This means that if the purpose of the military is to exert power and deter opponents, then an alternative exists; we can use nonviolence to do the same things that are most often claimed to be the exclusive domain of violence.

Perhaps more importantly, well-known research by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephen in their 2011 book, Why Civil Resistance Works, shows that over the past one hundred years or so, nonviolent movements have been twice as successful as violent movements in achieving their goals, even when the goal involves a major demand like regime change or secession, and even when it involves a very ruthless opponent. Apart from the well-known cases of Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King in the United States, other examples of successful nonviolent movements include: the solidarity movement in Poland; the people power movement in the Philippines; the Iranian revolution; the singing revolution in the Baltic states; the velvet revolution in Czechoslovakia; the peaceful revolution in East Germany; the bloodless revolution in Bulgaria; the colour revolutions in Ukraine, Serbia and Georgia; the wave of democratic transitions during the 1990s in Africa; the cedar revolution in Lebanon; the Arab Spring; and many more individual cases. There are even examples of successful nonviolent resistance to the Nazis during WWII.

Added to this, there is also a growing literature on how unarmed peacekeeping can be a highly successful means of protecting vulnerable civilians in the midst of civil war and widespread violence. Studies are now coming in from places like Syria, Colombia, South Sudan and elsewhere which show that in many cases, being unarmed actually assists peacekeepers and nonviolent peace volunteers in protecting civilians. In short, it is simply not the case that military forces are necessary for deterrence or for protecting vulnerable people. Nonviolence can do anything that violence can do (apart from kill and destroy, obviously), and it has a historical record of success that is better than that of military force.

It can also be argued that dissolving the military makes sense if the real purpose of the government is the protection and well-being of its people. That is, if we look over history, we can note that the military has most often been used not in self defence against other nations, but as a force for the suppression of groups and individual citizens within the state itself. This is certainly true for the post-colonial states, in which the military was deployed for decades in the suppression of indigenous peoples. Getting rid of the military, therefore, is a way of guaranteeing that it cannot be used against the people. Second, as mentioned, in modern war, civilians bear the brunt of the casualties: in wars since 1945, around 90 percent of casualties have been civilians. We know from the research that nonviolent resistance to invasion and armed attack results in fewer civilian casualties than when violent resistance is used. If states want to protect their civilians, in other words, they should not use the military but use nonviolent means to protect the lives of their citizens.

Dissolving the military also makes sense if you understand the nature and purpose of politics, how violence is actually the negation of politics, and how difference and deep-rooted conflict is part of the central human condition. That is, the purpose of politics is help people deal with their differences and conflicts through dialogue and compromise, which is the opposite of violence. Violence destroys the possibility of dialogue and compromise; it destroys the possibility of persuading your opponent, or of being persuaded by your opponent. Instead, it eradicates the Other; while politics is about treating people as equals and with dignity, violence is about eradicating people altogether.

In other words, the risk of maintaining a standing military is that, as we have seen in so many countries, when there is a deep political crisis or conflict, the military will be used to settle it, most often by violently eradicating those it views as the enemy. That is, one of the central problems with modern states, rooted as they are on the monopoly of legitimate violence, is that in an intense political crisis, or a perceived threat, the governing party (or elite factions) can always resort to military violence as the final form of arbitration. Removing the military from politics, and replacing it with civilian defence, therefore would remove one of the permissive conditions of violent political conflict. In short, this implies, as Stanley Hauerwas puts it, that ‘nonviolence is the necessary condition for a politics not based on death’.

Finally, dissolving the military also makes sense if you understand the inseparability of means and ends. It is common to think of the military as a tool – an instrument which can be picked up, used for a purpose, and then put back in the toolbox. But this is a false understanding of reality. In reality, the way we act, and the things we do, define us and shape us; they create or constitute us. In terms of the military, using military force is rooted in a specific kind of logic, and once you actually use this kind of logic, it is almost impossible to break free of the logic. Instead, military logic becomes a normal part of political thinking. More broadly, in order to use military force, you first have to construct a war system and a war society to support it. You have to have scientists and engineers who design weapons, strategists who design military strategy, suppliers who make the weapons, medical professionals who look after the troops when they’re ill or injured, laws and doctrines governing the use of violence and killing, cultural beliefs that support killing and dying for the nation (as seen in popular entertainment and children’s toys, for example), categories of friend and enemy, and worthy and unworthy victims, memorialisation for the war dead, and so on. All these practices, processes and institutions have to become embedded in society. They thus shape and impact society; they create and reaffirm a society based on violence. In the end, they make society into a war system.

From this perspective, it is not possible to make society more peaceful through using military means, just as it is not possible to make society more truthful by telling lots of lies. Gandhi argued this point by suggesting that the belief that we can separate means and ends would be the same as thinking “that we can get a rose through planting a noxious weed.” He goes on to say, “The means may be likened to a seed, the end to a tree; and there is just the same inviolable connexion between the means and the end as there is between the seed and the tree… We reap exactly what we sow”. ​This is not to say that the military cannot do good in the short-term, but rather, as Gandhi again, puts it: “I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.” The philosopher Hannha Arendt makes a similar point; she says “[t]he practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world.”

Is a Pacifist State Realistic

A second and final objection to the idea of dissolving the military will be this: Is the Pacifist State a realistic proposition? How might it work in practice? Are there any real-world practical examples? On the basis of the research I mentioned at the beginning of my talk, and a great deal more recent research, I would argue that dissolving the military and creating a pacifist state is not only practical and realistic, but it is also essential for the survival and flourishing of the planet and its people. Although not as well researched or well known as all the wars and military campaigns, there are some important areas of nonviolent research which strongly indicated that it is indeed realistic to think about how a pacifist state would work in practice.

Interestingly, anthropologists have found that peaceful, non-warring societies exist today and have existed for thousands of years; they have documented at least 74 of them. They have also found that there were many non-warring regions of the world, where political communities lived in mutual peace with other nations for long periods of history. In other words, there are historical precedents for peaceful nations living together without the practice of institution of war.

More recently, there is a rapidly growing literature on what are known as “local peace practices” and “peace formations” in which groups and communities have mobilised and established forms of peaceful life rooted in nonviolence, social justice, equality, and so on. This is sometimes referred to as the “nonwarring communities” literature, and it details how villages, towns and even cities have constructed nonviolent communities, often in the midst of very violent civil wars and widespread violence. They have done so through a variety of strategies, including disarmament, dialogue and negotiation with armed groups, nonviolent resistance, self-rule, boycotts and a great many other strategies relevant to their situation. The existence of these communities in the real world suggests that it is practical and realistic to consider forms of security and protection based on nonviolence.

Related to this, I have already mentioned that there is an important and growing literature on unarmed peacekeeping and civilian protection. This literature shows that even in extremely repressive and violent contexts, unarmed peace activists can succeed in deterring violence against civilians and protecting vulnerable people from harm – through strategies such as negotiating with armed actors, accompaniment, interposition, information gathering, humanising potential victims, relationship building, and so on. Such cases indicate once again that armed actors are not essential for protection; it is possible to protect people from violent actors without using counter-violence.

Another important phenomenon we ought to consider is those nation states without national militaries. Although most of them are small states and/or island states, such as Samoa, Panama, Iceland, Haiti, and others, this does not necessarily detract from the argument that it would be possible to have a nation state without a military. Costa Rica, for example, abolished its standing army in 1949 following a civil war, and has remained free of large-scale violent internal conflict since. Its military budget was subsequently re-allocated to security, welfare and culture, with extraordinary results. A recent article in the Guardian newspaper reported the following:

Every few years the New Economics Foundation publishes the Happy Planet Index – a measure of progress that looks at life expectancy, wellbeing and equality rather than the narrow metric of GDP, and plots these measures against ecological impact. Costa Rica tops the list of countries every time. With a life expectancy of 79.1 years and levels of wellbeing in the top 7% of the world, Costa Rica matches many Scandinavian nations in these areas and neatly outperforms the United States. And it manages all of this with a GDP per capita of only $10,000 (£7,640), less than one fifth that of the US.

In this sense, Costa Rica is the most efficient economy on earth: it produces high standards of living with low GDP and minimal pressure on the environment. The article went on to suggest that the reason for this extraordinary success was

all down to Costa Rica’s commitment to universalism: the principle that everyone – regardless of income – should have equal access to generous, high-quality social services as a basic right. A series of progressive governments started rolling out healthcare, education and social security in the 1940s and expanded these to the whole population from the 1950s onward, after abolishing the military and freeing up more resources for social spending.

The point is not that Costa Rica is some kind of utopia, but simply that such real world examples lend further weight to the argument that dissolving the military is a viable and realistic goal that could result in tangible gains. As the peace scholar Kenneth Boulding put it, “Anything that exists is possible”. ​Clearly, Pacifist states like Costa Rica exist; therefore, a Pacifist State is realistically possible.

Following this, and as I alluded to at the start of my talk, there is a growing literature on civilian national defence models – or what is often called “social defence” – which demonstrate realistic possibilities for thinking beyond military forces as the primary tool for national defence, in particular. This literature details literally hundreds of strategies and tactics for deterring and defending against foreign invasion, from symbolic actions like rallies, fasts and the use of symbols, to practical, coordinated mass actions like establishing alternative communication systems and leadership structures, the sabotage of vital equipment and transportation, noncooperation, boycotts, strikes, obstruction, sit-ins, counter-propaganda, and many more. Importantly, social defence requires planning, investment, training, and the development of appropriate technology, and it is designed to ensure that the population can function and act independently of any occupying government. In other words, it is a strategy to empower the population so that they can resist domination by an invading or occupying force and can take actions in support of their own well-being. You can see that this is one reason why governments prefer to stick with military forces which they can control. Few governments, even enlightened ones, want their own people to be so empowered that they can resist efforts to control them.

Along with the reduced costs and risks which come from dissolving the military, there are a number of other benefits which would come from a pacifist state that relies on social defence and unarmed peacekeeping, rather than on its military forces. Most notably, engaging the public in social defence would expand democratic participation and provide civic education and inclusion in politics; it would help to break down hostile group identities and forge a new national identity based on peace rather than war; it would help to build local capacity and strengthen local peace; and it would reassure other states as to our peaceful intentions.


In conclusion, for all the reasons I have suggested in this talk, I am calling for the dissolution of the New Zealand military forces and the reinvestment of the huge savings this would entail into developing a social defence system, unarmed peacekeeping, peace education, social justice, environmental protection, and the promotion of New Zealand as an international peace-maker. Last year, the government announced that “up to $20 billion will be spent on New Zealand’s Defence Force over the next 15 years”. This sum would go a long way towards making the country more secure and working towards greater peace, development and environmental protection. It would allow us to make New Zealand a Pacifist State which was a real force for peace in the world.

Moreover, with the recent change in position of the Catholic Church towards war, the threat posed by nuclear weapons, and the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the anti-nuclear group, ICAN, and the growing evidential base for nonviolence, now is an ideal time to reinvigorate this important idea and re-start the efforts of the broader peace movement to disarm and dissolve the military and create New Zealand as a Pacifist State. We need to start lobbying government and convincing our fellow citizens that this is the best way forward. However, we should also acknowledge that as Brian Martin and others remind us, at the heart of social defence is the idea of local defence of the community and grassroots empowerment. If this is the case, then we don’t have to wait for governments to lead the way; we can start building resilience and peace in our own communities right now.


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The Pacifism Papers 1: Answering the Objections to Pacifism

In the last couple of years, I have been working on a project funded by the Marsden Fund of New Zealand about how pacifism is suppressed and subjugated as a theory and practice of politics. During this time, I have given lectures to different groups about my findings. Here, and in some following posts, I will upload a few of the talks. It should be noted that more “academic” versions of these talks, including all the relevant citations, can be found here, here and here. The following talk was given in November 2016 at a Study Day in Auckland, New Zealand, organised by the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship.


In late 2015, a major public controversy erupted in the United Kingdom over Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition to the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent and his opposition to the bombing of Syria. Despite his assertion that he supported the use of military force under certain conditions, he was publicly labelled a “pacifist” by a great many critics from within the government, the media, and his own party. Moreover, the way that the criticisms were expressed suggested that the label “pacifist” was being used as a term of shame and insult. For example, he was accused of holding to a kind of “diehard pacifism”, and some of his own MPs claimed he was a “cheerleader” for an “angry, intolerant pacifism”. Another media commentator mockingly called him a “unilateralist ‘pacifist’”, and quoting George Orwell, referred to his foreign policy views as “squashily pacifist”. In other cases, Corbyn’s “pacifist” views were discussed as a key part of his “wacky foreign policy ideas”.

In addition, Corbyn’s “pacifist” views were considered by many to be naïve and unrealistic. One national newspaper referred to “his utopian principles”, while another commentator suggested: “Discussion is all very well until someone decides that it isn’t; and then pacifism leaves you as a bystander. Welcome to the real world…” Related to this, a former Labour shadow minister, Chuka Umunna, said: “Jeremy Corbyn’s pacifist views should disqualify him from office because he cannot keep Britain safe”. An article by a Labour activist, referencing the World War II narrative of appeasement, argued that Corbyn’s “pacifism” came from a position of “peace at any price”, while an article in the Telegraph argued that his position was dangerous because it “encourages our enemies to think us weak, encouraging them to act and makes war more, not less likely”. Lord West, a former Labour Minister, said he would “not tolerate a shift to waving the white flag… Because I don’t believe that being a pacifist – although it’s an admirable thing for an individual – I don’t believe it’s a way for someone to look after our nation because we are in a very, very dangerous and nasty world”.

I have recounted this incident in some detail because it illustrates the very low regard with which pacifism is held in our culture: the fact that the term “pacifist” can be used as an insult without any real objections tells us a lot about its abject status. More importantly, it illustrates some of the main objections that are frequently made against pacifism, such as that it is naïve, unrealistic, dangerous, immoral and so on. Here, I will address the most common objections to pacifism, and explain how we can answer them and defend the integrity and intelligence of pacifism.

Objections to Pacifism

The most common objections to pacifism, which you will find in the media, in academia, in political discourse, and in the conversation of friends, relatives and people you meet on the street, are as follows:

First, it is commonly argued that pacifism represents a single absolute moral position which, because it rejects any and all force and violence, makes it unsuitable for politics and society.

Second, it is not unusual to see pacifism described as a form of passivity which entails doing nothing in the face of violent attack: the most common form of this argument involves establishing a stark choice between using military force and “doing nothing”. Sometimes, this particular narrative is accompanied by the argument that pacifism is actually dangerous because it signals weakness and thereby encourages aggression, and that it is immoral because it is unwilling to protect endangered others in order to preserve personal principle.

A third analogy used to discredit pacifism is the so-called individual attacker analogy, in which a scenario involving a violent personal attack becomes the basis for arguing that pacifists are either immoral (because they would stand by and do nothing to protect themselves or their loved ones from an individual attacker) or inconsistent (because they would not extend an act of individual self-defence to the level of the nation).

A fourth, and probably the most common objection, is that pacifism is ineffective, especially in the face of overwhelming force wielded by an unprincipled foe. Nonviolence, it is argued, only worked in the past because it was employed against democracies. In particular, the historical experience of Hitler and the Nazis proves that nonviolence is hopelessly naïve and unrealistic, and military force is the only way to stop certain kinds of wrongs and threats.

A final objection is that pacifism is naïve and unrealistic about the perfectibility of human nature and the nature of evil, and cannot therefore contribute to serious discussions about how to deal with violence and threats in the real world.

So let me try and answer these objections one by one.

Pacifism is a single absolute moral position:

In answer to the objection that pacifism is a single kind of absolutist moral position, it can be argued that even a cursory reading of the existing pacifist literature reveals a continuum of ethical and political positions on force and violence, and, similar to other moral theories like just war theory or cosmopolitanism, there are a variety of different forms of pacifism, including: “absolute pacifism”, “collectivist pacifism”, “technological pacifism”, “nuclear pacifism”, “environmental pacifism”, and “pragmatic pacifism” – among others. Like other kinds of philosophies – realism, feminism, environmentalism, and so on – there are many different types of pacifists and pacifist positions.

Pacifism is a form of passivity:

In answer to the objection that pacifism is a form a passivity – that pacifists would rather “do nothing” in the face of violence – it is obvious that even a cursory reading of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or Gene Sharp, among others, reveals, far from being a form of passivity, pacifism and nonviolence is rooted in a vigorous, practical opposition to violence, as well as a comprehensive political project aimed at constructing a nonviolent form of politics. As the political philosopher, Duane Cady puts it, “pacifists do not claim that it is wrong to resist violence. On the contrary, they claim that violence should be resisted. They just believe that there are strong moral grounds for preferring to do so nonviolently”. In fact, pacifists insist that, to quote Gandhi, pacifism “does not mean meek submission… it means pitting one’s whole soul against the will of the tyrant.”

Pacifists also dispute the argument that pacifism is dangerous because it signals weakness and thereby encourages aggression. Although this is difficult to fully evaluate because there are so few truly pacifist states in the world and we don’t know whether such states would be attacked because they are perceived to be weak, it could be argued that unarmed states, posing no offensive threat, may in fact, be subject to less aggression. Certainly, we do know that armed states provoke a condition known as “the security dilemma” in which fears about the intentions of armed states creates suspicion, tensions and arms races.

Pacifists also argue that there are functional alternatives to the use of force for national security or the protection of vulnerable others, and that far from being immoral to employ nonviolence, it is in fact immoral to suggest that we should protect some people by killing others, or to engage in violent actions which will perpetuate the conditions for future acts of violence. In other words, it is not that pacifists reject violence merely in order to preserve personal principle, but rather they reject it as part of an effort to dismantle the conditions which perpetuate violence into the future.

The individual attacker analogy:

The individual attacker analogy in which pacifists are challenged as to what they would do if an armed criminal was trying to kill their loved ones is similarly easily rebutted. Apart from the substantive differences that exist between individuals and large social groups which prevent easy comparison, this analogy misses the obvious point that unlike a contained incident between a small number of individuals, the use of military force is a form of organized violence which requires extensive preparation, major social organisation, the maintenance of a permanent military force, a supporting economic base, the construction of a violence-supporting culture (including the cultivation of enmity sufficient for the mass killing of other human beings), and in practice, the organised and deliberate killing by and of people who have no direct involvement in the dispute itself.

While some forms of pacifism reject any and all forms of violence, including defensive personal violence, most pacifists would accept individual defensive violence, if necessary, and the use of force by the police to prevent wrong-doing. It is mass organized violence in the form of war that they are opposed to, given that there are viable and more ethical and successful alternatives.

Pacifism is ineffective, especially against groups like the Nazis:

The philosopher Duane Cady suggests that, “[w]hen faced with the objection ‘it won’t work’, the pacifist response must be, simply, that nonviolent action does work and has a history to document the claim.”  Specifically, there are a number of bodies of academic literature which speak to the success and potential of nonviolence. For example, there are growing case study and statistical literatures on:

  • The success of nonviolent movements in overthrowing authoritarian regimes, changing substantial policies, repelling occupations, and winning independence for subnational groups. This is the ground-breaking research based on Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s 2011 study on Why Civil Resistance Works where they examined 100 years of violent and nonviolent campaigns and found that nonviolent campaigns were more than twice as successful as violent campaigns, even under the most severe forms of repression. More importantly, this research clearly demonstrates that nonviolence produces better long-term outcomes than violence – even when it fails. Apart from the well-known cases of Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King in the United States, other examples of successful nonviolent movements include: the solidarity movement in Poland; the people power movement in the Philippines; the Iranian revolution; the singing revolution in the Baltic states; the velvet revolution in Czechoslovakia; the peaceful revolution in East Germany; the bloodless revolution in Bulgaria; the colour revolutions in Ukraine, Serbia and Georgia; the third wave of democracy in Africa; the cedar revolution in Lebanon; the Arab Spring; and many more individual cases. There are even examples of successful nonviolent resistance to the Nazis during WWII.
  • There is another important literature on the success of unarmed peacekeeping and nonviolent accompaniment in situations of violent conflict, including in situations like Colombia and South Sudan. This literature includes cases where UN troops chose to be unarmed, as well as nonviolent peace-forces such as Peace Brigades International.
  • There is an emerging literature on the success of nonviolent community-led efforts to resist incursion by armed groups and protect communities, including in the midst of violent civil wars such as in Colombia, Somalia, and Syria. There are extraordinary cases of towns and communities successfully resisting ISIS, the Colombian militias, the Mexican narcos, Brazilian death squads, etc. While the cases are often small-scale, not always effective, and nascent, they nonetheless gesture towards potential alternative approaches to the use of violence as a form of security management.
  • Related to this, there is a longstanding literature on the possibilities of civilian-based forms of national defense. Rooted in both the realistic recognition that most states in the world would be unable to defend themselves from invasion by the most powerful states using military force (and such resistance would be very costly in terms of life and destruction), and some cases of successful nonviolent resistance to invaders (such as India and Lithuania), such approaches provide strategies for civil non-cooperation, raising the costs of occupation and coercing invaders.

It’s important to note that these literatures do not suggest that nonviolence works every time and in every case; there is no silver bullet for anything in politics; certainly, we know that violence doesn’t work every time and in every case. But, we do know that nonviolence works well in a great many documented cases and in different areas, and these literatures gesture towards the immense possibilities of nonviolent action. In fact, the probability is that we have greatly under-estimated how effective nonviolence is historically, especially if we look closely at local struggles which have so far been undocumented – such as the landless peasant movement in Brazil, environmental activism to stop dams, oil pipelines, the protection of habitats, etc, local efforts to prevent the building of industries such as smelters, etc etc.

On the other hand, an alternative approach is to admit with the ethical philosopher Robert Holmes that

“we simply do not know whether there is a viable practical alternative to violence, and will not and cannot know unless we are willing to make an effort, comparable to the multibillion-dollar-a-year effort currently made to produce means of destruction and train young people in their use, to explore the potential of nonviolent action.”

Holmes goes on to argue: “No one can foresee what the results might be if a country like the United States were to spend $300 billion a year in research on techniques of nonviolent resistance and on educating and training people in their use.”

The related objection here that pacifism would not work against an evil, unprincipled opponent, and that movements such as Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King in America only succeeded because their opponents were democracies, is belied by both the evidence of the kind of brutality Gandhi and King’s movements faced, but also the empirical research demonstrating that the success of nonviolent movements is not limited to cases where they opposed democratic states, but holds under situations of severe forms of repression. The successes of these movements can be attributed to the combination of strategic actions, contexts, and attributes of the movements; that is, they cannot be dismissed as outliers.

Crucially, there are a number of possible responses to the Nazi analogy, which argues that some actors are so evil and ruthless that they can only be resisted through the adoption of greater counter-violence. Although this is a very challenging case for pacifists (as well as those who advocate violence), as the philosopher Robert Holmes reminds us, “we should remember that there need be no inconsistency in holding that the war against Nazi Germany was justified but that war today is unjustified” – given modern weaponry, nuclear weapons, the proportion of civilians killed in wars, and the many options to resolving international conflicts that currently exist.

In addition, it is critical to acknowledge the temporal aspects of the argument and the way in which it is most often framed. That is, as Robert Holmes once again puts it:

While nonviolence obviously could not have pushed back German armour on the battlefield once the institutions of militarism had been allowed to mature and the self-propelling mechanism of a military state put into motion, it might have been effective at an earlier stage in preventing the rise to power of those responsible. If the historical fact is that military means stopped Hitler once he began to march, it is also an historical fact that reliance upon such means on the part of the world’s nations did not prevent his rise to power in the first place. … [and] had military action not been taken, say, until 1943 (or if Germany… [had] perfected the atom bomb first), it is unlikely that Hitler could have been stopped this way either.

In responding to this particular case, it is also important to interrogate what the aims of employing violence against the axis powers were. If they were simply to defend against or repel foreign invasion by destroying the enemy’s will to continue fighting, then the military campaign, after much cost, succeeded. On the other hand, if its purpose was to protect civilians, save European Jews, end future military aggression, defeat the forces of fascism, or create a more peaceful world, then the allied use of force in World War II clearly failed.

Pacifism is naïve and unrealistic about the perfectibility of human nature and the nature of evil:

The philosopher Dustin Howes, reacting to the suggestion that pacifists are naïve and idealistic, and looking at the record of military violence, suggests instead that, “The weight of extensive empirical evidence demonstrates that the practitioners of violence are more often the tragic idealists than are pacifists.”  What he is referring to here is this profound failure of military force which is evident in, among others: (1) the total failure of more than 15 years of the global war on terror launched after 9/11 which has resulted in 1.4 million deaths, millions of refugees, the spread of torture, AND at the same time, a corresponding increase in the number of terrorist attacks and terrorist groups; (2) the history of the post-war period which has seen 300 plus wars, many of them lasting more than 20 years, with 30-40 million deaths; and (3) the history of the past century in which “the war system” has resulted in over 100 million dead, tens of millions displaced, truly vast scarce resources spent on the military, the spread of nuclear weapons – and with little to no directly correlated increase in security, peace, stability or democracy.

Dustin Howes is also referring to growing body of academic research which clearly shows how ineffective military violence is for achieving political and strategic goals. This research includes, among others:

  • the studies which show that states with greater material capabilities are no more likely to win wars than those with weaker capabilities, and these days are winning wars less often;
  • the studies which show how ineffective air campaigns are in achieving political results;
  • the studies which show that violent state repression of popular protest is ineffective;
  • the studies which show that the death penalty does not work to deter crime;
  • the studies which question the effectiveness of both torture and drone killings to reduce terrorism;
  • and the empirical studies which show how ineffective both terrorism and violent forms of counterterrorism are.

The fact is, any objective evaluation of the use of military violence over the past century reveals how seldom large-scale political violence works to achieve its aims, how unpredictable are its long-term consequences, and how the application of increasing force and the achievement of success (both strategic and political) bears little to no direct relation to each other.

So why is violence such a failure? What are the reasons for its abysmal record? I want to suggest four main reasons why violence most often does not work in the real world:

First, it doesn’t work because it misunderstands the relationship between violence and coercion, and between violence and power. That is, it misunderstands how actual, real violence functions in the real world, and instead assumes that the application of overwhelming and targeted force will compel people to submit or comply. In the real world, it is not possible to say that this much violence will result in this outcome. In the real world, the effectiveness of violence to deter or compel depends entirely on how people respond to the violence, not the violence itself. That is, the capacity to kill and destroy bears no direct relation to the ability to coerce; in the real world, the application of violence can provoke either deterrence or retaliation, intimidation or rage, submission or resistance, and the desired response can never be assured. This is why proponents of violence so often mistake the reliability of violence as a political instrument.

Related to this, the sociologist Stellan Vinthagen explains how power and violence are analytically distinct, and as a consequence, “the most extreme result of violence – the killing of a human being – is something that ensures that there will never again be subordination within that relationship. Killing results in an absolute absence of power. In fact, violence is a… failure of power.” In a sense, the use of violence is not a symbol of power and control, but a sign that one has lost all power over one’s opponent.

Second, the proponents of violence misunderstand the conditions and processes which make violence possible in the first place – in particular, how it requires an enabling set of beliefs and ideas which make it legitimate and meaningful to its perpetrators and its audience. What this means is that the deliberate use of violence as a political tool constitutes the conditions for its own practice. Thus, when the proponents of humanitarian intervention for example, argue that we should employ violence to protect people, or when politicians say that we should use violence to stop the violence of ISIS, those actions say clearly and loudly that: “it is legitimate to use violence against those who use violence against you or others, and violence is a legitimate tool of politics”. The most predictable consequence of this is to establish violence at the heart of all politics and make it a part of conflict.

A more realistic assessment of the nature of violence clearly shows that while it can achieve immediate things like dead bodies, screams, pain, suffering, and material destruction, and while it can sometimes achieve certain short-term goals like the destruction of an enemy’s means to fight, its longer term effects are by virtue of its constitutive and world-shattering nature, unpredictable and virtually always ends-destroying. As Gandhi put it: “I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.”

A third related reason why violence fails is because it can never be purely instrumental – it is not, and can never be just a tool of politics. Rather, violence is productive and constitutive; it makes the world as it is being used. At the very least, we know that military violence is not simply a tool because to even have the tool available to use, you first need to have (1) a well-armed, trained and maintained military institution; (2) economic processes designed to fund and supply the military; (3) a knowledge-producing and scientific system to train the members of the military and invent new weapons systems for them to use; (4) a supporting cultural and ideological system to normalize and make acceptable killing and dying for nation and the sacrifice of scarce resources for the military as an institution; and (5) a legal and ethical system which defines friends and enemies, worthy and unworthy victims, threats and dangers, and legitimate and illegitimate killing. The point is that all of these processes leave their mark on society both before, and long after, it has gone to war; they are all part of the building blocks and everyday practices of society – they make a world of violent actors and supporters who all believe that violence is sometimes necessary and justified. In other words, the idea that violence can be employed as a tool “misses the link between violence as doing and violence as being”, especially “when we take into account that our bodies themselves are prime instruments of violence.”

Fourth, and related to the misunderstanding of violence as a kind of tool, it does not work because it misunderstands the relationship between means and ends – which cannot be separated. The military can never be used as the means to a separate end because the outcomes of political actions – actually, of all social action – are prefigured in the means. That is, “[h]owever hard we try to separate means and ends, the results we achieve are extensions of the policies we live… Means and ends are aspects of one and the same event.” Gandhi argued this point by suggesting that the belief that we can separate means and ends would be the same as thinking “that we can get a rose through planting a noxious weed.” He goes on to say, “The means may be likened to a seed, the end to a tree; and there is just the same inviolable connexion between the means and the end as there is between the seed and the tree… We reap exactly what we sow”. Similarly, the philosopher Hannah Arendt argued that “[t]he practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world.”

From this perspective, it is in fact, implausible that peaceful ends (such as security, or democracy, or the creation of non-warring communities) can be achieved by violent, harmful means – just as it is implausible that trust can be built by deception, that love can be generated by fear, or that equality can be achieved through a system of privilege and domination.

In short, it is not pacifism which is naïve and unrealistic about human nature and the real world, but the believers in violence: it is they who operate with a naïve view of what violence can do. It is for this reason that a growing number of scholars are beginning to articulate a form of political theory which has radical nonviolence – pacifism – at its centre. Based on a realistic appreciation that difference and conflict is inherent to the human condition, and the need for humility and reversibility of action is crucial to politics, proponents of what Karuna Mantena calls “Gandhian realism” argue that only a kind of politics based on complete and total nonviolence can avoid violence in politics and the perpetuation of endless war. Or, as Stanley Hauerwas, reflecting on the events of 9/11, expressed it, “nonviolence is the necessary condition for a politics not based on death.”


I want to conclude by acknowledging what I know many of you are thinking: despite all the reasonable arguments and evidence I have presented in response to the objections here, it is nonetheless incredibly idealistic to think that pacifism and nonviolence could ever gain a wider acceptance and become part of our politics, our foreign policy, and our culture. After all, militaristic thinking (and all the objections to pacifism we have discussed) are embedded in all our institutions, in our common ways of thinking, our entertainment, our universities and our churches, and there are a great vested interests in maintaining the war system. There are too many people and corporations making too much money from war and violence for them to give it up without serious and sustained opposition.

However, I want to end by suggesting that there are reasons for maintaining a sense of optimism about the possibility of making our world more pacifist. The most obvious and profound reason for optimism is that, as the peace scholar Kenneth Boulding put it, “Anything that exists is possible”. Think about that for a second: anything that exists is possible

  • We know that peaceful, non-warring societies exist and have existed for thousands of years; anthropologists have documented at least 74 of them. Therefore, peaceful, non-warring societies are possible.
  • We know that peaceful, non-warring regions of the world exist; therefore, a peaceful, non-warring world is possible.
  • We know that countries exist which have disbanded their militaries and integrated unarmed civilian resistance into their national defence systems; therefore, getting rid of the military and adopting unarmed forms of defence is possible.
  • We know that nonviolent movements exist which have overthrown brutal repressive regimes, won independence, and changed unjust laws without the use of violence; therefore, making major political change without violence is possible.
  • We know that groups and organisations exist which have successfully protected innocent people without violence in the middle of brutal civil wars; therefore, unarmed nonviolent peacekeeping is possible.
  • We know that communities exist in places like Syria and Colombia which have nonviolently resisted terrorist groups and other armed actors and created zones of relative peace and safety; therefore, it is possible to create security without violence, even in the midst of appalling violent conflict.

I could go on and on. The point is that when you evaluate all the evidence and arguments, it is not at all unrealistic or naïve to think that pacifism could work to provide security, to protect the innocent, to provide national security, to win political concessions, and so on. There is no need for pessimism or defensiveness about pacifism. It is the proponents of violence who ought to be pessimistic and defensive, as all their efforts to create peace and security have failed. If war and military violence really did lead to peace and security, then we would have it already. Now is the time to stand up for pacifism, to take this argument forward, to challenge the war system, and to work hard to make pacifism the basis for our society and our way of life.

Posted in Humanitarian Intervention, Pacifism and nonviolence, Politics, Resistance | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

How Ordinary People Talk About Terrorism

This blog was first published on the Politics blog here.

Since 9/11, terrorism has become a ubiquitous and seemingly permanent feature of our everyday lives, from news and media entertainment, to security measures when we travel or visit public venues. Our Politics article, “Talking about Terrorism: A Study of Vernacular Discourse” seeks to better understand the vernacular “everyday narratives” of lay members of the public in their everyday talk about terrorism. We argue that while there are a great many studies of how elites speak about terrorism, as well as a large number of public opinion studies, there are fewer studies which focus on how ordinary people speak about terrorism-related topics in their daily conversation. As a consequence, we don’t yet fully understand how ordinary people understand and conceptualise – or how they “know” – what terrorism is, how it manifests, what its causes are, and how it is most effectively dealt with.

It is important to study this systematically because it will enrich our understanding of public opinion – how important political discourses are articulated by different actors, how they are consumed by audiences, how they circulate in society, how they are resisted, how dominant they are in practice, and how they deal with questions of legitimacy and public policy. In this study, we employed a form of conversation analysis used in discursive psychology with groups of lay members of the public to try and gain a deeper, more dynamic description of the narratives, commonplaces, cultural repertoires, frames, and metaphors deployed in vernacular speech, as well as a deeper understanding of how such shared cultural resources are constructed inter-subjectively in social interaction.

Some of our findings from the study were unsurprising. For example, we found that many ordinary people speak about, and understand, terrorism in ways that closely mirror the primary messages about terrorism in the media and from elites – such as that terrorism poses a major threat to Western societies, and that terrorists are driven by religious extremism. It was also unsurprising to confirm that many ordinary people use popular films as a frame to interpret contemporary events relating to terrorism. On the other hand, we were surprised to discover that most ordinary people cannot distinguish between war and terrorism, and often consider that Western wars are a kind of terrorism that we impose on other societies. It was also interesting to find that most ordinary people do not have consistent views about terrorism, but evidence a lot of dissonance and contradiction, and, in contradiction to many academics, they accept that states can be terrorists too.

Posted in Terrorism and Extremism, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Confessions of a terrorist sympathiser

I confess that I am a terrorist sympathiser. Of course, it is a profanity, a kind of blasphemy, to admit to such a thing, perhaps the greatest blasphemy in our society at the present time. Some may also consider that this is not the right time to make this confession and all that it entails. It will be said that in the immediate aftermath of an attack, condemnation and standing united against the enemies of freedom is the only ethically-defensible stance. But, for reasons I hope will become clear, I believe that this is exactly the right time to claim the ignominious label of terrorist sympathiser, and that sympathy for the terrorist is what is most needed right now if we are to break the current international cycle of violence and find more ethical and peaceful ways of responding to the challenge of contemporary political violence.

I am a terrorist sympathiser because I can understand how a young woman from Gaza might consider that she has no real future, nothing but daily humiliations, the continued threat of being shot by an Israeli soldier or firebombed by a settler, or being arrested and tortured by the police. I can understand that she might have had a family member, or a friend, killed in one of the periodic ritualised Israeli invasions of Palestinian territory. I can understand how living under a callous, apartheid-like regime could ignite into a smouldering sense of rage, humiliation, and powerlessness. I can understand how an intelligent, sensitive woman like that might feel that hitting back at her oppressor, that sacrificing her life for her community, that choosing the time and place of her own death, might seem like a way to reclaim her shattered sense of self-worth and self-respect, her agency, her sense of purpose, and in the end, advance the struggle for a free Palestinian state.

I am a terrorist sympathiser because I can understand how a young Sunni man from Bagdad might feel that his childhood had been ripped away from him in an illegal invasion and the civil war it precipitated. I can understand the trauma that comes from witnessing the destruction of his country and the deaths of more than a million fellow citizens. I can understand the process of brutalisation he would go through when as a young boy he sees bodies dismembered on the streets of his neighbourhood by coalition air strikes and the seemingly endless succession of insurgent car bombs. I can understand the rage he would feel at seeing pregnant women shot to death by nervous young American soldiers at a checkpoint.

I can understand his sense of utter horror when members of his family or friends and colleagues were abducted, tortured to death and their mutilated bodies dumped by the roadside by the Shia death squads operating out of the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior – soldiers trained and armed by the occupying U.S. Military. I can understand his humiliation to have had friends swept up and tortured in Abu Ghraib, sexually violated and the photographs shown all over the world’s media.

I can understand how this traumatised, unemployed young man with few realistic prospects of gainful employment or marriage and a family, a young man witnessing his country, his society, his history, his family, his life, being systematically destroyed, chooses to join a powerful, wealthy, successful insurgent group who promise him revenge on his persecutors and the authors of his humiliation – a group which offers a purpose, a mission, a community of brothers, a way out of his sense of powerlessness, a well-paid job. I can understand that this young man might join ISIS.

I can understand a young Muslim woman in France who feels despised by the society she lives in; who is spat upon every day while she waits at the bus stop, and told to go home because she’s a foreigner and a terrorist; who is forced to live in an urban slum full of crime and generational hopelessness; who faces discrimination when she applies for a job; who is told what she is allowed to wear in public, and told that she cannot publicly protest against the oppression of Palestine. I can understand that she has also had to watch while her country and its allies invaded, bombed, and tortured millions of fellow Muslims in country after country across the Middle East, year after year for more than a decade. I can understand that she might feel utter powerlessness because there seems to be no way to influence her government’s policies. I can understand that she might look at the history of the Algerian FLN and how they fought back against French colonialism and think that a military campaign might have a chance to end the oppression she sees – that if people on the streets of Paris feel the same insecurity that people in the Middle East feel that maybe the public will demand that their leaders change course.

At another level, I am a terrorist sympathiser because I understand that the terrorists hold to the very same moral framework that our own leaders hold to and publically defend. That is, terrorists, just like our leaders, believe that violence can be an effective and legitimate method for achieving their political goals, and that in defence of some values – such as protecting the innocent, freedom, justice – the means justifies the ends – that bombing, even if it causes the collateral or deliberate deaths of the innocent, is sometimes necessary. I understand that soldiers and terrorists often have the same reasons for what they do – they believe they are fighting for their people; they want adventure; they fight for their comrades. Sometimes, the only difference between a terrorist and a soldier, an insurgent or a freedom fighter, is who is doing the labelling – and when the labelling takes place.

I am a terrorist sympathiser because I understand that terrorists are often reacting to the long history of violence our governments have wrought on their societies, through invasion, coups, bombing campaigns, support for dictatorships, arms transfers, interference – and that they want us to experience the terror and insecurity that they have had to live with. I understand that their violence and our violence is not separate or distinct, but part of the same phenomenon: we attack them with advanced military technology from a distance; they attack us with their bodies, close and personal. It is action-reaction, tit-for-tat, a coordinated dance of mutual killing. Ultimately, violence is relational. Despite the comforting myths we tell ourselves, “our” violence is no different from “their” violence.

In a recent article in the New York Times online, a Dutch IS member who documents his life on Tumblr, defended the attacks in Paris by calling them a fair response to the bombardment of Islamic State positions by the French Air Force. He had earlier stated that assaults on civilian targets in France by the Islamists were “fair game,” as, he said, he had “lost count of the hospitals, markets and mosques bombed by the enemies of Islam.”

I am a terrorist sympathiser because I can understand how a man like Nelson Mandela, after years of peaceful protests and reasonable requests for freedom and dignity, who, facing increasingly violent suppression by a racist authoritarian regime, felt that he had no real choice but to engage in an armed struggle for meaningful change.

I am a terrorist sympathiser because I understand the former IRA prisoner who guided me around Belfast, and explained how the insecurity and injustice faced by his Catholic community, and the failure of the police to protect them from Loyalist gangs, led him to volunteer to be a member of an army of community protection, as he described it, and later to join the prison protests.

In fact, the life-story of every terrorist I have read or heard directly – from the Basque country, to Italy, Germany, Cyprus, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Kashmir, Chechnya, Peru and elsewhere – has been completely understandable to me. I could not say any of them were inhuman, or nonhuman, or incomprehensible; none of them were the monsters terrorists they are naturally assumed to be.

And lest someone argues that my sympathy is selective, I am also a terrorist sympathiser because I can understand how a young woman, after watching the Twin Towers collapse, would volunteer to go to Iraq to serve as a prison guard, and how after being told that Iraqis were involved in 9/11, how they were the enemies of freedom, how they were killing American soldiers, and how it was essential for them to be ‘softened up’ for interrogation, might then beat and abuse the prisoners in her wing – might strip them naked and drag them around like a dog on a leash.

Of course, to be a terrorist sympathiser – to even attempt to understand the reasons why someone would make this kind of choice and commit this kind of violence – is to commit a great blasphemy at this time and place in history. This is never more true than in the moments following a terrorist attack when loud, ritual condemnation is the only socially acceptable response. In our current age, terrorism, along with paedophilia, is one of society’s greatest taboos; one of the worst forms of evil there is. In our political discourse, in our laws, in our cultural depictions, in our minds, terrorism is inherently inhuman, savage, demonic – and terrorists are the original bogeyman; the wild man in the woods; the stealer of children. Following the Paris attacks, Malcolm Turnbull claimed the attacks were “the work of the devil”. In such a culturally resonant framework, terrorism does not belong to our world, but exists outside of it in a separate metaphysical realm.

In some respects, this is completely understandable, because terrorism involves appalling, spectacular violence, frequently targeted at the innocent. When we see the images, the macabre theatre of terror, we are not equipped to comprehend the moral forces behind it, and as a result, we become mute. It is the same mute incomprehension when we contemplate what it took to enact the mass slaughter of the Jews in the holocaust or the mass slaughter by machete in the Rwandan genocide. In such a situation, faced with the stark cruelty of the organised, deliberate violation of human beings, it is tempting to try and expel the perceived perpetrators out of the realm of everyday human life and politics – to abstract them to a metaphysical plain in which their actions must surely be governed by some kind of inhuman, demonic forces.

At the same time, we have to also acknowledge that our sense of mute horror at the stark reality of political violence is culturally conditioned and determined in part by our own, limited experiences. We don’t know what it is really like to live under the shadow of drone warfare, for example. It seems likely that to some communities in Pakistan or Afghanistan, the invisible, infernal machines who stalk people from the skies, and then unleash hellfire missiles which dismember and burn their children and brothers, are the epitome of supernatural evil forces – and not at all the technological, clean machines of war our society believes them to be. The reality is that the difference between being blown apart by a suicide bomber and being blown apart by a missile launched from a billion dollar warship or a predator drone is not related to its real material effects: the same mutilated bodies result; the same horrified survivors must find a way to live with their loss. The only difference is our belief about the legitimacy, and to some degree, the aesthetics of the violence: a computer generated image of a smart bomb dropped on a village in Pakistan looks less barbarous to us than a suicide attack on the streets of Paris.

However, at the risk of being labelled a blasphemer and a traitor, I would argue that it does us no good at all to isolate and expel the terrorist from the human realm to the metaphysical realm. In fact, while it may provide a fleeting psychological comfort, the retreat to “evil” as a framework for understanding political violence is harmful, intellectually and morally. It is harmful to both ourselves and to others. Intellectually, it is harmful because it is at heart a delusion: there is no evidence that terrorists, or any other person who commits a horrible crime, is non-human, purely evil in a metaphysical sense. Even the worst of us – Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Osama bin Laden, the Rwandan genocidaires, the Paris attackers – were human beings with physical and social lives; with thoughts, feelings, dreams, hopes, fears and anxieties. They made choices, they suffered, they bled. Looking for the source of their actions outside of their humanity is an intellectual dead-end and of no practical use to anyone. We will never understand the roots and causes of human violence if we are unwilling to look for it in the socio-historical conditions of being a human being, and the political-economic conditions of twenty-first century life.

Locating the sources of violence in a non-human metaphysical realm – which includes laying responsibility on a kind of magical conception of the infectious role of wrong ideas – is tempting because it is simple and reassuring: we don’t have to look inside ourselves or admit that as human beings we are all capable of, and culpable in, violence. In particular, it allows us to maintain a series of comforting collective delusions about how we, the civilised, democratic West, have constructed the world we inhabit; it deludes us into thinking that the problem lies elsewhere, beyond the realm of our own politics, diplomacy, foreign policy, history, imperial decisions. It means we don’t have to take responsibility for making and maintaining a world order in which violence is acceptable, where force is used to settle disputes, where millions of young people are trained and equipped with weapons and flags to kill their fellow human beings, where the most powerful nations use technologically advanced death machines to maintain the global order that maintains their privilege. It means we don’t have to look at the conditions of the poor, the dispossessed, the persecuted, the under-privileged, the socially disadvantaged, the voiceless. It means we don’t have to recognise that terrorism most often emerges from situations where mass movements searching for social justice have been blocked or defeated.

Claire Veale, a French student writing in response to the Paris attacks, puts it this way:

It is important to recognize the attackers as human beings, capable of acting and thinking rationally, as it is a first step towards understanding the reasoning behind their actions. Religious fanaticism is simply a vector of violence, as has been the case for many other ideologies in the past, such as nationalism, fascism, or communism. These ideologies are not the root causes of violence. Although this may seem obvious, there is a need to stress that religious extremism is not the reason why a young man would take up a gun and shoot into a crowd, it is simply an instrument to channel their anger.

We must try to look at the very roots of these young men’s discontent. Debates should be opened about the school system, about the ghettoization of urban areas across France, about police violence and domestic anti-terror security measures, about the prison system, about structural racism, about our skewed justice system, about oppressive and strict secularism; and the list goes on. […] Amedy Coulibaly, another actor in the Paris shootings in January 2015, suffered the death of his friend in a police “slipup” when he was 18.

This kind of direct aggression perpetrated on a daily basis adds to the structural violence and discrimination young men from underprivileged backgrounds experience in European societies. War for them is not such a distant, disconnected reality, but closer to their everyday life. Every racist insult, act of police brutality, unfair trial, or discriminatory treatment brings them one step closer to carry out tragedies as the massacre in Paris. We must therefore question the very system we live in and the way of life we defend so defiantly…

Of course, the search for the origins of political violence cannot end here. Not all young Muslims in a Paris slum, or Baghdad, or Gaza, join militant groups or commit acts of terrorism; nor do all American young people become torturers in Iraq or drone operators in Nevada. This is not an argument for a kind of deterministic structuralism; I am not denying the role of individual agency or responsibility. Nevertheless, in the absence of an honest examination of the conditions which construct human subjectivity at this moment in history, we can never hope to understand the roots of contemporary political violence or the possibilities for peaceful alternatives.

Interestingly, a number of scholars have noted how the trope of the “evil” terrorist, as well as some aspects of contemporary counterterrorism, shares features with the medieval witch craze and European conceptions of “the devil”. Certainly, the similarities between the inquisition, the language of “evildoers”, and the tortuous, confessional interrogational practices seen in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay are disturbingly obvious. In fact, the term “religious terrorism” and the attempt to lay the blame for terrorist violence at the feet of “violent extremism” or the mysterious process of “radicalisation” is part and parcel of this broader framework in which terrorism is expelled from the realm of the material-political world and instead relegated to the metaphysical, spiritual world.

In part, this cultural frame which stretches back over hundreds of years of Western history is one of the reasons why I would argue that sympathy for the terrorist – by way of understanding, and a minimal level of empathetic projection – is not only defensible as an intellectual exercise to better understand the roots and sources of violence. I would go so far as to argue that sympathy for the terrorist is greatly needed at this particular historical moment; it is necessary if we are to break out of the entrenched cycle of violence we are currently trapped in. We need sympathy for the terrorist if we are to find other more ethical, peaceful and effective ways of responding to terrorism.

Sympathy for the terrorist is also necessary if we are to recover our ethical values and our sense of collective morality. The fact is that the lack of sympathy – of basic human understanding – is deeply implicated in our willingness to send killer drones into far away countries to hunt down suspected terrorists and kill them (and those standing in proximity to them) without any compunction, mercilessly, without any process of weighing of the evidence or any semblance of justice – and without considering the consequences in terms of increased hatred, insecurity, the creation of more militants eager to attack us. The lack of sympathy allows drone operators to refer to children as “fun-size terrorists” and liken killing them to “cutting the grass before it grows too long”. It allows us to never know or acknowledge the names of any of the people killed in our name, and for them to have, as Judith Butler calls them, ungrievable lives.

The lack of sympathy for the terrorist other is implicated in our willingness to kidnap, render, disappear and detain people from the streets of Karachi, or Nairobi, or Aden into a secret system of so-called black sites, beyond the law, beyond ethics and the monitoring of any human rights organisations – and with the cooperation of dozens of Western countries and little outcry from Western publics. It is implicated in our willingness to torture and abuse thousands of prisoners and detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and elsewhere – to refer to them as “animals”, “monsters”, the “faceless enemies of freedom”, as “a scourge” and a “cancer” in need of excising. It is implicated in the recent extension of the shoot-to-kill policy from the streets of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia, to the streets of Europe. The lack of sympathy for the terrorist is also implicated in our targeting of all Muslims and those who fit the racist imaginary of what a Muslim looks like (such as a Sikh man in a coffee shop) for human rights restrictions, profiling, surveillance, and harassment. It is implicated in our uncaring, xenophobic response to the refugee crisis which we authored in large part by our interventionist foreign policies.

The reality is that since 9/11, in our lack of sympathy, in our dehumanising and demonising of a whole class of untouchable human beings – those labelled as ‘terrorists’ and ‘terrorist sympathisers’ – we have opened the door to the worst kind of human rights abuses. After all, if terrorists are evil, monstrous beings outside of the human realm, then there is no reason why they should be protected from torture, from rendition, from extra-judicial assassination by drones or shoot-to-kill policies, from incarceration without trial, from surveillance, profiling, and everyday discrimination. Recovering our sympathy for our fellow human beings, no matter what they are alleged to have done or are suspected of, is a first step towards recovering a semblance of collective morality.

Finally, I want to argue that our complete lack of sympathy for the terrorist is dangerous because it blinds us to the possibilities inherent in the political – to the possibility that we can change how people act by the way in which we act towards them; to the possibility that underneath the violence and the posturing, they may want the same things all human societies do – security, self-determination, dignity, opportunity, freedom to live the way they choose. It blinds us to the power of dialogue, engagement, political contestation, as ways out of violence. It blinds us to the way in which violence itself can be a form of communication, a cry to be heard, to be listened to. There are enough examples to show that when individuals and political groups have genuine avenues for pursuing their goals and grievances, when they feel that they have a genuine voice, that this can change their political calculations away from the use of violence.

In this respect, in eliminating what has been described as “the grey zones” – those opportunities for dialogue, diplomacy, compromise, forms of accommodation, and those social, political and intellectual spaces of toleration and empathy – our lack of sympathy leaves us polarised, alienated, fearful; it leaves us in a world of sharp distinctions, of black and white crusaders and jihadists, heroes and villains, them and us; it leaves us trapped in an inevitable clash of civilisations. If we jettison our sympathy and understanding, if we expel the terrorist to the realm of the monstrous, inhuman other, we surrender to the violent logic of being either for or against, friend or enemy. And in the process of eliminating the grey zone, we simultaneously eliminate the possibility of imagining or discovering any nonviolent pathways out of the current intractable conflict, or indeed, imagining an alternative politics somewhere between the theocratic vision of ISIS and the neoliberal fundamentalism of the West.

I wrote my novel, Confessions of a Terrorist, in part to recover the kind of empathy and understanding we have lost in the past fourteen years since 9/11, before terrorists became the epitome of unfathomable evil. I wrote it so that the terrorist other could speak to us about his reasons and his humanity, so that we could have a dialogue with him about what he really wants, what he feels, what he hopes for. Until we can understand why a person, a human being, someone we might consider thoughtful and idealistic if we spoke to him, would choose to launch terrorist attacks against us, we have no hope of responding in a manner that doesn’t simply compound the current cycle of violence. The point here is that sympathy and understanding is at heart a process of imagining ourselves in the life-world of another. This is more easily achieved through the narrative voice than the academic voice.

Of course, as a final note, it is important to point out that sympathising with the terrorist – understanding their motivations, their hopes and dreams, their shared humanity – does not in any way imply condoning their actions, or excusing their moral responsibility for their actions. What terrorists of all kinds do – whether state terrorists or non-state terrorists – is deeply immoral and a violation of accepted ethical codes of behaviour. I am a pacifist by conviction. I view all forms of political violence – state violence and non-state violence, terrorism and counterterrorism – as morally problematic and empirically ineffective, capable only of creating the foundations for further violence. As Gandhi put it, “I oppose all violence because the good it does is always temporary but the harm it does is permanent”. Political violence is in essence the expression of a kind of necro-politics, or anti-politics, that drags us into a place without light or mercy. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr:

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

In conclusion, recovering sympathy for the terrorist, recognising their humanity, their politics, their suffering, their aspirations, their sense of self in this particular historical epoch, is essential for understanding the roots of their violent actions. It is also essential for reconstituting our own shattered sense of collective morality, and for recognising and acknowledging our own role in the constitutive violence of the current system. Finally, it is the basis on which we can begin to search for an alternative politics of response to contemporary political violence, perhaps even one based on the moral injunction to love your enemies.

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‘An act of war’ – and other unfortunate phrases

Watching the terrible events unfolding in Paris, I have a helpless sense of deja vu. It reminds me of the movie, Groundhog Day, only much more deadly and depressing. It feels like we have been here so many times before: the same anguished images, the same suffering, the same questions and sense of disbelief. Most depressingly, listening to the rhetoric coming from Western leaders, I can’t see any way we can avoid experiencing the same day again – whether in a few months or years time.

As I explained in my book Writing the War on Terrorism about the language of counterterrorism, when the 11 September 2001 attacks occurred, President Bush said that they were “an act of war”. This was a key rhetorical move and it led the US to launch the global war on terrorism which has caused so much suffering, violence and counter-violence. Today in Paris, exactly like all those years ago, French President Hollande said, the attack was “an act of war committed by a terrorist army”, and “faced with war, the country must take appropriate action”. Just like President Bush fourteen years ago, he similarly signalled his resolve: “we are going to fight and our fight will be merciless.” Former president Nicolas Sarkozy added to the war rhetoric: “The war we must wage should be total.”

After the 9/11 attacks, President Bush said that the attacks were an attack on freedom and the civilised world. Today, President Obama said: “this is an attack not just on Paris, not just on the people of France, but an attack on all humanity and the universal values we share.” As Bush did so many years ago invoking the mythology of the Western frontier, Obama said that America will do “whatever it takes to bring these terrorists to justice”.

After the attacks back in 2001, we heard the Bush administration claim that al Qaeda represented an anti-modern form of totalitarianism. Following the same script, today US Secretary of State John Kerry said “we are witnessing a kind of medieval and modern fascism at the same time.” And similar to George Bush’s frequent invocation of the “evil” of terrorism and terrorist “evildoers”, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull described yesterday’s attacks as “the work of the devil”.

As I and many others have argued, this kind of rhetoric is not without consequence; it functions to shape and structure the response which will inevitably come. It provides a powerful cognitive frame for thinking about the threat of political violence and how to respond. If the attacks are viewed and discussed as an act of “war”, for example, as opposed to a terrible “crime”, a military response then becomes the logical default option. And if the terrorists are conceived of as “evil” or “devils”, or even as “fascists” and “medieval”, then there is no place for anything except policies of eradication: there can be no compromise with “evil”.

After 9/11, presidential rhetoric about the terrorist attacks laid the foundation for a massive military-based “war on terrorism” which involved two major wars costing three trillion dollars and over a million lives, military strikes and a drone killing programme on at least three other countries, a global rendition and torture programme, profiling and mass surveillance, restrictions of human rights, the militarisation of the police, and many other restrictive measures in daily life. In turn, all this activity has contributed to violent instability across the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Horn of Africa, the mass movement of refugees, the rise of Islamophobia, and much else besides. Arguably, in a self-fulfilling prophesy, or what is called “blowback” by the security services, it helped to create at least five new al Qaeda groups, and numerous other militant affiliates. In Iraq, it led directly to the rise of al Qaeda in Iraq which then morphed into ISIS, and the merger of the Syrian and Iraq civil wars. In response, the West has initiated a renewed military campaign to bomb areas of Syria and Iraq.

In other words, on the rhetorial basis of the “war” against “evil” frame, the West helped to create and sustain a deeply embedded cycle of violence. The Paris attacks, as well as the Beirut attack a few hours earlier and the killing of “Jihadi John”, are the latest acts in this by now quite intractable cycle of violence. The language of Western leaders, especially the words of the French leadership today, strongly suggest that we remain trapped in our own “war on terrorism” Groundhog Day. I think it’s safe to say that Western leaders will respond with more bombing of the Middle East, more military force, more war, more responding to terrorism with even greater violence and repression. After all, once the words are spoken, there is no choice but to eradicate “evil”.

This means that there will be future days like today, both in Western countries and in the countries of the Middle East rhetorically linked to terrorism. We will try and kill them with our military, and they will try and kill us with their militants. Of course, in Groundhog Day, Bill Murray eventually escapes his fate by learning from his mistakes and gaining a stronger sense of humanity. The message of the movie is that there is always hope that people can change and break the negative cycles of their actions. Today, there is no evidence that our leaders are ready to learn from their mistakes over fourteen years of the war on terror, and maybe it is not the day to insist they do. Let’s grieve first, and then consider carefully whether we want to keep on the same path. The problem is that the words our leaders speak today will shape the reflections and actions they choose in the coming days, and today, I can’t see anything else to come except more Groundhog Day.

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IS and the barbarism of war

The following is an op-ed I recently published in the Otago Daily Times about the barbarism of ISIS and how we might put it in context:

The latest atrocity by Islamic State forces in Iraq in which a captured Jordanian pilot was burned to death has provoked an understandable wave of commentary from around the world. The horrific spectacle created by the killing raises a number of crucial questions for us to consider. Is Islamic State (IS) a new, more brutal kind of rebel group? What purpose can such brutality serve? How should the world respond to the increasing brutality of the war in Iraq, and what does this latest development tell us about Western strategy in the region?

Sadly, this atrocity, and those previously committed by IS, are actually fairly banal in the history of warfare. Depraved cruelty and inhumanity is part and parcel of the very nature of war. To see the truth of this we need only recall what American GIs did to captured prisoners in Vietnam, what British troops did to communist insurgents in Malaya or to suspected Mau Mau in Kenya, or what the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the RUF in Sierra Leone, and the Interahamwe in Rwanda did to countless civilians in their conflicts. Or, consider the activities of the Latin American death squads during the cold war, the actions of Russian forces in Chechnya, or how state security officials in Uzbekistan boiled people to death in vats of oil. In South Africa, during the anti-apartheid struggle, it was commonplace for angry township residents to put a tire filled with petrol around the neck of a suspected informer and burn them to death. The truth is that history records innumerable atrocities by rebels and soldiers alike that in fact make the actions of IS pale into relative insignificance. In some respects, IS are still amateurs in the arts of violent cruelty during war.

In addition, we should also keep in mind that what counts as cruelty and barbarism in war is shaped by our cultural values and historical context. Objectively, it is perverse to insist that burning a man to death with petrol is a greater moral evil than using munitions like phosphorous bombs in military operations which we know will burn a great many innocent people to death, including children. It is the nature of every society however, to point out the cruelty of the enemy while obscuring the cruelty of one’s own actions.

From this perspective, and especially considering that this incident is part of a vicious war that has been going since 2003, the actions of IS should not really surprise us at all. The only difference is, that unlike the case of Rwanda in the 1990s, or Boko Haram in Nigeria right now, Western societies seem to be more aware of, and sensitised to, this particular conflict. We seem to care a great deal more about the handful of hostages in Iraq than we do about the hundreds currently dying in Nigeria. In part, this is also due to the successful use of social media by IS who have discovered how to effectively create maximum shock among Western publics.

So what gain does IS get from using such shocking methods?

Read the rest of the article here…

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Confessions of a Terrorist: A Novel

I am reblogging this because there’s been a lot of talk in the media about why people go over to Iraq to join Islamic State. Since the West started bombing them, thousands of new recruits have gone to join IS. Is this a sudden outbreak of religious extremism, or is there something else at work? Based on all the research which suggests that individuals join these groups for political reasons based on grievances, I suspect that IS’s popularity is due not to their extreme violence or the particular brand of religion they espouse, but because they are seen as successfully fighting against imperialism and oppression. They represent the most powerful and coherent anti-imperialist movement today. Just as young people joined left-wing movements in the 1960s and 1970s in order to fight imperialism, so they are joining IS today. In my novel, I try and explore this theme and explain why someone would choose to fight the West’s self-serving and imperialistic actions in the Middle East and elsewhere. I believe that if you want to better understand why people are joining IS, there might be some clues in my novel.


In 2011, I started writing a novel about terrorism. I did so because although I had read literally hundreds of novels about terrorism, I had yet to find one which I could in all good conscience recommend to my students as a useful supplement to the academic literature. There did not seem to be any novels which gave an authentic account of why someone would join a terrorist group or choose the life of militant. I also wrote it because I knew that Critical Terrorism Studies needed to find new ways to communicate its ideas to the public. It was not going to be enough to write more academic books and articles; we needed more affective and interesting ways of writing about terrorism.

I am happy to report that in May 2014 my novel, Confessions of a Terrorist, will be published by Zed Books. Below is an abridged version…

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Hey, mainstream media! Here are some pointers for doing your job

Dear Journalists of the Mainstream Media,

It is fair to say that, pretty much exactly as in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, you have failed once again to fulfil your professional mandate and live up to even the minimal standards of journalism. For the most part, you have simply repeated the ridiculous speculations and hysterical statements of politicians, without any rigorous questioning or adequate investigation into their veracity. I know you work in a 24-7 news environment in which you feel like you don’t always have the time to find whether the things that officials say are not nonsense, and that most of you belong to a few large media conglomerates which impose a strict editorial line. But, come on! I know you can do better than ” Islamic state is an apocalyptic death cult and we’re all going to die! Launch the bombers now!” In the process of being so pathetically uncritical in the past few weeks, you have fuelled the moral panic that currently surrounds Islamic State, created an atmosphere of fear and Islamophobia, and offered almost no critical analysis of the patently pointless and counterproductive decision to bomb Iraq for the umpteenth time. As a consequence, you have utterly failed to provide a check on the politicians who are determined to roll back civil liberties, restrict protest and dissent, surveille the whole world, torture people and ironically, muzzle the freedom of the press. Yes, you didn’t even notice until it was too late that their plan to fight the purported existential threat of Islamic State included further restricting the activities of the press.

As a consequence of this pathetic failure, it is my duty to suggest a series of fairly simple and obvious questions which you, as professional journalists, can ask politicians and security officials during press conferences, or radio or television interviews on the subject of Islamic State, terrorism and/or bombing Muslim countries. Trust me, these will really help you to do your job properly, and may in the long run, bring back a little credibility to your profession. On the other hand, they may also get you banned from official press conferences or shunned by the hacks who are happy to act as paid government mouthpieces. In any case, by asking these questions, you’ll definitely feel better, reduce the shame you must feel for how you got sucked in again, and perhaps get a little bit of your dignity back.

So these are a few basic, random questions you might ask politicians. I’m sure you can simplify them further, as politicians are not always that bright:

  • How many plots have there actually been, and how many people have actually died in Western countries from terrorism by the Islamic State? And does zero actually constitute an existential threat, especially when in Australia, more people have been killed by kangaroos? Isn’t ebola, for example, an actual, real threat which ought to command more effort and resources than Islamic State?
  • Why are you saying that Islamic State is a major threat to Western countries when US intelligence officials (and scholarly experts) are saying that it’s not even clear that IS even wants to attack Western countries or has the capabilities to do so?
  • What evidence are you basing your assessment on that returned fighters will pose a terrorism threat? What examples can you give of any of the thousands of returned fighters from Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kashmir, Chechnya, Iraq and Syria over the past four decades who have successfully launched terrorist attacks? What do you say to this study, this article, this article, and this article, which say that such a risk is really, really, small and certainly doesn’t represent an existential risk requiring throwing out our civil liberties? And what do you say to this article which suggests that IS doesn’t want foreign fighters to return home at all, and doesn’t want to conquer foreign lands but establish a caliphate in Iraq and Syria?
  • What evidence do you have that bombing Iraq will help to defeat terrorism and bring peace and security after it failed from 2003 to 2010, and arguably failed from 1991 – 2003 when coalition forces bombed Iraq relentlessly? Why will it work now, when all the evidence (see here too) suggests that aerial bombing campaigns don’t actually work?
  • What do you say to all the evidence – including this study, and this study – which says that bombing Muslim countries creates more terrorists than it kills, as it is already doing with IS, and is likely to produce more attacks just like the Madrid, London, Fort Hood, Times Square and Boston attacks? Why do you think that bombing will make us safer, when all the evidence suggests it will make us more of a target?
  • Why do you insist that jihadist terrorism is driven by religious extremism when all the evidence suggests it is driven by political grievance over Western actions in the Middle East? Aren’t you giving people in the Middle East more reasons to hate us and try and attack us?
  • Given that the very same people who told us Saddam had WMD, and who failed to predict the invasion of Kuwait, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the 9/11 attacks, and who gave the wrong intelligence which led to the bombing of the Chinese embassy in the Kosovo campaign, and who arrested hundreds of innocent people and sent them to Guantanamo, and who have consistently provided intelligence which has lead to the bombing of wedding parties in Pakistan, and who said that Iraqis would welcome their Western liberators with open arms, are the same ones now telling us about the threat of Islamic State, why should we take it at face value? Why should we print your claims when you’ve told so many porkies, and provided so much misinformation, in the past?
  • What actual evidence do you have that mass surveillance actually works to reduce terrorism? (Hint: there is no actual evidence. It’s a huge invasion of privacy and waste of time for no measureable or logical benefit. In fact, the masses of data produced is actually an obstacle to finding useable intelligence.)
  • What actual evidence or data do you have that any of the measures currently being enacted – restrictions on the travel of foreign fighters, extended powers to hold people without charge, mass surveillance, enhanced interrogation, bombing – actually work or will have any effect at all on the risk of terrorism?
  • What actual evidence or data do you have that this bombing campaign won’t go on for years and draw us into a ground war with the same ineffectual and disastrous results as the ground wars we fought in for years in Afghanistan and Iraq?
  • Can you please demonstrate the cost-benefit analysis you did which shows that spending the billions of dollars which will be required for this war would not have saved more lives and been better spent on other things like health, domestic violence prevention, health and safety, diplomacy, etc?
  • Can you please explain exactly how the bombing campaign and other drastic measures you have recently enacted represent a final last resort after all other peaceful and more effective alternatives have been tried?
  • Can you please explain the legal basis for going to war on Iraq again?

So, there you have it. Not so hard, just a few simple questions we as a society definitely need some answers to, and which will help to restore your professional credibility. Now get out and do it on every available occasion. I feel annoyed that I have to help you like this, but given how mad everyone has gone in recent weeks, seemingly with no memory at all of what happened when it was Saddam’s WMD that he was going to launch in 45 minutes, I felt I better do something. Anyway, good luck. Do a better job. I’m counting on you.

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