Not long after the 9/11/01 terrorist acts in New York, Kathleen Parker published a column titled "Pacifism is nice, but war doesn't care." (You can read the piece here at Jewish World Review.) I wrote the following response shortly thereafter. It was published in the online magazine West By Northwest.
A Reply to Kathleen Parker -- Why Pacifism?
by George Amoss Jr.
Kathleen Parker's article reveals some fundamental misconceptions about pacifism. First, as examples of pacifists she offers "5,000 people sitting at their desks in the World Trade Center" and "20,000 pacifists squatting in the city of Washington, D.C." Those are images designed to conjure a picture of relatively passive people who are not directly confronting a threatening force. Pacifism is not "passivism": Gandhi did not liberate India simply by sitting around. The non-violent power that produced radical change in India and later in the United States was an active power directed against violent people who had the law on their side.
Second, Ms. Parker assumes that pacifism won't "work" against terrorism. That begs the question of the meaning of "work" and is backed by no evidence. Non-violent resistance has been successfully used to free the oppressed and to save innocent lives not only against British imperialists and American bigots but also against Nazi butchers as well. If what we want is violence, then war is the only thing that "works." But if what we want is peace, then non-violent resistance is the only large-scale means of achieving our goal. War kills many innocent people. The fact that "they started it" (again begging questions: who are "they," and what is "it"?) does not make moral our killing of children and other innocents, even if we believe it to be in self-defense. If Ms. Parker believes that morality should be tossed out the window when one's country is harmed by terrorists, she should say so plainly.
Third, she charges pacifists with enjoying freedom that someone else's violence and blood have purchased. Obviously, pacifists, who number veterans among them, have the same freedoms that everyone else in this country has, but the idea that, because of their opinions, they somehow do not "deserve" such freedoms is absurd and dangerous. Were our freedoms purchased with blood? Some were. Was the spilling of blood necessary? Perhaps some bloodshed was necessary, but not in war. Non-violent resistance could have acquired the same freedoms, and committed pacifists are willing to shed their blood in such active resistance. What they are not willing to do is shed the blood of others, especially the many innocents who inevitably are killed in war.
Finally, Ms. Parker asserts that "Pacifism in the face of terrorism is strictly an emotional response." On the contrary, retaliatory violence is the emotional response: "kill or be killed" is a reflex, not the result of a logical analysis. Non-violent resistance to evil is possible only for those who have worked to overcome their visceral reactions of fear and anger and to give priority to their respect for human life. Violence is not a "necessity," even in times of terrorism, if a society has the vision and the courage to use non-violent alternatives to paying or forcing its young people to kill and die.