The Dangers of Violent Protest

Mahatma Gandhi, in his effort to end the British occupation of India, laid out a very strict set of rules for protesters wishing to join his movement. They would under no circumstances resort to violence. They would not provoke their opponents or instigate any violence, and they would express no anger and refrain from any retaliation, including swearing or insults. They would put up with even unprovoked assaults from an opponent, and surrender voluntarily to arrest or attachment and removal of property without resistance. Indeed, if, in the course of a struggle, anyone insulted or attacked an official, Gandhi's protesters were to protect the official from that insult or attack, even at the risk of their own lives.

The activists on the Mavi Marmara--the ship that attempted to run the Israeli blockade of Gaza last week--did not follow Gandhi's strictures. Indeed, it appears that some of them had no intention of acting non-violently. Earlier in the week, I listened to a PBS phone interview with one of the Free Gaza founders, after her return to Turkey. When asked about the reports of protesters attacking the commandos as they descended onto the ship, she said, "well, you can understand that they [the protesters] were going to defend themselves."

No, Gandhi would say, you cannot. Not if you're going to conduct a non-violent act of civil disobedience.

An article in Saturday's New York Times analyzing the botched assumptions on both sides that led to the tragedy reported that the activists went into the confrontation looking for conflict, to draw attention to their cause of ending the Israeli blockade of Gaza. If that's so, it appears they achieved their objective. And while the Israeli/Palestinian/Hamas conflict is not a simple case of the good guys and the bad guys, there's certainly an argument that the harm caused by the blockade outweighs any of Israel's arguments for it.

But regardless of the merits of their cause, I found myself disturbed by two aspects of the activists' departure from what Gandhi or Martin Luther King would have advocated. First, there is at best a naivete, and at worst a disingenuousness, in provoking a fight and then complaining noisily that a fight broke out. The activists decided to take on the Israeli military. It doesn't matter whether the military should have resisted their passage to Gaza, in a moral sense; the fact remains that Israelis had been very clear that they were going to take whatever measures were necessary to stop the boats. So the activists knew they were going to meet resistance.

The decision of at least some activists to tie off one of the commandos' rappelling ropes to an antenna on the Mavi Marmara, leaving the commandos able to descend only one at a time and in a vulnerable position, then taking away the weapons of the first to descend and attacking them with pipes or clubs ... is akin to provoking a grizzly bear. What, I found myself asking repeatedly, as I read and listened to the coverage, did the activists think was going to happen when they did that? Commandos who see their comrades under attack and outnumbered 300 to 1 (or even 20 to 1) are going to do what commandos are trained to do. They're not trained negotiators. They're going to use force to gain control of the situation. Deadly force, if they think it's necessary. You can count on it. And if they then arrest you, they're not going to be nice about it.

A couple of years ago, when I was on assignment in the eastern Congo, I had permission to take photos of a transaction taking place on a jungle road near the coltan mines west of Goma. The rebel soldier who walked up, pointed an AK-47 at me and angrily demanded that I put the camera down had no right to tell me to do that. On the other hand, to continue taking pictures, or to assault him verbally or physically for intruding where he had no right, would have had severe consequences. At best, I would have lost the camera. At worst, I could have been shot. And if I'd had the idea that I could assault the soldier and not reap those consequences, I would have been rightly criticized as naive, immature, or stupid. Was it fair? Of course not. It's not about fair. It's about understanding the realities of the world, making choices accordingly, and maturely accepting the consequences of those choices.

Leaders such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King understood that truth. They also understood that even in a noble fight, the means matter as much as the ends. In going into the confrontation looking for a fight, the activists on the Mavi Marmara made the decision that conflict--and at least a low grade of violence--was an acceptable method to gain awareness for their cause. If the helicopter carrying the commandos to the ship had crashed into the ocean because its rappelling line was anchored to the boat, I suspect the activists who were fighting to keep the commandos from boarding ship would have cheered, despite the fact that commandos' lives would have been lost.

For all the arguments one can make about armed commandos versus activists armed only with makeshift clubs and pipes, the question remains for me ... once you cross the line into a place where conflict and violence become an acceptable means of achieving your objectives, where does it end? What if one of the commandos had been killed? Would that have been acceptable? And if one is acceptable, what about 10? And if it's acceptable to take the lives of 10 commandos on the open seas, is it acceptable to kill them somewhere else? And if it's acceptable to kill them somewhere else, is it okay if a stray civilian gets killed in the process? And if losing one civilian life is OK, is 10? There's a long distance between violently resisting  commandos attempting to board a ship and actively taking lives to bring visibility to a cause. But the slope between the two is slippery. Gandhi and Martin Luther King understood that. Violence begets violence, and you can end up in a dangerous place, once you decide to step into the world where conflict and violence are an acceptable means to an end.

I used to argue this point with a friend of a friend who was an ardent supporter of the Palestinian cause, back in the early 1980s. To him, the cause was important enough to justify whatever means were necessary. To me, the ends did not justify any means. Rick moved to the West Bank, and I lost track of him for many years. Later, I heard that he'd renounced his endorsement of conflict and violence as a means to an end and had taken a job as a middle east expert for the U.N. Ironically, that meant that he was in the U.N. building in Baghdad when it was bombed in August of 2003 by extremists wanting to advance their cause. He did not survive the attack.

There are no lack of individuals, groups, or nations who use violence as a means to an end. But if you decide to step in that world, you can't complain when your opponent uses violence in return. When Martin Luther King, John Lewis, the Freedom Riders and the rest of the non-violent protesters for civil rights set out, they knew what they were walking into. And if we admire their courage, it's because they walked into a hailstorm without so much as a word of complaint. When King was beaten and unjustly arrested; when John Lewis had his head bashed in on the Selma bridge; when the Freedom Riders were assaulted almost to death upon disembarking at various stops, they didn't attack their attackers. They let their courage speak for them, and for the rightness of their cause.

Quiet, uncomplaining courage is harder and less satisfying than provoking an opponent, retaliating against attacks or noisy accusations, of course. It takes a lot of inner strength and maturity, and a level of devotion that few of us possess. But that's why it's such a powerful weapon.

The activists aboard the Mavi Marmara may have achieved their goal. The incident may even bring about the end of the blockade of Gaza, when all is said and done. But the means by which the activists went about accomplishing that end gives me pause. I think it would have given Gandhi pause, as well.