Reading Time: 5 minutes

We interrupt our week-long series on the AAI Convention to bring you a PSA in praise of nonviolence. Just 900 words. Humor me.


I have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and nonviolence are as old as the hills. All I have done is to try experiments in both on as vast a scale as I could.
Mohandas Gandhi

Nonviolence is not inaction. It is not discussion. It is not for the timid or weak… Nonviolence is hard work. It is the willingness to sacrifice. It is the patience to win.
Cesar Chavez

Within 24 hours of the 9/11 attacks, the US was in a nearly unprecedented position as the sympathetic victim, rather than the perpetrator, of violence. Virtually the entire world rallied to our side.

We had an astonishing opportunity. And I knew we were going to fritter it away. Who could doubt it? I knew that we would never be able to muster the national will to even discuss an alternative to military force. I was phenomenally depressed by 9/11, and by the sound of 200 million Americans dropping tribally to their knees in response, but I was even more depressed by the knowledge that we would soon head into a protracted military endeavor that would fail to achieve its goals while killing countless innocent people. It’s what empires do — they lash out with power, and in the process screw whatever chance they had of surviving in the long run.

I wrote an essay on September 22 and sent it to the Secular Web. It called attention to the incredible opportunity in that moment, noting that our momentary status as the victims of violence would be lost when we lobbed the first cruise missile. The violence would squander that precious global goodwill, redirect outrage away from the terrorists and onto us, kill hundreds of thousands of innocents, fail to achieve its goals, and spawn new, intractable violence and more terrorism. That’s what I thought would happen, anyway.

Gee, let’s tally up my scorecard.

Instead, I said, we should preserve and focus the outrage against the terrorists by keeping it absolutely clear that the evil resided solidly on one side of the equation. The entire world would have joined together to put an economic and political stranglehold on the Taliban until they gave up bin Laden and the rest. The moment we answered violence with violence, we would lose the moral high ground and the opportunity it afforded TO WIN.

I advocated responding on a national level by making use of the proven principles of nonviolence. Why? Not because they are nice, but because THEY WORK.

Sorry I keep shouting, but I get incredibly frustrated when I discuss nonviolent action. It is almost always seen as a softheaded passivity, a kind of wishful daisies-in-the-rifle-barrels approach to the hard realities of the world. That’s what the disgusted, angry readers of the essay seemed to think as they ladled out fallacy after misconception after misreading.

daisies in rifles

Some readers called it “feel-good superstition…a kind of naive wishfulness that thinks the good shall triumph because it is good.” Hmm. Maybe if Gandhi and King had actually succeeded in their struggles, nonviolent action would have a better reputation.

Oh wait. They did succeed.

The fact is, violence — though it makes one feel awesomely powerful and ever-so-active — almost never works on any level. Corporal punishment creates more discipline problems than it solves. Capital punishment has no deterrent effect on crime. And the destabilizing effects of war — especially its inevitable “collateral damage” — create the necessary conditions for more violence and hatred for generations after the fighting stops. Half of all countries emerging from violent conflict relapse into violence within five years, and more than half of war deaths are civilians.

There were countless violent attempts by the people of India to kick out the British between the 1840s and the 1940s. All failed. Gandhi brought nonviolent resistance to bear, especially in the Quit India campaign of the early 1940s, and succeeded where violence had failed.

Isn’t that interesting?

Nonviolent resistance relies in part on the fact that everyone, from Hitler on up, sees him/herself as good and his/her cause as just. When the British responded brutally to the nonviolent resisters, the world recoiled in horror. It was patently clear who was in the wrong. The British, accustomed to seeing themselves as a civilizing force in the world, were ultimately unable to retain the national political will to remain — and they walked out of the Jewel of the Empire.

Martin Luther King Jr. adopted the same tactics in the American South. Had blacks responded with violence to Bull Connor and his dogs and firehoses, the American public would have seen violence on violence and been unable to discern who was right and who was wrong. Instead, they allowed themselves to (are you ready?) turn the other cheek, and in so doing received the powerful moral endorsement and active compliance of the wider world.


The black protestors seemed so reasonable and the white police so unreasonable, it was a no-brainer. The civil rights movement took an enormous leap forward.

If we had pursued active but nonviolent means to respond after Sept. 11, we would have robbed the terrorists of whatever claim they had to moral justification for their sucker punch.

Nonviolence has worked, over and over and over. Violence has failed, over and over and over. So why is it that we roll our eyes at the concept of nonviolence as if it equates to rolling over and playing dead?

Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP) is at work in Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Colombia, Guatemala, and Uganda, building the infrastructure for nonviolent alternatives to war. Today is Gandhi’s birthday, and the International Day of Nonviolence — and the final day of NP’s Work a Day for Peace campaign. As secularists, we know that no one’s up there keeping us from killing each other. We have to do that ourselves. Pop over to the Work a Day for Peace site and contribute what you can.

Imagine the power of teaching our kids a response to violence that actually works. But remember that there are specific principles and strategies involved. You have to do a bit of study to really unlock its potential. It isn’t just a matter of telling kids not to hit back on the playground, or telling armies not to shoot back when shot at. That’s the cartoon version.

Check your local library to learn about nonviolent theory and practice as it has slowly developed through the 20th century. Or watch Gandhi. At some point, the lightbulb usually goes on, and violence loses another cheerleader.

Gandhi and Beyond: Nonviolence for an Age of Terrorism by David Cortright

Nonviolence in Theory and Practice by Barry L. Gan (auth) and Robert L. Holmes (ed)

Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential by Gene Sharp

A classic:
Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.