What's so funny about peace, love and understanding?

As we struggle to define courage under the threat of terrorism, we can't dismiss the power of nonviolence.

By Jennifer Foote Sweeney

Published September 28, 2001 7:30PM (EDT)

Gandhi's name came up the other morning. Someone suggested that a peaceful visionary of his ilk could be very helpful at the moment. There was vague head nodding, the odd sigh, and then the conversational death knell from a hopeless wag: "Well, if one of those people did show up right now, he would be promptly shot in the back of the head." True, mumbled the group. A few people laughed.

Days later there was talk of an event in New York led by a Buddhist monk dedicated to "embracing anger" in the wake of terrorist attacks. This was funny too, especially the peace and love jokes and the part about Judy Collins.

More hilarity is no doubt in store as the Worldwide Sisterhood Against Terrorism and War unleashes its press release (signed by Jane Fonda, 'natch!, among others), calling for "an act as positive as the terrorist act was negative," specifically "a massive and immediate airlift of food and medicine for the people of Afghanistan." Most important, says the document, "Use your own head and heart to prevent a war that can only lead to more terrorism."

It is not hard to imagine the barking response of self-declared American realists: "Yeah? Bring it on!"

I feel like a heathen at Bible camp, or a believer, at 44, in Santa Claus. I am a blushing heretic too embarrassed to ask if everything is so different, if our memories are so short, that we cannot imagine the triumph of peace through a campaign of nonviolence. Does my idea of bravery have no place in the national imagination?

No, not really. Not at the moment. At the moment, it's a joke, an incongruity. "Yeah, right," is the answer to giving peace a chance, even in the New America. You might get a glimpse of some new civility, but don't look for daisies in rifle barrels. Don't even play the harmonica. We're wearing ribbons, here, not buttons. The signs in our windows are printed by newspapers, ready to hang. We're singing anthems if they can be sung with right hand over your heart.

I know that this is no time to be a wuss. I have no problem with a stealthy and heartless strategy to track down terrorists and bring them to justice, and that this may not happen without bloodshed. But do we limit our national displays of strength to prodigious chest-thumping? Is it "Band of Brothers" or bust? Aren't there ways to be courageous without a chip on your shoulder and the profanity of revenge on your lips? Our only way to be bold is to bully -- to ignore the lessons we teach as grownups and parents; to sock them in the arm, make them cry. A familiar flush of hothead giddiness permeates the press. The cowboy correspondents have saddled up, put on their vests with lots of pockets. Sebastian Junger is everywhere, invited -- on "Fresh Air" -- to give us a whiff of the perfect war.

Even the learned voices of the left warn against the wimpy reflex to seek alternatives to war. Peaceniks -- after Sept. 11, at least -- are misguided and undereducated Pollyannas who fail to understand geopolitics and the necessity of bringing bitter enemies to heel. By contrast, war-mongering is pragmatic, the only means of regaining control and, by some unexplained coincidence, safety.

David Rieff, in his essay, "There Is No Alternative to War," scolds those who would suggest that the solution to this frightening standoff is for the U.S. to start "behaving better" in its dealings with the rest of the world. Adjustments in the global system "that would, without transforming other cultures, still bring wealth, are difficult even to imagine, let alone implement," he says. "Modernity, newly vulnerable," he concludes, "is, for all its faults, infinitely preferable to fascism. And that, I fear, is the choice that confronts us."

Sounds like surrender to me -- or, at the very least, a lack of imagination. Can we think of no other ways to define courage? Of course there will be no solution as simple as cleaning up global manners or new curricula at school. But the remove at which Rieff speaks, comparing modernity to fascism, betrays a haughty confidence that this is the most difficult decision that we Americans will have to make. The stakes are different now, and to conceive of adjustments in the global system, while "difficult to imagine," seem to be infinitely preferable to slaughter -- of anyone, us or them.

The amiable bulldogs of the Bush administration already have conceded that it will be impossible to stamp out terrorism entirely. At the same time, they describe the goal of America's new war as the elimination of worldwide terrorism. If we are prepared to be as contradictory as that, might we be up for a campaign to reject armed response -- or at least be prepared to focus on a nonviolent solution to our new panic?

The heroes and heroines of historic nonviolent movements have contributed to, fought for and protected "modernity," forcing whole countries off the path of inhumanity and fascism, adjusting the global system in the name of peace. These battles have been long and bloody and hard. But they have never been "filthy and degrading," which is how Reiff promises our impending war will be. The fact is that we can choose -- and that makes us responsible.

Polls show overwhelming American support for the brandishing of swords, but did anybody ask if we might consider the more difficult alternatives -- restraint, cleverness, intelligence? I vote for the hard way, the high road -- it certainly won't put us at any more peril than we are flirting with as we promise to attack.

As much as I fear the outbreak of war, I long for the unlikely appearance of an unarmed genius -- or a whole battalion of cheeky pacifists -- whose courage and eloquence will overwhelm our confused impulse to attack with a desire for power earned with wit and benevolence. Meanwhile, in the name of every unlikely man or woman who has risked death, endured imprisonment or suffered injury in the name of peace, we must scrutinize the logic of violence, pay attention to the eerie echo of fanaticism in our calls for the annihilation of an unseen enemy.

There are signs that some among us have been prepared from the onset of this tragedy to seek information, to support a plan of reconciliation and change. Above and beyond -- or perhaps below -- the dispassionate lecturing of those who remind us that our foreign policy and blundering narcissism got us into the mess, there have been significant, though largely unorganized demands to reject martial retribution. Some of the most moving exhortations to peace came immediately from New Yorkers, who translated personal trauma into expressions of grief that specifically reject aggression. Union Square Park, its statue of George Washington decorated with a huge peace sign, became an altar to nonviolence. One woman there told the New York Times, "I don't want a lot more people to die."

And today, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld hinted in a New York Times Op-Ed piece that "We have no fixed rules about how to deploy our troops; we'll instead establish guidelines to determine whether military force is the best way to achieve a given objective."

With any luck, we will go beyond this suspension of the rules of war to find guidelines for survival and even victory. And we will expand the meaning of these words to encompass more ambitious goals -- survival of the planet and of nature; victory of awareness, charity and love.

Jennifer Foote Sweeney

Jennifer Foote Sweeney, CMT, formerly a Salon editor, is a massage therapist in northern California, practicing on staff at the Institutes for Health and Healing in San Francisco and Larkspur, and on the campuses of the Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley.

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