Pacifism in an age of terror: Author of fascinating new book explores the relationship between violence and freedom

Professor and author Dustin Howes challenges the axiom that force is needed to defend freedom

By Sean Illing
March 29, 2016 7:39PM (UTC)
main article image
Mahatma Gandhi, pictured in 1931; a member loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Raqqa June 29, 2014. (AP/James A. Mills/Reuters)

The recent attacks in Brussels have once again raised a difficult question: How do we combat terrorism? It’s a complicated problem, and there are no easy answers, but almost everyone agrees that violence is necessary. Even the most dovish liberal generally concedes that force in defense of freedom is an unfortunate – but inescapable – reality. This is especially true when confronted by groups like ISIS or al-Qaeda.

Dustin Howes is the David J. Kriskovich Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Louisiana State University. A political theorist, Howes studies the origins and utility of nonviolence. Much of his work is devoted to developing a theory of pragmatic pacifism, one free of religious and moral justifications. His new book, “Freedom Without Violence,” explores the history of violent and nonviolent attempts to gain political freedom and challenges the notion that violence is an indispensable tool.


Recently, Salon corresponded with Howes about the book. We asked him why he thinks a conversation about the relationship between violence and freedom is needed. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

In your new book, “Freedom Without Violence,” you challenge the conventional view that violence is necessary to defend and exercise political freedom. What’s your argument, and how is it unique?

Well, there are a number of ways freedom is thought to require violence in conventional wisdom, in the histories we tell ourselves, and in the work of some of the most influential thinkers across the ideological spectrum. The impetus for writing the book was a conversation I had with a friend back in 2006. The justifications for the war in Iraq had evolved over time but one thing that remained consistent among the Bush administration rhetoric was the idea that we were fighting for freedom – either defending our freedom, which was supposedly threatened by weapons of mass destruction, or fighting for the freedom of Iraq, which we had “liberated” by overthrowing Saddam Hussein. My friend and I both opposed the war but he thought the freedom rhetoric was just window dressing. Nevertheless, it seemed to be very effective as an argument for the war and I had not heard opponents of the war adequately counter it. This got me wondering about the origins of the idea that violence and warfare are necessary for freedom and had me thinking that perhaps there was something wrong with how we use the word freedom, if it could justify this war.


The book is basically what I found in my investigations, along with an attempt to recover the lost, or at least deemphasized, connection between nonviolence and freedom. I found that freedom is usually thought to require violence for one of three reasons. The first reason is liberation from oppressive governments. The signature revolutions of the last few centuries are said to be founding moments in the history of freedom, although which ones – if any – count as being “truly” about freedom depends on one’s political perspective (I focus on the American, French, Haitian, and Bolshevik revolutions). The second reason violence is said to be necessary for freedom is to conserve or defend freedom once it is established. The history of this idea is complex, but in the seventeen century, when the very concept of the sovereignty of the modern liberal state was being formed, the violence of the police and the military were legitimated in the name of freedom. Finally, the oldest and perhaps most pernicious connection between freedom and violence is the idea that the free should rule over slaves and barbarians. This idea probably originated in ancient Athens but we see it expressed most dramatically in modern times in the form of the nationalist and socialist ideas that eventually became totalitarian.

Although these ideas are formidable, the counter-tradition I resuscitate offers some powerful rejoinders. On the issue of liberation, the abolitionist movement and the women’s movement that grew out of it have accomplished more for freedom than all of the violent revolutions combined, if we consider raw numbers of people or the portion of humanity effected. The worldwide abolition of slavery was achieved almost entirely with nonviolent means (our Civil War being an exception to the rule) and the great strides in women’s rights have been made without a single violent revolution. Moreover, nonviolent revolutions, from the Velvet Revolutions in Eastern Europe, to the overthrow of dictators in the Philippines, Chile, South Africa, and Egypt, to name a few, demonstrate that civil resistance can topple even the most brutal authoritarian regimes. Nonviolence has also been used to preserve and defend freedom. The oldest and still perhaps most astonishing examples of this come from the Roman republic, where the plebs refused to fight wars and even vacated the city en masse to preserve their freedom in the face of encroachments by the patricians. But in relation to the modern liberal state, ideas like civilian defense and restorative justice as alternatives to military defense and the prison industrial complex hold promise. Finally, I try to develop a concept of nonviolent rule that challenges the idea that those who rule themselves are somehow fit to rule over others.

In your last book, “Toward a Credible Pacifism,” you talk about pacifism not in moral terms but rather as a distinct form of politics – what do you mean by that?


For good reason, the people we most readily associate with pacifism and nonviolence, like Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi tend to emphasize the moral superiority of nonviolence compared to violence. Claiming the moral high ground is good political strategy. Judith Butler wrote of nonviolence that it is “a carefully crafted ‘fuck you.’” I would not frame it quite so cynically. But I would say that emphasizing the moral dimensions of nonviolence tends to obscure the ways in which the methods of King and Gandhi tell us something about how politics works.

There’s a lot of confusion surrounding the terms nonviolence, civil disobedience, and pacifism – they seem to overlap in many ways. What are the differences? And why are those differences significant in your view?


There is a long history at work with all three terms and let me add another, which seems to be the favorite of the Peace Studies community at the moment: civil resistance. Many advocates of nonviolence outright reject the term pacifism because it too often connotes passive submission to oppression. I have called this “perverse pacifism” because it originated in an interpretation of Christianity that tried to square the Roman Empire with the message of Christ after the conversion of Constantine.

However, I think each term is useful and would distinguish them is this way. Pacifism is the ideological position, based on a range of ideas about politics, ethics, and the social, which holds that physical violence is never necessary. Nonviolence refers to the extraordinarily wide range of methods that people have developed that eschew or replace physical violence. Gene Sharp famously catalogued 198 such methods, from strikes to boycotts, and demonstrations to setting up alternative governments. Civil disobedience is when an act of nonviolence involves knowingly breaking the law and willfully submitting to the consequences even while declaring the punishment to be unjust. Civil resistance refers to any constellation of nonviolent methods that aim to overthrow a particular regime or achieve a particular political goal.

Most people think of nonviolence as a domestic political tool (i.e. a Civil Rights struggle), not as something with broad applications in international politics. Is that a mistake?


Regardless of what one thinks of the Arab Spring or the Velvet Revolutions they undoubtedly transcend domestic politics in both the way they spread and their implications. Gandhi led the movement that eventually pulled away the cornerstone of the British Empire. One of the organizations I admire most, Combatants for Peace brings together former Israeli and Palestinian fighters who are now committed to nonviolence. The late Jonathan Schell referred to the growing awareness of nonviolence among the people of the world as a “new superpower” that made the world “unconquerable.”

There’s a well-known Mao quote: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” I imagine many of our readers will tacitly agree with this statement – do you?

No. And I can use Mao’s ascendance to prove it. Mao came to power through what is perhaps the greatest strategic retreat in the history of warfare. The Long March involved trying to avoid direct engagement with the Nationalists while cultivating support among the rural areas the Communists traversed. Mao laid down strict rules for his soldiers regarding the treatment of the civilian population. The more the Nationalists used their guns, the more their power receded from them. If power grew from the barrel of a gun, the much better equipped Nationalists would have defeated Mao. It is important to note that this example is not an exception. Those who study military power have shown with extensive empirical studies the surprising result that better armed sides are not more likely to win wars. Think of the United States’ experience in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Power grows from the coming together of people for a common purpose. Using guns is one way to exercise power but it is not power itself and sometimes drains one’s power.


People intuitively assume that violence is the most reliable – and effective – political instrument. When conversation fails, and we’re left with incompatible goals, it appears violence has the final say. Is that something you dispute in your book?

Yes. While they may disapprove of violence morally, many people believe it is necessary as a “last resort” because of its perceived effectiveness. We know that violence does do certain things with 100 percent effectiveness. There are many forms of physical violence, but let’s just take killing as an example. We know that killing someone prevents them from speaking and acting in the future. If we disagree with what someone or some group says or does, killing them would appear to be a failsafe way of having one’s political preferences prevail. This is what I call the “veneer of reliability.” Why just a veneer? Because the certainty that some people will never again speak or act does not tell us what everyone else will say or do. When people are killed, others may respond with fear and be dissuaded from similar actions – or they might respond in the exact opposite fashion and, out of love and loyalty for the slain, be inspired to be like them. To put it more simply: Dead bodies don’t make policy, but they are almost invariably politicized by those who remain. How this plays out depends not only on how perpetrators interpret their violence but how survivors and witnesses respond and even how those who are killed confront death.

As your question implies, many people conflate power and violence. But once we realize that killing someone or some group is only effective if people respond to such killing in the desired fashion, we come to see that power is something different. Hannah Arendt defines power as “concerted action” and that seems about right. When people join together in words and deeds, it determines the character of the world and our collective life. Violence is often in the mix, but it is no more reliable – in terms of political outcomes—than other forms of political action.

As a pacifist, how do you respond to questions about Nazism or ISIS or terror campaigns more generally? Force, I’d argue, is the only relevant currency against this brand of nihilism. Such extreme cases, if nothing else, seem to mark the limits of nonviolence.


Your question makes reference to two very different movements and time periods. They may share in common a tendency toward nihilism but I am not sure nihilism explains the core features of either. Unfortunately, liberalism and democracy are also susceptible to nihilism.

The rise of Nazi Germany is among the most frequent examples put forth to suggest nonviolence has its limits. A complete answer to this hard case requires an extensive discussion, which I provide in my first book. I also recommend Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke. In this space, I will just note a few things. The Nazis were experts at violence. They were much better at it than the Allies. They killed millions more people. But they lost. How is this possible? Because they ran out of power, that is, people willing to join with them in common cause. Along these lines there are dramatic examples of people resisting Nazi occupation with nonviolence and having success, from teachers in Denmark refusing to implement a curriculum of propaganda to the Bulgarians who refused to round up fellow Jewish citizens. Yet power exercised with violence is what ultimately stopped the Nazi movement. To really know whether or not nonviolence could have stopped them would require us to run back time and mount an effort of equal coordination, effort, and sacrifice to what the Allies used. Imagining such a scenario, I think nonviolence might have worked and perhaps been faster and less destructive.

The current situation in the Middle East is equally, if not more, complex. The horrific violence of ISIS would seem to make them quite unappealing. Indeed, judging by the millions fleeing the region, to many they are. Yet they have gained considerable power and understanding why requires looking at the alternatives. We tend to think of the states in the region as our allies in the struggle against ISIS but it is precisely authoritarian governments and foreign intervention that make terrorism appealing to some. You mentioned the “currency of force.” Terrorists and authoritarian regimes may appear to be opposed to one another but in fact they fuel each other. Repression drives terrorism and acts of terror legitimate further repression. What distinguishes ISIS from Al Qaeda is their organizational capacity and planning skills, much of which is drawn from former members of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The great tragedy of Syria is that the extraordinary nonviolent uprising that took its inspiration from Tunisia and Egypt was specifically and intentionally derailed by Assad. We know through internal memos and his actions, such as releasing dangerous prisoners, that he wanted to transform the threat into a violent uprising. This seems counterintuitive until one realizes that governments are much better equipped to handle violent insurgencies than mass popular uprisings.

Some might say that adopting a pacifist posture in a world in which bad people (for lack of a better phrase) are willing to use violence against good people borders on morally irresponsible. I worry that abandoning violence entirely would leave the weak at the whims of the strong. What do you say to that?


I assiduously avoid claims about human nature. I think there is plenty of evidence for both the inherent good and evil of humanity. Aristotle says we are both the best and worst of animals. As for the strong and the weak, it seems to me that, politically speaking, the man who stood in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square in 1989 was stronger than the man in the tank and this would hold true even if the tank had run him over and despite the overall failure of the uprising. Physical strength and political power are two different things.

As for responsibility, one of the distinguishing characteristics of the use of violence, especially among modern political thinkers and actors, is that it is almost invariably said to be someone else’s fault. Violence rarely takes responsibility for itself. As your question suggests, violence is said to be forced upon us by the evil of others. Of course, if one asks those bad people what makes them do violence, we find they too blame the evil of others. One of the great strengths of nonviolence, certainly in the form of civil disobedience, is that while often inspired by injustice and aimed at evil, the practices foreground the idea that even as we disagree we all share responsibility for the character of community.

You spend a lot of time talking about suffering and the fragility of the human body. Why is that essential to your worldview?

Two reasons. First, I think the modern philosophers and their predecessors in the late Middle Ages who emphasized our mutual physical vulnerability and the unique position that places us in relative to other animals were on to something. Although I draw very different conclusions from our equality of vulnerability, I think it a good baseline for discussion. Take terrorism, for example. If one holds the belief that it is possible or reasonable to expect that governments can make us completely safe from one another, it ignores what I take to be undeniable realities and encourages a perverse form of utopianism that paradoxically gives governments wide berth to do violence.


Second, the experience of human suffering has always been central to pacifism but sometimes in ways that seem to celebrate the mortification of the body. Part of what I am interested in doing is preserving a concern with suffering and holding on to what I think is a very sophisticated understanding of the political significance of suffering while at the same time calling into question some of the heavy moralism that characterizes the pacifist tradition.

What’s your response to those who say human nature and the anarchic international system necessitate war, and therefore violence is an unfortunate – but indispensable – tool? 

Again, I am a committed agnostic when it comes to human nature. The idea that the world needs violence because there is no world state implies that states are effective at mitigating violence. The vast majority of states live in peace with one another most of the time. At the same time, states can collapse into civil war. Institutions are no guarantee of peace. In fact, states are among the most egregious instigators and perpetrators of violence. At the same time, governments can be highly effective at peacefully resolving conflict. It depends on the institution.

You’ve written quite a bit about Mahatma Gandhi. Why does Gandhi still matter, and what can we learn from his philosophy of nonviolence?

Gandhi approached so many different issues in such an original and creative way that it is difficult to grapple with the significance of his life or thought in a short space and even the extensive secondary literature has barely scratched the surface. My own focus, and really there is a whole new generation of political science professors and students exploring the issue, is what Gandhi has to offer in the way of expanding the range of political possibilities.

In my current book I try to show how his concept of freedom, or swaraj (which translates as self-rule) challenges and complements some of our deeply held assumptions about what it means to rule with one another. While many Western thinkers forward the idea that we cannot be free when subjected to violence, Gandhi suggests that we are not free when we do violence to others. If we find ourselves believing we have no option but violence, it is a sure sign that we are being ruled by necessity and have not yet figured out how to be free. Doing violence shows that we are not ruling ourselves, both at the collective and individual levels.

It’s hard not to be cynical in our current climate. The world is shrinking every day. The potential for small numbers of people to do immense harm at minimal risk is considerable. We clearly have to find ways to defend freedom and liberal values peacefully. Are you optimistic that we can or will?

Well one thing I hope this book does is demonstrate that liberal values and states are so suffused with the idea that “our” freedom requires doing violence to others that we should take a long hard look at ourselves if we are worried about the future of humanity. I too am worried about non-state actors and technologies of violence but I am more worried about the susceptibility of Western democracies to the paternalism and authoritarianism that such actors so successfully provoke, mainly because those countries have such vast resources at their disposal. Only a very different understanding of the role of democratic citizens in relation to threats and fear can ward against the dynamic I discussed early where governments and terrorists legitimate each other’s violence.

Overall, I would not call myself an optimist or a pessimist. Part of what I became convinced of in the process of writing this book is that, if we take freedom seriously, the future is wide open. We will make it together, for better or worse. On the issue of violence specifically, there is no doing away with our physical vulnerability to one another. Yet practitioners of nonviolence have innovated such a diverse array of approaches to dealing with and confronting our vulnerability that I am confident nonviolence can become the prevailing way of human interaction – if we choose it.

Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

MORE FROM Sean Illing

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Dustin Howes Global War On Terror Isis Mahatma Gandhi Nonviolence Pacifism