In March 2003, I drove from Texas to Washington D.C. with three fellow karate students, to protest the impending Iraq War. We went to Washington because, as women, we had a perspective that we felt was lacking in the national dialogue over the war: We lived with fear, and had learned not to be manipulated by it. Fear was patriotic that year, as I recall, and anger and paranoia were like new verses of the national anthem. It’s hard to believe we lived through it. I spent most of 2003 yelling at my television.
Our route to D.C. traced a map of disaster across the country: East of Dallas, we saw black helicopters flying low over the fields, looking for debris from the Space Shuttle Columbia, which had exploded on re-entry the month before. We could see the post 9/11 reconstruction work at the Pentagon, plywood, chain link, and concrete barriers—from our hotel. Driving out early one morning to see a doctor for the sinus infection I always develop when traveling, I passed the Home Depot in Falls Church, where the Beltway Sniper had killed a woman the previous October. It was a weird time in America, which may explain why my friends and I felt compelled to drive all day and all night to take a message to a president who wasn’t any more likely to listen than my TV was. For two days I stood in the snow in front of the White House holding a sign that read MAKE SENSE, NOT WAR. Fat lot of good it did, but at least we were there.
So were the Code Pink for Peace ladies, and the Women in Black, and other assorted protesters, male and female. They had been there for months already—some of them since the invasion of Afghanistan—a bunch of wonderful, welcoming people. To tell the truth I felt like something of a fraud among them, since I’m not a pacifist—not hardly. I didn’t protest the Afghan invasion, even though I knew the Hindu Kush has kicked the ass of virtually every major power on the planet. As someone who has occasionally tried to use force to solve problems, I understood the motivation for that war. Invading Iraq, on the other hand, struck me as strategically and politically idiotic.
“There are few things more dangerous,” wrote George MacDonald Fraser, “than presenting a primitive mind with an insoluble problem.” There was no easy answer to the September 11 attacks; terrorism’s power lies in paradox. And you can debate whether George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq was based upon bad counsel, or special interests, or unresolved Oedipal issues. It hardly matters. The dead are still dead, Osama bin Laden has never been caught and we, as a nation, are still terrified. What was accomplished? America pissed all over the Geneva Conventions, violated pretty much every standard of human decency, and destabilized a geopolitically vital region of the globe.
Iraq was exactly the kind of war that makes pacifism look rational.
I’m vexed about non-violence generally, I really am. It’s an attractive idea. We all want less violence—when it’s directed at us, anyway. But I can’t accept that the answer to violence is to let more people get hurt. Being female, I find the philosophy of non-violence especially problematic, because women and sacrifice have always been linked together in ways that make my skin crawl.
I’m probably going to annoy a few pacifists here by misinterpreting their beliefs, and while I regularly annoy people on purpose, I do feel bad about doing it to the pacifists. I don’t want to conflate people’s religious beliefs with non-violence as a political tactic either; I know they’re not the same thing. Still, I harbor doubts about any philosophy that encourages people to not defend themselves. Women have been getting the “Don’t fight back!” message for eons. We’re very susceptible to it. We’ve been told we’re not capable of fighting back, that we’re not legally allowed to fight back, that God doesn’t want us to fight back, and that we should let men fight for us. We’ll believe anything, won’t we?
Non-violent belief systems (as I understand them) urge us not to fight back because we should be enlightened enough to appreciate our attackers’ humanity, or because resisting the urge to violence is really the more powerful position, or because we should be willing to sacrifice ourselves in order to make the world a more peaceful place in the long run. Whatever the logic, the practical result is the same: If someone wants to hurt a woman, the woman gets hurt. And even if this approach somehow does end up making the world a better place, why does the road to world peace have to run directly across a broken female body?
Pacifism as a concept kind of pisses me off.
Still, non-violence intrigues me, not least because of its power to frustrate the violently inclined. The central paradox of terrorism—we will hurt you, but we refuse to fight you—has its mirror image in non-violent resistance, which declares: We refuse to hurt you, but we will fight you. This can be a brilliant tactic in certain situations, especially if television cameras are present.
Outside the White House, with police officers and well-heeled tourists in abundance, our anti-war signs had drawn a few dirty looks from passers-by. Back in Texas, as the anti-war marches heated up, we got a more visceral reaction.
Being screamed at by angry people is an illuminating experience, not one to be missed by the serious student of human nature. A lot of the screaming directed at us during the war protests merely questioned our patriotism, our intelligence, and our parents’ marital status. But a few screamers were actively threatening. One fellow we encountered on a street corner near the FOX News studio (which the march had been meticulously planned to pass) literally looked like an attack dog straining at his leash, trying to get at the protesters. You have to figure that it takes a very special kind of coward to threaten a bunch of pacifists, so I was curious. I did an end-run around some Buddhists and stiff-armed a Quaker, and got close enough to look Braveheart in the eye. He was past middle age, short and thick, with thinning hair and an air of desperation. I smiled encouragingly. He didn’t disappoint.
“I hope you all die!” he sputtered at me.
“That’s the spirit,” I told him cheerfully. “Thanks for speaking up!” His face, which was already an unhealthy beetroot-red, turned purple. I honestly thought he was going to have an aneurism there on the sidewalk, which would have been interesting, because I might have felt morally obligated to give him CPR, and my certification had lapsed. Probably the Buddhists were up-to-date on their lifesaving skills though, so it would have been all right.
Anyway, it was my first attempt to counter imminent violence with non-violence, and apart from the entertainment value, I don’t think it was very successful. This worries me because lately we seem to have a lot of people screaming “I hope you die!” at one another, and I’m not sure what ought to be done about it. Sooner or later screaming won’t be enough for them. I feel like I ought to be prepared.
My karate school’s mission statement speaks of ending violence in our community through training in self-defense, conflict resolution and, curiously, “non-violent martial arts.” Now, I was on the board of directors when we wrote the mission statement, so I have an uneasy feeling that I should know what we meant by “nonviolent martial arts,” but honestly the phrase puzzles me. All martial arts are violent, in intent if not in practice. Even something as harmless-looking as Tai Chi has (surprisingly grisly) martial applications.
Of course you can practice martial arts without hurting anyone; without ever even hitting anyone, if you like. And some folks get a lot out of that. But I don’t know that it does much to make the world a safer place. I mean, if the discipline keeps you from going around hurting people, great. But that’s really not the point of martial arts. They are combat systems, created and taught for the express purpose of hurting other people. Hell, that’s what I like about karate.
While violence isn’t the answer to every problem, or even to very many problems, it’s part of our birthright as humans. We use it because, primitive though it may be, it often gets us what we want. There’s a certain logic to it, and even a crude socializing function. For example, if every potential rapist, the first time he tried to obtain sex by force, just had the holy living snot beat out of him, I think we’d have fewer rapists. Maybe I’m oversimplifying, but then again, how complicated are people, really?
Believe me, I see the danger here. Violence works in a lot of situations where other responses would work equally well or better. And it’s terribly easy to use, relative to the risks it presents. Violence is usually quick and cheap (unless you hire private contractors); the real costs are often hidden until much later. It almost always looks like a better option than it really is.
And if you don’t want to respond violently, you almost have to make that commitment beforehand, because in a crisis, violence can be an instinctive response. If you have kids, you know what I mean. Before our kids were even born, my husband and I made the decision never to spank them, because we didn’t trust ourselves to make the decision objectively once the sleep deprivation and orthodontist bills kicked in (OK, we didn’t trust me to make the decision objectively).
In karate, you spend a lot of time learning to use appropriate force with your training partners. When we spar, we’re taught to negotiate contact levels. If your partner hits you harder than you’d like, you’re supposed to say to him or her, “That’s too much contact.” And then your opponent bows in acknowledgment and you both continue sparring, with a little less force. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?
But sparring happens fast, and you wear a mouthguard that makes speech difficult and messy, you’re usually out of breath anyway, and it’s much easier, if you get hit too hard, to simply hit your partner back a little bit harder. It’s the quickest way I know of to spin a match out of control and make your sparring partner hate you. But it sends a message, and in the instant, when you have just been hit uncomfortably hard yourself, it feels right. It feels so right it’s scary. This is someone you like, and trust, someone you have invited to hit you, and suddenly, you’re hitting her harder than she wants you to, and feeling good about it.
If you want something to be afraid of, forget about anthrax, snipers, and people with bombs in their underwear. Hit somebody when you’re mad at them, and see how you feel. That’ll keep you up nights.
Using violence, and getting what you want as a result, is a heady and addictive feeling, a whole-body experience. There’s a lot of adrenaline involved; the righteous act of violence burns in the vein. And it’s a very short step from feeling successful about violence to feeling justified. This is when people really get into trouble: When violence feels good, you start to equate violence with goodness. Then it’s easy to move on from defending (yourself, your family, your country), to judging and punishing. It’s a progression that seems very logical and civilized but in fact it turns people—and countries, and religions—into monsters.
Since it doesn’t look like we’ll run out of monsters any time soon, I think we need to be able to slay them. The trick is to do that without becoming monsters ourselves.