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Limits to Gandhi-ism



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The WaPo front page has a piece today on the torture and murder by Syrian police of Ghiyath Matar, a young anti-government activist whose commitment to nonviolence got him the nickname “little Gandhi.” As the story puts it:

A man who had encapsulated the youthful idealism of Syria’s grass-roots protest movement, pioneering the tactic of handing out roses and water to the troops sent to shoot demonstrators, had died in custody.

Given the loathsome evil of the mafia-like Syrian regime, this comes as no surprise, but it does again highlight the limits of nonviolent resistance. Nonviolence as a tactic can work against certain regimes, and I can’t say that it won’t ultimately succeed in Syria; I certainly hope it does. But we’ve seen the eagerness with which the Baathists in Damascus are willing to kill their subjects wholesale, and it seems to be having the intended effect:

The momentum is “dying” in Damascus, said Alexander Page, an activist based in the capital who uses a pseudonym to protect his identity. He said he knew Matar and has seen nearly 20 other colleagues disappear into detention. “A lot of people have gone into hiding, and a lot of people are not taking part in protests,” he said.

When I last posted on the immorality of pacifism as an ideology, some commenters recommended Harry Turtledove’s alternative-history short story “The Last Article,” where the Nazis win the war, take over British India, and end Gandhi’s independence movement with the liberal use of bullets. Only at the very end does Gandhi realize that the nature of the Nazi regime is such that his methods — his whole worldview — is irrelevant.

This is why in the wake of Matar’s death, more and more of the anti-government figures in Syria are considering armed resistance. That may well be unwise, given the regime’s overwhelmingly superior force, but it always has to be an option. Unfortunately, the “international community” doesn’t seen to think so. From the Post story again:

[U.S. Amb.] Ford and seven other envoys to Damascus attended Matar’s wake because they hope that his death will instead serve to reinforce the commitment to peace that has finally earned the Syrian protest movement a measure of international support in recent weeks, according to a Western diplomat in the capital.

“There’s a growing frustration in the streets that a lot of people are being killed and wounded and that they should take up arms,” said the diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive subjects. “This young man understood the importance of the protest movement staying peaceful, even as he was confronting a lot of violence.”

But why is it important that the protest movement stay peaceful? And why would the movement’s “commitment to peace” earn it “a measure of international support”? If it’s a tactical calculation that nonviolent resistance is most likely to succeed in the end, then fine. That may well be true in this particular instance, though it doesn’t look like it to me. But if the peaceful nature of the protest is an end in itself, then such insistence on foreswearing armed resistance is simply immoral.



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