The Strategic Logic of Nonviolence


Jonathan Zasloff writes about a national liberation movement that didn’t resort to indiscriminate killing to achieve its goals:

The ANC maintained a strict policy of nonviolent protest for nearly 50 years, until the 1961 Sharpeville Massacres. Even after the founding of Umkhonto We Sizwe, the vast majority of its targets were government installations and military outposts. Its record was hardly perfect, including the infamous “Magoo’s Bar Bombing” and similar incidents in the mid-80’s, but overall, the ANC was highly disciplined and refrained from hitting civilian targets. Indeed, Umkhonto We Sizwe started a landmine campaign in the mid-80’s, but ended it because of too many civilian casualties. Overall, the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded that the rare soft target attacks were the outcome of either misunderstandings or rogue operators among MK agents.

And of course there’s the civil rights movement in the United States. And it’s worth emphasizing here the extent to which strict adherence to non-violence was important to helping the movement Martin Luther King led to get what they wanted. When people who you regard as being “on your side” start killing people for what you deem a reasonable cause, you tend to look on the killing in an understanding light. But when you don’t regard those people as “on your side” then things like firing rockets at populated areas or dropping bombs on schools begins to look monstrous. And when you’re faced off against monsters, the last thing you want to do is give them any room to breath. The white south resisted desegregation pretty fiercely, but resistance would have been much fiercer if the civil rights movement had been killing tons of people and stoking fears that empowering blacks would lead to massacres.

Much the same applies to the South African situation. At a certain point, it became clear to the apartheid leaders that there system was untenable. But they were still more interested in the upholding the interests of white South Africa than in abstract considerations of justice. The fact that ANC behavior didn’t imply that the organization was led by cold-blooded killers made it much easier to contemplate handing power over to them. In Israel, decline in political support for wild “Greater Israel” notions has been swamped by the way Israeli discourse has become dominated by fear that any easing up on the Palestinians will endanger Israeli lives — a fear that’s hard to assuage driven by how violence-obsessed the Palestinian movement has been.