The scene: several years ago in a Dublin sidewalk café. Two human rights activists, one African, the other North American, are talking at the next table. I sit at another table, an unrepentant eavesdropper.
"I must tell you this story," the African lawyer said. "Some women from both sides of the conflict had been secretly talking to each other. A message from the other side was smuggled to the wife of a local military commander. The women learned that her husband has been ordered to attack a nearby village. In the message, the women beg her to stop the attack.
"The wife is in a quandary. How can she stop a military attack? Time is running out. Then she has an idea. She goes to her husband and tells him that she must go shopping the next day in that village. Her husband tries to dissuade her but she insists she must go. She knows the attack is scheduled for tomorrow morning. Her husband is in a panic. He calls off the attack. The women succeeded!"
This is a success story indeed, and an example of what can happen when people are willing to cross lines—whether the lines of so-called enemies or the lines of self-imposed limits.
There are several other things about this story that strike me. The first is that it is an oral anecdote—as far as I know, it has never been documented. The second is that the protagonists are anonymous. During my work for an international peace organisation I have come across many such stories of successful nonviolent actions. Many are personal, eyewitness accounts; others are stories passed on by older family members or colleagues. Most are unwritten and will remain unwritten. Most, especially if the main protagonists are women, are anonymous.
The third characteristic of this opening story is its ordinariness. Shopping is an act of daily life which millions of people engage in. It is an unremarkable act.
Anecdotal, anonymous and above all, ordinary. These words, for me, can be used to both describe active nonviolence and to explain, in part, why active nonviolence is not taken more seriously in discussions on war and peace.
The undocumented nature of much nonviolent action helps perpetrate a myth that nonviolence is ineffectual. Anonymity deprives people of necessary role models. The ordinariness of nonviolence makes people blind to all the potential of organised, active nonviolence.
It is fortunate that there are more case studies of nonviolent mass actions, such as the 2006 Democracy Movement in Nepal, or the various dissident movements of the 1980s that led to such changes in Eastern Europe. Such documentation is crucial in developing analyses that will lead to better nonviolent strategies that address the underlying causes of violent conflict: poverty and injustice. Documenting and spreading stories, both individual and collective, of active nonviolence are important in empowering people. Nonviolence is not the reserve of saints or specialists with academic degrees in conflict management. Nonviolence is a value, a tool, and a force which ordinary people can and do use daily.
Nonviolent action occurs all around us, on both large and small scales. It is the ordinariness of nonviolence that makes it invisible. The bulk of human interactions are not violent. The majority of human beings is not directly engaged in killing other human beings—and does not want to be. People learn violence, just as people learn nonviolence. (For insights into the psychological costs, to individual soldiers and to society at large, of learning how to kill, see Lt. Col. Dave Groomsman’s book On Killing). Cooperation and compassion have been essential in our survival as a species.
"I’ve been involved in peace missions for years, with the United Nations and with different non-governmental organisations. But the most direct peace action I’ve ever seen was on a street in the West Bank. A young boy had picked up a rock to throw at an Israeli soldier. An old Palestinian woman saw the boy and started talking to him. I’ll never know what she said, but she kept talking to him until he dropped the stone and walked away," said a Dutch activist.
The glamour and excitement of war can stand in sharp contrast to the ordinariness of nonviolence. Few have written about this so eloquently as US war correspondent Chris Hedges. "The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living…It gives us resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble." In his aptly titled book on the myths of war, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Hedges tells the story of a Bosnian Serb couple whose son was killed by Bosnian Muslims. While they had no love for the latter, they would protest when fellow Serbs condemned Muslims by telling the story of a Muslim farmer who saved their granddaughter’s life.
The girl was born during the siege of Gorazde. Weakened by hunger, the daughter-in-law could not nurse. The couple fed the baby tea for five days, but it was clear she was dying. A Muslim farmer named Fadil Fejzic began showing up every morning with milk from his cow for the baby.
"He never said a word. He refused our money. Other families on the street began to insult him. They told him to give his milk to Muslims. He came for 442 days, until my daughter-in-law and granddaughter left Gorazde for Serbia," the grandmother said.
"It is our duty to always tell this story," her husband said.
Hedges writes that such small acts of decency in wartime have important consequences. "These acts, unrecognised at the time, make it impossible to condemn, legally or morally, an entire people. They serve as reminders that we all have a will of our own, a will that is independent of the state or the nationalist cause."
This to me is the power of nonviolence, a continuous and radical struggle to stay human by always recognising the humanity of others.