Manhattan Madness and the Need for Nonviolence

by Jesse Nathan on January 31, 2006

Blue Thoughts From a Red State

George W. Bush was in Manhattan Monday. Manhattan, Kansas, that is. Manhattan, Kansas—the Little Apple—is the sprawling metropolitan hub of 44,000, home to Kansas State University. In a conservative state, this is a conservative town: it is host to a school that attracts rural Kansas kids to study everything from farming to agriculture. And it is no surprise Bush chose Manhattan for his Monday night speech last week. What better place than the heartland to go for the hearts of Americans in a talk designed primarily to put the president on the offensive? Where more fitting than the benign land of Dorothy to defend the sly and destructive tactics of a War on Terror that has gotten us nothing but spying, budget cuts and most likely, more terrorists?

Bush commented that our efforts to fight terrorism in Iraq, for example, represent a “magical moment in the history of liberty.” Indeed, throughout the speech, the President emphasized the importance of his anti-terror strategy, describing the results glowingly. One certainly wonders which results he is referring to. Is he perhaps thinking about the National Security Agency’s eavesdropping program which he authorized in the name of fighting terrorists? “If they’re making phone calls into the United States, we need to know why, to protect you.”

Ah, I see. Or are the results he is talking about more indirect, like the $12.7 billion cuts in student loans his administration has been nearly successful in securing in order to free-up funds for freedom fighting and anti-terror attacks worldwide? When asked about this particular magical moment in U.S. education funding history, Bush responded, “I think the thing to look at is whether or not there will be fewer people getting student loans. I don’t think so.” He did not, however, explain this rather fuzzy math.

Yet, to be a successful sell, Bush knows his strategy must focus on the insecurities of everyday Americans. Since September 11, he has repeatedly couched the entire War on Terror effort as one explicitly and primarily meant to protect us. For our safety, the President always argues—and did again Monday—these “terrorists cannot be appeased.” We’ve heard it before—in Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, Communist China, Orwell’s “1984,” Huxley’s “A Brave New World” and a host of other real or imagined governments either fully engaged (or at least dabbling) in authoritarian behavior.

People respond when they feel threatened. People want to do something in the face of the chaotic, terrifying danger terrorism represents. Doing something—anything—is better than nothing, people seem to think. And it is this line of logic that the President exploited Monday by arguing that progress is being made, the costs are worth it and, in the end, it’s all for you, baby.

Of course, there can be no denying the real threat terrorism presents. It is, for example, a terrifying facet of life in Israel to imagine stepping onto a public bus and being blown to bits just because you chose not to drive your car that morning. This is why progressives can no longer simply oppose the War on Terror, but instead must offer an alternative—and a new framing of the issue.

In his book, From Dictatorship to Democracy, nonviolent scholar, activist and writer Gene Sharp attempts to do just this. I spoke with Sharp on the phone from his office at the Albert Einstein Institute in Boston. Sharp points out that most people dismiss nonviolence as ineffective in the face of certain, great evils—such as terrorism or the former regime of Saddam Hussein.

The book illustrates the strength of nonviolent action to overcome dictatorships like that of Hussein by (1) educating people inside the country on how they are not and never have been completely powerless; and (2) by orchestrating and encouraging the growth of carefully planned strategic nonviolent campaigns. “The walls of Jericho,” Sharp wryly commented, “will not come tumbling down by thinking happy thoughts and having glowing hearts.”

And mass demonstrations—the most clichéd and well-known type of nonviolent action—are the tip of the iceberg: “they make everyone high for a while,” Sharp explains, “but then nothing else happens.” The book, therefore, tries to steer readers away from thinking of nonviolence as some sort of first resort (to later be discarded if it fails, in favor of violent action like invasion), or as some sort of spontaneous achievement that pops up unorganized to overthrow dictators and terrorist regimes.

Through a careful analysis of power—in an attempt to demonstrate that even dictatorships and governments harboring terrorists have weaknesses—Sharp hopes to re-frame the question of response to terror and dictatorship as one that does not have to revolve around violence. Most often, he explains, negotiation is a token action designed to appease everyone’s need to say “well, we tried to make peace, but…”

This frame pre-supposes that violence is a necessary last resort. Because, however, a drawn out violent conflict seems to breed more terrorists and things like domestic spying, massive budget cuts affecting education and the eerie claim that “it’s all for your own good,” this frame is no longer tenable for a progressive America.

Most importantly, the book illustrates, a violent invasion, for example, opens the door for a president like Bush to justify all kinds of other destructive policies, or, for example, to link Al-Qaida terrorists to the secular regime of Saddam Hussein in one brushstroke.

There is, therefore, an alternative to the framework Bush setup last week in Manhattan. There is a way to do something without jeopardizing our civil liberties and education system and without distorting two separate issues into one—terrorism and the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein—as the President did so effectively before invading Iraq. Indeed, until a nonviolent something replaces the violent framework that we are currently locked into—the same one Bush lauded in the Little Apple—blue Kansans will remain stuck in a sea of red-state, War on Terror fervor.

And that, dear friends, is what we might call Manhattan Madness.

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