I hope you aren’t tired of news from those exhilarating, humbling, ongoing people’s rebellions in the Arab world, because you’re going to hear a whole lot more about it. Even from me.
In a recent New York Times column, Nicholas Kristof made the claim that “We are all Egyptians,” nicely reformulating JFK’s now-famous reassurance/provocation about being “a Berliner.” I’d like to think that it’s true: that in times of trouble, we’re all prone to walk like an Egyptian—i.e., unite in a courageous show of nonviolent solidarity. But I’m not so sure.
The current bloody events in Libya and the reports that the regime in Tripoli is employing armed mercenaries to do its lethal work made me think back to my school days when we learned that the British used “Hessian mercenaries” during the Revolutionary War. (I wasn’t sure what Hessians were, or mercenaries, but especially when combined, they carried a suitable sense of sibilant evil.)
In any event, the very word “mercenaries” still has a sinister ring, causing me to reflect on the fact that we, the ostensible good guys, are employing huge numbers of mercenaries (“civilian contractors”) to do much of our own dirty work right now, in Iraq and, increasingly, Afghanistan (see, e.g., Blackwater, now rebranded as Xe Services LLC).
I am also reminded of James Hanigan’s fine study, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Foundations of Nonviolence, in which the author notes that in the United States in particular, the middle class has often been scorned as having an excessive fear of conflict and a corresponding desire to be comfortable at all costs:
“The inability of the bourgeois to dream great dreams and ambition noble deeds,” according to Hanigan, “is revealed in their timidity in the face of violence and conflict … This cowardice also shows itself in what may be called the mercenary impulse, the impulse to hire others to fight one’s own battles. This impulse has such concrete manifestations as hiring additional police to suppress domestic unrest or in spending money for a so-called all volunteer army, rather than personally accepting the obligations of citizenship. … It represents what Gandhi called the nonviolence of the weak. Such nonviolence he [Gandhi] took to be counterfeit, a cloak for passivity and cowardice.”
Back to mercenaries again, and my doubts as to whether we (i.e., citizens of the United States) really are all Egyptians now, or if we are so immersed in our own mercenary impulses that we aren’t as courageous as the Egyptians, lacking the bravery needed to partake in nonviolent civil disobedience.
Personal confession: It is several decades since I did so, on the occasion of a nonviolent “action” blocking—or rather, attempting to block, until we were bodily removed—train tracks carrying nuclear warheads to the U.S. Navy’s Trident submarine base at Bangor, Washington. I have protested at various times since then (most recently against the Iraq War) but did not allow my outrage to evoke anything resembling the self-sacrificial courage we are seeing today, and that we saw yesterday, and will doubtless see tomorrow, in the Arab world most immediately.
I am also reminded of the bravery and dedication that nonviolence demands, and of Gandhi’s insistence that satyagraha (his own term literally translated as “truth force”) must be distinguished from passive acquiescence or the desire to avoid conflict—even pain or death—at any price.
As Gandhi saw it, nonviolent actions are the province of the strong, the devoted, the courageous, the outraged … not merely passive acquiescence by the weak or the comfortable. “My creed of nonviolence is an extremely active force,” wrote Gandhi. “It has no room for cowardice or even weakness. There is hope for a violent man to be some day nonviolent, but there is none for a coward.”
I am moved and humbled by the nonviolent courage of so many of today’s Arabs, and find myself wondering about my own mercenary impulse, living in a country that hires people to fight our battles: not merely our police and fire fighters, but also our volunteer (i.e., mercenary) military.
Maybe if they were wealthy enough, today’s Egyptians—and Tunisians, Libyans, Bahrainis, and so forth—would manifest their own mercenary impulses. But for now, it seems to be an American specialty.