From the explosion of Osama Bin Laden into our consciousness on that terrible day in 2001, all the way to his death, feels like a frame of existence, a distinct period of our history and fate as an American community. There have been many deadly wars since then that America has participated in or supported. As an American Jew and a veteran peacebuilder in the Middle East, I also feel like this decade has been a whirlwind of violence, from Iraq to Lebanon to Gaza, and now to Arab countries in which I had worked, especially Syria where I put my heart and soul.
Every war, every massive act of violence, always makes me reflect anew on the origins and nature of human violence, and on its opposites, empathy, compassion, and love. We humans have made so many efforts through the millennia to create one political arrangement after another in order to be stable, reasonably safe, and sometimes even prosperous and happy, despite the dark shadow of our capacity to destroy.
The mystery of the cycles of rage and reconciliation, reason and madness, war and peace, repeats itself in every generation, but this decade seems to have brought it all into sharper relief, maybe because of the intensity and frequency of the violence to which Americans were subjected and to which they in turn subjected others, especially in Iraq. Maybe it is the sheer wonder of how quickly politicians and others could turn Americans from being victims on September 11, 2001, into perpetrators of organized torture and sodomy in Abu Ghraib by 2004. I wish I could sense that we as an American community, in a flash of good sense, elected President Obama to put that nightmare of degradation behind us, but the politics of the day say otherwise. The atmosphere continues to suggest that rage and violence are deeply embedded in our politics and our fantasies for the world.
Politics, however, is not divorced from human nature, from the life and fate of the individual. Violent politics is a function of our violence as people, but it is equally true that those who move beyond violent politics, from America to Israel, Palestine, Tunisia or Egypt, do so because of transformations that take place at the deepest and most personal level.
Peaceful politics comes from peaceful people, and it is this that we must reflect upon. We see very good news and we see very bad news before us every day. We see millions of people on the march for freedom, and who are determined to march with nonviolence and solidarity, not the gun. But we also see the breathtaking capacity of governments and corrupt elites to turn the levers of police and military power on innocent civilians without any mercy or hesitation. This includes certain elites in the U.S. who pre-determined an intention to destroy Iraq rather than go after the perpetrators of the 9/11 crime.
It seems clear that it is possible to motivate millions of people around the world to re-create in every generation the heroic methods that many of us saw as somehow unique to a Martin Luther King generation or a Gandhian mysterious capacity to inspire millions. No, it actually can happen without a Gandhi. Yes, it takes some extreme economic deprivation to trigger the masses to move, to risk everything, to risk their lives, to fight oppression. But once motivated these masses have shown a capacity for self-discipline, for nonviolent methods that at times has taken my breath away.
I will not idealize Tahrir Square. We all know that the same square contained some terrible behavior, but no one can deny the astonishing capacity of so many ordinary citizens, men and women alike, to act with nonviolent heroism.
Now there are elements at work in Egyptian society, including outsiders, who are deliberately tarnishing this phenomenon, stimulating conflicts between Christians and Muslims in direct contradiction to the beautiful solidarity between Christians and Muslism that we saw with our own eyes in Tahrir Square. In the riots between Christians and Muslims and the solidarity in Tahrir Square we have a beautiful metaphor for the dual capacity of not only the individual human being, but literally ‘the mob’. There is the violent mob of which we are all afraid, but there is also a saintly mob. And then there are the corrupting structures of power that suppress the saintly mob and use the violent mob to scare us into illiberal governance structures. The metaphor was astonishingly literal in Tahrir Square and elsewhere where each regime literally hired themselves mobs of thugs to punish the saintly mob and also to discredit mobs as such. It was as if the thugs appeared on this televised drama in order to require us all as bystanders to recoil, to withdraw our support for freedom, and instead go back to the familiar safety of a Middle East controlled by a few avuncular if strange men, like Gaddafi and Mubarak and Ben Ali.
It is time for us to reflect on what makes the heroic nonviolent person, and, in turn, what stimulates the heroic nonviolent mob. For it is in discovering the nature of these two, the nonviolent heroic individual and the nonviolent heroic mob, that we will discover a better means to confront and convert violent and corrupt political structures, East and West, North and South, into something more tame, incrementally but with determination to build a more evolved human political community.
© Marc Gopin