By Douglas Allen
Ever since the tragedy of 11 September 2001, terrorism and security have been at the centre of US political and military policies, media coverage, and public concerns.
Since 9/11, I have given many lectures in the United States, India, and other parts of the world focusing on Gandhi’s analysis of violence, nonviolence, terror and terrorism. When time comes for questions and answers, the first question is usually some variation of the following: What would Gandhi have done about the 9/11 terrorists? What would he do to stop the suicide bomber? How would he stop the determined rapist at the moment he is about to rape his victim? The questioner usually seems very confident that Gandhi has nothing relevant to offer the contemporary world when it comes to certain kinds of violence, terror, and terrorism. At best, Gandhi in his extreme commitment to nonviolence and pacifism, is naïve and completely irrelevant. At worst, Gandhi is complicit in furthering terror and terrorism and is culpable since he opposes the very violent measures necessary to deal with post – 9/11 crises that threaten to destroy us.
Gandhi’s Unique Approach to Violence and Terrorism
Gandhi’s most important contribution towards our understanding of terrorism is seen in his lifelong attempt to redefine, broaden, and deepen our understanding of violence. In radically transforming our understanding of violence, both quantitatively and qualitatively, Gandhi transforms our approach to those forms of violence classified at terror and terrorism.
For Gandhi acts of overt physical violence are only a small part of overall violence. In his attempt to broaden and deepen our sensitivity and awareness of violence, Gandhi claims that most of us who profess to stand for peace and nonviolence are actually very violent. Gandhi always emphasizes internal violence as well as external violence. Love, often identified as Ahimsa, is nonviolent, whereas hatred is violent. I may not kill you or inflict direct violence on you, but if I have a violent will and if I am full of hatred, then I am a violent person and my violence will be manifested in violent relations towards myself and towards others.
Gandhi broadens and deepens our approach to violence, and hence to terror and terrorism, in two significant ways. First, he emphasizes on diversity, multidimensionality, complexity, and interactional nature of overt and subtle forms of violence. Second, his approach to such complex multidimensionality of expressions of violence is especially insightful in emphasizing the usually neglected structures of the violence of the status quo. Such violence of the status quo is part of our “normal” everyday life, part of business as usual; and it is usually not even recognized as violent.
In addition to acts of overt physical violence, Gandhi primarily emphasizes multidimensional foundational structures and diverse kinds of violence: economic violence, psychological violence, linguistic violence, social violence, cultural violence, religious violence, educational violence, and so forth. It is inadequate to restrict our attention and approach to overt acts of suicide bombers and other individual terrorists. We must focus on the many dimensions of violence that get at the foundations, root causes, and key determinants of such terrorism and that continue to fuel terrorism.
Economic Violence: An Illustration
Gandhi’s different approach to violence and terrorism can he seen in one of his major concerns: economic violence. It is easy to devalue the emphasis of the “spiritual” Gandhi on economic conditions and violence. Gandhi emphasizes the importance of economic and material causes and conditions in shaping our lives. Gandhi tells us that it is only when one has focused on basic material necessities of life and dealt with basic human needs for survival doming the lives of starving and impoverished human beings, then can we address Swaraj, freedom and “higher” ethical and spiritual values.1 Gandhi sometimes writes about poverty as the worst form of violence. In most of his uses, violence is synonymous with exploitation.
A Gandhian approach to violence, terror and terrorism today emphasizes the following kinds of economic violence. The economic violence of the status quo is expressed through the incredible concentration of wealth and power, whether defined by the domination of multinational corporations and the military-industrial complex globally or the domination of the ruling class domestically. True nonviolence, security, and democratic empowerment are only possible under economic conditions and structures of a more decentralized, more equitable distribution of economic resources and power.
The economic violence of the status quo is expressed through the permanent war economy which removes vital resources that could be used to meet human needs and which flourishes most under conditions of terror, insecurity, violence, and war. The economic violence pf the status quo is also expressed through dominant economic power relations, both globally and domestically in which indigenous and local self-sustaining economic relations are destroyed, and food, medicine, and other commodities are produced on the basis of profit for the least needy and more privileged and powerful who can afford them.
The main concern for Gandhi, in all such economic violence, is that it involves humanly-caused exploitation, domination, and suffering. As Gandhi learned from the Bhagwad Gita, inaction is a kind of action. If I do nothing about economic exploitation and refuse to serve the needs of other suffering human beings, I perpetuate and am responsible for the economic violence of the status quo.
It we want to understand and confront contemporary terrorism, Gandhi challenges us to examine economic violence. Otherwise our understanding is limited and our approach inadequate, self-defeating, and dangerous. As Gandhi repeatedly said, we must first understand violence and terrorism before trying to combat them.
Only by understanding economic violence can we understand the suffering, humiliation, hopelessness, rage, terror, and violence of those committing overt violent acts of terrorism and of those supporting or not opposing them. And it is only by understanding such economic violence that we can understand how those with dominant economic power, as expressed through the violence of the status quo, create and maintain conditions of exploitation, domination, and terror, and exercise their own forms of terrorism.
A common refutation to any economic analysis of 9/11 especially with power, is the obvious objection that Osama bin Laden is extremely wealthy and therefore his Al Qaeda terrorism has nothing to do with any experience of economic violence. It seems to me that this “obvious” objection completely misses the strength of Gandhi’s analysis. First, in focusing on economic violence, Gandhi is not a simple, deterministic, economic reductionist. Violence is multidimensional, has multiple causes, and religious and other casual factors sometimes become major determinants. Second, that fact that bin Laden is personally wealthy does not mean that he has not been motivated by his claims about the economic exploitation, oppression, and humiliation of Islamic societies. Gandhi’s analysis of economic violence is very significant for understanding why so many millions of human beings are receptive to bin Laden and other terrorist messages.
Terrorists and Means–Ends Analysis
Gandhi was very aware of terrorists, their arguments, and their refutations of his position. Indeed, throughout his life, he attempted to engage in dialogue with terrorists in order to understand their positions and to attempt to persuade them of the greater morality and effectiveness of nonviolence.
Gandhi’s approach to terrorists is very different from that of President George Bush and his administration after 9/11. unlike Bush, who repeatedly described the terrorists as cowards who simply envy and resent our freedom, Gandhi acknowledges that terrorists are often patriots who act with courage and are willing to die for their cause.
Gandhi’s position on terrorism is similar to a position on violence that he expressed as: “Some soldiers and other perpetrators of violence have high ideals, are brave, and are more courageous than the cowardly response of so-called nonviolent people who are passive and refuse to get involved in resisting oppression and injustice. Gandhi prefers courageous violence to cowardice. However, he usually adds a third alternative, that of the Satyagrahi, the nonviolent peace and justice activist, who expresses the most moral and spiritual position; this is the bravest position that requires the greatest courage in voluntarily accepting self-sacrifice and self-suffering without inflicting violence on others.
Gandhi strongly refutes the terrorist position. First, although some terrorists are brave, there is a morally and spiritually superior position that requires far more courage: that of nonviolent resistance in which a person would refuse to inflict violence and suffering on others. Second, Gandhi repeatedly claimed that Indian expatriate terrorists and other proponents of “modern civilization” actually imitate the worst features of colonial and other oppressors. Indians, as victims, who accept the legitimacy of terrorism, are linked in the Gandhian thinking with the violence and terrorism of the modern civilization of the British oppressor. Violence and terror, if successful in driving out the British, will lead to a false independence, not real Swaraj, in which Indian violent oppressors simply replace British oppressors. Third and most importantly, expanding the second objection, Gandhi repeatedly introduces his famous analysis on the integral relation of means and ends.
Gandhi rejects utilitarianism and many other contemporary positions, including various justifications of terrorism, which maintain that the ends justify the means. We must emphasize both means and ends and their integral, mutually reinforcing relations. Gandhi places even more emphasis on means because he tells us that we often have much greater control over our means, whereas noble ends may be unattainable because of unintended consequences or because they express ideals that are beyond our power of realization.
Regardless of short-term benefits, Gandhi repeatedly emphasizes that we cannot use violence to overcome violence and achieve nonviolence. We cannot use terror and terrorism to overcome terrorism and achieve real security free from terror. If we use violent and impure means, these will shape violent and impure ends regardless of our moralistic self-justifying slogans and ideology.
In a language similar to formulations of the law of Karma, Gandhi warns us that violence leads to more violence, terror leads to more terror, and we become entrapped in endless vicious cycles of escalating violence. The only way to move towards more nonviolent ends, free from terror and terrorism, is to introduce nonviolent causal factors through the adoption of nonviolent means. Such nonviolent factors will begin to weaken the causal factors that produce violent chain reactions and will undermine the mutually reinforcing causal relations that keep us trapped in destructive cycles of violence.
Gandhi’s warning and critique can be illustrated by any of the contemporary sites of overt terrorism.
The most obvious illustration, at the centre of the Bush Administration’s post―9/11 war on terrorism, is the US war in Iraq that began in March 2003. Following Gandhi’s approach, we can better understand how US terror and terrorism has not trapped the US in destructive cycles of violence; it has created and conditioned new forms of anti-US terror so that today Iraq is indeed a centre of terrorism. Such massive US violence has made the US much more vulnerable to terrorism and much less secure.
In many respects, Gandhi’s means-ends analysis is similar to the Buddha’s formulation of this Doctrine of Dependent Origination (pratitya-samutpada). Through this formulation of the twelve links or factors, Buddha analyses how we become imprisoned in this cyclical world of existence (samsara), the world of suffering (dukha). Samsara is the world of dynamic, impermanent, interdependent relatively. There is not one independent, absolute cause to our entrapment in this world of suffering. Each relative and contingent factor is conditioned as well as conditioning; caused by antecedent causal conditions and is itself a causal factor shaping future conditions. The Buddhist path involves identifying these causal factors and gradually weakening the causal links that keep us trapped in cycles of ignorance and suffering by introducing more ethical and spiritual causal factors.
Gandhi’s means-ends approach to violence, terror, and terrorism shares much with this particular Buddhist orientation and other Indian orientations. Violence, terror, and terrorism are not independent, inevitable, eternal, or absolute. They exist within a violent phenomenal world of impermanent, interdependent relativity. Terrorism and other forms of violence are caused and conditioned, and they themselves become causes and condition other violent consequences that then become new violent causal factors. The path and goal for Gandhi involves focusing on the means that allow you to decondition such violent causal factors and conditions, to introduce nonviolent causes and conditions; that will lead to more nonviolent results that will then become new causal factors moving you closer to you nonviolent ends. The means-ends relation involves mutual interaction, since the adoption of nonviolent ideals as ends will also have a causal influence on shaping appropriate means.
Gandhi’s Preventive Approach And Short-term Violence
The tremendous contribution of Gandhi’s approach to 9/11, terrorism, and violence lies not in any insights about how to respond when the terrorist is about to strike, but rather about what to do beforehand. Gandhi’s major focus is always on preventative measures that we must take in order to transform and remove the violent conditions and causes before they reach the point of exploding into terror and terrorism.
This emphasis by Gandhi on the larger picture and the need for preventative approaches should be evident from the formulations of Gandhi’s deeper and broader analysis of violence and terror, including economic violence, and his analysis of means-ends relations in terms of a larger framework for getting at root causes and conditions underlying violence and terrorism. As Gandhi repeatedly warns us, if we do not understand and respond to the larger framework of complex, multidimensional, interrelated structures and relations of violence, if we do not address the root causes, conditions, and dynamics of violence then our short-term responses will not be sufficient for dealing with escalating violence and future terrorism.
This is why Gandhi, in his approach to violence and nonviolence, devotes so much time and effort to a radically different model of education with emphasis on character building and moral and spiritual development. This is hey he is preoccupied with expanding our psychological awareness and analysis of how we constitute and must decondition ego-driven selfishness and greed, defence mechanisms responding to fear and insecurity, hatred, aggression, and other violent intentions and inner states of consciousness. This is also why Gandhi is so attentive to political, cultural, social, economic, linguistic, religious, and other aspects of our overall socialization that contribute to, tolerate, and justify violence, terror, and terrorism.
A frequent response to such a Gandhian nonviolent approach is that it may have value for long-term preventative measures, but what do we do about the short-term threat of terrorism? We live in a contemporary world of terrorists who are intent on inflicting terrorism on us right now.
If someone is intent on inflicting short-term violence Gandhi suggests that we should limit our own ego, achieve a larger perspective, and empathize with the feelings of the terrorist, even if they are found to be inadequate and dangerous, it allows for dialogue and for creating non-threatening relations with the violent other. In addition, as Gandhi repeatedly asserts, while intellectual approaches with rational analysis often have no real transformative effect on the other, approaches of the heart involving deep personal emotions and feeling often have profound, rational, transformative effects. If one refuses to strike back and is willing to embrace self-sacrifice and self-suffering, this can disrupt the expectations of the violent other, lead to a decentring and reorienting of an extremely violent situation, and touch the heart of the violent other. Throughout his writings on Satyagraha and other methods of resisting and transforming violence, Gandhi proposes numerous ways of relating to short-term violence and moving towards conflict resolution grounded in truth and nonviolence.
Nevertheless Gandhi’s nonviolent proposals are sometimes completely ineffective in preventing certain kinds of short-term violence (e.g. a madman about to shoot innocent people; a rapist determined to rape; a suicide bomber about to explode a bomb; etc.). Non-Gandhian proposals are also ineffective in preventing such violence. In such cases there is not opportunity for empathy, communication, changing causes, or any of the other preventive measures that are the strength of Gandhi’s orientation. Terrorism is often expressed through completely impersonal structures and relations in which there is not possibility for constructive, personal, nonviolent interaction.
It may surprise some readers to learn that Mahatma Gandhi, the best-known twentieth century proponent of peace and nonviolence, sometimes concludes that violence is a necessary response. To understand on what grounds Gandhi allows for violent preventive intervention in certain extreme situations, we must turn to his key distinction between absolute truth and relative truth. Although Gandhi’s distinction resembles formulations of the “doctrine of two truths” found in Indian philosophy, his approach is different from the one found in Sankara’s Advait Vedanta or Nagarjuna’s Madhyamika Buddhism.
Absolute Truth, Relative Truth and Terrorism
It is true that Gandhi is firm in upholding ideals of absolute truth, love, and nonviolence. In terms of such absolutes, he resists many contemporary views of complete subjectivism or unlimited facile relativism. Gandhi would never agree that the infliction of terror and terrorism may be wrong for him, but it may be right for the terrorist.
What is often overlooked is that Gandhi repeatedly emphasizes that he and the others exist in this world as relative, finite beings of limited embodied consciousness. Our knowledge is conditioned and perspectival. As Gandhi tells us, he at most has “glimpses” of absolute truth and nonviolence. Since we have partial truths, we should be tolerant and open t other points of view; others have different relative perspectives and glimpses of truth that we do not have. Our ethical and spiritual path is to move from one relative truth to greater relative truth. As relative finite beings with limited knowledge, we often misjudge situations and even misjudge our own motives, and that is why we must learn from our errors in the movement towards greater truth and nonviolence. It is an error to classify Gandhi’s approach as Kantian or purely deontological. In Gandhi’s approach, one must focus on both intentions and results, as in his emphasis on both means and ends. Gandhi, being very practical, has a pragmatic approach towards violence and terrorism. Often we have the best of intentions, but our experiments in truth are failures because of unintended negative consequences. Gandhi assesses and reconsiders his own motives and intentions based on later negative consequences. Gandhi may emphasize intentions and means, but his approach includes the importance of both intentions and consequences and how they are often dialectically and integrally connected.
One of the most arrogant and dangerous human moves is to make what is relative into an absolute. This is the move of those inflicting terrorism, who act as if they posses the absolute truth and the other is absolutely evil. This may pose the greatest challenge to Gandhi’s approach to violence, terror, and terrorism: How to deal other who reject the relative-absolute distinction and Gandhi’s inclusivistic, tolerant approach and framework?
How does this absolute-relative distinction guide Gandhi in approaching the most difficult cases of terrorism and violence we have cited: those challenges in which the terrorists or perpetrators of violence reject Gandhi’s inclusive, tolerant approach, claim they possess the absolute truth, and are at the explosive point of inflicting terror and extreme violence?
In extreme cases, in which there are no nonviolent options with any possibility of success, Gandhi suggests that we may use necessary violence in the cause of nonviolence. We act, using violence means if necessary, to prevent terrorism or extreme violence because it is the least violent, effective response possible. Gandhi would tell us to use violent means if necessary in order, say, to stop the suicide bomber about to kill many innocent human beings.
It is essential that we distinguish such a Gandhian response from the usual, dominant, violent actions and policies endorsed as necessary in the war on terrorism and for dealing with other forms of crime and violence. First, Gandhi would only advocate such violent means as a last resort, when preventive measures have failed and there are no remaining nonviolent alternatives. Gandhi, for example, could never support Bush’s “doctrine of pre-emptive war” used to justify war in Iraq. In such a situation―in which there was no evidence of an Iraqi imminent threat to the US―Gandhi would view such a doctrine, justifying war in order to prevent some potential future threat, as an early resort, not as a last resort. For Gandhi, 99 percent of the time that we resort to violence, there are nonviolent options and means that we have overlooked or are unwilling to consider.
Second, even in those extreme cases in which we have exhausted nonviolent options and are forced to use violent means to avoid greater violence, Gandhi’s approach is different from the usual proponents of violence. Even when we are engaged in relative violence, we must always uphold the absolute truth, the ideal of absolute nonviolence. We must never glorify violence. When we use violence, what we do is tragic and is a terrible thing. It may be necessary, but it is not moral. That we live in a world of violence, terror, and terrorism is an indication of human failure. That we are forced to use violence is also an indication of human failure; that we have failed to create preventative nonviolent structures, relations, and conditions and to take nonviolent actions that could have avoided the need for such violence. Rather than extol and celebrate such violence, we should be saddened, seek forgiveness and work towards reconciliation.
Most importantly, by maintaining the absolute ideal of nonviolence, we approach the use of necessary violence with an attitude, intention, and goals informed by a commitment to nonviolence. This means that we severely limit the need for violence and we restrict to a minimum the intensity and extent of such relative violence. This means that even when we engage in such tragic relative violence, we then do everything possible to change conditions and human relations to avoid the repetition of such violence.
Relating To The Other
Gandhi not only disagrees with René Descartes’s focus on the primacy of the ego, but he advocates a radical inversion of the self-other relation. As in the case of the Buddha, Gandhi maintains that the construction and focus on the primacy of one’s self leads to illusion, unhappiness, selfishness and greed, violence, war, and lack of ethical and spiritual development. Gandhi, in complete contrast to dominant Western modern orientations of I–me self or ego, proposes that we focus on the primacy of the other, by striving to reduce oneself to a state of egoless consciousness and by directing our attention towards serving the needs of the other.
Ever since 9/11, there has been an increasing anti-Gandhian focus on the primacy of self with the devaluation of the other as the enemy and as evil. This, of course, is true of those who planned, perpetrated, and supported the terrorism of 9/11, but it is also true of those in charge of the US―led “war on terrorism.” Both view the world in rigid, dichotomous, Manichean terms. We are good and the other is evil. You are either with us or you with the enemy. For Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, the US and those aligned with it are infidels, an evil enemy that must be terrorized. For the neoconservatives, within the Bush Administration and other conservative think-tanks shaping Washington’s policies, militant Islamists and others resisting US truth and goodness are evil and must be destroyed through violence.
This may at first seem to be a surprising claim. If one reads the policy positions of those identified with the Project for a New American Century and other neoconservative policy makers, the same pattern emerges. We are in possession of truth and goodness, and as the world’s only superpower we have both the capacity and the moral duty to ensure that our absolute values are applied globally. Our own national interest is identical with the interest of truth and morality. Iraq comes first as we use our power, including extreme shock and awe violence if necessary, to remake Iraq in ways consistent with our own model of truth and goodness. Then others, in awe of our determination and capacity to inflict terror on our enemies, will be receptive to such radical restructuring according to our values and interests. In our attempt to remake the region and the world, we re good and our enemies evil. You can join us, and be part of the coalition of truth and goodness, or can oppose us or refuse to join us, in which case you support or tolerate terrorism and are part of the axis and the forces of evil. Since we already posses truth and goodness, we do not have to learn from other points of view. If you do not follow our position, you are of no consequence and you will become dysfunctional and eventually extinct since our position defines the future. This might seem like an unbelievable exaggeration or caricature if it were not tragically so consistent with the assumptions and explicit positions of leading neoconservative policymakers. It is not that more liberal policymakers, often the dominant forces in the US Democratic Party, are necessarily less imperialistic and less willing to use violence and terrorism to achieve global domination, but the neoconservatives have been more transparent in their arrogant, unilateral, messianic intentions and goals.
In the Gandhian approach presented, George Bush and Osama bin Laden are closer to each other than either is to Mahatma Gandhi. From Gandhi’s point of view, each is sometimes the mirror image of the other. Each serves as evil enemy and the other necessary for the other’s self-definition as absolute truth and goodness. And since each refuses to recognize the limited relativity of their partial truths and refuses to privilege the real needs of the other, each becomes trapped in arrogant self-assertions and escalating cycles of ignorance, violence, and terrorism.
There should be no confusion about Gandhi’s position on the immediate terrorism of 9/11. he would speak out unequivocally on how such terrorism is unjustified and must be opposed. But he would also maintain that refusal to understand basic conditions, causes, and dynamics of escalating cycles of violence and terror, insistence that ends justify means, and refusal to relate to the needs of the other and the need for a long-term nonviolent preventive approach will guarantee failure in dealing with the real problems of insecurity, terror, and terrorism.
Source: Gandhi Marg, Vol. 26, No. 3, October-December 2004
1.See Ronald J. Terchek, Gandhi: Struggling for Autonomy (Tanthan, MD: Rowmans Littlefield Publishers, 1998), pp. 11-12.
Unlike my previous Gandhi publications, I shall not provide extensive documentation from Gandhi’s writings. Most of my analysis of Gandhi, such as his focus on truth (satya), violence (himsa), and nonviolence (ahimsa), is well known and can be found in the 100 volumes of The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (CWMG, New Delhi: Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India). For my documentation of major aspects of Gandhi’s philosophy, see my “Philosophical Foundations of Gandhi’s Legacy, Utopian Experiments, and Peace Struggles,” Gandhi Marg, Vol. 16, No.2 (July-September 1994) pp. 133-60; “Gandhian Perspectives on Self-Other Relations as Relevant to Human Values and Social Change Today,” in Ishwar Modi, ed., Human Values and Social Change, Rawat Publications, Jaipur, 2000, pp. 283-309; and “Gandhi, Contemporary Political Thinking, and Self-Other Relations,” in B.N. Ray, ed., Contemporary Political Thinking, Kanishka Publishers, New Delhi, 2000, pp. 129-70.
See, for example, “My friend, the Revolutionary”; Young India, 4 September 1925. He asserts here: “I do not regard killing or assassination or terrorism as good in any circumstances, whatsoever.” He also said: “I hold no brief for the terrorists or those who would encourage terrorism.” CWMG, Vol. 38,pp. 356-68.
Swaraj means “self-rule” and “independence.” In his Hind Swaraj, Gandhi gives swaraj two interconnected meanings: “Indian Home Rule,” Gandhi’s title for his English translation of the work, and individual self-rule. Highly recommended is Anthony Parel ed., M.K. Gandhi, Hind Swaraj and Other Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997) with Parel’s excellent introduction.