From protest to resistance: War resistance after 11 September

IssueDecember 2001 - February 2002
Comment by Roberta Bacic, Andreas Speck

While we are writing this, Britain - where we WRI workers live - and the US are dropping bombs on Afghanistan: it is the first weeks of the “war on terrorism”.

At the same time on Oxford Street - a couple of kilometres from the WRI office - mainstream Britain goes shopping; life goes on as normally as possible, although protective clothing and gas masks are sold-out, in response to fears of anthrax attacks. Who cares about the bombs dropped thousands of kilometres away in order to save “western civilisation” from “terrorism”?

Did anything change?

It has been said that the events of 11 September - the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, which left more than 5,000 people dead - changed the world.

But even this statement reflects the perspective of the wealthy western enclave, a view out of “Fortress Europe” or “USA” (or Australia, which closed its gates to a couple of hundred refugees from Afghanistan in August - a fact already forgotten?) into a world of exploitation and war, fostered by western weaponry and increased poverty as a result of economic globalisation. In short: structural and cultural violence.

Did the world really change for the people in Congo, Angola, or Colombia, where civilians are trapped between different warring parties in “civil” wars? Did the world really change for the millions of refugees vegetating in refugee camps all over the world, or desperately trying to reach the island of wealth called Europe or the US?

Has there been any improvement in social justice? We are certain that it is more likely that this “change” essentially means more of the same - more injustice, more US domination, more state- sponsored (and “grassroots”) terrorism.

Return to the source

During the four weeks between “post-11-9” and “pre-war” the WRI office received thousands of emails from all over the world. What became clear from these emails and also from the many discussions we had, is the isolation of mainstream Western thinking from the rest of the world - from the huge majority of the world's population.

While here in the “West”, even mentioning US-sponsored terrorism in the South - from Chile, Vietnam, Libya to Iraq and the Taliban - is almost seen as treason, or at least as a justification of the terrorist attacks of 11 September, for the majority of the world these issues are more than obvious. The symbols of 11 September were well chosen; symbols of global capitalism and US military dominance. While the majority of people world-wide probably condemn the attacks of 11 September (at least we hope so), the message they conveyed is understood, and meets with widespread agreement: the victims of globalisation and western (cultural, political, military and economic) dominance are striking back. The violence, which was nourished by the west, is somehow returning to its source. Why is it that almost nobody in the west attempts to deal with these questions? Why is it that we as pacifists seem to be even more isolated than ever, with more than three-quarters of the West's populations supporting a military response to “terrorism” - if we can believe the opinion polls?

Why is it that the majority happily agree to new and serious limitations on civil liberties, and even tighter immigration controls for fortress Europe or the United States? Are they beginning to realise that the “western way of life” cannot be sustained without exploitation of the south, are they becoming aware that even the western lower classes are quite “upper class” on a global scale, and that indeed they do have something to lose?

Peace movement response

After 11 September, it didn't take long for the “peace movement” (whatever that is) to pull itself together, and organise an impressive number of vigils, rallies, demonstrations, petitions, and statements. New and broad coalitions were formed, and perhaps more than one million people protested on 13 October across the world, demanding an end to the bombing of Afghanistan. This is a reason for a very subtle and weak hope.

But we have strong concerns. While it is easy to sum up all the demonstrations against the war from all over the world (and the numbers we get over the internet are impressive), a more careful view need to be taken. Who is protesting against what? What are their means? What are the aims? Aren't they just looking for a space to express their anger and unhappiness or further their own political agenda? What chance is there of actually stopping the war?

At London's big demonstration on 13 October it became quite clear that this was not just a demonstration for peace. It was more a strange mixture of demonstrations for (or more likely against) all kinds of things: agreeing only on opposition to the bombing of Afghanistan (although some participants would probably have been happy about bombing many other targets, as long as the perpetrator wasn't the US or NATO). When we look at this issue globally, we need to be even more careful, as not every “anti”-war demonstration is really against war.

As war resisters, we need to emphasise and highlight the basic principles of opposing war: that our opposition cannot be relative or one-sided, and that we need to oppose all wars, and maintain the struggle for the removal of all causes of war. We can use the rich experience of over 80 years of War Resisters' International, while at the same time acknowledging that we probably have more questions than answers.

We need to take ourselves seriously when we state that “Confronted by President George W Bush with the choice: “If you are not with us, you are with the terrorists”, we choose a third option: nonviolence.” This includes dealing with our anger, and not turning it into hatred against the US, or whoever, and developing more creative responses. We not only need to oppose, we should also be able to resist.

From protest to resistance

Protest in itself is not enough - on two levels. On the one hand we need to ask ourselves about the relevance of protest as a sole means of registering opposition - of nice demonstrations through our cities and petitions to the power-holders - when at the same time the military machine continues to work smoothly and undisturbed.

Times of war should be times of resistance for those opposing war and not just of protest – nonviolent direct action against the military machine, calls for conscientious objection and desertion, and direct support to deserters and draft evaders, times of tax resistance and non-cooperation with what are essentially militarist administrations.

One of the most basic principles of nonviolence is that those in power depend on our consent and complicity in order to rule. When, if not now, is the time to make it very clear that this consent doesn’t exist? And how, if not through nonviolent direct action, can we do this?

On the other hand we need to ask ourselves one very important question: what comes after protest (and after resistance)? When this war is over - either because of our resistance, or because the warmongers achieved their aims - what will have changed? Whom do we approach and work with to move on? There are many people who would agree that we live in a world without social justice, but the causes of injustice are in dispute and even what we understand to mean by social justice. Since many people are not even aware that it means different things for different people and cultures, we can be fairly sure that there won't be any!

Ending the causes of war

What we now need to develop is long-term strategies for social justice on a global scale - and long- term strategies to deal with past injustices - not just of 11 September and the present “war on terrorism”, but with the injustice of global capitalism.

Dealing with these injustices needs to include not just talking about the “truth” - perhaps a variety of North-South truth commissions might be one idea to address this - but first and foremost to stop these injustices from continuing. It means a radical change.

Otherwise the end of the “war on terrorism” - whenever it may be - will merely be the beginning of a new “pre-war” period.