Inaction for Peace : The Great Myth

“As well might you leave the faeries to plough your land or the idle winds to sow it, as sit down and wait for freedom.” — Thomas Davis

I used to think it was all black and white. War, peace, love, hate. “What if they held a war, and no one showed up?” But, standing face to face with the reality of violent oppression, it becomes eminently clear that these are the fantasies of a child, simplistic and untenable in the complexity of the real world. What if they held a war and no one showed up? It happens every day. Secret wars, claiming the lives of millions, dragging on for decades in darkness because it takes more than the faint glow of a candlelight vigil to shed light on them.

There have always been enemies to peace. There always will be. It’s the nature of our species to squabble over wealth, power and territory. But it’s a mistake to think that the enemies of peace conform to the stereotypes we like to assign them to, just as it is a mistake to believe that anyone who takes up arms is an enemy of peace. It’s not that simple.

Mahatma Gandhi is revered worldwide as a man of peace because he freed his people without resorting to violence. Or so the legend goes. In reality, he bought his country’s freedom with the blood of his followers. He made a carefully calculated move to incite his opponent to violence and in so doing, to spill enough blood to get the world’s attention. The principle of using an opponent’s own force against him is common in the martial arts. It should not be mistaken for using no force at all. Had Gandhi miscalculated, had his opponent not provided him with the violence necessary for his plan, his uprising would have failed. He used that violence every bit as deliberately as if he’d picked up a gun.

I have a friend who grew up in the shadow of a similar military occupation. As a young man, he was rounded up with all of the other young men in his neighborhood, to be interned indefinitely without charge. Although he was eventually released, the experience made him do some hard thinking about the kind of life he would want for his children. So he took up arms, and joined the growing resistance against the military force occupying his country.

It was only a brief respite. He was captured almost immediately and returned to the internment camp, where he spent the next several years naked, starving, and routinely tortured, in a tiny cell defiled with his own wastes. In 1983, he escaped and made it safely to the United States. Most of his comrades were not so fortunate.

This sort of thing doesn’t make for pleasant reading, but reality doesn’t go away just because we prefer not to look at it. And this is where so many efforts toward peace fall short. There’s a lot of preaching to the choir, a lot of vigil-holding and penning of verses, all of which serve primarily to encourage those involved to express themselves and to bond with others of like mind. But this “all hat and no cattle” approach fails to address the reality on the ground.

There are those who condemn my friend and his comrades for taking aggressive action against their oppressors. Yet, because of that action, the military occupation that robbed him of his childhood is only a distant memory to children growing up in the same streets today. The internment camp in which he watched ten of his friends starve to death in front of him has been demolished. One of those who died there wrote, shortly before his death, “Our revenge will be the laughter of our children,” and so it has been. A hard-won peace, but peace is seldom otherwise.

This is why, if we truly want to effect change, we need to take a look at another enemy. One more insidious and far harder to combat than a simple sniper with a rifle — an enemy who brushes shoulders with us every day. They are the self-righteously uninvolved. The politically correct majority who find the act of genocide less offensive than the discourtesy of mentioning it in polite company.

Elie Wiesel recognized this when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, saying,“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

The fact is, peace, like freedom, requires courage. If we want it, we must be willing to demand it unapologetically. We must be prepared to risk everything for it. And if we’re fortunate enough to achieve it, we had better be prepared to stand up and defend it, or we will see it taken from us.

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