WHILE TIME magazine’s Person of the Year for 2011 was the nonviolent protester who awakened hope from the Arab Spring to America’s Autumn, it is no accident that a close second was Adm. William McRaven, who oversaw the Special Forces operation that assassinated Osama bin Laden. As symbols, the protester and the assassin represent two very different hopes for change. But their roles on the world stage are more than symbolic. In a time when change is so desperately needed, the choice between violence and nonviolence may be the fundamental moral issue of the 21st century.
If that choice is real—if the way of the nonviolent protester is a viable option in the 21st century—it is because of the witness of Gandhi and his satyagraha movement in the 20th century. While Gandhi maintained that his tactics of nonviolent struggle against the British Empire were distilled from the best Hindu scriptures and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, his employment of those ancient truths in a popular resistance movement vis-a-vis a world power was both original and electrifying. The modern world had never seen such a demonstration of “soul force.” Gandhi’s witness sparked the imagination of America’s civil rights movement, of resistance to apartheid in South Africa, of the nonviolent overthrow of communism in Eastern Europe.
But, as James Douglass chronicles so well in his new book Gandhi and the Unspeakable, Gandhi’s way of nonviolence always had its detractors. Gandhi’s enemies were not only racist Europeans but also Indians who insisted that his peculiar philosophy of nonviolence would never work.