Gandhi and Libya

Last night we watched the film Gandhi, the 1982 classic starring Ben Kingsley.  I haven’t seen the film since it came out almost thirty years ago, but shortly into it I recall how inspiring the person and message of Gandhi was to me when I first saw it, and then subsequently read more about the great spiritual teacher.

His message was clear:  love is truth, and truth ultimately is more powerful than hate, fear and anger, which are untruths.   When confronted with “untruth” it is best to respond with truth.   That is not passive resistance but active non-violent resistance.  Violence and anger only increases the scope and depth of the violence, and ultimately reinforces the problems one is trying to confront.

Gandhi also had real respect for all faiths.  He was close friends with Muslims, Christians and of course fellow Hindus.   He saw truth in the core teachings of each, even if the humans professing those faiths often veered from them.    He was fond of quoting the New Testament and when asked about Christianity at one point he said he only wished Christians were more like their Christ.

I’ve always believed that life is at base spiritual.   What matters is the spirit, the flesh is simply a vehicle which we are using in this limited existence to learn lessons and have some fun.    All of that requires cooperation — we learn with help from others, we help others learn.   We enjoy life and have fun with others.   That is a view that helps me stay grounded, especially if material and daily concerns get intense.  Ultimately the “stuff” of the world doesn’t matter, the spirit does.  I’ve internalized that view and believe that right or wrong it helps me live with a bit less stress, an easier time forgiving others (and myself) and perspective about the world in which I find myself.

Which brings me to Libya.  I’ve always found Gandhi’s notion of non-violent resistance to be powerful, and his argument that violence begets violence persuasive.   I’ve not supported US foreign policy, especially military actions, for as long as I can remember.   Whether Clinton in Bosnia or Kosovo or Bush in Iraq and Afghanistan, it seemed to me that violence did more harm than good.

I don’t believe in coincidence (that comes from my spiritual world view).   The fact that I’ve generally supported intervening in Libya coincides with the unexpected arrival of Gandhi from netflix.   That leads me to rethink my view on the conflict.

Ambiguity about the use of military action for humanitarian purposes has been something I’ve always grappled with.   As former German foreign minister Joshka Fischer said, “no more war, but no more Auschwitz.”    President Obama cited Bosnia, but to me Rwanda is the strongest case for intervention.  Ever since teaching about the details of that genocide, with students reading Romeo Dallaire’s book and myself obsessed for awhile with gathering the details and arguments around that event, it seemed to me that the international community simply let the Hutus slaughter 800,000 Tutsis when a well equipped international force could have ended the violence.

Following the news of the non-violent revolt in Egypt, and then hearing about protests growing in Libya, my reaction to the news that Gaddafi was using mercenaries to brutally terrorize citizens and then taking heavy military equipment to bombard them and promise that his attack on Benghazi would show “no pity and no mercy” was emotional.  My anger at a dictator who for over 40 years stole the oil wealth of his country to sponsor terrorism, train mercenaries, engage in foreign policy adventurism in Africa and brutally repress his people turned into contempt.  When someone of such obvious evil clings to wealth and power by threatening massive death and destruction, how can the world stand by?   When now Canadian Senator Romeo Dallaire called for intervention, comparing the case directly to Rwanda, that intensified my emotional desire to see NATO hit back.   When the UN Security Council approved military intervention, making it a legal action driven by humanitarian concerns, it seemed to me the right thing to do.

In terms of national interest it also seems to make sense; the region is changing, this will help get the US on the right side of change and undercut the ability of al qaeda or extremists to guide the future of the Arab world.  Moreover, it is a true multi-lateral action, while Iraq was clearly a US-UK action with small states going along in exchange for favors.  This might put the US on the side of cooperative efforts to secure the peace rather than what appears to be neo-imperial efforts to control world affairs.  It takes President Bush’s idealistic but likely accurate belief that democratic change and modernism is needed in that region and supports those in the region who want to make it happen.

Yet, thinking about Gandhi, I realize that as strong as those emotion beliefs are, they carry with them a veil of abstraction.  Military action is easy to talk about, but it kills people, including innocents — there has never been a clean intervention.   Moreover, if Gaddafi had subdued the rebels, perhaps a lot less life would be lost overall, and the international community could still do things like boycott Libyan oil, freeze assets, and essentially deny the Libyan leader the right to act effectively on the world economic stage, pushing him to choose to leave on his own — he is in his eighties after all.

Though my world view is essentially spiritual, I don’t think the material world is useless.   Even Augustine distinguished between what he called the “city of man” and the “city of God,” and the definition of violence is arbitrary.   Structural violence is as real in its impact as is actual use of force; to focus on only one as wrong is arbitrary whim.   Yet in this case I come to the conclusion that the emotional desire to strike led me to be too willing to rationalize military force, and that it would have been better to let Gaddafi take back the country and then use other means to try to bring about change.    The post-Ottoman world is still scared by 600 years of military dictatorship followed by corruption and ruthless leaders.   Adding more death and destruction may well do more harm than good.

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  1. #1 by Scott Erb on April 2, 2011 - 17:15

    I didn’t mean to click that I like my own post — I’m not sure how I did that.

  2. #2 by modestypress on April 2, 2011 - 18:56

    Kill for peace?

  3. #3 by renaissanceguy on April 3, 2011 - 01:02

    I understand your position a lot better now. Thank you for writing this post.

    I can see why the broader consensus leads you to believe that this action is more legitimate and more ethical than the invasion of Iraq. I understand the differences between the two situations better.

    I would like to suggest that sometimes a lone individual, like Gandhi, might be right even when almost everybody else says that he is wrong.

    In other words, just because the United Nations approves something does not make it right. And just because they disapprove does not make it wrong.

    I think that your own moral convictions about it, as an individual human being, matter much more.

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