Civil Disobedience & “Resistance”

Civil Disobedience & “Resistance”

The sheet ghastliness of the American war in Vietnam forces all of us on the Left to think again of civil disobedience. It has led some of us to plan or engage in kinds of civil disobedience far more serious than those in which we were enthusiastically involved during the early years of the civil rights struggle. Now it is not a question of challenging Southern sheriffs but local draft boards, not of sitting in at lunch counters but at the Pentagon, not of breaking obnoxious laws but opposing a national policy—and doing that in time of war.

The willingness to “resist” and all the passions that accompany that willingness have grown enormously during the past year. So long as the war continues, moral anxiety and humiliation are inherent in our very citizenship—and in all our daily comforts—and there is no more attractive way of relieving these feelings than to disobey the government that carries on the war, and to do so publicly, deliberately, forthrightly.

But if we must think about civil disobedience, then surely we must think clearly about it, and if we choose civil disobedience we must justify our choice in moral and political, as well as emotional, terms, in terms of its consequences for others (and for the antiwar movement as a whole) as well as for ourselves. I want to suggest the terms in which such a justification might be attempted and also some of the difficulties involved in the attempt. My purpose is only to begin a discussion, and I won’t pretend to be certain about everything I say.