Terror and the Ethics of Resistance

Terror and the Ethics of Resistance

How we fight is who we are.

ANC supporters give the thumbs up as a prison van with anti-apartheid militants heads to court in Johannesburg in 1956. (OFP/AFP via Getty Images)

After the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, it took the United States almost two years to forfeit the sympathy of the world. After the terror attacks of October 7 of last year, Israel, a more nimble superpower, accomplished the same feat in just a few days. Because the atrocities committed by Hamas have been eclipsed by the horrors that Israel has brought down on the people of Gaza, a consideration of the way the U.S. left responded to Hamas’s attacks might seem to be of nothing more than historical interest. But some of the questions raised by our responses should still be of concern to those who want to build a better left.

After Hamas’s assault on Israel, an assault that involved not only attacks on military bases and police stations but the murder, rape, and mutilation of civilians, the most prominent figures on the U.S. left—people like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—were quick to denounce the attacks, but many people who view themselves as members of the left reacted with approval. Because I teach at a college, I was particularly aware of the responses of the student left. Portland State University’s Students United for Palestinian Equal Rights said that “indigenous Palestinians are reclaiming their stolen land and finally breaking free from the siege of Gaza. They have the absolute right to defend themselves by any means necessary.” National Students for Justice in Palestine called the attacks “a historic win for the Palestinian resistance” and said that “liberating colonized land is a real process that requires confrontation by any means necessary.” They added that “responsibility for every single death falls solely on the zionist entity.” The Brown University chapter of SJP agreed, holding “the Israeli regime and its allies unequivocally responsible for all suffering and loss of life, Palestinian or Israeli.” So did a coalition of Harvard student groups, which said that Israel was “entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.”

The idea that those who seek to resist an oppressive authority have no moral responsibilities is a curious one. It wouldn’t be surprising if some of the students who made this claim were privately uneasy about it. If they are, I hope they’ll keep reading about the complicated relationship between violence and social change, and I particularly hope they’ll find their way to the speech given by Nelson Mandela as a defendant in the Rivonia Trial in 1964, in which he and nine others were accused by the South African government of crimes including acts of sabotage.

Mandela’s speech, a detailed account of the changing strategies and tactics employed by the African National Congress over more than fifty years, is an important resource for anyone who wishes to think about the ethics and tactics of resistance to an oppressive authority.

Mandela said that for decades the ANC “adhered strictly to a constitutional struggle,” but “white governments remained unmoved, and the rights of Africans became less instead of becoming greater.” After almost forty years, he said, the ANC reconsidered its strategy and launched a campaign “based on the principles of passive resistance. More than 8,500 people defied apartheid laws and went to jail. Yet there was not a single instance of violence in the course of this campaign on the part of any defier.”

This mode of struggle, too, led to nothing, and a new strategy became imperative.

[O]ur followers were beginning to lose confidence in this policy and were developing disturbing ideas of terrorism. . . . I, and some colleagues, came to the conclusion that as violence in this country was inevitable, it would be unrealistic and wrong for African leaders to continue preaching peace and nonviolence at a time when the Government met our peaceful demands with force.

This conclusion was not easily arrived at. It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle.

But even after the ANC decided to use violence, according to Mandela, it refused to engage in terrorism, because terrorism “would produce an intensity of bitterness and hostility between the various races of the country which is not produced even by war.”

Instead, the ANC adopted a strategy of sabotage.

We felt that planned destruction of power plants, and interference with rail and telephone communications, would tend to scare away capital from the country . . . and would in the long run be a heavy drain on the economic life of the country, thus compelling the voters of the country to reconsider their position. . . .

This then was the plan. Umkhonto [the military wing of the ANC] was to perform sabotage, and strict instructions were given to its members right from the start, that on no account were they to injure or kill people in planning or carrying out operations.

Years later, the ANC changed its strategy again, launching a campaign of assaults against military personnel, but it continued to try to avoid harming noncombatants. In 1980, the organization became the first liberation movement to sign the Geneva Conventions, with its prohibitions against attacks on civilians.

I’m not suggesting that Mandela’s account of the evolution of the ANC’s thinking adds up to a blueprint that all other groups resisting unjust authority should follow. Nor am I suggesting that the ANC never violated its own ideals. More than once, especially in its later years, it did, and sometimes gravely so.

I am saying that Mandela’s testimony at the Rivonia Trial provides a model of careful thinking on the part of people who were committed to overthrowing unjust authority and also to avoiding unnecessary loss of life. It’s hard to see how any serious person could study Mandela’s thoughts on resistance and come away with the conclusion that the oppressed are free of elementary ethical obligations, or that the slaughter perpetrated by Hamas was actually the responsibility of Israel.

If it was unsurprising to hear college students, relatively new to politics, talking this way, it was more unsettling to hear the same logic put forward by older people on the left. On Twitter, Malcolm Harris, the author of several well-regarded works of social criticism and history, described Hamas’s attacks as “the actions of the most marginalized people on earth when they have no other option.” In n+1, David Klion wrote, “I can’t and won’t defend [Hamas’s] methods or its underlying ideology. . . . Nonetheless, I’m unclear what purpose condemnation serves; when nonviolent resistance to the occupation is all but criminalized (thirty-four US states have passed laws against the nonviolent Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement), it feels almost absurd to object to violent resistance in principle.” In one of the Nation’s first responses, Mohammed R. Mhawish wrote that “No people can be expected to endure the kind of oppression and discrimination that Palestinians face at the hands of the Israeli government forever without any kind of response.” Although none of these writers put it plainly, what they were saying added up to the idea that if a group tries nonviolence and it doesn’t work, you can’t criticize it if it starts murdering, raping, and torturing civilians.

Some left intellectuals refrained from criticizing Hamas because they worried that if they did so, they’d seem to be supporting Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. The historian Gabriel Winant, in Dissent, wrote that “it is not possible to publicly grieve an Israeli Jewish life lost to violence without tithing ideologically to the IDF.” On Twitter, writing about Hamas’s murder of hundreds of people at a music festival, Winant added, “Of course it’s bad but to say so is politically meaningless if not worse—it’s like demanding racial justice advocates denounce black on black crime. Is it morally acceptable? Obviously not. What role does political speech about it play? Well that’s a different question.”

If your idea of political speech makes it uncomfortable for you to say that atrocities committed in the name of the oppressed are still atrocities, it’s time for you to reconsider your idea of political speech.

One of the responsibilities of left intellectuals is to teach the young what we can—about history, about strategy, about morality. In the long run, of course, the learning needs to go both ways—older leftists need to listen, not just lecture. But in a case like this, merely by virtue of having been around for a while, older leftists are familiar with a body of thought that younger leftists are probably not aware of. Most of the newly radicalized young have little acquaintance with the history of debates on the left over strategies of resistance to unjust power. The questions the ANC took into consideration when it deliberated how best to resist apartheid—the moral, strategic, and tactical questions over when violence is called for and what kind of violence is called for, the questions about how different modes of resistance will produce different results—aren’t questions that most young radicals have realized they need to think about.

For many people who responded to the events of October 7, the problem of how to resist injustice seems to boil down to a debate between two positions, represented by Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, with nothing in between. King, of course, stands for nonviolence. Malcolm X stands for what we must do if nonviolence fails: we must make change “by any means necessary.”

“By any means necessary.” It sounds so decisive, so hard-headed, so revolutionary. But surely it’s one of the stupidest slogans in the history of radical thought, ignoring as it does the obvious fact that our choice of means always shapes the ends we reach, and that the ends we strive for always influence the means we use.

Mandela and the other leaders of the ANC understood this thoroughly. The reason the ANC rejected terrorism, according to Mandela, was that “we shrank from any action which might drive the races further apart than they already were.” The ANC saw its struggle against apartheid as a struggle to create a South Africa in which black and white people lived together without hatred, and the ANC understood that some modes of struggle could help bring that about, while other modes would render it impossible. (It’s of interest that when Mandela appeared in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, playing the part of a South African elementary school teacher, Mandela agreed to recite a passage near the ending of Malcolm X’s speech at the founding rally of the Organization of Afro-American Unity—“We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence”—but he refused to speak the concluding lines of the passage: “by any means necessary.”)

If we’re hoping for a Middle East in which Israelis and Palestinians live peacefully and respectfully in two states (or if we’re dreaming, as many young people are, for a Middle East in which Israeli Jews and Palestinians live peacefully and respectfully in some sort of federation or in a single state), we can hardly get there “by any means.” I don’t have a plan for Middle East peace in my back pocket, but it would seem reasonable for people on the U.S. left to do what they can to support organizations like Standing Together and Combatants for Peace. In groups like these, even now, Israeli Jews and Palestinians, united against the occupation, are working together—to mourn, and to organize.

Nothing of what I’ve written should be taken as an apologia for Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Keeping the Palestinian people under a brutal and humiliating military occupation for more than fifty-five years, with no end in sight; imprisoning more than 1,000 Palestinians without trial; torturing suspects in prison; killing, as I write, more than 23,000 Gazans in the last two months, the great majority of them civilians; declaring, in the words of Israeli cabinet officials, that “We are fighting human animals,” and that “We’re rolling out the Gaza Nakba”—all of this is horrific. Journalists for the Israeli magazine +972 recently issued an investigative report charging that Israel has “abandon[ed] prior policies that aimed at avoiding harm to civilians,” and the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem has said flatly that Israel is “committing war crimes.” If I haven’t focused here on Israel’s crimes, it’s only because I haven’t seen any young leftists defending them.

What I have seen is young people defending the murder of innocents in the name of liberation, and this is a recurrent temptation on the left. The principled left has to oppose it with everything we have. It doesn’t go away on its own.

How we fight is who we are. This should be a fundamental idea on the left. It should be where we start from. The tragedy isn’t that so few young leftists don’t understand this; the tragedy is that so many older leftists are failing to teach them.

Brian Morton is an editorial board member of Dissent.