The Ironies of Peace

Obama's Nobel Peace Prize, photo by Samantha Appleton

President Barack Obama receives the Nobel Prize medal and diploma during the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo, Norway on Dec. 10, 2009.

Photo by Samantha Appleton.

In 1982, Mother Teresa of Calcutta stunned the world by announcing that she was going into a raging conflict in Beirut to rescue disabled children from an abandoned orphanage. It was during the bombardment that Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel called “Operation Peace for Galilee.” It was a stunning gesture, perfectly worthy of her, and the judgment of the Nobel Peace Prize committee that awarded her the coveted honor some years before. What the world didn’t notice is that Prime Minister Begin, author of the carnage, had also been given the Nobel Prize for Peace.

From that day—or even further back if you consider that Alfred Nobel made his fortune by inventing dynamite—the prize has been accompanied by ironies. In December of 2009 in Oslo, those ironies took on a particular form that is of great significance to all of us.

There were many noble thoughts resounding throughout President Obama’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize. The knowledge he revealed of some of his great predecessors, particularly Martin Luther King and Aung San Suu Kyi, was astounding for someone in his position; but then he made a fatal mistake, and it is essential to recognize that mistake and to correct it—to make sure that it does not happen again. Obama said, “A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies.” He is wrong.

In March of 1943, Gestapo headquarters in Berlin ordered the arrest and deportation of the remaining Jewish men who had been left out of the roundups so far because they were married to ‘Aryan’ wives. But then a totally unexpected thing happened. First one, then another of those wives began to converge on the detention center on Rosenstrasse demanding their men be released. By the end of the weekend, they were nearly 6,000 strong and refusing orders to disperse though Gestapo headquarters was only a few blocks away.

And the Gestapo caved in—they released the men. Moreover, as we have learned only recently, in Nazi-occupied capitals all over Europe, officials carefully watched the failed experiment and decided to leave their own Jews who similarly had Aryan spouses alone. In other words, an unorganized form of nonviolence carried out spontaneously by untrained people with no organization and no followup “stopped Hitler’s armies” in their most virulent form, saving tens of thousands of people.

On one level, it should come as a surprise that such a sophisticated president, who speaks knowledgeably about King and Gandhi, should come out with the oldest objection in the book, "it wouldn’t have worked against the Nazis" — the most frequently heard cavil, the most knee-jerk reaction that people like me, who advocate the "sweet reasonableness" of nonviolence, can hear in our sleep.

There are several problems with the logic of this apparently imperishable argument, but it will do for now to simply say that it is patently false: nonviolence did work against the Nazis—when it was tried. The issue is not just philosophical.

In the next breath, the president added, “Negotiations cannot convince Al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms.” This is how those who can see no recourse but violence always justify their actions. Was it not Hitler, in Mein Kampf, who said, "We Germans have learned to our cost that the British will not listen to anything but force?" We may as well give this mistake its proper name: dehumanization. You cannot be violent toward another unless you adopt the fatal mistake of denying his or her humanity, and no peace will be possible as long as we persist in doing that.

“We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes,” President Obama said to frame his position; but that is pure speculation. Parallel to that was his projection of that same pessimism onto an imagined past: “War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man. At the dawn of history.” No, it didn’t. Modern research has shown that there are forms of conflict resolution among our primate ancestors that are more sophisticated than forms used by some groups of Homo sapiens. And the archeological record says that whole civilizations lived on what is now European soil for thousands of years with hardly a sign of large-scale conflict.

President Obama displays more awareness of the nonviolent alternative than anyone who has held that high office in our lifetime. From what other President could we expect to hear these words in a public speech: “As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life's work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there is nothing weak—nothing passive, nothing naïve—in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.” And yet, as he follows out of this logic he runs into a tragic block. He declares without evidence that nonviolence would not have stopped Hitler’s armies and cannot stop a ruthless and determined opponent, although it stopped Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, and about a dozen other ruthless dictators. He likewise bemoans the fact that when a Darfur or a Rwanda happens we have only two choices, to stand by and do nothing or to use deadly force, because “inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later. That is why all responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace.”

Yet, for the last 20 years, the practice of unarmed civilian peacekeeping has been steadily growing, saving lives, and moderating conflicts all over the world though only individual donors and a few enlightened governments (not including our own) keep them going. One global effort, called the Nonviolent Peaceforce, says plainly that they represent “what you can say yes to when you say no to war;” but the deafening drumbeat of violence and materialism, blaring at us in every medium, dutifully repeated in most every history book, is overwhelming, and we do not heed them.

Again and again, the contrast between the president’s sophistication and his failure to apply it startles: “security does not exist where human beings do not have access to enough food, or clean water, or the medicine they need to survive.” Yes, this is called “human security” and is a far deeper and more practical promise than the folly of bombing enemies into undying, if helpless enmity. Recently Jeffrey Sachs, along with many other respected writers, pointed out that development has a far, far better track record at stabilizing societies than any amount of military intervention—at a fraction of the cost. As Sachs says, even if we spent $200 on every Afghan villager (which is more than enough to give them the economic security the President cited) we could help 5,000 of them for the cost of a single U.S. soldier stationed in Afghanistan: “That's right,” Sachs concludes, “the approximate trade-off is meaningful help for an entire village versus stationing one more U.S. soldier.”

I am talking about our addiction to violence, an addiction that is fed to satiation and beyond every day by our own mass media—the extremely violent new video game, “Modern Warfare,” which features "players" massacring civilians, sold seven million copies in the first few hours—and has blinded us to the point that we cannot see the way out of our quandary even though it is happening, with a rising tempo, here and there across the planet.

Having watched with admiration how calmly the president delivered his brilliant, albeit often evasive, speeches during his presidential campaign, it was painful for me to see for the first time a numbing strain invade his features. It was painful not just because of the admiration and, yes, affection I still hold for President Obama; it was painful because in that agonizing tension between his personal vision and the tired, clichéd party line on which he is forced to walk, we see reflected the tragedy of our civilization, where more and more of us can see a better world almost taking shape before our eyes but others of us, not always very many, maintain their death grip on the public discourse.

My point is not to criticize President Obama. Far from it. My point is to condemn the culture that has entrapped him, forcing him to betray his high intelligence. And I do so not to stand in judgment of that culture or anyone who has fallen into its clutches, but to alert every one of us to the danger it poses—to encourage each of us to learn all we can about nonviolence and personally begin the shift, as Martin Luther King urged, from a ‘thing oriented’ civilization to one based on the infinite potential of the human being.

The election of Barack Obama to the Presidency of the United States opened a door to a much brighter, nonviolent future. We have to pluck up the courage to walk through that door before it closes once again.


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