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Addressing Tragedy in the Classroom

Edited by Steven Mintz, University of Houston

  1. Introduction
  2. Historical Background
  3. Teaching Tragedy
  4. The Concept of Tragedy
  5. Religion
  6. Literature and Terror
  7. Alternatives to Violence
  8. Lesson Plans
  9. Chronologies
  10. Glossary
  11. Web Resources
  12. Essential Readings

7. Alternatives to Violence


Rachel Waltner Goossen
Department of History, Washburn University

A cartoon by Jeff Stahler of the Cincinnati Post, which appeared widely in syndication during the week following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, showed a young girl sitting in front of the television with her father, asking plaintively, "Will we hate back?" On the couch beside the father and daughter was a daily newspaper headlined "Act of War . . . . "

The child's question resonates with readers on a number of levels, including psychologically, as Americans have tried to come to terms with the jumble of emotions resulting from those horrible images of destruction and disregard for life that came our way on September 11. Americans trying to understand the many dimensions of terrorism have wondered, "Will we hate back?" This question is not purely a personal one. It is also political, as citizens seek to follow and assess the U.S. government's war on terrorism in response to these acts.

Despite Americans' love for peace and security, our 225-year history as a nation has been marked repeatedly by episodes of crisis and violent response. We are surely aware of the violence of the nineteenth century: the war with Mexico, westward expansion and the many Indian wars that attempted to settle disputes over control of territory and natural resources; the Civil War with its lingering divisiveness, and late in the nineteenth century, the Spanish-American War with its huge impact on the United States' perception of its expanding role overseas. The twentieth century, in many ways, was even more violent, with the U.S. involving itself (sometimes reluctantly, sometimes not), in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War, and other armed conflicts in various parts of the world.

Throughout this entire history, from the nation's beginnings to the present, there have been people who have looked for, and attempted to practice, nonviolent alternatives to war. Three longstanding peace organizations, for example - the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the War Resisters League, and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, all have their roots in the World War I period. In 1914 and the years that followed, some Europeans and Americans opposed the war and sought to organize peace efforts across international lines. In the case of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, the organization's first president was Jane Addams, who had founded Chicago's Hull House and who later became the first American women to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on behalf of world disarmament and the banning of chemical weapons.

The Second World War, too, offers significant examples of citizens who sought to promote alternatives to military action. Despite what many people today believe about American mobilization during World War II, there was not unanimity of opinion among Americans that the United States should participate directly in the war. That was certainly true before the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, when a vocal minority of Americans favored isolationism. And even after the U.S. entered the war, some citizens voiced opposition. These expressions of dissent stemmed largely from religious and humanitarian convictions about the preservation of human life, and a surprisingly sizeable number of Americans (including an estimated 50,000 noncombatants in the armed services) claimed conscientious objector status. The Roosevelt administration, while waging war, also worked to accommodate this minority stance by setting up an extensive "Civilian Public Service" program. In this program, more than 12,000 drafted men who were opposed to joining military service took unpaid positions as civilians, doing humanitarian work. They staffed mental hospitals and prepared to go abroad for post-war relief work such as refugee feeding and resettlement.

During the years of the United States' participation in World War II, the historic peace churches (the Society of Friends, the Mennonites and Church of the Brethren) administered and funded Civilian Public Service. But at least thirty other religious groups, including dissenting bodies of Roman Catholics and Jews, as well as thousands of individual C.O.s, also participated in the Civilian Public Service program. Beginning in 1940, a nonprofit organization that has come to be known as the Center for Conscience and War, assisted these conscientious objectors. The Center continues to the present day, opposing all forms of conscription and monitoring cases of conscientious objection both in the U.S. and abroad.

During the Second World War, some 6,000 men (two-thirds of whom were Jehovah's Witnesses), did not wish to cooperate with the conscription system and thus bypassed this program of alternative service. Instead, these draftees served federal prison terms for non-cooperation with Selective Service. Because these conscientious objectors (both in CPS and in prison) came from such a wide variety of backgrounds, it is not easy to characterize with a few generalizations their specific objections to war. But in general, most of them asserted their unwillingness to participate directly in military action because of their religious or humanitarian convictions.

During World War II, American conscientious objectors were treated relatively well by the U.S. government and by fellow Americans, particularly in contrast to abusive treatment that some conscientious objectors had received during the First World War. In that earlier era, U.S. conscription law had lacked specific provisions for conscientious objectors to engage in alternative service, and as a result, many such men who found themselves in military training camps and federal prisons were harassed and abused.

But a generation, later, during the 1940s, the Civilian Public Service program helped to mitigate hostility toward American conscientious objectors. It also served as a national experiment in "alternatives" to military service that could accommodate Americans' freedom of religion and freedom of expression. Although the Civilian Public Service program ended in 1947, more than a half-century ago, it reminds us, today, that even when the United States was engaged in a popular war, many citizens articulated, through actions as well as words, a passion for humanitarian service in the face of inhumanity.

Since World War II, the movement for seeking alternatives to war has broadened dramatically. In the past five decades, Americans engaged in the search for alternatives have shifted their focus from asserting the rights of C.O.s toward a broader array of peace issues. These activities have included protesting nuclear weapons development, resisting the war in Vietnam, participating in the nonviolent Civil Rights movement, and developing conciliation and mediation services to advocate nonviolent approaches to labor disputes, school conflicts, and animosity between ethnic groups. One of the most intriguing international humanitarian organizations to emerge in recent decades is Doctors Without Borders, a nonprofit agency founded in 1971 on the principle that all people have fundamental rights to medical care, regardless of national borders. Founded by a group of French physicians, this international network now places healthcare workers in more than eighty countries around the world to assist victims of natural disasters, terrorism, and wartime violence.

Since early October 2001, the United States has begun to respond militarily to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. This response, initially an air-based war against targets in Afghanistan, poses new and uncomfortable questions for many Americans, including those who have traditionally advocated alternatives to war. In the current crisis, a commitment to peace is predicated on the notion that military force, particularly retaliation for the attacks on September 11, will not resolve long-term conflicts, since violence is likely to beget more violence.

The search for peaceful alternatives to military action in time of conflict has a long tradition in this country, although it is a quest that has often not been very visible, celebrated, or even very successful. Since September 11, it has been difficult for peace groups and concerned individuals to know how to respond to this "war" that is still being formulated by our national leaders, in the press, and in the popular imagination. Why has it been difficult for peace groups to speak out? The magnitude of the events on September 11 stunned nearly everyone in this country. In the early days following the attacks, people have wanted to remember the victims and their families, to support the heroic efforts of rescue workers, to come together in ceremonies and conversations of mourning, grief, and resolve against these horrific acts. And yet, there are a number of organizations - with varying histories and perspectives - which are among the voices now emerging to speak of justice and peace in these times, rather than calling for war. (See below for list of organizations.)

Those who are seeking alternatives to violence are among the many Americans who have articulated the idea that the U.S.'s response needs to be reasoned and cautious, rather than immediate and bent on vengeance. The groups that we now see calling for alternatives to war, in the face of terrorism, are in part inheritors of a long antiwar tradition in this country, including those who sought conscientious objector status in the two world wars and those who protested against the Vietnam War. But the movement has broadened in recent decades to incorporate many others who are genuinely interested in conflict resolution and nonviolent relationship building in their own lives, and in their families and communities.

A prominent feature of the current crisis has been the call for the United States to be fair and non-retaliatory toward Afghanis in particular, and Muslims and Arabs generally, as the U.S. and its allies attempt to find the perpetrators of these acts. One of the concerns undergirding this call is a historical collective memory of the loss of civil liberties experienced by approximately 120,000 Japanese-Americans during the Second World War, who were relocated to internment camps for the duration. The abridgement of liberties that Asian-Americans experienced in the 1940s are not likely to be repeated in this current crisis, given heightened sensitivities of the rights of members of minority groups.

Those who are seeking alternatives to violence tend to frame the needed response to terrorism in terms of "doing justice," not "waging war." The difference is not just one of semantics; for these terms suggest different paths. The term "justice" suggests that the U.S. utilize international law and judicial procedures, including due process, to bring the perpetrators of these hate crimes to accountability. By pursuing justice in this way, the U.S. can plausibly hope to improve its relations with many Muslims and others worldwide, rather than destabilizing already fragile and tense relationships across national, geographic, and religious boundaries.

Those who are seeking alternatives to violence will likely increase their efforts to mount visible witness against ongoing military operations. We can expect this and welcome it in a society in which peaceful dissent against war has long been a hallmark. Bearing witness for peace is a tradition that encompasses Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King, Jr., among many notable shapers of our history and culture. In the week after the September 11 attack, peace protests and vigils took place on more than a hundred and forty college and university campuses across the country, coordinated in part by a student-based network called Peaceful Justice. As the world crisis plays out, there continue to be peace demonstrations across the U.S. and internationally. People both here and abroad are acting on their convictions that meeting terrorist violence with more violence could actually worsen the situation by destabilizing other countries, particularly in the Middle East, and further undermine Americans' own security.

Those who are seeking alternatives to violence are generally supportive of many of the U.S. government initiatives now underway for responding to these attacks, including the use of diplomatic, intelligence, and financial sources to amass evidence linking Osama bin Laden and the Al-Qaida network to the planning of the September 11 assaults. As these developments unfold, those who are seeking alternatives to violence will insist on upholding the human rights of people throughout the world, including innocent civilian populations in countries in central Asia, in the Middle East, and elsewhere, where terrorists move and reside.

Finally, in many quarters, those who are seeking alternatives to violence will work hard to capitalize on the momentum of goodwill of people in Arab countries and elsewhere. Influential people the world over, who are not Americans, are sympathetic to our country in the aftermath of these attacks. They, too, want to see a course of justice proceed. The United States has embarked on a "war on terrorism" that is relying on bombing raids against selected targets in Afghanistan, as well as covert military actions. But for those who continue to seek alternatives to violence, it seems likely that developing closer relationships with people in Arab countries -- through diplomacy and humanitarianism, rather than military operations -- will in the long run contribute most decisively to a world characterized by peace, justice, and security.

National and International Organizations Focused on Alternatives to War

Amnesty International

Center on Conscience and War

Doctors Without Borders

Fellowship of Reconciliation

Peaceful Justice: Concerned Students for Justice Without War

War Resisters League

Women's International League for Peace and Freedom

Page 8: Chronologies

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