International Day of Non-violence: Reflections

Today is the International Day of Non-violence, so dedicated because it is also the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi took the idea of ahimsa and gave it the form of a powerful political tool.

The power of this tool for public action came from the fact that it drew its energy from an inner transformation on the part of the protestor. In order to undertake satyagraha, the future satyagrahi would have to work on herself, on her values and habits. Non-violence came from deep within and therefore, acquired the power to make a profound difference.

Today, I remember September 11, 2001 and the days that followed it. I was teaching at Yale University, and was in class at the time when the twin towers were attacked. By the time I got to my office, they were showing the footage over and over and speculating as to who had done this. Through the day, news filtered in about this person whose husband worked in the towers and had managed to communicate with the family and that one’s son who had still not got in touch. They were barely acquaintances, but we waited together and hoped and prayed for as many to survive the various attacks as possible. Located just outside the metropolitan New York area, there were connections everywhere you looked. Through the week, the connections emerged while news of their survival petered out.

When I got home after lunch, the twin hydrangea bushes outside my window had been cut down. I remember that too.

That evening, I attended a candlelight vigil and watched President Bush’s broadcast with others in the community in a large classroom. He promised to hunt down the attackers and take revenge. It resonated with the grief-stricken community but there were many to whom the talk of revenge just didn’t sound right.

The Yale community put in place all kinds of public outreach, drawing on its excellent faculty across the disciplines. I set up a public resource website that curated the flood of reportage, background articles and commentary that was emerging. As the use of the webpages grew, I received suggestions from around the world and incorporated them. Today, I want to share a few of my favourite pieces from that difficult time.

The first is my own essay in response to that moment: A non-violent response to violence. Read it for what it was, an off-the-cuff first response to a shocking event fourteen years ago. I still stand by its essential point: “A non-violent response is a careful, patient response. It is not a rush to judgment, followed by a call to arms. What happened in New York and Washington on September 11th was horrible. Temperate, non-violent responses will only show those events up in stark relief while disproportionate, violent responses will drown their horrific nature in a festival of mutual killing and destruction.”

The second essay I will share is commonly attributed to the Dalai Lama and it circulated over email right after 9/11. The third was written a few days later by John Paul Lederach, drawing on his lifelong experience as a peacebuilder.

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