When Nonviolence Meets Live Ammo – A Response to Matthew Taylor’s Condemnation of the Defence of the Mavi Marmara

און וווּ געפֿאַלן ס’איז אַ שפּריץ פֿון אונדזער בלוט,
 
ס’וועט אַ שפּראָץ דאָרט אונדזער גבֿורה אונדזער מוט.


Un vo gefallen is a Spritz fun unser Blut,
s’ vet a Sprotz dort unser Gvure, unser Mut.

And where a drop of our blood should fall,
Our fierceness and our bravery shall bloom.

-Hirsch Glick, זאָג ניט קיינמאָל (Zog nit keynmol – Never Say…)
 
Read more below…

In writing The Tacitus Principle, I deliberately refrained from addressing the issue of resistance on board the Mavi Marmara, save to point out the questionable reliability of the videos disseminated by the Israeli military and to discuss – in the abstract – the legal rights of those on board and of the state whose flag the ship was flying. This I did because there was, at the time, no direct testimony from the Mavi Marmara passengers on the subject. As such, I declined to accept an Israeli narrative that I  – amongst many others – have shown to be hopelessly full of holes, internal contradictions, and outright lies.

We now know – and have known for some time – that the passengers on the upper deck of the Mavi Marmara did indeed use the paltry means at their hands to resist an armed onslaught against a ship full of sleeping, defenceless people. Believing – not unreasonably – that the objective of the Israeli attack, which, in its violence, far exceeded any prior response to an attempt to break the blockade of the Gaza Strip, was to kill everyone on board the Marmara, they succeeded in disarming two soldiers and in putting up fierce resistance against those who followed. In the course of the attack, at least nine and as many as twenty of their comrades were murdered.

Some have seen fit to condemn those who decided – having seen one comrade killed before the Marmara was boarded – to echo Malcolm X’ view that “I don’t call it violence when it’s self-defence; I call it intelligence”. Typical of this view is Matthew Taylor’s piece on MondoWeiss, in which he bemoans the lack of “discipline” of those who decided to defend themselves. “Had the soldiers been firing live ammunition?” he asks, quoting Prof. Michael Nagler, “The point is that even if they were – while terribly difficult – the passengers could have resisted nonviolently by refusing to comply with the soldiers’ demands without making any attempt to injure them.”

To this perspective, Taylor adds a complete misrepresentation of the events of the 1999 Seattle WTO protests, and the following remark:

On a deeper level, the true power of nonviolence to persuade the oppressor is unleashed with a commitment to pursue acts of courageous love (not just "not being violent"). For example, the Civil Rights Movement activists who sat in at the lunch counters, rode the buses, and registered voters never backed down, and nonviolently resisted the oppressors without demonization or rancor, but with a desire to win over those afflicted with racist views.

This quote handily sums up the problem inherent in the views of Taylor et al. Nonviolent action aims at persuading the oppressor or the onlookers. It is a tactic that seeks to change "hearts and minds" by "melting the hearts" (Gandhi) of those who would seek to tread on us with their boots. To apply a technique for winning hearts and minds to a situation in which the aggressor is already spilling blood and brains is, to say the least, questionable. To sit in front of a computer in the safety of an air-conditioned room and scold others for doing otherwise, however, is nothing short of contemptuous. To demand, further, that people make that decision not only for themselves, but for others who have no input into it, is, in a word, criminal.

Taylor tacitly acknowledges the preposterousness of his remarks when he describes them as “Monday-morning armchair Quarterbacking". But even in this acknowledgement, he manages to miss the point: This wasn’t a fucking game. When an Israeli soldier kills you, you die for real.

There is little to add to Max Ajl’s superb rebuttal:

Consider the feasibility of those options on the Mavi Marmara. Could the passengers rely on appealing to the conscience of Israeli commandoes while they were firing bullets at the activists? Taylor thinks so: “the true power of nonviolence to persuade the oppressor is unleashed with a commitment to pursue acts of courageous love.” This seems wooly to me. […] “The point is that even if they were – while terribly difficult – the passengers could have resisted nonviolently by refusing to comply with the soldiers’ demands without making any attempt to injure them,” is ridiculous. When someone is shooting at you and your friends, you must disarm them, and probably use violence to do so. If you can’t disarm them, you must use violence to stop them from shooting, one way or another. The demand a bullet entering your skull makes on you is for you to die, and if there is a way to “refuse to comply” with that demand, Taylor and Nagler should fess up quick. (emphasis added)

The persuasion stage ended the minute the soldiers killed the first passenger (before they even boarded). From that moment on, the few people on the Mavi Marmara who were awake and in a position to act were faced with a stark choice: Do we hope that they will go easy on us, and run the risk that they’ll kill us all given the opportunity, or do we do everything in our power to show them it’s not worth trying? In insisting that they choose option A, Taylor and his ilk are demanding that they put their would-be murderers’ lives above their own and those of the hundreds of defenceless people on board.

As I discussed in detail in The Tacitus Principle, there is no question that the passengers of the Mavi Marmara had the legal right to resist the Israeli attack using proportionate force. This, however, does not tell us whether it is the right decision. It is, technically, true that the Seattle demonstrators had the legal right to self-defence against the police officers who bloodied them without legal justification. From a legal standpoint, they would be using proportionate force against an immediate, unlawful danger to their lives and physical integrity and those of others.

However, the real question is tactical in nature: What would the likely consequences have been had the demonstrators used force in self-defence? Most likely, they would have been even further demonised by a press that was happy to reverse the chonology in order to blame them for the violent acts of the police, and the matter would have escalated, leaving demonstrators dead and dying, rather than wounded and unlawfully arrested. Their legal arguments, valid though they would have been, would never have been heard in court.

In these circumstances, the likely consequences of violent self-defence made it an immoral choice quite independently of the legalities.

Moving to the other extreme of the spectrum, let us look at a situation in which those involved were confronted with the near-certainty of death: the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It is important to remember that the goal of the Uprising was not to hold off the Nazis and their Trawniki henchmen; the organisers of the uprising recognised from the start that they would eventually be killed either by bullets and grenades or by gas. There was no use trying to “melt the hearts” of heavily armed killers, whose only mission was to ensure that not a single one of them was left alive. Persuasion was not an option. For them, the only question was whether to give their lives away for free, or to exact the highest possible cost from their murderers. They chose option B, and held the Waffen-SS at bay for weeks. Their fierce, violent resistance, as Max Ajl notes in his piece, is celebrated even today.

When someone asserts, as Taylor and Nagle have done here, that there is something fundamentally wrong with responding to deadly force with non-lethal force, the burden is squarely on them to explain what, exactly, the alternative was. While he does not address the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising case in his piece, it seems clear that Taylor does not draw any bright line between being potentially beaten up and arrested (Seattle) and being, in all probability, killed (Mavi Marmara, Warsaw Ghetto Uprising).

If he would agree that violent resistance in self-defence is appropriate in a case like the Warsaw Ghetto, the burden is on him to explain how he distinguishes the level of deadly force the ŻOB was facing from the degree of deadly force the passengers and crew of the Mavi Marmara were facing. Why, in other words, was a violent response warranted in the Warsaw Ghetto, but not on the Mavi Marmara? There is no fundamental, qualitative difference here. In both cases, people were facing at least probable death at the hands of trained killers. If he accepts violence in the one case, but not in the other, then, his only principled basis is the probability of death. At what level of probability can deadly force be met with force? Does it have to be virtually 100%, as in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising? Or is a greater-than-50% probability sufficient? At what point, in Taylor’s eyes, does the reasonable fear of being killed justify doing something to prevent it?

Let us now suppose that Taylor (et al.) is as quick to condemn a violent response in Warsaw Ghetto as he was to condemn the violent, but non-lethal response to the deadly Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara. In this case, if he wishes to project even a faint modicum of seriousness, Taylor must provide an alternative. What could the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto do? What response would, to Taylor, be appropriately nonviolent, while maximising their chances of surviving?

As happy as he is to lecture, Taylor has no more answers to this question than he does to the question at hand: What should the people on board the Mavi Marmara have done in response to a murderous attack that had already killed one of their fellows? To the extent that he answers this – painfully obvious – question at all, it is with platitudes about “nonviolently [resisting] the oppressors without demonization or rancor, but with a desire to win [them] over”, “refusing to comply" with the demands of soldiers who were firing live ammunition at them, and the frankly bile-curdling admonition to practice “courageous love", and vaguenesses about how “the resisters’ actions are not dictated by the oppressors’ actions.”  

Bullshit.

If someone is trying to kill you, your reaction will almost certainly be dictated by that fact, assuming that you have the normal human instinct of self-preservation. If someone is trying to kill your comrades (especially if they are defenceless), your reaction will just as certainly be dictated by that fact, if you have even the slightest sense of solidarity. Your action will be to do what seems necessary and suitable to preserve your own life and those of your comrades. If you can get the gun out of the would-be murderer’s hand, you do it. If you can get your comrades out of harm’s way, you do it. If you can run and hide, you will run and hide. If there’s a reasonable chance that calling for help could save you, you call for help.

The people on board the Mavi Marmara had nowhere to run.

They had nothing but hundreds of miles of sea, blocked on all sides by Israeli warships. They were cornered.

They had no way to call for help. The Israeli military was jamming their communications equipment. They were helpless and alone, and surrounded by people who were shooting to kill.

In the last verse of his song זאָג ניט קיינמאָל, Zog nit keynmol ("Never say…"), which became the anthem of the Jewish partisans, Hirsch Glick writes:

דאָס ליד געשריבן איז מיט בלוט און ניט מיט בלײַ,
ס´איז ניט קיין ליד פֿון אַ פֿויגל אויף דער פֿרייַ.
דאָס האָט אַ פֿאָלק צווישן פֿאַלנדיקע ווענט,
דאָס ליד געזונגען מיט נאַגאַנעס אין די הענט.

Dos Lied geschriebn is mit Blut un nit mit Blei.
S’ is nit keyn Lied fun a Foigl oif der frei;
Dos hot a Folk zvischn falendike Vent,
Dos Lied gezungen mit Naganes in die Hent.

This song was written with blood, not with lead;
It isn’t the song of a bird flying free.
It was people with weapons in their hands
Who sang this song as the walls came crashing in.

Glick’s point is as elementary as it is beautifully expressed. The sentiments of Zog nit keynmol were not written at leisure, in a time of calm contemplation, by a foigl oif der frei (a bird flying free). They were written in a time of extreme and imminent danger, when the only options available ranged from bad to intolerable. Things rarely look the same to a foigl oif der frei like Taylor as they do to people facing the real prospect of death.

Taylor, and the others who would presume to utter platitudes in the face of murder, would do well to keep this in mind.

In criminal law, a defendant who admits having done something that is generally a crime has two basic types of defences (“affirmative defences”) available. The first is what is known as an excuse. It does not deny that the act was wrongful, but offers reasons why the defendant should not be punished in this case. The second is known as justification. It argues that the act was not wrong at all, that it was instead entirely appropriate and acceptable under the circumstances.

There is no need to linger on a defence of excuse. It not only does a disservice to the Marmara resisters and the cause they risked their lives for – it insults the intelligence of anyone reading to suggest that there was anything at all wrong with what they did.

In The Tacitus Principle, I explained that any violent resistance by the passengers of the Mavi Marmara would fall within self-defence, a justification. While this is the legal category their actions fall into, I am not content to argue that the Marmara resisters were blameless. This is obvious. Instead, I would go far as to say that their actions are worthy of praise. Indeed, the way the people on board the Mavi Marmara responded to the Israeli attack should go down in history as an example of how one can resist murderous violence without losing one’s humanity.

If they had merely risked their lives to protect their comrades and to help the besieged people of the Gaza Strip, dayenu. If they had merely taken whatever they could find in order to defend their ship and its sleeping passengers against a midnight onslaught, dayenu.

If they had done only those things, they would be deserving of the highest praise.

However, we know that they did more. From eyewitness testimony, corroborated by the footage that Iara Lee and her camera crew were able to smuggle off of the Mavi Marmara, we know that they not only protected the two disarmed commandos from the cameras of the press; they even used their extremely limited resources to give these people who came to harm them basic medical care.

They did this even as they were sending out a distress call by loudspeaker to the Israeli Navy, announcing their surrender and pleading with the Israelis to provide medical assistance to several people who were bleeding to death. They did this even though the Israelis opted to let their comrades die when they had nothing to lose from saving their lives.

There is no reason to be evasive, or to qualify our defence of the people who tried to protect their ship and comrades from the fourth most deadly army in the world with sticks and stones. There is no need to concede when we are told that they betrayed what some people misguidedly believe to be an absolute principle of nonviolence. The Mavi Marmara resisters did the right thing, and some of them died doing it. In so doing, they forced the suffering of the Gaza Strip, long ignored by articulate opinion, onto the front pages. When the NBC Nightly News calls Gaza a “prison”, when ambassadors are withdrawn from Israel, when country after country announces its intention to send more ships to Gaza, when Turkey commits its navy to protect them, we should remember who we have to thank for it. If the Mavi Marmara had gone quietly and not responded to Israel’s live fire, none of this would have happened. This batch of ships would have been ignored just as surely as the previous ones were.

The resisters of the Mavi Marmara do not need us to defend them. They deserve our unwavering praise.

4 comments ↓

#1 josh on 06.19.10 at 11:04

You know what would be really good? A history of Palestinian non-violent resistance. The people who’ve embraced non-violent tactics need their stories told. And the world needs to know the repressive response they’ve gotten, not only physical, but informational, from their oppressors.

There needs to be a one-stop volume that will put to rest this „why don’t they just resist non-violently?“ bullshit once and for all.

If such a book exists, I’d love to know about it. If it doesn’t, I nominate you to write it.

#2 David on 06.19.10 at 13:49

I am of the view that when commandos drop out of a Blackhawk helicopter and begin firing at you on a ship where there’s no place to run away to, you are justified in beating the living shit out of them and dumping them overboard.

Second-guessing people trying to save themselves is itself morally indefensible.

#3 Sabine Schiffer on 07.04.10 at 17:11

a very touching and deeply humane analysis – thank you

#4 abdelkarim on 08.23.10 at 05:56

It’s really hard to judge the situation for people who were not there. Based on what I know about the martyrdom desires of populations of Muslim majority countries, I tend to question your narrative.

You can’t take the cultural hatred of the kouffar in general and the Jews in particular out of the picture.

[Ed. The facts are actually quite clear. A civilian aid vessel was attacked in international waters by one of the most deadly navies in the world, who came on board shooting.

As for the „martyrdom desires of populations of Muslim majority countries [sic]“, even if that were not a stereotype, and even if one of those participating in the defence of the Mavi Marmara were not a guy from the US called Ken O’Keefe, and even if martyrdom really were an exclusively Muslim cultural thing (which is why you never hear about Masada, the Warsaw Ghetto, or Jesus, to name a few), it still doesn’t change the readily verifiable facts. It just shows that for some people, racism overrides critical thought.]

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