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April 2004
Finding Another Way
The Satya Interview with Michael Nagler


Peace Brigades International

For those who are not skilled healthcare professionals able to volunteer for humanitarian groups like Doctors Without Borders, there is another way to effectively save lives in conflict-plagued areas. Founded in 1981, Peace Brigades International (PBI) is a non-governmental organization that protects human rights and promotes nonviolent transformation of conflict areas. Inspired by Mohandas Gandhi, PBI helps deter violence largely through “protective accompaniment,” the practice of shielding people from violence by simply being present.

When invited, teams of volunteers travel to areas of conflict where they accompany local human rights defenders, their organizations and others threatened by political violence. In most instances, death squads and other human rights violators do not want their actions exposed to the outside world, the presence of volunteers backed by a support network helps deter their violence.

Starting in Guatemala and El Salvador, then in Sri Lanka, Colombia, Indonesia and Mexico, PBI teams have accompanied clergy, union leaders, campesino leaders, human rights activists, and returning exiles (such as Nobel Prize Winner Rigoberta Menchù). Currently, PBI has volunteers working in Colombia, Indonesia and Mexico, as well as a project restarting in Guatemala.

PBI’s Colombia project is documented in the 30-minute film, In The Company of Fear, in which international volunteers give first-hand accounts of their experiences protecting local people from assault by government or paramilitary forces.

In addition to protective accompaniment, PBI organizes workshops on nonviolent methods of resolving conflicts; and documents conflicts and human rights initiatives and distributes this information to the international community.

There are plenty of groups doing similar work, like the International Solidarity Movement (, working to prevent human rights abuses in Israel/Palestine, the Human Shields, groups of international volunteers who protected civilian targets in Iraq, and the Nonviolent Peaceforce (, a movement to resolve armed conflict by deploying “armies” of nonviolent civilians.

To learn more, visit or call PBI’s London headquarters at 44-20-7324 4769. —C.C. (Source:

Michael N. Nagler is a well-known and respected teacher of nonviolence and a lifelong scholar of Mohandas Gandhi. In the early 1970s, he founded the Peace and Conflict Studies Program at UC Berkeley, where he continues to teach courses on nonviolence and meditation. He is a frequent speaker and writer on peace and nonviolence, the author of America Without Violence (1982), and, with Eknath Easwaran, co-author of an English translation of The Upanishads.

Nagler took some time to discuss nonviolence with Catherine Clyne as well as his most recent book, Is There No Other Way? The Search for a Nonviolent Future (Inner Ocean Press, 2001), which will be republished in September.

Your book Is There No Other Way? was written before September 11. If you wrote it now—post-9/11, post-Iraq occupation or whatever—would it be at all different?
Not really. I was against violence before, and I’m against violence now. Maybe the tone would be a little more urgent in some places, but basically, the thrust of the book is ‘What is nonviolence and how can we use it?’ and I don’t see any reason to change anything.

In the book, an example you give of nonviolence “working” is the Peace Brigade or the “protective accompaniment” strategy. What are your thoughts on this in the wake of Rachel Corrie’s murder and attacks on other nonviolent International Solidarity Movement activists by the Israeli military?
I said in my text that so far, knock on wood, nobody has been killed. And now we have Rachel Corrie, Tom Hurndall, and Brian Avery of the International Solidarity Movement deliberately murdered or critically wounded by the Israeli Defense Force. So I’m adding a footnote saying that tragically this is no longer true, but it doesn’t change anything in principle. We always knew that at some point we would start taking casualties and that’s how a movement like ours gets tested. It increases the stakes. One of the jobs of a nonviolent actor is to bring the structural violence of the world up to the surface, and people get hurt that way. But more people are getting hurt the other way, if you leave it hidden.

What concerns me is the Israeli army seemed to be making a test with Rachel and as more attacks against nonviolent human shields occur, their international status really doesn’t have the importance that it used to.

There’s a principle in nonviolence theory called a “paradox of repression,” which means that once a state commits itself to a repressive posture (the same would apply to any kind of violence), it’s going to have to intensify the violence/repression in order to uphold it, and at some point the repression will reach an intolerable level. With the attempts to get rid of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon through this scandal, I think we’re seeing an under the table way of changing policy a little bit. I can’t tell you how tragic this all is to me, but we’re just so deep into the violence now that there’s no other way. And until they have exposed the complete brutality in such a way that it’s in people’s face, I don’t think anything is going to change.

On the side of the Palestinians, this new intifada started being more nonviolent because the construction of the wall was something people knew how to protest against nonviolently. Although it’s totally unreported in the mass media, there have been major sit-ins, blockages and demonstrations against the wall, which are having some effect. Now the question is, will the assassination of [Hamas Leader] Sheikh Ahmed Yassin so infuriate the Palestinians that they’ll lose their nonviolent discipline? This is a critical moment for any nonviolent movement. When you really have teased the violent oppression out into the open, what are you going to do? I’ve heard from people in the area that so far they’re holding. If they do, they’ll come out of this very strong. Palestinians are tremendously interested in nonviolence now, I hear, though they lack information about it (like everyone else).

One criticism people have of nonviolence is that historically it has “worked” only in concert with more subversive violent factions or movements. How do you respond to this?
It’s very hard to prove or disprove. A typical case would be the Civil Rights movement, which started off under King’s leadership in pure nonviolence style and then a mixture of violent elements came up in the 60s with Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X. The movement as a whole succeeded, but perhaps not totally. Which aspect are you going to attribute to which technique? It depends on what you think makes the world go ‘round. Some people say it worked because it was violent, and others say it worked because it was nonviolent. We don’t really have the methodology to test this one way or the other. But my own belief, and most of us who work in this field, think that mixing in a little violence is usually extremely destructive to a nonviolent movement. I’ve kind of tongue-in-cheek coined “Nagler’s Law” for my students, which says: nv + v = v. In other words, if you add violence to nonviolence, what you basically get is violence.

The classic example of that was [the 1999 WTO protests in] Seattle where you had 50,000 people acting under superb nonviolent discipline—the world had hardly seen anything like it—and a small group constituting the “black block” anarchists who, instead, were breaking windows and stuff like that. They got all the media coverage, all of it. So even for that strategic reason; any success that comes from a mixed movement will be the kind you get from a violent one. It will be short-lived and there will be a backlash.

In general, I don’t think it’s at all the case that nonviolent movements worked because they had violence in them. In Gandhi’s case and in many others, wherever violence came up, the movement was halted until discipline could be reestablished.

Could you share some of your thoughts on the animal advocacy movement?
I’m a committed practically lifelong vegetarian and I would love to do anything I can for animal protection, but I rarely can get involved with people who do that kind of work because, in tone if nothing else, they’re extremely violent. There are other examples too, of movements protecting life that can’t protect itself: the anti-abortion movement, and the environmental movement, the latter of which has been much cleaner for the most part. You have one of these peculiar paradoxes—trying to use violent means to bring about nonviolent ends. This kind of thing is never really going to change anything substantial because even if you win a few battles, you’ll lose the war. The only way to win the war, so to speak, is to completely change the method of fighting. You have to go to real principled nonviolence to do that.

Many would argue that the animal advocacy movement is just like what happened in Seattle, it’s a small group who are aggressive, and the rest try to be nonviolent.
This is true. But unfortunately, we live in a world with an enormous alertness to violence. All it takes is a small minority to offset nonviolent commitment and discipline, and it’s very tragic. We need an internal way to persuade people not to do that, and we’ve just begun to think about that.

What are some things you would recommend to the animal rights movement?
I would recommend that they accentuate the positive and appeal to people’s better nature; don’t use graphic images—that doesn’t really help. And also, to realize that advances of nonviolence anywhere will help nonviolence everywhere, and if the movement as a whole were well coordinated—if we had a kind of nonviolent Karl Rove—we might decide that animal rights was not the issue to focus on right now. Not because we don’t love animals, but because this is not the place where we can reach the conscience of the people right now. If we find that place, it will help animals, it will help children, it’ll help the women’s rights movement—everything. I think that animal rights folks (God bless them, my hat is off to them, and I appreciate their passion) should feel that we’re all part of a whole, and it may be the case that the best we can do for animals right now might be in another area.

I think we are beginning to realize that the single-issue activism we saw in the 80s—one group working on the environment and having nothing to do with the anti-nuclear folks, and anti-weapons folks just disdaining the environmentalists—that is breaking down now. It has to.

What are some of the greatest misunderstandings people have of nonviolence?
The biggest and greatest is to be fooled by our culture and by the word—to think it’s a negative thing—that if you feel like punching somebody and you don’t, that’s it, you’ve exhausted the entire science of nonviolence. (In fact, a nonviolent person will use force in an emergency situation if there’s no other option—but in an entirely different spirit.)

Another big misunderstanding is to demand immediate results. Nonviolence may or may not “work” immediately, but it will always make the situation better at some point. One other is, we’re so externally oriented and materialist that we think nonviolence is simply a behavior, and we don’t realize that it’s a spiritual conversion that has to go on inside the actor, which then has its effect on the observers.

The story of Badshah Khan told in the wonderful book, A Nonviolent Soldier of Islam [written by Eknath Easwaran], serves to refute four major myths about nonviolence. Khan shows that nonviolence is not the weapon of the weak, because the Pathans were extremely courageous people. He shows that its effect is not limited to a wimpy opponent—the British were actually extremely brutal in that part of the world—and that it can be used in place of a military force. He raised an army of almost 80,000 people all committed to nonviolence. Finally, it shows that nonviolence has an important place in Islam; he was a very devout Muslim, all of them were.

In your writings, you seem to feel that the seeds for nonviolent transformation are already in place, with things like community-centered programs. In other words, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. What do you think needs to happen here in the U.S. for those seeds to flourish?
I’ve developed sort of a pyramid that helps me understand things. The top layer is where political decisions are made, and political biases maintained in the media. But those biases and bad decisions are sustained by a culture. The average city-dweller in America is exposed to 30,000 commercial messages a day and every one of them has a selfish subtext. We’re being massively indoctrinated to be selfish, which is another way of saying violent. So that culture has got to change.

Underneath that culture is another causal layer, the spiritual, where our basic conceptions of who we are as human beings reside. We’re losing it politically because we’ve lost it culturally. What I’m wrestling with is how we can regain it. I think it’s by getting down to that deeper spiritual level and changing ourselves there. How you do that is not entirely clear, but it has to do with individuals. You start with yourself and that affects other people, and at some point that becomes a majority or mainstream. That’s how I’m trying to understand it right now.

What are your thoughts on the political climate in this country right now?
Well, I’m 67 years old and I have never seen it worse. I lived through the McCarthy era. My parents were Jewish schoolteachers and we thought they could lose their job at any time, and that was really scary. I was very proud and happy when we came out of that period and I can’t tell you how appalled I am that we’ve gone back into it. It could not be worse. If you read any literature that describes the early stages of fascism in Germany, we fit that to a “T.”

A lot of people would find that comment shocking.
I’m sorry. [Laughs.] That might be a salutary shock for people. I think ultimately, the American people won’t put up with this drift into totalitarianism. But it has to be presented in a way that overcomes the war-mythology that’s prevailing right now. As far as I can see, we have no real hope of achieving this through our political system as it now stands; or of making inroads into the mass media, which is embedded in that system.

What we have to do is build a world that just has a completely different value system. I know the problem with this scheme is that it takes a long time. But I’ve been waiting a long time already. I don’t know of a quick way to fix it. So I’m working on the slow way.

How do you respond to your students who probably want change tomorrow, if not yesterday?
They have the same burning impatience that I do, but the thing that makes it bearable is they go out and do stuff. You know that what you’re doing is not going to fix the whole thing, but at least you’re doing something and so you don’t feel so godawful frustrated.

What gives you hope?
Those young people. And the vision I have that the seed is there. Historically, there has never been a world conquest of the type that the Bushites are trying to push through. Regional empires lasted awhile, but the kind of domination they’re trying to achieve has never worked. And never will. There is that goodness inside the human being that is going to wake up at some point and say ‘No, this is wrong.’ My hope is not that I predict things will get better, but I know they can. So I put all my effort into trying to help that along.

To learn more about Michael Nagler and nonviolence, and read his “Five Steps” to bring about peace, contact the METTA Center for Nonviolence Education at or Inner Ocean Publishing can be reached at



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