LASMAN: Revolutions and pacifism

What forms of protest are legitimate? And when does protest become terrorism?

Suicide bombing falls firmly on the latter side; roadside picketing, on the former. For all the debate and opposition it has engendered, there’s little controversy on the legality of Occupy Wall Street. Many more Americans favor the protests than disapprove of them — the numbers vary widely between polls, but in most, supporters outnumber denigrators by about two to one. Given the nation’s political divisions and the less than explicit platform of the movement, it seems that such national solidarity reflects less a sea change of public opinion and more the growth of an inchoate malaise.

We are living in an era of civil unrest. It may have begun in the Color Revolutions of the former USSR, or in the smoldering discontent of Europe’s immigrant banlieues, which erupted most significantly in Paris in 2005. It has drawn on tools and vocabularies as diverse as the Internet and the Intifada. The current wave was inaugurated in the streets of Tehran, and its most dramatic expression came just last week with the death of a brutal dictator at the hands of those he oppressed.

Unlike previous periods of revolt — 1989, for example, or 1848 — this one has had a strangely NIMBY quality, with governments cheering on the oppressed masses of other lands until the mobs appear at their own gates. Sometimes it has been brutal, sometimes inspiring, and often both at the same time.

In this country, at least, the supporters of these uprisings tend to be pacifists. We tend to cheer on nonviolent marchers, decry police retaliations and search every movement for the shadow of Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. We question the morality of violence committed for any cause and often forget that the most potent engines of protest — oppression and martyrdom — ­run on death.

We forget the militaristic connotations of the verb “occupy,” a word that sums up so many global wrongs that I doubt the ability of any cause to reclaim it in the name of international justice. Occupation is perhaps the most extreme form of illegitimate government, but also one of the most intractable. Lines drawn on maps harden over time.

On Tuesday, reports surfaced that the 10th Tibetan monk this year had set himself on fire. Why it took an even 10 to attract widespread media coverage is one question; why the Chinese government labeled the immolation an act of terrorism is another.

Answering the first meaningfully is beyond the scope of this column. Suffice it to say, I think it has something to do with the trendiness of activism, which works wonderfully when a given cause is in vogue and is downright poisonous when certain subjects fall out of fashion.

“Free Palestine” is ubiquitous across bumper stickers, college campuses and billboards. “Free Tibet” is an oddity, confined largely to New Age shops and roadside cafes in Northern India. If I saw another student at Yale sporting the rising sun and snow lions of the Tibetan flag, I would assume it was a thrift store purchase with no more significance than a Beastie Boys t-shirt from 1987. Whatever your stance, on either issue, it is curious to me how the entirely unresolved question of Tibet drifted out of fashion, to be replaced by a fixation on a strip of land that is undoubtedly important but is about as large as Massachusetts.

As for the second question, I wonder in what way self-immolation is an act of terrorism. How does it differ from, say, a hunger strike? It is more gruesome, certainly, and it occurs most often in public, not behind the closed doors of a detention facility. Visually and psychologically, it spreads fear. It communicates desperation rather than resignation. Accounts of the Tibetan immolations note the strong taboo on suicide in most Buddhist sects, highlighting the extremity of the act on the part of a believer. All these angles recall the ideology of suicide bombing, and so the uncomfortable question arises: If a suicide bombing is intended to kill only its perpetrator still an act of terrorism?

Any form of protest that creates its own martyrs must be suspect. As this era of unrest continues, those who champion the oppressed must examine which acts they are willing to celebrate and which must always be condemned. At the root of this soul-searching lies the question of how much violence can be tolerated in seeking the destruction of entrenched and oppressive orders. In confronting the injustices of the 21st century, pacifism and activism may be on a collision course. It will take a new kind of leader and thinker to see if they can be brought to concord.


  • Arafat

    Did I understand the message of this article correctly? Is Sam suggesting there is some parallel between an Islamist killing 20 UN peace keeping troops while concomitant with him (or her) killing himself too is somehow similar to a Buddhist monk burning himself alive?

    If so then this tells us all we need to know about what liberal education has done for America. This helps explain why on college campuses today we see so many “Free Palestine” bumper stickers. It’s because white is black and night is day and good is bad and this is obviously reinforced at Yale.

    A generation of people who don’t know the difference between night and day. How reassuring.

  • Inigo_Montoya

    > Did I understand the message of this
    > article correctly?

    I don’t think you did. The author is arguing that the Tibetan monks’ self-immolation presents a much more debatable ethical and moral question than politically motivated murderous suicide does.

  • Arafat


    Thanks for the clarification. Apologies to Sam for my gaffe.

  • River_Tam

    > Any form of protest that creates its own martyrs must be suspect.

    I absolutely LOVE this sentence. It sums up a feeling I’ve often had but could not express in this eloquent a fashion.

  • AnonymousStudent

    This column offers a surprising–and thoughtful–point, though its initial questions are not exactly well-put. Yes, we should ask, “what forms of protest are legitimate?” but to immediately turn to “when does protest become terrorism?” is to think of a binary between legitimacy and extremism.

    But there are gradations in acts that stray from pure non-violence: The terrorist needlessly puts masses of other lives at risk; the protestor who steps over the line has become uncivilly disobedient, a trespasser without cause.

    I will agree with the author that we must keep our eyes out for illegitimate forms of protest, but I must disagree with the equivalence the author seeks to draw–even in a small way–between oppressive violence and the violence suffered by the martyr.

    For a definition of the martyr, we can turn to Robert Cover:
    “Martyrdom, for all its strangeness to the secular world of contemporary American Law, is a proper starting place for understanding the nature of legal interpretation. Precisely because it is so extreme a phenomenon, martyrdom helps us see what is present in lesser degree whenever interpretation is joined with the practice of violent domination. Martyrs insist in the face of overwhelming force that if there is to be continuing life, it will not be on the terms of the tyrant’s law. Law is the projection of an imagined future upon reality. Martyrs require that any future they possess will be on the terms of the law to which they are committed (God’s law). And the miracle of the suffering of the martyrs is their insistence on the law to which they are committed, even in the face of world-destroying pain. n9 Their triumph — which may well be partly imaginary — is the imagined triumph of the normative universe — of Torah, Nomos, — over [*1605] the material world of death and pain. n10 Martyrdom is an extreme form of resistance to domination. As such it reminds us that the normative world-building which constitutes “Law” is never just a mental or spiritual act. A legal world is built only to the extent that there are commitments that place bodies on the line.”

    The surprising–and thoughtful–point offered by the author is this: those who self-immolate, those who would inflict violence upon themselves by their own hand, are only ambiguously martyrs. The death of the archetypal martyr comes at the hand of the oppressive, illegitimate legal system, whereas the death of the self-immolator beats any system to the punch. The self-immolator manufactures the crisis, knowing full well that even the oppressive state might avoid it. Though the author shouldn’t have let the Chinese get away with calling self-immolation “terrorism,” I think he is right to see ambiguity here.