Originally published on Scientific American. By John Horgan.
Americans are flocking to a film that celebrates a soldier who killed lots of people during the U.S. war in Iraq. Meanwhile, a growing number of Americans want the U.S. to send ground troops back into Iraq to fight ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
So now is the perfect time for people to see Selma, which like American Sniper has been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. Selma celebrates a genuine hero, Martin Luther King, and it delivers a message—backed up by empirical evidence–that our violence-intoxicated era badly needs to hear.
Selma dramatizes one of American’s history’s most inspiring episodes, when King and other courageous activists banded together to challenge violent, state-sponsored bigotry and injustice and changed our nation for the better.
The inaccuracies that some critics have griped about are nit-picky. Selma hews to the historical record more closely than most historical films (even though the estate of Martin Luther King, Jr., refused to allow Selma’s director, Ava DuVernay, to quote from his speeches). Compared to American Sniper, Selma is True as a Euclidian proof.
The film recreates the horror of “Bloody Sunday,” an incident in 1965 when Alabama police beat 600 civil rights protesters marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge (named for a grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan). After the bloodied activists retreat to a church, one declares that it’s time to fight the police with guns.
A protest leader, Andrew Young, insists that violence is not the answer. “You can’t win that way,” Young says in the film, which closely tracks Young’s own recollections in a 1985 interview. “I’m not talking about the Bible, I’m talking facts. Cold, hard facts.” Young, who went on to become an eminent politician and diplomat, argues that nonviolence is not just morally superior to violence; it is more effective, especially for people struggling for justice against a more powerful group.
King emphasized the pragmatism of nonviolence too, of course, and so does political scientist Gene Sharp, whom I have discussed previously on this blog and in my book The End of War. Drawing upon the careers of King and Gandhi as well as other historical episodes, Sharp argues that violence, even in the service of a just cause, often precipitates greater injustice and suffering; nonviolent movements are more likely than violent ones to prevail and to lead to democratic, non-militarized regimes.
The scholars Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan present further evidence of the effectiveness of nonviolence in Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. The 2012 book asserts that between 1900 and 2006 “campaigns of nonviolent resistance were more than twice as effective as their violent counterparts in achieving their stated goals.”
Another recent book on nonviolent activism is Blueprint for a Revolution, by the Serbian activists Srdja Popovic and Slobodan Djinovic. The two were leaders of Otpor, a movement that helped topple Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, and they went on to found the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (Canvas).
Journalist Tina Rosenberg, who frequently writes about human rights, recently lauded the Serbians’ work in The New York Times. She wonders “what Syria could have been now, had the nonviolent activists in the opposition movement prevailed.”
I wonder what the world could have been if the U.S. had pursued less violent strategies for countering Muslim extremism after 9/11. The U.S. invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 have been catastrophic failures. They have claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, cost trillions of dollars, made Afghanistan and Iraq even more violent and chaotic and exacerbated rather than quelling Muslim extremism.
Martin Luther King opposed U.S. militarism as well as injustice. Selma shows him briefly, privately, expressing doubts about the Vietnam War in 1965. King hesitated to oppose the Vietnam War publicly, fearing that an antiwar stance could undermine his authority as a civil-rights activist.
But in a major speech in 1967, King spelled out moral as well as practical objections to the Vietnam War. The U.S. military buildup, far from suppressing North Vietnam aggression, had exacerbated it, he suggested. North Vietnam “did not begin to send in any large number of supplies or men until American forces had arrived in the tens of thousands.”
King did not condone the violence of the North Vietnamese, but he argued that they had legitimate political goals. U.S. actions, he contended, had already killed as many as a million Vietnamese, “mostly children.” The war was hurting poor Americans, too, by diverting resources away from social programs. King urged the U.S. to stop bombing North Vietnam and set a date for withdrawal of its troops.
King’s speech (well worth reading in its entirety) enraged President Lyndon Johnson, who had supported civil rights legislation sought by King, and was denounced by major media, including The New York Timesand Washington Post. King was right that the Vietnam War was both immoral and unwinnable.
Last fall, I reported on non-military proposals for dealing with ISIS. Can such strategies work against a group that seems intent on using violence to provoke violent responses from the U.S. and other nations? I don’t know. But clearly our military strategies have not worked; in fact, they have made bad situations worse. So why not try nonviolence?
In the meantime, please root for Selma to win Best Picture, and for American Sniper to lose.