The Mixed Legacies of 9/11 —by Jinny Batterson
Recently I had a chance to host a set of international guests—three generations whose eldest member had grown up in newly-independent India as a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi. As she was about to leave our house, Ms. Mehta gave me a small booklet entitled “Hope or Terror: Gandhi and the other 9/11.” According to the booklet, on an earlier September 11, in 1906, Gandhi had launched the “satyagraha” movement that eventually helped lead to India’s independence in 1947.
The booklet’s author, long term American peace activist Michael Nagler, spends most of the pamphlet giving examples of non-violent movements that have achieved worthwhile social aims with a minimum of bloodshed. His pamphlet was published in 2006, just five years after the 2001 terrorist airplane hijackings, destruction and loss of life that have created lingering unhealed physical and psychic wounds in so many Americans, both military and civilian. Nagler points to traits needed to participate more fully in satyagraha-like efforts, to use “integrative power” rather than “threat power.” So what can we learn from previous satyagraha struggles that may be relevant in 2019?
First, we can become familiar with the term “satyagraha,” which has several English translations—it can be rendered as “soul force,” as “love in action,” as “clinging to truth.” Many of us who have heard the term associate it primarily with Gandhi and his “salt march,” a long-distance 1930 walk to publicize and challenge the unfairness of British taxes on salt, a necessary nutrient that washes up freely on some of India’s beaches. Americans may be more familiar with the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr., whose commitment to the related concept of non-violence was partially inspired by his study of Gandhi’s life and methods.
Nagler points out that there are two prongs to satyagraha efforts—one a resistance to coercion, the other a creation of alternative forms of organization that are freer and less coercive. Most of us are likely to be more attuned to one prong than the other, so we need to partner with individuals and groups that are more highly skilled in the other prong. Otherwise, we can too often confuse tactics and methods with strategies and longer-term goals.
The passage in Nagler’s booklet that I found most heartening and persuasive concerns the way that satyagraha/nonviolence works: “Nonviolence sometimes ‘works’ and always works, while by contrast, violence sometimes ‘works’ and never works.”
He explains his use of terminology this way: an action succeeds, or “works” based on its short-term, obvious effects, while it works (without quotes) in how it impacts situations and participants under the surface, producing longer-term effects that are not always obvious at the time.
I’m not sure what commemorations will occur on September 11, 2019. The lingering war in Afghanistan seems no closer to resolution; gun violence in the U.S. claims or maims too many lives; organized violence in many parts of the world dominate our headlines and media reports. Climate change can pose global challenges we often seem powerless to respond to. However, there are other actions going on, other factors at play. One was a last-minute decision to open our home for a night to a family of strangers who are strangers no longer, with an aging Indian matriarch who replanted a seed of hope.