Nearly six years ago, a team of U.S. Navy SEALs raided the home of Osama bin Laden, killing the terrorist leader and burying his body at sea only hours later. The following day, the news of his death dominated my seventh grade literature class as students cheered what President Obama called “the most significant achievement to date in our nation's effort to defeat al Qaeda.” But what began as a celebration soon erupted into a heated argument between me and my classmates over their glorification of a violent death.
Despite bin Laden’s horrific crimes against humanity, rejoicing in his bloody demise felt wrong. Although justice was served, it still wasn’t okay to delight in its violent means. But as a 13-year-old, I had no idea how to explain this concept to my friends, since I was still trying to fully grasp this foreign feeling myself.
Our words are only as powerful as people are willing to listen to them. But when our words are ignored, what then? The inauguration of Trump and the rise of the Neo-Nazi movement over the last few months has proven that sometimes words alone are not enough to be heard. In a war for basic human rights, how can anyone be expected to defend their own inherent liberties if their voices are consistently dismissed and silenced?
When words fail, it’s tempting to resort to brute force. So, it’s not surprising that a video of a protester punching Richard Spencer, a white supremacist credited with creating the term “alt-right,” went viral in January after months of suppressed rage and frustration. The resistance against Nazism is not a typical conflict of ideas or policy, but an obligation to protect fundamental human rights. Certain principles, such as equality and freedom, should not be considered debatable.
For many people, that single punch went far beyond the impact of any public discourse, and perhaps our country’s history of inequality and oppression indicates that physical force may be necessary in order to truly overcome hate. How could anyone blame the protester for his actions when they were only a direct response to the injustices enacted upon him?
And yet, I can’t help but fear that our praise of this moral use of violence will eventually result in a future we don’t want. In a time when our government is actively working to suppress free speech, actions speak louder than words. But it’s important to remember that all actions have consequences, and it is our responsibility to evaluate the possible consequences of violence in the long run.
I’m not saying that it’s our job to compromise with Nazis, or let them avoid repercussions for their intolerance, but punching them just isn’t going to make Nazism go away. In the end, punching Richard Spencer does not eradicate racism and anti-Semitism, but instead only creates a space for more tension and divide, specifically among those who are fighting for the same cause. Because not everyone is as willing to support a destructive force, violent tactics can polarize and weaken a movement in a time when people need to remain unified in order to have a legitimate impact
Activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi taught us that there are other ways to respond to injustice. While their efforts did not eradicate their countries’ problems of racial oppression, the progress made during their eras demonstrated the success of nonviolent action in the face of hate. Because they encouraged peace and unity, people were more willing to come together to fight for one common cause. Although both of these leaders were killed for their leadership, their legacies of peaceful protest and civil disobedience remain alive years after their deaths.
Of course, MLK wasn’t completely opposed to violence. He promoted peaceful resistance; however, he still felt that violent unrest should be understood for what it is: an effort to “shock the white community” in response to years of systematic discrimination. Violent protestors should not be seen as the enemy, since their responses are only “derivative crimes” from the overarching crimes of their societal oppressors.
So while I completely understand why that protester punched Spencer—and don’t fault him for his actions—I do think that there are other, more effective ways to retaliate against white supremacy. Because as much as MLK understood violent protests, it wasn’t his preferred form of action.
Revolutionary tactics, albeit effective, can be counterproductive in their havoc-wreaking on a country and its citizens. For instance, in the case of revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre, his strategies to forcefully overthrow the French monarchy are a perfect example of rebellion- turned-anarchy, ultimately displaying the flaws of such violent tactics.
What began as a class revolt soon gave rise to the gruesome Reign of Terror, as the cause to liberate France became divided in itself, resulting in mass executions and internal conflict. Unfortunately, forceful tactics leave more room for social havoc, arousing hostility and disunion between people who all share similar beliefs.
Active civil disobedience of inherently divisive policies, on the other hand, is a historically effective tool that doesn’t result in the same unrest and chaos as violent revolt. From Gandhi’s Salt March 87 years ago, to the movements against the construction of the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines, to the growing number of sanctuary campuses and cities today in opposition of Trump’s immigration policies—these protests demonstrate the overwhelming power people can have when they unite to oppose an unjust government.