The Spectrum of Disobedience
GMS: Reuters released a report in 2007 stating that "[Israeli] Army statistics show the number of young people who do not enlist for military service has crept up in recent years to more than one in four men in 2007 and more than 43 percent of women." This past December, a groundswell of over 100 young people collectively refused the universal draft law in Israel, the Defense Service Law of 1986. Being on the board of Jewish Voice for Peace, the group which led the international campaign of support of the young Shministim refuseniks, you wrote a letter in support of their refusal. Can you talk a little about the importance of war resistance, particularly supporting the Israeli refusers in this case?
ZINN: There’s no question in my mind that I should give my support to any Israeli soldier who refuses to serve, given the immorality of the Israeli attack on Gaza, and given the immorality of the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. To me, the resistance and refusal of soldiers to serve in an army of occupation or in an aggressive war is extremely important. Because, while you can have many different expressions of opposition to an immoral war, there’s no form of resistance more powerful, more troubling to the occupying power, or to the aggressive military power, than when their own soldiers refuse to serve. And I’m going by the history of GI resistance during the war in Vietnam. While the resistance took many different forms—and many different parts of the population joined the movement against the war—what I believe was most decisive was that the United States government could not depend on the military. The ROTC chapters were being closed and these chapters had been supplying young officers to the battlefield. GIs in the field were becoming more and more demoralized; they were taking drugs and fragging their officers—that is, rolling hand grenades under the tents of their officers. They were engaged in violent resistance to the continuing war. Toward the end of the war, there were B-52 pilots that refused to fly planes over Ha Noi and Hai Phong.
The writer David Cortwright wrote a book about GI resistance to the war in Vietnam, Soldiers in Revolt, where he details the great number of desertions, the great number of acts of fragging, the many examples of soldiers refusing to go out on patrol; soldiers wearing black armbands in support of the anti-war demonstrations that were taking place back at home. And he comes to the conclusion that the actions of soldiers was absolutely critical in causing the United States to decide it could not continue the war.
I use this as an historical example to suggest the importance of the actions of the Israeli refuseniks—even though at this point their numbers aren’t crucial enough to stop what Israel is doing. But if those numbers grow, then the Israeli government may face a very difficult decision. And the numbers can grow if these early resisters create an example. If their actions are publicized and supported.
In a speech delivered on the Boston Common in 1971, you observed that: "We grow up in a controlled society, and the very language we use is corrupted from the time we learn to speak and read. And those who have the power, they decide the meaning of the words that we use…. When nuns and priests, horrified by the burning of children [in Vietnam], construct actions that do no violence to human life, they’re arrested for ‘conspiracy to kidnap.’ And when the government reaches into a million homes and snatches the young men out of them under penalty of imprisonment, and gives them uniforms and guns and sends them off to die, that is not kidnapping. That’s ‘selective service.’" How important, then, is language in political matters, and how can we do what you suggested in that 1971 speech and "restore the meaning of words"?
I think it’s very important—very educational—to ask people to examine language carefully and see how it can be used in other than ordinary ways. Why can’t "murder" be applied to bombings? And, yes, "kidnapping" to conscription. And taxation of the poor as "theft." And examine "defense" carefully to see if it really is that, and if "national security" is really about security. And notice "terrorism" is used with a double standard in the "war on terror."
In your 1968 book Disobedience and Democracy, you wrote: "It is good for citizens to learn that laws, when they seriously encroach on human rights, should be violated, that some conditions are so intolerable that they may require violations of otherwise reasonable laws (like traffic laws) to dramatize them." This last word you use—the word "dramatize"—in everyday usage invokes the idea of "creating a spectacle" of sorts, representing the essence of theater and drama. Is this analogy between civil disobedience and plays and drama too far-fetched?
I think they are all part of the spectrum of disobedience. There are all sorts of plays, some for sheer entertainment. Some are explicitly demonstrations of resistance to authority, like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible or Sophocles’s Antigone, or Giraudoux, The Madwoman of Chaillot. Ibsen and Shaw embody resistance in their plays—mostly indirectly. Many plays are not directly political, but make a critical statement about modern commercial society, like Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman or David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross.
In the same sense, crossing a line, sitting down, violating a trespassing law, destroying property—which was done, let’s say, by priests and nuns during the Vietnam War as they destroyed draft records—is the difference between these acts of civil disobedience and artistic expressions of refusal and disobedience. But they’re both part of resistance to authority in a spectrum of opposition to existing policies.
You also said in Disobedience and Democracy that civil disobedience is not just to be tolerated—rather, civil disobedience "is a necessity." Can you explain?
What I mean is that the ordinary structure of government—even a so-called democratic government like the United States—that appears to be democratic. It has a constitution, it has elections, it has a legislature. Certainly it’s different than a monarchy or a tyranny or a dictatorship. And I think the same thing is true of Israel—Israel has a parliament, people are elected in Israel, it has courts, it has procedures. But those structures generally operate to maintain the status quo. If you’re going to have real democracy, the will of the people is going to express itself. The will of the people very often is not represented by people who are elected to office. If the desire of people to change policy is to find expression, it will not be able to find that expression in going to the polls and voting for one candidate or another. It will not find expression in what are the deliberations of Congress, or the Knesset—or any kind of legislative body. Therefore democracy—meaning, the participation of people in government, in decision-making—may require civil disobedience.
Civil disobedience means acts of citizens outside of the structure, but which represent the feelings or desires of the people. They must be considered necessities in order to establish what the will of the people is. Because if you only go by elections and parliamentary debates, you will omit very powerful feelings that may exist in the population, which are not represented that way. Civil disobedience is a way of bringing the feelings, the desires, the ideas of people to the attention of the public and to the attention of the government.
The Shministim today or Dr. King in Alabama 1963 or Henry Thoreau during the Mexican-American War, each committed disobedience actions and went to prison—instances of people accepting the state’s unjust form of punishment as a dramatic message of protest to an unjust law. But if the punishment itself is unjust in its connection to the unjust law it serves, how does one know when to go to prison as a protest, or when to evade capture as another form of protest?
I go back to the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. We see both instances—that is, we see Martin Luther King not trying to evade punishment, but going to prison after an act of civil disobedience. On the other hand, during the anti-war movement, while many people went to jail, we also see other people who refuse to go to jail, who go underground. Angela Davis did that in California. The Berrigan brothers did that after the raid on the draft board in Catonsville, Maryland. I would argue that, depending on the situation, you may choose one or the other. It isn’t that one is more moral than the other. I think it’s a matter of tactics if somebody decides to go to jail. If Martin Luther King decides to go to jail, he thinks that his going to jail will be a very dramatic act and will mobilize public opinion. On the other hand, during the Vietnam War, when Father Daniel Berrigan refused to go to jail and went underground, he was making a different kind of statement. He was making a statement that the same authorities that made an unjust law want to enforce an unjust judicial decision and send the civil disobedient person to prison. And Father Berrigan felt that he had to continue his act of civil disobedience. Not just to engage in the initial act of disobeying a law—protesting against the war—but to carry the civil disobedience further into disobeying the judicial injunction to go to jail, not accepting the legitimacy of the state.
One of the common arguments against civil disobedience is that if we tolerate one kind of civil disobedience it’ll proliferate law-breaking all over the place and crime rates will go up, etc.
Well, of course, you can test it empirically. You can see whether a time in history when many acts of civil disobedience were committed on behalf of a political cause led to an increase in crime. And you don’t find that to be true at all. In fact, I would argue the opposite. I would argue that the existence of a social movement very often draws the energy of people who might otherwise commit crimes into a social movement where the illegal acts they commit are not for personal benefit, but are for a social good. There’s no evidence—as I say, empirically, historically—that acts of civil disobedience lead to a greater increase in crime.
What about the other major argument against civil disobedience, that even if it is conceded by the state it should absolutely always be nonviolent under all circumstances?
I do not believe in violent acts of civil disobedience, but I think it’s very important to define violence. I make a distinction between violence against human beings and violence against property. I don’t believe that acts of civil disobedience should involve violence against human beings, even if those human beings are agents of the state—police and so on. However, I don’t believe that property should be considered on the same level as a human life or the human body. I don’t consider when the draft boards were raided during the Vietnam and people destroyed draft records or when people broke into nuclear facilities or places that were producing nuclear submarines and did some destruction—mostly symbolic—of nuclear warheads or poured blood on them or in some way destroyed or abused property. I don’t consider those acts of violence. I think that’s an important distinction.
I recall that Nelson Mandela was sentenced to his long term in prison not because he advocated violence against human beings, he did not. As a member of the African National Congress, he was advocating sabotage. And, to me, sabotage—the destruction of property which is important for carrying out the war, or which is sort of part of the apparatus of the state in forcing injustice—violence against these things should not be ruled out in acts of civil disobedience. In fact, they may be some of the most effective ways of expressing opposition to state policies.
With the odds of obedience and acquiescence stacked up so high against disobedience, where might we find optimism amid overwhelming force and ideology?
Yes, there’s a much greater history of obedience than disobedience. And we would be unrealistic and utopian if we were to claim otherwise. But, of course, that should not deter us from doing what we think is right. The power of the state, the power of the media, the economic power wielded by the people who hold the wealth of society is so great that they are able to command the minds and the obedience of large numbers of people—the majority of people—most of the time. It is a very difficult struggle against this molding of public opinion—to change the minds of people by acts of civil disobedience. I don’t want to minimize the difficulty of it, but I’m suggesting that, as difficult as it is, it’s an effort that must be undertaken. Especially because the establishment has so much power.
Acts which only stay within the law are not sufficient, they do not have the force to change things. Acts of civil disobedience—because of their drama, because of their power to excite people, and incite people to further acts of civil disobedience—are necessary. Despite the tendency of populations to obey authority, we have enough historical instances where people stopped obeying authority, and as a result of stopping their obedience they made changes in society. When workers stopped being obedient to their employers and went out on strike, they were able to succeed. When in the 1880s workers stopped being obedient and went out on strike all over the country, they won the eight-hour day. When in the 1930s in the United States workers stopped being obedient to their employers and engaged in strikes all over the country, including sitting down in the factories and refusing to leave, well, then they broke the cycle—the long cycle—of obedience. They won the rights to trade unions and to changes in their conditions.
In your essay, "Respecting the Holocaust," you recount how when you were teaching at Boston University, you were invited to give a talk on the Holocaust. You spoke that night, not about the murder of six million Jews during World War II, but of the U.S.-sponsored death squad massacres of hundreds of thousands of people in Central America, which was going on at the time. Can you explain what made you want to talk on that issue? What you did caused a lot of anger.
I suggested that we should extend our concern beyond the Holocaust that took place in Europe—not omitting it and not ignoring it—but extend it to present-day situations, so that the Holocaust that took place in Europe is not simply an event in history which comes to an end. Because if it does, if you’re only concerned with that, if you stop history in 1945, what good are you doing to the world, what lesson is learned from that holocaust? Then you’re just engaging in a kind of a memorial for the people who died, but you’re showing no concern for people still living who may be the victims of other genocides and other holocausts. I suggested it was important not to ignore the Holocaust of World War II, but to extend our concern to the atrocities going on in our time. I gave the death squads of Central America, supported by the United States, as an example of the kind of terrible crimes being committed after the Holocaust, which should not be ignored. The best way, the most important way, to remember the Holocaust is simply not to concentrate on the past, which is rather fruitless, but to apply your concern to things going on today.
Gabriel Matthew Schivone is a student at Prescott College and a columnist for the Arizona Daily Wildcat at UA. He is the recipient of the 2007 Frederica Hearst Prize for Lyrical Poetry, a member of Students for Justice in Palestine, and a volunteer with No More Deaths. His articles have been published in Counterpunch and the Monthly Review among other publications.