Guns and Satyagraha: Never the ‘twain shall meet

Gandhi salt march satyagraha

Adam Kokesh, an activist and former marine that I’ve written about before, is inviting fellow gun owners to march into Washington, DC on July 4th while openly carrying loaded rifles. Adam may or may not follow through on this. He and his fellow marchers may or may not get arrested. He may or may not be doing something constructive, depending on whom you ask. I won’t be joining him in the march, but I applaud his courage and his proactivity. Adam is a valuable member of the libertarian community. I like him, I respect him and he deserves our support.

Yet I must take issue with his latest statement in the Washington Post. When asked by a reporter what he will do if DC police block him and his companions from entering DC, he replied simply, “Satyagraha.”

This is where I facepalm.

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Satyagraha is a strategy of active nonviolent resistance used by Mohandas Gandhi in the struggle to get the British government forces out of India in the middle of the 20th century. The word ‘satyagraha’ translates as ‘soul force,’ ‘truth force’ or ‘insistence on truth.’ Satyagraha is not a synonym for civil disobedience, although civil disobedience can be part of satyagaha. It is, in fact, a way of life. The term is intricately linked with Gandhi and his radical nonviolent approach to life. Martin Luther King, Jr. was also a conscious practitioner of satyagraha.

As you can see in the Gandhi movie, Gandhi never used satyagraha with firearms. In fact, if you study Gandhi at all, you will know that Gandhi was not a fan of firearms. He was against forcibly disarming people. But he refused to use violence or carry a gun. Interestingly, he viewed satyagraha as superior to force of arms.

In fact, Gandhi viewed violence, including the force of arms, as utterly incompatible with satyagraha. He demanded that people stop practicing satyagraha in the middle of fairly successful campaigns precisely because some individuals were taking advantage of them to use violence against British government troops.

It is simply impossible to talk about firearms as being a part of satyagraha. In satyagraha, you present your case to your oppressor. You stand firm, demanding that a mutually agreeable solution be worked out. You take any abuse the oppressor dishes out but you keep on coming back. You do not give up. But you do not use violence, defensive or aggressive, against the oppressor. The goal is to reach his conscience – because every individual has a limit as to how many times they can hurt another, directly, face to face.

You may or may not like satyagraha, you may disagree as to its effectiveness and you may have a thousand different opinions on Gandhi the man and the leader but there is no factual or historical basis for claiming that guns are compatible with satyagaha.

Satyagraha and guns are not just not compatible. They are diametrically opposed. The very success of satyagraha for Gandhi and his fellow Indians came when they abstained from all appearances or uses of violence in the face of the brutally violent British government response. This tactic made clear the moral superiority of Gandhi and his friends while revealing the utter moral depravity of the British government.

You cannot combine guns and satyagraha and expect anyone to take you seriously. Satyagraha is about the force of truth – an uncompromising adherence to the truth that does not permit fear or subservience! Firearms are about the force of gunpowder and lead. Satyagraha works when your cause is righteous and you come to your oppressor with only the force of your truth. For public relations purposes, the disparity in force of arms between you and the oppressor makes for a good David and Goliath story. It inspires media coverage – and respect. It makes for a good story, which everyone enjoys. Everyone loves those who have the courage to stare down a barrel of a gun armed only with the force of their truth.

Satyagraha can not be used where both sides are armed with the force of gunpowder and lead. There is no space here for sympathy. The individual oppressors can not relax and listen to you, because you represent an immediate and credible threat to their lives. Also, your force is, on a surface level, equal with theirs. Both sides are armed. Since the presumption of correctness falls on the government side among the great mass of the population, the state-regulated press will easily make you look like the bad guy. Now you are corrupting the term ‘satyagraha’ for all those who will come after you and actually engage in the real thing!

That is a perversion of the truth. It’s infuriating and disappointing.

Take the example of the 1981 Irish Republican Army (IRA) hunger-strikers. Members of the IRA in prison took on a hunger strike – a nonviolent tactic – to protest their imprisonment. But they were in there on charges of using armed force. Armed force and nonviolent tactics are incompatible. Ten of these IRA members died due to their hunger strike. Their cause did not inspire the requisite sympathy – whether you think it was just or not – because they were known for using violent tactics. Their nonviolence was not sincere.

On the other hand, the woman suffragists during World War I did not use violence. Their hunger strike, after being jailed for political reasons, did engender sympathy. Their cause was just and their means were nonviolent. They successfully got the government to give them the vote. Not that it did them much good, but they met with success.

But I don’t think we have to look into the past in order to understand why mixing violent and nonviolent tactics is a major fail. Look into your own heart. You can not threaten to strike someone and then expect them to be sympathetic to you. Nonviolence is an attempt to reach a mutual understanding using reason. Violence is an attempt to force your point-of-view on another person. Reason doesn’t play a part in it. Force cancels out reason, in fact.

But the rifles would never be used! Perhaps Adam or another participant will make this claim. Look at it from the point of view of the DC police. It’s like that Emerson quote: “Your actions speak so loudly, I can not hear what you are saying.” The act of carrying a loaded rifle by individuals who claim that you are using aggressive force against them and that they are justified in using defensive force against you is a credible threat. It doesn’t matter what you say in a political confrontation when you carry a tool that can be used to kill. In the shoes of the DC police, I wouldn’t be able to hear a thing any of the rifle-toting folks said because I’d be too busy watching for any sign of attack.

In fact, in the Washington Post article, the reporter asks Adam if his use of the word satyagraha means that violence is unacceptable at the march. Adam replied, “Only if absolutely necessary in defense of life or limb.” And this confirms, for anyone lagging behind, that Adam does not understand the meaning of satyagraha.

I’m not against firearms. I open carried for 6 months in the Philadelphia area in 2009 and 2010. I was arrested twice for it and forced to stop when the US marshals in Allentown confiscated my guns as a precondition of letting me out of federal prison. Every individual’s freedom to keep and bear arms must be respected. But, before you start talking about satyagraha to a national newspaper, you better know more than Adam obviously knows about it right now. Because when we finally have the courage and the conviction to actually use satyagraha, the corruption of the term will only make this challenging yet incredibly noble and ultimately effective strategy all the more onerous to implement.

There has been an enormous amount of criticism around Adam’s planned march, both against the march itself and Adam personally. This article has nothing to do with any of that. I must admit to being a little concerned for Adam. I wonder if he is biting off more than he can chew here. I support him personally and, while I won’t be participating in his event, I support his right to do what he proposes to do under the current political paradigm.

Why won’t I be participating? I am a dad and my son is still very young. My primary responsibility is to ensure that he grows up with me around as an active force in his life for his own personal right to self-determination. I can’t do that if I’m dead or caged. My primary strategy for achieving liberty is satyagraha. I’m not currently interested in using the force of arms to achieve anything other than the defense of myself and my loved ones in some very extreme scenarios. This event is not compatible with my own personal strategy but I simultaneously respect Adam’s chosen path.

How Adam Can Fix this

It’s not too late for Adam to evolve his event. Jettison the firearms. Make it a real example of satyagraha. We can train participants in satyagraha, which is much more than simply a synonym for civil disobedience. March not for the right to self-defense but for the right to self-determination, which is what we actually celebrate on July 4th anyway. Adam knows where to contact me if he’s interested in my proposal.

Further Reading

Wikipedia: Satyagraha

Washington Post: Activist Adam Kokesh has history of rabble-rousing and self-promotion

Facebook Event: Open Carry March on Washington #OpenCarry130704

Wikipedia: 1981 Irish Hunger Strike

Wikipedia: Women’s Suffrage in the US during WW I

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