Violence as a Means to an End

The violence in Ferguson, MO – which continues to spew sporadically in the wake of the police shooting of a black teenager – raises the question of whether it is at all useful. Does violence of this sort yield benefits to those who stoke it? Or are the authorities, from the President on down, right to try, day in day out, to quell it? Just yesterday Obama weighed in again, saying that while he understood the “passions and anger” in Ferguson, they served only to “raise tensions and stir chaos.” They undermined, he said, rather than advanced justice.

Be that as it may, let’s be clear: there is a long tradition of threatening, advocating, and defending violence when peaceful methods of protest, or for that matter no protests at all, seem inadequate to the task of creating change. To illustrate the point I quote from a single source, Nelson Mandela. The following words are his, excerpts from a far longer speech delivered in 1964, from a dock in a courtroom in Pretoria, South Africa.

I cite them not, obviously, to promote violence. Nor do I intend to suggest that South Africa in the early 1960s is analogous to America in the early 2000s. But Mandela’s defense of his own use of violence serves to remind that it has played a critical role in human history – including, I might add, in American history. Needless to say that the argument in support of resorting to violence has rarely been so carefully considered or so eloquently made. And, needless to say that from a distance what in Ferguson distinguishes criminality from strategy is impossible to say. Still, the point remains the same: under certain circumstances violence can be considered a political means necessary to achieve a political end.

Nelson Mandela, from his his three-hour speech, “I Am Prepared To Die.”

“Firstly, we believed that as a result of Government policy, violence by the African people had become inevitable, and that unless responsible leadership was given to canalize and control the feelings of our people, there would be outbreaks of terrorism …. Second, we felt that without violence there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy….

It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle…. We did so not because we desired such a course, but solely because the Government had left us with no other choice…. I can only say that I felt morally obliged to do what I did….”


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