In 1976, a gifted and popular student of Prof. Michael Nagler was slain during an attempted rape on the Berkeley campus of the University of California. The killing created the inevitable shock that all violent tragedies do when the victim is a friend or loved one. But time passed and campus life flowed on.
Not for Nagler, though. He could put neither the personal loss out of his emotions nor the standard explanations for random violence out of his mind. "I decided," he writes in the preface to what is a major addition to the growing literature on nonviolence, "to postpone other things and find out myself what causes violence and what to do about it."
Such a project, however amplified by the author's inner convictions, invites scorn from the world-weary who see idealists like Nagler come and go while wars, crime and hatred stay and stay. Let the Naglers, it is said, keep to the fringes with their vapory visions of human betterment, but keep out of the way of the realists who see the unvapored reality that the 20th century appears to be history's most violent. The project also draws exasperation from those who may once have believed that violence might be lessened but who know now -- a family member was murdered, another $100 million in weapons is sent by Congress to a friendly dictator -- that self-protection and national security indicate a willingness to fight back.
A strength of Nagler's thinking is that he is all for fighting back, too. But not with weapons or physical might. The fight needs to be waged with the stronger forces of nonviolent resistance that have been used so successfully by Gandhi and Martin Luther King and logically explained by theorists from Christ to Kropotkin to Dorothy Day.
The history of nonviolence is deep with events in which people and groups use mental and moral agressiveness to achieve what violent force never does: enduring peace. But this isn't the history we teach our young, nor are its lessons ones that government want to learn.
Nagler tells of 20 years of teaching nonviolence. But "it has always amazed me that no matter who they are, the people who resist the idea of nonviolence eventually come up with the same objection: 'You can't change human nature.' " The arguments of Nagler against this fatalism gently debunk the mistaken notion that we are violent by nature. We don't "go back" to the animals. Consider the apes, Nagler suggests: ". . . more than 90 percent of the fights observed are settled--as they are among virtually all animals--by display, threat, gesture, and noises, without ever coming to open conflict, much less to fatality. It always amazed Jane Goodall how minutes after a flurry of 'war' between chimpanzees amd baboons in the Gombe forest, both would be calmly munching bananas side by side with their hair back in place and nobody the worse for wear. By such accounts, Eskimos who settle arguments by song contests are in harmony with nature, while the street fighters of the asphalt jungles -- or the Joint Chiefs of Staff at a war meeting -- are not."
Nagler is not offering the final word on nonviolence, nor the exhaustive one. He is more the assembler of existing thought than the originator of new ones. This is plenty. Few are familiar enough with the enduring teachers of nonviolence like George Fox or Thomas Merton to reach for their ideas as defenses when the determinists call for more weapons, either as guns in the home on missiles in the silo. Nagler asks us to think about nonviolence by first opening our eyes: "Notice how often we turn to things to solve a problem of violence: chemical Mace for women who have to walk about alone; missiles for members of NATO. But a problem of violence can never be solved by things, because it doesn't arise from things. It arises from people. Violence -- all violence -- is a disorder of human relationships. Think of whatever form of the problem you wish--homicide, rape, or war. Is it a thing, or is it a bad human relationship in the time when all human relationships are going bad?"
Without meaning to, Nagler projects himself as the hardest of realists and the acceptors and supporters of violence as the soft-headed dreamers. "There is no cause of violence other than ourselves," he writes, and then invites the reader to look at that harshest of all realities, the self.