Reimagining the Boston lockdown: from SWAT team to peace teams

By Michael Nagler and Stephanie Van Hook
Originally posted at Waging Nonviolence on May 11, 2013

The aftermath of the bombing of the Boston marathon last month. (Flickr/Rebecca Hildreth)

The aftermath of the bombing of the Boston marathon last month. (Flickr/Rebecca Hildreth)

In all the confusion and outrage about the bombings at the Boston Marathon there has been little comment about the lockdown that followed — what does it mean for us as a society? What might we have done instead?

In her compelling and rather disturbing book, The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein points out that disasters, large or small, are regularly exploited to tighten the grip of authoritarian control and economic exploitation. Homeland Security is probably the best known example. Since small and large disasters are in unending supply in our modern, exploitive materialistic life (and can be manufactured when needed, on the model of Hitler’s trumped up attack on the Gleiwitz radio station and the Tonkin Bay “incident”), we cannot hope to turn around the inexorable drift toward authoritarianism unless we break that pattern.

One way to break it is to imagine what could we have done instead, and what alternatives are perhaps already in the wings. For instance, we could have brought on a peace team.

Toward the end of his career Gandhi envisioned the creation of a widespread Shanti Sena, or “peace army,” with units in key villages throughout India; its volunteers would live with the people and gain their trust and be ready to address impending conflict — rumor abatement, mediation, and so forth. When things got out of hand, they would actually interpose themselves between conflicting parties.

The dream did not die with him — or with his brilliant Muslim associate Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who raised a weaponless “army” of over 80,000 brave Pashtuns that played a signal role in the freedom struggle against the British. Today, there are some 20 organizations carrying out cross-border interventions along these general lines. They are doing “protective accompaniment” in Latin America, Sri Lanka and elsewhere; returning children to their homes who were taken for soldiers; and brokering peace agreements. Nor are they doing this courageous work solely in other lands. A Shanti Sena Network in the United States is forming to coordinate and support peace teams that have a strong track record in, for example, Michigan, where they have regularly kept order, including instances beyond the control of the police at volatile rallies.

What if we could learn from these encouraging examples? After all, don’t we all do “interventions” of roughly this kind in our daily life — between our children, among friends — without giving it a special name? We would be building on an experience that’s accessible to all of us and amenable to tremendous expansion with some systematic way to train and support the pioneers. It would be a conspicuous part of what Gandhi called “constructive program” — projects in which a community can build what it needs alongside resisting what it detests. The success of these teams should not surprise us; they are drawing upon the increasingly well-understood cooperative capacities in human nature. They come at a time when the same old methods of command and control through abusive force are failing us. As in the Boston lockdown.

One thing that officials pointed out about the procedure was that the suspect was apprehended after — and because — the lockdown was lifted. It was actually hindering the police because it insulated them from the input of ordinary citizens.

If we had had peace teams ready to deploy in Boston we would not have had to subject the city to the inconvenience of a lockdown at all. Much more than that: We would have protected ourselves from another shock designed, or used, to tighten the constraints on our freedoms. And even more: It would have pointed a way to a nonviolent future worthy of a free people.

The history of nonviolence shows that positive means have great power to bring about positive effects, often beyond what the actors intend or can possibly have imagined, when they’re given a real chance to succeed; Leymah Gbowee, for instance, knew she wanted to get Charles Taylor out of power in Liberia, and she helped build a movement that did just that. She didn’t know they would also empower women to do things they never thought possible, inspire a whole generation of children to hope or get a woman elected president.

The time to put alternative methods in place is now, not after the next disaster happens. Imagine if the far-flung encampments of the Occupy movement were to reinvent themselves as peace teams. They already had “security” among them for the camps themselves; they would only be extending the principle (for it is a good one) to providing a security worthy of the name for the whole society.

What if some of us would get systematic training for positive peace and real security with the same dedication and enthusiasm as marathon runners? How could the response to the attack in Boston have been different then?