A Way Out of Hell


Michael Nagler


To reclaim our colonized political spaces, we must reclaim our colonized cultural spaces.
David Korten

Put the lover of justice to shame with your compassion.
Saint Isaac of Syria


Mubarak Awad has been a guest speaker in my nonviolence class as often as I can get him. A big, gentle man, an extremely engaging and sincere speaker with a keen sense of nonviolence, his vivid, Arabic-inflected English always adds a note of authenticity when we discuss one of the world’s most important nonviolent uprisings, the first Palestinian intifada (literally, “shaking off,” or “shaking up”). Mubarak, after all, founded the Palestinian Center for the Study of Nonviolence, which I suspect had a lot to do with that movement. The Israeli government certainly thought so. His most dramatic visit was undoubtedly in 1990, when he came in fresh from his expulsion from Palestine. Along with the glow of martyrdom, Mubarak had real inside information to share with us. My students already knew enough not to accept uncritically the media image of the intifada as a violent, even “terrorist,” uprising; but what we didn’t know was what it was like to be there “on the ground” facing riot-armed Israeli soldiers. Mubarak, a trained psychologist, was the ideal person to share that with us.

The intifada began in 1987, when it became clear that the terrorism and guerilla tactics of the Palestinian exiles had not worked and that it was up to the Palestinians actually living under Israeli occupation to do something about their destiny. What they did was resist with Gandhian techniques of selective boycotts, shutdowns, and the like (mostly learned from Gene Sharp via Mubarak) plus some indigenous ideas of their own with a dash of highly confrontational stone throwing—an uneasy mix of what I call “non-dash-violent,” i.e., refraining from (serious) violence against one’s opponent without trying to love him or her out of the opponent category with positive energy. This put the Palestinian youth, in particular, under a lot of pressure: because so many adults were being arrested, teens were forced to take up responsibilities and face dangers—beatings, imprisonment, death—that most of us don’t have to cope with even as adults. This, of course, impressed my students greatly. But what surprised Mubarak, and all of us, was that when the intifada got under way, the youth of the occupied territories stopped taking drugs. Drug and alcohol abuse, until then a serious problem, virtually disappeared.

We asked him to go on. In the Gaza Strip and Israel proper, there was the same class of youth, ethnically and economically, as in the occupied territories, he explained; but these young people had no way to participate in the uprising. Sure enough, there was no such change in this “control” group: where there was no intifada, drugs and alcohol continued their destructive course.

You may be wondering at this point what I’m leading up to. Am I saying that the way to get rid of the drug problem is a nonviolent revolution?

Of course not. What I’m saying is much more outrageous. As far as I can see, we can get rid of all problems with a nonviolent revolution. Not just drugs; not even just crime itself—just about every plague on modern civilization.  Bear with me now as I explain how I can make such a broad claim.

Addicted to Meaning

By coincidence, shortly after Mubarak told us about all this, the papers carried a surprising report about substance abusers in the United States. Three researchers, working quite independently of each other, all found to their surprise that the conventional wisdom about who takes drugs in America is wrong. The “typical” drug abuser in America is not a black male, not strapped by poverty in a ghetto. All three scientists turned up a totally different profile.

The same person who gets ahead in the workforce and is more of a risk taker, is more daring, [and more] susceptible to drugs. . . . [They have] a far more active lifestyle, are much more engaged in political campaigns, are much bigger users of information.[1]

They are, in short, the most upwardly mobile people in American society, the “cutting edge.”

None of the three scientists could explain why being more capable than average made someone more, rather than less, vulnerable to drug abuse. One said it’s because of “some hidden factor,” another wondered whether “there’s something in the basic personality” of the higher achievers, without proposing what it might be. The third scientist was at least on to something: these people are “high sensation seekers,” he observed. Accordingly, he prescribed a program of terrific sensations for them: skydiving, bungee-cord jumping and disco dancing, with MTV-style jumps from one thing to the next under a barrage of heavy metal music. This sensation blitz indeed helped them stay off drugs—better than bumper stickers that “just say no.” But this only begs the question: what made these talented, energetic young people think they could find happiness in sensations in the first place?

I propose to you that these active, intelligent people are not really looking for more sensations. They think they are, because that’s how we’re conditioned to think. What they are really looking for is some meaning in life. And this is not limited to young Americans only.

The Americans and Palestinians who got out of drugs in such different ways—a “high sensation” program, on the one hand, and a largely nonviolent revolution on the other—had both gotten into drugs for similar reasons: despite the striking contrast in their outward circumstances, both had succumbed to hopelessness about their lives. The Palestinian youth faced a stark future, where every chance to grow was blocked by an overpowering, often contemptuous, oppressor. The North Americans were facing a life of temporary, external satisfactions they already knew to be hollow from personal experience. They were rich, but in a way they were very poor; they were what Mother Teresa called “the spiritually poorest of the poor” because they could not see their way to a life of service and meaning.

So they were both looking for a purpose in life, which, I’m afraid, is not to be found in bouncing on the end of a bungee cord, buying new things or passively waiting for something good to happen. I would safely bet that after a while the swooping sensation in the belly, the rush of being a human yo-yo to jarring music will wear thin, and the sensation seekers may even find themselves going back to the needle. Materialism and sensationalism are part of the problem, not the solution—and it’s a much bigger problem than that facing this group in particular. It’s everyone’s problem. If we had the whole country bouncing on bungee cords, would it solve crime, homelessness, and despair? In Roszakian language, high sensations may “work” (for some), but they don’t work.  They don’t work on the root causes of the problem.

Here is where the intifada was different. It didn’t just give young Palestinians something to do, it gave them something meaningful to do. True, bungee cords and the intifada both offer danger and excitement (as does combat), but nonviolent resistance offers danger, a sense of risk, for an overriding purpose. In the other cases, danger, or rather the thrill of facing danger, is the purpose. And that’s not good enough. I can’t help recalling once again the words of Sue Severin, the Marin County health professional who went down to Nicaragua with Witness for Peace.

The only way I can explain it is, I felt I was in the hands of God: not safe—that I wouldn’t be hurt—but that I was where I was supposed to be, doing what I was supposed to be doing. And this can be addictive. Maybe that’s why we kept going back.[2]

Almost uncanny that Sue should use the word addictive in this connection; but that is how powerful meaningful work can be—strong enough to overcome chemical dependency. Recently Youth Outlook (YO), a SanFrancisco–based youth newspaper interviewed a young addict in San Francisco who gave a heartbreaking explanation of why he takes heroin. “I want quiet peace to inject my soul with forever.”[3]

He was looking for peace. Who is not? This young man looked for it in drugs because he was conditioned to think that what we need comes from outside us: peace is something we inject; security, health and significance are things we buy. Yet some of us know that what we’re looking for isn’t outside us, that it’s the inner peace that can lift us even out of potent addictions, the peace that comes when we’ve found a convincing purpose for our lives.

Is my outrageous claim starting to make some sense?

Criminal Injustice

Over the years, I have seen hundreds of young people working on projects that are similar in spirit to the intifada uprising, if not as dangerous. This has been one of the great privileges in my life. Some months prior to the NATO bombing of ex-Yugoslavia I served as moderator for a Berkeley “teach-in” on the sufferings of ethnic Albanians of Kosovo. On the panel were two of the young people I mentioned earlier who had just gotten back from two days in a Serbian jail. They spoke with quiet passion. They spoke from the deep security of having found something to do, however small it seemed, about the suffering in the world. They spoke cogently, without anger (though some Serb nationalists in the audience were charging the atmosphere with plenty). They spoke with love. I remember thinking how I would want all my students—in fact, I would want every one of us—to have such a sense of quiet fulfillment.

I’m not saying this in the spirit of “let the kids do peace work; it’s good for them and it may keep them off drugs.” I’m saying that these young people have hit upon something—a principle. It is a principle we too can apply in our own ways, individually, and then corporately. To illustrate that, I want to enlarge our focus to a problem that is arguably the biggest we now face as a society, and perhaps also as a civilization.

Let me focus on the problem drugs and crime present to the US and keep in mind the universal message this example conveys. At the present time, roughly half of the juvenile detention and incarceration in America is for drug-related crimes. The amount Americans pay for illegal drugs is staggering—officials noted with naive satisfaction that it came down to $57.3 billion in 1995.[4] In response, we throw on another $17.9 billion to wage a “war” on mind-altering drugs. And that war is failing. On that point, scores of analysts who have studied the hapless war in detail all agree. Under these circumstances, we cannot afford not to follow up on the implications of cases like those we’ve just been considering, cases of “spontaneous remission” of drug abuse in America and Israel-Palestine. They seem to open up the suggestion of an entirely different approach, one that is not a war on drugs, not a war on crime—odd as it may sound, not a war at all.

Drug abuse, like violence, could be looked at through various lenses, as we’ve already seen. In most of the West we have chosen, rightly or wrongly, to look at it as a crime. There are other possibilities, but all right, let’s call it that for now, and let’s take this as an opportunity to look at the whole question of crime. The “war on drugs” (which somehow often comes down to a war on victims of drug abuse) is part of our war on crime in general, and that larger war is also a drastic failure. The National Criminal Justice Commission reported in 1996 that “the prison population has tripled since 1980 and expenditures on law enforcement have quadrupled. Yet crime rates are essentially unchanged and fear is higher than ever.”[5] And since then? Matters have gone on deteriorating. “Let us begin with a fundamental realization,” wrote criminologist Richard Quinney at the head of an important book called Criminology as Peacemaking.

No amount of thinking and no amount of public policy have brought us any closer to understanding and solving the problem of crime. The more we have reacted to crime, the further we have removed ourselves from any understanding and any reduction of the problem.[6]

In a word—the word of Ruth Morris, in her landmark book Penal Abolition—our whole criminal justice system, not just the war on drugs, is “an expensive, unjust, immoral failure.”[7]

This failure has brought our civilization to a defining moment. In April 1967, when we were in the grip of the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King Jr. made the prophetic observation that for every nation there comes a time like this when it faces a defining moral crisis. “Though we might prefer it otherwise,” he said in his famous speech at the Riverside Church in New York, “we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.”[8] We did not rise to that challenge, we did not find an honorable end to the war; but in my opinion we did not altogether sink below the possibility of redemption. Rather, as always seems to happen when such problems are not resolved, we have lurched on to another crisis, which is usually the same one in a different guise.

This is a watershed moment in California’s history, a moment when we can take a path toward becoming a healthier society, or when we can consign every penny of future funding toward a failed system of human warehouses.[9]

Note how similar to the above language of Vincent Schiraldi, former director of San Francisco’s Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, is that which former attorney general Ramsey Clark used in a recent fund-raising letter.

Our country is confronted with a stunning moral crisis. We have placed 1,366 people on death row. And we are adding more every week . . . in the immediate future we may begin killing two hundred people per year. Only three countries, South Africa, China and Iran, execute nearly as many.[10]

Shortly after Ramsey Clark made this statement, South Africa dropped out; the new, anti-Apartheid regime under Nelson Mandela abolished the death penalty along with racist ideology. That leaves us and China now leading the industrial world in penal severity, as we are in crime (the number killed by guns in the United States each year is on another order of magnitude from that of any industrialized nation). In recent years the World Court has twice appealed to the United States to postpone or commute a sentence of death, in vain. That’s a hard statement to have to make about the world’s oldest democracy—that we’re leading the world back to the revenge values of our remote past.

But crime is a crisis, and this is not limited to the US,  that has “opportunity” to it as well as dangers. To see the opportunity amid these many negatives we have to look at the positives that they conceal.

Crime and Restoration

Following is part of a story from a special news group on positive developments as it came streaming into my computer one day back in 1992.



an inter press service feature by roberto herrscher buenos aires, nov (ips)—in an argentine nature reserve, poachers who once hunted endangered species have been converted into the conscientious guardians of the animals they once stalked. The remarkable conversion took place in the ibera nature reserve, in corrientes province, 700 kilometers north of argentina’s capital. In 1987, pedro perea munoz took over the directorship of the ibera reserve. munoz met two poachers, “mingo” cabrera and ramon cardoso, who had lived in the reserve for as long as they could remember. Their life was difficult. cabrera and cardoso lived deep in the swamps of ibera and survived by fishing and hunting. from time to time they would travel to the small village of pellegrini, on the southern border of the reserve, to sell carpincho, deer and alligator hides. Instead of adopting an antagonistic attitude, munoz understood that these men knew ibera better than anyone and that hunting was their only means of survival “ they couldn’t believe it when i offered them a job. Now they are the most dedicated and conscientious guards (at ibera),” munoz told ips. . . .

“To understand nature, one must be peaceful. these men were born with this. they were hunters by necessity, and now, as guides and guardians, there is no one better. by just looking into the eyes of people entering the reserve, they know who the poachers are,” munoz said. . . .

cabrera and cardoso are just two of six guards in the reserve, but they are the favoured guides for researchers, photographers, and members of ecological expeditions. “Now that we understand the importance of the reserve, we see that, without realizing it, we were spending our whole lives preparing for this,” cabrera said.

This event turns our expectations wonderfully upside down. Cabrera and Cardoso were technically “criminals,” and warden Muñoz certainly could have treated them as such. Yet what an opportunity he would have lost! Instead, he somehow decided that rather than look on the two men as the cause of the problem, he would turn to them for the solution. They solved it. And notice two other results: (1) The whole affair changed from a conflict to a classic “win-win” configuration in which everyone gained: Muñoz got the job done, Cabrera and Cardoso changed from outlaws to employees, harmers to helpers; everybody won—even the animals. (2) Cabrera and Cardoso got something of profound, permanent benefit out of the experience that we’re starting to recognize as a signature of nonviolent activities, namely, a sense of meaning: “We were spending our whole lives preparing for this.”

Pedro Muñoz is not the only person ever to have such an outlandish idea about crime and “criminals.” About the same time as this breakthrough, two American schoolteachers came up with the idea, quite independently, of taking young offenders who were in detention and putting them in charge of some severely handicapped youth. Sharon Roberts was one of the teachers. As she admitted, she was asking a lot of the Los Angeles school board to let her “put the most dangerous people in LA in charge of the most vulnerable.” [11] The paradox worked brilliantly. Again, both the disabled youth and the offenders “won.” “I was used to being a thug on the street,” says Alfred, age sixteen, member of the Cripps, on probation for being accomplice to a shooting, “but now when my home boys come around . . . I tell them I have other things to do.” Things like taking a disabled girl named Star to class, while he earns high school credits and work experience. “This shows I can do something. It’s the first time I’ve felt like that. I feel more kind-hearted and stuff than I thought.”[12]

Note how in Alfred’s mind now being helpful is the only thing that counts as “doing something.” He has already come a long way from the attitude in the prevailing paradigm that to “do something” you should be helping yourself, if necessary by hurting others. But the big winners are now you and me—society as a whole. Young detainees who would have caused worse trouble down the line, almost without exception, were given a way out of this desperate spiral by the only method that can ever do that: they were enabled to find good in themselves.

In ancient Rome there was a saying, curruptio optimum pessima, “the corruption of the best people is the worst kind.” We might flip this around and say, redemptio pessimum optima, “the reinstatement of the worst people makes them the best.” This is not too paradoxical, since as we saw in the case of the high achievers who got into drugs, it’s often the most capable people with the highest expectations who get the most frustrated with the emptiness of society. Of course, depending on the circumstances there may be quite different reasons for and understandings of this emptiness. Americans feel most keenly the lurking emptiness in the modern definition of achievement and material welfare. Countries in transition after socialism often first experience a different void of identity in which all meaning and values are lost. But regardless of the differences in what exactly constitutes the emptiness, the consequences are similar. People share a lack of meaningful life and feel lost in the society driven by industrialism surrounding them.

 Motivated by emptiness, people's great capacities are sometimes turned to nonconstructive ends. Yet in the worst troublemakers lies, logically enough, the most creative potential. The trick is knowing that it’s there, then having the courage to reach for it. “Peer mediation” programs are a powerful example and have been catching on in many schools across the US. Teachers and administrators have been thrilled to find that not only do the programs “chill” a lot of the fighting, but a peculiar pattern emerges wherever they try it: the biggest troublemakers turn out to be the best mediators. How perfectly natural, really, when you know what’s going on.

After his “conversion,” one of those young troublemakers told a friend of mine that to be a mediator you have to “check your ego at the door.” You’re not just in it for yourself, is what he meant; you have to put your own feelings aside. Then he added, still more significantly, “I’ve always had the skills to be a mediator, but I didn’t use them before because I had no one to show me how.” Nor is he that special; everybody has this capacity that so very few learn to use. “We’re all like hidden gold mines.”

His statement is a textbook of conflict resolution condensed into three sentences:

(1) We have to “check our egos at the door,” get a little above our own personal feelings. Some kind of spiritual sacrifice, large or small, is the basis of any action that can result in peace.

(2) All it would take for most of us to learn this skill is a little training—which, unfortunately, we rarely get.

(3) And finally, given such training, we would discover that there’s a “gold mine” in every one of us. If we don’t find a way to mine our inner resources it causes the greatest trouble for us and society; when we do, we can find ourselves becoming the most creative peacemakers. Whether we start out as poachers in an Argentine game preserve or youth offenders in Los Angeles, the most difficult among us are often the ones most capable of helping to create loving community, if we would help them out of their difficulty.

So what the AP writer called the “remarkable conversion” of Cabrera and Cardoso is no more remarkable than the changeover of the intifada youth who stopped taking drugs, or the “most dangerous” of Los Angeles who discovered the satisfaction of taking care of another, helpless human being. In all these cases the “worst” had gotten that way because they saw no way to use the good that lay—often quite unexpected—within them. All that benefit would have been lost if the prevailing approaches to crime had been adopted.

Cunning as Serpents

The possibility of “hidden gold mines” of course does not mean that we should immediately put offenders in charge of the disabled, endangered species, and peacemaking. Let us be idealistic, yes, but not naive. Quite a few “troublemakers” might rise to the occasion; but some would not. Writer Norman Mailer discovered this to his cost. In 1981 Mailer was, quite understandably, repelled by the hypocrisy of labeling people as “criminals” when we ourselves create the conditions that promote crime. He had been in correspondence with a particular violent offender, something of a writer himself,  SEQ CHAPTER \h \r 1Jack Henry Abbott. As a kind of personal protest Mailer used his influence to get Abbott released into his custody. Six weeks into his parole Abbott murdered Richard Adan, a twenty-two-year-old Greenwich Village waiter. Mailer realized with added shock that he had several times left his eighteen-year-old daughter alone with this man. Abbott hanged himself shortly afterward in prison. [13]

Mailer was perhaps naive, but it was a special kind of naivete many of us fall into when we become aware of something very wrong and react impatiently: we reverse the wrong instead of resolving it. In his eagerness to get rid of the “victimizer” label society had put on Abbott, Mailer swapped it for a “victimized” label: this person had been made bad by society, so it wasn’t his fault, therefore he was innocent.  Reversing labels doesn’t get us closer to reality. What we really want to do is get rid of labels. That’s the only way we can see each other as people. When a label is interposed, like one of those gels they use on theater lights, between us and real people, it is already the beginning of violence. In terms of criminal (in)justice, rehumanization is being able to look at people realistically and seeing how they became lawbreakers. Then we can begin to understand what to do with them and—much more importantly—what to do so that others do not go through the same process.

Mailer’s first impulse was absolutely correct; as Ruth Morris says, “Let’s be clear that the dangerous few [in prisons] are used by all those who want to keep the other ninety nine percent in our present expensive, unjust, immoral system.”[14] This is the logic by which a handful of militants can be used to discredit a whole struggle—all ethnic Albanians, for example, even grandmothers, were labeled “terrorists” by the Serbian regime. Mailer was only applying a well-known principle of nonviolence, that noncooperation with evil must never shade over into animosity toward evildoers—not even into labeling them as such. It may seem like a small thing—“criminal” is just a word, after all—but with that word comes the whole dehumanization response, and in the case of criminal justice that means the whole system Ruth Morris spoke of with such stinging accuracy. Gandhi was against using the word altogether.

 The word criminal should be erased from our vocabulary; or else we are all criminals.[15]

But then, Gandhi, Christian that he was, felt that “man is not capable of knowing the absolute truth and, therefore, not competent to punish” in the first place.[16] We want to stay away from such dangerous radicals, of course. Let’s stick with some reliable professionals, like Dr. Arnold Trebacher, criminology professor and head of Washington’s Drug Policy Foundation. Speaking from his own professional experience, Trebacher said, “The English and Dutch have taught me . . . that you can disapprove of drug use, but you don’t have to hate users.”[17] But if we don’t want to hate them, we have to stop labeling them. Dr. Trebacher is only echoing one of the most important principles in Satyagraha—or for that matter Christianity: the definition of a Christian, Augustine said a millennium and a half ago, is: “We hate the sin but not the sinner.”

Today this ancient creed is providing the underpinning of a new outlook, called restorative as opposed to retributive justice. Let’s give Harold Pepinsky the space to spell this out.

In decades of sampling millennia of literature across traditions, and everyday attempts in any facet of life’s attempts to become more socially secure and safer, I see everyone applying one of just two social control systems: peacemaking, or what I call “warmaking.” . . . When one chooses to make war on a social problem rather than to make peace with it, one adopts this system of thought: The first order of business is to identify and assess blame against those personally responsible for the danger and insecurity we face; these are our enemies. Next we try to isolate them and subdue them—stamping out the enemy’s will to fight. The process entails passing judgment on enemies and punishing them (i.e., taking power away from them by locking them in cells).

If you decide to regard threatening social disorder in the peacemaking social control system, blame gets in the way of cleaning up the social mess and restoring antagonists’ capacity to get along safely together.  While the preeminent task of the warmaker is to be the biggest, baddest combatant you can be, the preeminent task of the peacemaker is to weave combatants, weakest victims first, back into a social fabric of mutual trust, mutual safety, mutual security.[18] (my emphasis)

This “new” way of thinking (as we’ll see later, it was widely practiced in some indigenous societies) is not only a sentiment but has a pragmatic principle behind it. Jeremy Bentham said, in one of his essays, “Sanguinary laws have a tendency to render men cruel, either by fear, by imitation, or by revenge while laws dictated by mildness humanize the manners of a nation and the spirit of government.”[19] Today, to be accused of “mildness” around crime is probably the fastest way to lose an election; yet some practices are beginning to tap precisely that power to make huge improvements in and around the grim prisons built by the warmaking model.

Restoring Justice

One of the most successful restorative justice projects in the United States was started in 1975 at Greenhaven State Prison in New York. Significantly, it was started not by scholars or social workers; it was initiated by prisoners themselves. Calling themselves the Think Tank (an intentional pun, I assume), they contacted a local Quaker group to help them find nonviolent alternatives to prison life and what it was doing to them. What emerged from that collaboration quickly spread to fifteen states and Canada and is now widely known as the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP). Many similar projects sprang up, like the one for which the woman in the previous story was working. What is AVP? Essentially, it is a set of workshops designed to provide a rehumanizing environment and a set of tools that allow the prisoners to unlearn aggression. The idea is simple, and slowly becoming more familiar.

Social learning theorists have demonstrated that aggression and violence are learned behaviors. They can, therefore, within biological and genetic limitations, be altered by utilizing social learning principles such as [role] modeling. . . . Research has demonstrated that utilizing positive responses which are incompatible with the act of violence (e.g., smiling; state of muscle relaxation; open, clear, direct communication; active listening; the development of trust, etc.) renders the likelihood of aggression and/or violence much more improbable than do negative sanctions such as punishment, shame or guilt.[20]

We might want to query those “biological and genetic limitations” (was Gandhi of another species?), but we can certainly accept, indeed applaud, the “basic premise of AVP, as explained at the beginning of every workshop . . . that human beings don’t have to be violent with each other, that human violence is not a given, even in prison.” Teaching nonviolent techniques, therefore, “can . . . greatly profit assaultive people.” For example, teaching them (or any of us) verbal skills reduces their need to react to a provocation with violence. More than this, being more articulate helps them preserve their integrity and self-esteem in embarrassing situations. “This sense of worth,” University of South Dakota’s Lila Rucker reminds us, “is tied to our sense of connectedness to other human beings.”[21]

That premise is basic to the nonviolence worldview. We are not talking only about getting some assaultive people back in line with “normalcy,” but getting them over some of the spiritual isolation that has been accepted today as normal. When they can channel some of their considerable assertiveness into social competence, reorienting their drives for “power over” somebody to “power with” others, they are having the kind of growth experience that even us “nonassaultive” types could do with.

As Rucker says, it “can bring tingles of excitement if we allow ourselves to conjure up images of transforming correctional centers into healing centers.”[22] Frankly, I agree. I admit, I feel tingles of excitement about programs like AVP. Imagine if we could convert the entire US criminal justice system from warehousing and punishment to restoration and social healing. And this happens, often. One of the best formulas is when progressive-minded reformers build on time-tested indigenous practices.

If we could somehow convert the entire judicial system to healing projects like AVP, it would help immensely, because those projects arise from right principles. Those we label “criminals” are in reality human beings with full human potential, but who are alienated. If crime is alienation (a kind of violence) it cannot be healed by vindictive punishment (another kind of violence). The real cure must come from something that is not a kind of violence and does not further alienate. Instead of telling offenders, “Hey, get outta here!” as activist Bo Lozoff likes to put it, restorative programs convey, “Hey, get back in here!” It is indeed mind boggling to imagine what it would be like to convert our whole criminal justice machinery from punishing to healing.

Yet it would be dishonest, and finally ineffectual, to stop there. For think of how much damage has already been done by the time someone lands in prison. Ray Schonholtz, founder of San Francisco Community Boards, once told me, echoing the insight of Deborah Prothrow-Stith, “Our entire justice industry is after the fact, like our entire health industry. It’s all after the fact.” Even programs that heal instead of punishing are after the fact.

When we consider how many reform programs are “after the fact” and this is where we get general —  we begin to see why the criminal justice system isn’t making society better.  We have to go down the chain of causality, go into our value system and find the changes that will prevent crime, violence, and alienation from happening in the first place. The real challenge that comes from the “conversions” of people like Cabrera and Cardoso, like the innumerable high school troublemakers who become the best mediators, like the young offenders in Los Angeles or the thousands who have been through AVP and related programs, is not to heal the wounds of alienation once it has happened but to change the alienating conditions of this world so people like them—like all of us—can live fulfilling lives. That is the only way to head off alienation of all types, those that lead to technically criminal behavior or to less formal sorrows.

Is there not a certain hypocrisy in doing anything else? After all, what is a “criminal”? Let me remind you of something we discovered about one of the most bruising conflicts of the twentieth century: “Why are they killing one another? . . . People here [in the Balkans] have always believed, and still believe, what they see and hear on television.” Well, frankly, “criminals” are people who believe what they see and hear on commercial television: that people are separate, that life is a fight, that happiness is outside us, that we are all doomed to compete against each other for limited material goods.

This is of course a more subliminal message than the unsubtle hate propaganda of state television from Belgrade. It is more subliminal—and therefore more effective. And it has not been going on for a mere five years, but at least fifty (to speak of television in particular). In a culture that puts out messages like these from every radio and television tower all day long for over forty years—messages whose underlying philosophy is the very stuff of violence—it is hypocrisy to do nothing but punish those who succumb to that message in an illegal way. And it is folly to think that when you’ve caught those individuals you will gain security. “I will act the way I am treated, so help me God”; this is handwriting on the wall for all of us if we keep setting loose the demons of alienation and then looking for what Ruth Morris calls the “pseudo-security” of locking “criminals” out of sight. Real security has an altogether different face.

The retributive justice system, with its established hierarchical rituals, robed judges, armed police and locked cells, offers quite literally a concrete substitute for the deeper security we have lost. More tragic still, we take this quick fix, and it appeases our inner hunger just enough that we fail to seek true security in the caring community, where we can be certain of love and support no matter what happens. We can never lock up the last offender . . . but we can create the kind of community where we know that, whatever the future holds, we will be surrounded by love and support.[23]

The Cultural Is the Political

We can use nonviolence to solve the problem of crime, but we need to start before the cell doors close. Once again, we can take three steps down the chain of causation and see where and how to intervene at each stage.

First: We need restorative justice for arrestees, particularly if they are young. AVP and Sharon Roberts are pioneers, showing us what we need for the whole system. This is not a terribly radical suggestion; it is new to the public (I first saw the term restorative justice in the papers in June 1998), but it is no wild or particularly new idea to social scientists. To quote Ruth Morris one last time, “When university programs become training grounds for orthodox guards, prison administrators, and lawyers and police who grind out our retributive and destructive system they . . . are out of touch with the literature of serious research that documents over and over the inherent inability of a revenge system to accomplish any positive social purpose.”[24] Restorative justice is step number one, for those whom we’ve already failed.

Second: We need much more support for programs that can head off criminal behavior—again, especially for young people. In almost every American city, police and volunteer organizations try to give youth something better to do than run around in gangs. They organize basketball games, create places for them to spend time, and best of all get in and spend time with them. One of the biggest wounds in our society is the gap between old and young; it probably rivals the lack of communication between the genders in its destructive effects on human culture. “Big brother” and “big sister” programs are a way to overcome a part of this.  They are no substitute for families. Nothing is. A solid, loving family does crime prevention (or “provention”) in the truest sense of the word. Barred windows and metal detectors are prevention in the most cynical sense; in our terms, they may “work” but they do not work.

By now most of us have become aware that the prison budget is draining money from the school system—absurdly, since it’s been proven time and again that schooling is the second most potent way, after the family itself, of keeping people from committing crime. Still, at the start of the nineties, to cite one instance, expenditures for K–12 and higher education nationwide increased a little over 8 percent apiece while correction for youth and adults increased 18 percent—and since then educational outlays have almost always gone down while prison walls went up.

Wilbert Rideau is an articulate writer who killed a bank guard at age nineteen and has been paying for that mistake in Louisiana State Penitentiary since 1962. He has no reason to pretend that the prison system reduces violence and he can be pretty blunt about it. Tough anticrime measures are, quite frankly, a “crock,” he says. “People don’t want solutions to crime, they only want to feel good.”[25] He has a point. Four-fifths of the prisoners in the long-term facility at Angola State Prison are high school dropouts like himself. Instead of getting tough on them when the damage is already done, “I’d like to see more efforts aimed at really improving people,” he says. “Crime is a social problem, and education is the only real deterrent. . . . Put your money there.” A Modern Greek proverb puts it beautifully:

“When a school opens, a prison closes.”

Or to go in for some billboard rhetoric, “Open a school, close a prison.” Education is very rehumanizing. It can even work after criminalization occurs. In Massachusetts a young woman who had served several “normal,” i.e., punitive, sentences for other crimes was then “sentenced” to taking a literature class. Her comment was, “It’s the first time anybody ever gave me a chance.”[26]

Should we convert the whole criminal justice system to an educational system? You know, we could do a lot worse. Should we bring back the money that has been diverted from schools to the correctional system? We could do a lot worse. But we must also do much more.

Third: We must patiently, resolutely, take apart the culture of violence our material civilization has given rise to and replace it, part by part, institution by institution, with a culture of peace, basing that new culture on the long-overdue “revolution of values” Martin Luther King called for in a famous sermon two weeks after his New York declaration against the war.[27]

However, while it is true that education is the antidote to violence, it is not true that education means nothing more than getting youth to stay in schools. How can it, when today they are bringing violence into school with them in the form of more than one hundred thousand guns every day, one million a year?[28] In the US, which now has more shopping centers than high schools, if we were to go ahead and restore the money to schools that has been drained away by the prison system, that would not solve the problem by itself, because children would be sitting in those spacious, well-kept, air-conditioned schools learning almost nothing but how to get a job. The greatest enemy of education is not a lack of funds, though that hurts; it’s a lack of purpose. Lack of funds is only a symptom of the present culture of materialism. It is this same culture that also makes us think it’s safer to build prisons than schools—and makes the schools so unsafe that young people feel they have to carry guns when they go there.

Education has weathered a two-pronged attack that even good funding—and I agree it’s needed—does not fully address. On the one hand, our children come to school increasingly unreachable by their teachers. Simply put, the mass media are practicing education without a license. On the other hand, the general public and—I hate to say this—educators themselves have lost sight of the purpose of education. They have come to feel that education means only one thing: getting ready for a job. Universities, as a colleague of mine recently put it, “have reinvented themselves as corporations.” A very education-friendly candidate for superintendent of education in California recently dared to suggest that “we need to integrate visual and performing arts into the curriculum,” from kindergarten onward. I was ready to dash out to the ballot box; but then she added, “This is important . . . because of the requirements of the new economy.” Not the eternal requirements of a sense of purpose, beauty, meaning. Oh well.

So even those who, like Rideau, advocate education as an antidote to crime must realize that putting people through schools so they can get jobs is not education; in fact, defining education as such is part of the problem. As we learned about the typical drug user in America, our culture considers certain lifestyles a “success” that are actually resounding failures in terms of saving people from frustration and emptiness. Actual human needs can be strikingly different.

. . . man [or woman] cannot flourish if his entire world consists only of objects that he can see, hear, touch, taste or smell. Instinctively, whether he be a New Guinea tribesman or a Wall Street tycoon, a human being tends to feel that life on this earth must be subject to some sort of higher purpose.[29]

Recently this observation was echoed by another high-level health authority:

A few years ago the Department of Health Education and Welfare in Massachusetts published a study, since replicated in France, in which scientists and statisticians looked once again at the risk factors for heart disease. They found that the number one predictor of fatal heart attacks, initially described as job dissatisfaction, was more precisely pinned down as lack of meaning or purpose in life.[30]

At the beginning of this book I suggested that meaning and purpose, namely their absence, explain the suicides of teens in south Boston. But it is not just teens. In South Africa, when apartheid finally fell, some of the whites who had clung to that system to give meaning to their lives felt the bottom dropping out from under them. In one or two cases, whole Afrikaner families committed suicide because they felt that there was “no way forward . . . no future for whites in this country.”[31]  One authority said of the Heaven’s Gate cult in San Diego in 1997 that the cult members who committed suicide fit a “typical pattern” of people who “sought a consuming purpose” for their lives.[32] Typical of whom? According to the medical evidence just cited, every single one of us seeks a consuming purpose for our lives. When the culture keeps telling us we are separate, physical objects bent on consumption, hopelessly divided and doomed to compete, that purpose is going to be hard to find.

I was involved for a while in a program that taught meditation to people who had been diagnosed HIV positive. We were prepared to discover, and we did, that meditation and the allied disciplines protected them from some of the worst effects of anxiety, including some of its effects on their already weakened immune systems. What surprised us, though, was the number of people who told us, “If I could get back my health at the cost of giving up everything I’ve learned from this program, I wouldn’t do it.”

So the full, deep solution to the crime epidemic –and also to corruption, intolerance and emigration – the solution that works before people do damage to themselves and others, is restorative not just for those who have fallen through the cracks, but for the culture itself. Yes, we need many more restorative programs in jails; yes, we need to rebuild schools and let them teach young people how to live (not to mention why to live); but we also need to develop a culture that facilitates, rather than discourages, “man’s search for meaning.”

The scientist I am paraphrasing with that last phrase is Viktor Frankl. Frankl, trained as a neurosurgeon in his native Vienna, passed two and a half years of his life in the living hell of Auschwitz and survived to write his best-selling book, Man’s Search for Meaning, directly out of that devastating—yet for him strangely triumphant—experience. From the abyss of violence he rose to ask the deepest question of our existence: What is the meaning of life? What are we supposed to be doing here?

Even to ask that question was somewhat restorative; but Frankl went further. He saw that real meaning cannot be concocted; it has to be discovered: “I think the meaning of our existence is not invented by ourselves but rather detected.”[33] Thus while even a sense of meaning is therapeutic (even if we get it from bungee-cord jumping, not to mention apartheid), real meaning comes when we get connected in some way to a purpose higher than ourselves and beyond ourselves. Ninety-one-year-old Leona, who spends her spare time using her expert sewing skills for others, says it so well: “I figure if you can’t help somebody, what’s the use of living?”[34]

Frankl’s insight (on which his “third school of psychotherapy” is based) is that we can’t simply make up something meaningful to do; we have something meaningful to do. The real search is to find out what it is. Everything I’ve been saying in this book is meant to shed light on that search, for I believe it’s possible to define what is meaningful for us who live in the present crisis of history. The task is to create loving community, and the way to understand and do it is nonviolence. Whoever we are, we can find our own way to do this. This is the work that will give our lives purpose, individually and as a people. The most beautiful expression of this task that I know of comes from a letter Einstein wrote when he was seventy. It is no surprise that this little paragraph is becoming so well known.

A human being is a part of the whole, called by us the “universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences his thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal decisions and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.[35]

The task that Einstein speaks of is not for this age only; it is the human task for all time, part of the human condition. But that task presents itself right now with a special urgency, when loving community and “the whole of nature” are being torn at by the forces of greed and alienation. In the case of the crime problem, we are expelling people from society and locking them up in warehouses, not to mention expelling them altogether from the community of the living with the barbaric death penalty, not realizing that it is we ourselves who remain in prison—the prison of our ill will, our fear and anger that seal ourselves off from them. We shall escape from our prison of delusion when we let them out of their prison of concrete and iron.

Toward the end of 1997, the still-living laureates of the Nobel Prize for Peace made a joint plea for changing human consciousness in the coming millennium; they named their call the “International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence for the World’s Children.” Humanity is slowly beginning to learn that nonviolence is a creative force that contains within itself the principle of creative order. It alone seems to be a method of conflict adjudication that contains the energy of peace in its very process. Nonviolence (and as far as I can see, only nonviolence) does this by elevating rather than depressing the human image; it alone leads to long-term, deep changes in the social system that will eventually result in the desired goals of loving community within the given society and stable peace with others—in a word, loving community all around. We can now add what may be the most important characteristic of nonviolence: it provides people with a goal—a task that can be implemented in endless ways to fit each individual’s capacities, be it as small as turning off one’s television set or as large as de-institutionalizing war.

History has not yet given us an example of a full-scale, nonviolent revolution that rebuilt a culture from the ground up. Even India’s freedom struggle, by far the biggest and the purest, went out of control toward the end. But it has given us enough hints that we can see how such a thing might indeed be possible. The way the intifada youth turned off drugs, for example, was part of the character of the intifada as a whole. Because their schools were constantly being shut down by Israeli authorities, Palestinian teachers set up clandestine schools in the basements of their homes or the backs of stores. Because commercial links between Palestinians and Israelis were disrupted—some the result of deliberate acts of boycott and others part of Israeli retribution—people created systems of their own to deliver milk, fix cars, and get the injured and the sick to clinics. Particularly striking was one change that reached deep into the fabric of Palestinian life: as more and more children were left behind by jail-going parents, Mubarak told my class, “Every woman became every child’s mother.” In that brief period when nonviolent energy was at work, the Palestinians found themselves doing much more than rebelling against an external authority: they were reinventing themselves as a civil society. To do this, interestingly enough, they were reawakening the timeless principle of the extended family that had indigenous roots in their society. Even in this flawed, only provisionally nonviolent, struggle, loving community emerged as a by-product. And yet it was not just a by-product. It was—and always is—a direct result of choosing nonviolence. In chapter 3, we saw the psychological health that shows up in the individual who makes that choice. Now we are beginning to see the social health brought into the group at large.

Why, then, are nonviolent campaigns usually protests and disruptions? If they contain the seeds of creative order, why this popular perception of nonviolence as a kind of revolution, and why do nonviolent activists from George Fox to the Berrigan brothers go about breaking laws and generally upsetting applecarts? We will see that it is not just because protests and disruptions are the only expression of nonviolence that people tend to recognize. It is because nonviolent actors are the ones who are clinging to order in societies where some kinds of disorder have been taken for granted—like the British monopoly on Indian salt and cotton, or the segregation of buses in Montgomery. As Archbishop Romero said in homily before his assassination in El Salvador on March 27, 1980:

I don’t want to be an opposition, as was said of me this week. I want to be simply an affirmation. When one says yes to one’s own conviction, one is not confronting. . . . Naturally, some others don’t think the same way and thus confrontation arises.[36] [Romero 1988 p. 81 ]

Applecarts that are going blindly over a cliff must sometimes be upset by people trying to save their occupants.

The Poorest

So “the children of the stones” (as the intifada youth are often, and somewhat unfairly, called) hit on something very relevant to many other dilemmas. We traced the connection step-by-step from drug abuse to crime itself, and finally to a lack of purpose in the industrial culture that surrounds us in the modern world.  We went from restorative to preventive programs that heal some sources of alienation within communities, to—what shall we call it?—the overriding creative program of a healthier value system.

Mother Teresa shed some light on this fundamental step:

You in the West have the spiritually poorest of the poor. . . . I find it easy to give a plate of rice to a hungry person, to furnish a bed to a person who has no bed, but to console or to remove the bitterness, anger, and loneliness that comes from being spiritually deprived, that takes a long time.[37]

Overcoming spiritual deprivation is deeply personal work, but it’s also a matter of building loving community with others—eventually, all others by taking apart the entire house that violence has built and begin building again with another kind of power.

Daunting. But we don’t have to start absolutely from scratch. Along with all the other trouble he caused, Gandhi devised a social program with just this daring. And it nearly worked.

*** *** ***


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[1] Browning, Frank. “Drug Users Defy Stereotypes,” Pacific News Service: 4:6, 1992, p. 3.

[2] This study was covered by, among others, William Raspberry in the International Herald Tribune for 7 February 1988. Similarly, young suicides among Australia’s aboriginal communities are predominantly “those who feel and think”; see Michael Gordon, “A Journey Into a World Apart,” reprinted from The Age in World Press Review, September 2000, p. 16.

[3] See note [from p. 102-Severin …]

[4] YO, January/February 1997, p. 7.

[5] San Francisco Chronicle, November 10, 1997. The “war” cost $60 million in 1968 before escalating to these levels, with no appreciable difference in result.

[6] Cf.  SEQ CHAPTER \h \r 1Steven R. Donziger, Ed. The Real War on Crime: the Report of the National Criminal Justice Commision (Harper Collins, NY: 1996) xvii.

[7] Pepinsky, Harold E. and Quinney, Richard. Criminology as Peacemaking. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991, p. 3.

[8] Morris, Ruth. Penal Abolition: the Practical Choice. Toronto: Canadian Scholar’s Press, 1995, p. 5.

[9] Washington, James M., editor. Testament of Hope. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986, p.243.

[10]  [Ramsey Clark fund-raising letter]

[11] Roberts, Sharon. “Ex-Offenders Aid World of Disabled,” New York Times, February 4, 1990, p. Y33.

[12] [Ibid., XX?]

[13] See the Buffalo Report for March 1, 2002 (http://buffaloreport.com/020301abbott.html).

[14] op. cit., p. 33.

[15] CWMG: This and following quote from Vol. 19, p. 466.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Trebacher, Arnold. Interview in the Pacific News Service editorials for June 24-28, 1991, p. 2.

[18] From the syllabus of Prof. Pepinsky’s course, CJUS P202, “Alternative Social Control Systems,” Spring 1996.

[19] Bowring, John (Ed.). (1843). The Works of Jeremy Bentham, V ol. 2. Edinburgh, p. 562.


[20] From Lila Rucker’s chapter, “Peacemaking in Prisons: a Process,” in Pepinsky and Quinney, op. cit., pp. 174, 177, & 175. Rucker is quoting various authorites.

[21] Ibid., p. XX.

[22] . IIbid., p. 172. In fact, “correctional” would be a step forward, in some places. The purpose of the California penal system was explicitly changed in 1976 from correctional to punitive. According to a Sonoma County official I interviewed twenty years later, this “regressive” change had no visible impact on the state’s crime rate. We now have a system which in fact frequently makes non-violent offenders into violent ones.

[23] Morris, op. cit. This and the following quote from pp. 44, 46 and 45.

[24] Ibid., p. XX.

[25] Woodbury, Richard. “A Convict’s View: ‘People Don’t Want Solutions,’” Time magazine, Aug 23, 1993., p. 33.

[26] Webster, Katherine. “Verdict, guilty; sentence, literature,” Santa Rosa Press Democrat. May 31, 1994, p. A6.

[27] King, Martin Luther. “Why I am opposed to the war in Vietnam,” delivered in Atlanta, 3rd Sunday in April, 1967.

[28] [Reference to 100,000 guns in school per day]

[29] Friedman, Meyer and Ulmer Diane. Treating Type A Behavior—and Your Heart. New York: Ballantine, Fawcett Crest, 1984, p. 196.

[30] Deepak Chopra, quoted in Noetic Sciences Review, No. 28 (Winter, 1993) p. 19.

[31] Quoted in the Pacific News Service, August 9, 1992, p. 6.

[32] From a San Francisco Chronicle editorial, Friday, March 18, 1997, p. A24.

[33] Frankl, Viktor E. Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy. Translator Ilse Lasch. Boston: Beacon Press, 1959, p. 101.

[34] Midlarsky, E. and Kahana E. Altruism in Later Life. Sage Library of Social Research. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1994, p. 79.

[35] Einstein’s letter was reprinted in the New York Times, March 29, 1972.

[36] Romero, Oscar. The Violence of Love: the Pastoral Wisdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero; compiled and translated by James R. Brockman. San Francisco : Harper & Row, 1988, p. 81.

[37] Becky Benenate & Joseph Durepos, editors. No Greater Love. Novato: New World Library, 1997, pp. 94f.




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