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Excerpt from Endgame

Captives Not Entirely Broken (p. 722)

From chapter "Pacifism, Part III"

Another night, another talk. Another pacifist plagues me like a biting black fly. He says, “Every act of violence sets back the movement ten years.”

I respond, “How do you know that?”

He stares at me, this time as though I’ve asked him to prove not the existence of gravity, but of air. He shakes his head.

“What evidence do you have?”

Still shaking his head, “I don’t . . .”

“It’s an article of faith. You can’t have any evidence to support your position because no environmentalists or animal rights activists have yet committed any acts of violence against a human being, which means they can’t have set the movement back.”

“They’ve burned SUVs.”

“That’s not violence.”

“It still sets the cause back.”


“It harms public opinion.”

“Okay,” I say. “Let me know if this is how it goes. So long as activists behave themselves and follow the rules—set up by those in power—then some theoretical mass of people will be willing to listen to them, maybe even agree with them, and possibly even send them money.”

“Let’s leave money out of this.”

I continue, “But if someone breaks the rules—set up by those in power— then the great mass of fence-sitters will write good activists like you off as lunatics. Then you’ll have to be good for another ten years to make up for the lost good will, right?”

“I don’t like how you’re spinning it, but it’s okay.”

I keep going. “We have to follow the rules of polite discourse in order to be heard. But why do these rules apply only to us? Why is it that when the people and companies and institutions we’re opposing commit violence or otherwise break the rules of polite discourse it doesn’t set them back ten years? Further, if we only act in ways that are acceptable to those who are benefiting from the exploitation in the first place, we will never be able to stop the exploitation.”

There were plenty of other questions that night, so I moved on, but had I more time I would have said more. I would have said for the thousandth time that all life is circumstantial, and that some acts of violence may set some movements back some number of years, and that some acts of violence may move them forward. Some acts of non-violence may set some movements back, and some may move them forward. Some failures to act at the right time with the right tactic (violent or nonviolent) may set movements back or move them forward. The trick is knowing when and how to act. Well, that’s the first trick. The real trick is kicking aside our fear and acting on what we already know (because, truly, we depend on those around us, and they are dying because they depend on us, too).

I would have talked about resistance movements in Latin America, Asia, and Africa where violence helped throw off overt colonialism. I would have talked about resistance by indigenous peoples. I would have talked about violence by abolitionists, and I would have mentioned that Harriet Tubman carried opiates with her, and she carried a gun. The opiates were to drug the people she was transporting in case they got too frightened, and the gun was to shoot them if they wouldn’t stop screaming. Did Harriet Tubman set “the movement” back ten years?

I would also have said that the notion that some act could set some “movement” back implies that the “movement” is actually accomplishing something in the first place. That’s a doubtful proposition, at best.

Next, I would have recalled where I’ve previously heard this sentiment of fearing that more militant actions will threaten one’s own resistance, which is in accounts of discussions between death camp inmates about whether or not they should try to escape. There are those who wish to make things as comfortable as they can within the confines of the razor wire and electrified fences, and those who want to break away entirely. Of course those who want to break away will “set things back” for those whose goals are limited to gaining a sliver of soap and an extra potato in their broth.

Trauma expert Judith Herman describes the “constriction in initiative and planning” that often takes place among captives: “Prisoners who have not been entirely ‘broken’ do not give up the capacity for active engagement with their environment. On the contrary, they often approach the small daily tasks of survival with extraordinary ingenuity and determination. But the field of initiative is increasingly narrowed within confines dictated by the perpetrator. The prisoner no longer thinks of how to escape, but rather how to stay alive, or how to make captivity more bearable. A concentration camp inmate schemes to obtain a pair of shoes, a spoon, or a blanket; a group of political prisoners conspires to grow a few vegetables; a prostitute maneuvers to hide some money from her pimp; a battered woman teaches her children to hide when an attack is imminent.”And environmentalists work as hard as they can to (temporarily) save some scrap of wilderness.

Now, I certainly have nothing but respect for those environmentalists working to save scraps of wilderness (something I’ve done myself) and the same is true for others of the abused as they try to hide their children, hide some money, grow vegetables, or sneak a spoon, and given the choice I’d prefer to be slightly more comfortable as a prisoner rather than less. But I’d rather not be a prisoner at all.

An act of violence will set the movement back ten years? Good, we only have another several thousand years to go, then.The existence of an environmental movement at all is an acknowledgement that something is desperately wrong with the culture. A healthy culture would have no need, any more than it would need battered women’s shelters or drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers, or those sanctuaries I mentioned that are refuges from atrocity. And ultimately I don’t give a shit about the health of the movement, any movement, anyway. I care about the health of the landbase.

Reading Herman’s passage suddenly helped me understand the desperate vehemence of some dogmatic pacifists. I certainly understand and have an appreciation for differences of opinion, and I’ve repeatedly described my support for and participation in nonviolent resistance, yet so often when I have spoken with pacifists I have encountered an absolute refusal to even enter into reasonable discussion about the use of violence. Recall the argument of the pacifist on stage: “Violence schmiolence.” This man was not stupid, as this comment makes him seem.

But now I understand it. And I understand, also, a primary reason we are so terribly ineffective in our attempts at resistance. It is because we are captives of this culture who have not been entirely “broken,” but have been traumatized to the point that our “field of initiative” has been “increasingly narrowed within confines dictated by the perpetrator.” Judith Herman describes this process of narrowing in words that will surely resonate with many of us: “The constriction in the capacities for active engagement with the world, which is common even after a single trauma, becomes most pronounced in chronically traumatized people, who are often described as passive or helpless. Some theorists have mistakenly applied the concepts of ‘learned helplessness’ to the situation of battered women and other chronically traumatized people. Such concepts tend to portray the victim as simply defeated or apathetic, whereas in fact a much more complex inner struggle is usually taking place. In most cases the victim has not given up. But she has learned that every action will be watched, that most actions will be thwarted, and that she will pay dearly for failure. To the extent that the perpetrator has succeeded in enforcing his demand for total submission, she will perceive any exercise of her own initiative as insubordination.”

Now reread this passage, substituting the word activist for victim. Consider especially the sentences, “In most cases the activist has not given up. But she has learned that every action will be watched, that most actions will be thwarted, and that she will pay dearly for failure.” There we have the psychology of most environmental activism in two sentences.