Does Change Require a Gun?

Does Change Require a Gun?

A Story by Mathew Nicolson

An essay I wrote for my Higher English folio in early 2012. Some of it is already out of date.


   Protesting is a very topical subject at the moment.  Over the last year alone events such as the Arab Spring and protests against the Economic Financial Crisis have made headline news throughout the world.  Such an impact these protests have had that the Time Magazine declared their Person of the Year 2011 to be simply "The Protestor".  There is no doubt that protests can be effective, but it is not immediately clear how much that success is due to peaceful tactics, or whether most protests would fail without violence. 

   One argument for peaceful protest being the most effective way of advancing a cause is that the peaceful tactics increase support and create positive public attention to a cause, whereas violent tactics can turn people away from it.  An example of this is the Occupy Movement - worldwide protests against 'crony capitalism' and corporate greed.  In October 2010, the LexusNexus database stated that newspapers in the USA published 409 stories which included the word "inequalities".  After the Occupy Protests began in September 2011, this had leapt to 1,269 stories in October 2011, showing that the protests had successfully managed to move the media's focus towards wealth inequalities, which is an impressive feat.  Additionally, an example of violent strategies creating opposition is 9/11 for Al Qaeda, where The West reacted by launching the (perhaps excessive) "War on Terror".  This included invading Afghanistan and driving out the Taliban, who were helping to harbour Al Qaeda terrorists, and in 2011 Al Qaeda's leader Osama Bin Laden was killed.  Virtually every country in the world is now united in their persecution of Al Qaeda.  The group can now only operate by looking for gaps in the net of anti-terrorism, which are few and far between, as more and more countries are opposing them.

   Another argument is to look at history, which has shown that if a peaceful protest has enough support from the population, it will nearly always succeed.  No event in history proves this better than the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.  After growing protests in East Germany against communist rule, East German officials decided to open the borders between East and West Germany.  This led to a flood of Germans from East Berlin crossing over to West and the Berlin Wall being torn down, and ending decades of brutal oppression.  The Soviet Union was a superpower at the time, so the fact the protestors achieved their aims is astonishing, and shows how powerful they can be.  Another example is the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, where after protests erupted on the 25th January, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton mistakenly described Egypt’s government as “stable", when only seventeen days later Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak resigned due to pressure from protestors.  These protestors were estimated to be in the millions, making it clear that the vast levels of support were enough to peacefully bring down the regime, despite the fact all odds were against them.

   A third argument is that peaceful protests result in far fewer casualties than violent ones, due to the peaceful nature of them.  I find the Arab Spring a good example of this.  In Tunisia and Egypt, the peaceful revolutions each resulted in fewer than 1,000 deaths, and while these numbers are relatively large, most of the deaths were because of violence by security forces.  The civil war in Libya on the other hand, which began as similar protests, was a bloodbath which left at least 20,000 people dead.  In all three of these examples the protestors were successful, but the peaceful protestors in Tunisia and Egypt achieved their aims with far less bloodshed.  Some people argue that violent protests are more effective because they produce more direct results, but is it worth it for all the extra casualties caused?  With patience, peaceful protesting is just as effective and causes less long-term damage.  

   While there are many arguments that peaceful protest is more effective than violent protest, each one can be refuted by a counterargument.  The first counterargument is that violent or militant strategies raise awareness more effectively than peaceful protesting.  9/11 for instance, is one of the most famous terrorist attacks in history, and the name 'Al Qaeda' has spread across the globe like an ever-stretching web.  Furthermore, Al Qaeda hoped the attacks would provoke the USA into invading a Muslim country, and hence create more anti-Western sentiment.  The USA did indeed do this, twice; Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.  This successfully created anti-Western feeling among Muslim countries, as shown by the attack on the UK’s embassy in Iran in 2011, or the fact that according to a Pew survey, 70% of Pakistanis consider the USA an enemy.  So because of 9/11, even though The West is now opposed to Al Qaeda, many Muslims may be more tempted to join them.  The West provided Al Qaeda a louder megaphone than they ever could have possessed alone.  9/11 and its consequences did far more to create support for groups that oppose the USA than any peaceful protest ever could.

   The second counterargument is that peaceful protesting is only effective if the opposition gives in, whereas violence can defeat all opposition.  The Arab Spring is again a good example, due to the fact that while Tunisia and Egypt’s governments crumbled like a sandcastle against the tide, Syria’s government has, at the time of writing, proved to be made of more than sand and has resisted all protests.  Although a collapse of the Syrian regime is now looking inevitable, the anarchy that could follow would create unimaginable human suffering.  Many protestors argue that only military action by either the protestors or the international community will be enough to bring about a controlled transition to democratic government.  This was the case in Libya, where protestors and citizens would have been massacred during the Battle of Benghazi had the UN not passed a resolution to implement a No Fly Zone.  It then took eight months of brutal fighting for Libya’s leader, Colonel Gaddafi, to be defeated.  Without international intervention, most people believe Gaddafi’s forces would have successfully stamped out the protests, and so violence was required for the protests to be successful.

   The final counterargument is the fact that peaceful protests often spiral into unfocused, counter-productive violence.  In November 2010, demonstrations against tuition fees descended into violence and destruction in London.  This was condemned by Mayor Boris Johnson and Prime Minister David Cameron, who may now be less inclined to make concessions in the tuition fees, as they don’t want to be seen to give in to violence.  If even peaceful protests naturally cause tensions and become violent, then what's the point?  While violence can be effective in advancing a cause if it is controlled and directed at the right targets, the violence that erupts from a peaceful protest is too chaotic and unfocused to achieve anything.

   In conclusion, there are many arguments for and against the effectiveness of peaceful protest.  On one hand, peaceful protests can create support, are historically proven to succeed if there is enough support and result in fewer casualties.  On the other, violent methods create wider reaching publicity, can overcome any opposition and don’t spiral into unfocused chaos.  Having considered both sides of the argument, I believe that both techniques are effective for different purposes.  While peaceful protesting would certainly be preferable, if it doesn’t have enough support violence may be the last resort if the protestors are willing to use it.  Peaceful protests tend to be more effective if they can succeed however, whereas violence can often create even more problems.

© 2013 Mathew Nicolson

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Added on July 21, 2013
Last Updated on July 21, 2013
Tags: Egypt, Egyptian Revolution, Syria, Syrian Civil War, Libya, Gaddafi, protests, Al-Qaeda, 9/11, Time Magazine, Germany, Berlin Wall, Occupy Wall Street