The reality is that modern military technology makes it extraordinarily difficult to actually defeat a state on the battlefield. An [sic] dissident movement just isn’t going to be able to be able to [sic] blow up tanks and airplanes. Under the circumstances, strategic nonviolence is a vital tactic. If you were to try to fight the security forces—shoot some policemen, say—you’d encourage a more serious crackdown. It’s through nonviolent resistance that you heighten the psychological contradictions, and encourage the regime and its enforcers to blink. From the Velvet Revolution to Tiananmen Square to the Orange Revolution to what’s happening today in Iran, the brave dissidents are essentially daring the security forces to beat or kill them. The bet is that when push comes to shove, people in the Iranian security forces have some humane and patriotic instincts and will recoil from the idea of using mass violence against their fellow citizens. And it’s a terrifying bet. We’ve seen time and again that it’s a bet that often pays off, but as we learned in China 20 years ago there are no guarantees.Yglesias is correct in recognizing that non-violence is often a more effective strategy than armed resistance, but he gets the reasons wrong.
It's not that non-violent demonstrators are daring security forces to not respond with violence, they are pushing them to act violently, revealing the illegitimacy of the regime and the severity of its repression. No one in Selma, Alabama believed that the white police--wielding clubs, tear gas and worse--were going to spontaneously see the error of their ways. The non-violent demonstrators had to push the police, through their very peaceful resistance itself, to act in such a manner that could not be mistaken for anything but brutal repression. The point is to create conflict that the world will find unconscionable.
It's important to note that the demonstrators don't necessarily create the violence; they create a situation in which it will be impossible to ignore the violence that has always been there, but was previously invisible.
In order for this strategy to work, however, you need a free press. Tienanmen Square didn't happen because the Chinese dissenters failed to create an empathetic response in the Chinese soldiers. Tienanmen happened because the Chinese regime assumed--correctly--that they could successfully use such a high level of repression without disturbing the balance of power. Today, barely anyone in China knows about Tienanmen. Someone I know, watching a BBC broadcast in Beijing on the anniversary of Tienanmen Square, saw the screen go blank at the first mention of the event. The program resumed as soon as the piece was over. Likewise, the Chinese regime remains perfectly content with the violent repression of the Tibetans and the Uighur people in the west. With no free press, there is no accountability.
What is so remarkable about the Iranian situation is that it seems new media have taken the place of the free press. Some foreign journalists are doing very good and very brave work, no doubt--Twitter alone does not a newswire make--but the flood of videos, photos and first-hand accounts has kept the movement very alive and very bright in the world's spotlight.
The Iranian dissidents have taught us all a lesson in non-violent resistance in the 21st century.
This post was written with the help of Emily Singer, based laregly on her reading of Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, by John Lewis and Michael D'Orso.