“A roomful of articulate skeptics is more a delight to me than a gathering of passive believers,” Colman McCarthy tells his students at the University of Maryland. Teaching “Alternatives to Violence” is a natural for McCarthy, whose life’s work is the promotion of peace through nonviolence. McCarthy’s unwavering pacifism is reflected in his newspaper columns, which have appeared twice weekly in the Washington Post since 1969, and which have been syndicated nationally since 1978. A man with a mission, he suggests CNN retitle its recent war reports “Slaughter in the Gulf,” and characterizes that conflict as an oil war. It was the first war “in United States history fought not to defend what we want or what we need, but what we waste.”

Though McCarthy has already been called a “mad-dog liberal,” nowadays he’s leaning toward nonviolent anarchism, which he calls a “pure type of philosophy . . . much misunderstood. . . . Anarchism says the government is there to pass laws to make you be good but if you educate people to be good, you don’t need laws forcing you.”

Educating people is exactly what Colman McCarthy set out to do. In 1983, convinced that Americans are not so much obsessed with violence but ignorant of the effectiveness of nonviolence, he devised a course in which Napoleon, Bunker Hill, and George Washington took a back seat to Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., Saint Francis, Thoreau, and Isaiah.

These days, McCarthy teaches courses in nonviolence at the Georgetown University law school and the University of Maryland, where he is an adjunct professor, and as an early-morning volunteer at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. In 1985, he founded the Center for Teaching Peace to provide course syllabuses — and in some cases, teachers — for schools around the country. The Center, located at 4501 Van Ness Street N.W., Washington, D.C. 20016, is a nonprofit organization run by McCarthy and his wife. The Center’s advisory board includes Nobel Peace Laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel, Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield, singer/activist Joan Baez, Sargent Shriver, and former Brooklyn Dodger Eddie Stanky.

The syllabus for McCarthy’s semester-long college course includes the writings of Daniel Berrigan, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Leo Tolstoy. He encourages students to put peacemaking into practice by volunteering at a soup kitchen or battered women’s shelter, or by teaching reading. Class discussions include explorations of patriotism, civil disobedience, love, masculinity, and feminism; animal rights was the topic the night I sat in. Part philosophical zealot, part stand-up comic, McCarthy’s delivery is odd, but effective; has deadpan ever held so much passion?

For this class, he brought in a study aid: two large test tubes filled with animal fat, which he passed around with printed cards identifying the fast-food fare responsible. “You eat meat?” McCarthy asked a student. “What kind of corpses do you like?” It wasn’t an attack, but a prod, designed to get the class thinking, even arguing. With humor and persistence, he urged students to question authority and tradition, to think instead of following rules like sheep — a metaphor McCarthy would say denigrates animals.

— Andrea Wolper


THE SUN: In her book, On Violence, Hannah Arendt distinguishes between such terms as power, strength, force, and authority. Do we need to make distinctions between words like pacifism and passivism?

McCARTHY: Sure, you can spend the whole night making distinctions. What do you want to “distinct” about? Pacifism comes from two Latin words, pax and facere, meaning “to make peace.” It doesn’t mean “peace-seeker” or “peace-believer” or “peace-lover.” It means peacemaker. It’s an arduous way of living, and most people don’t know how to do it, any more than they know how to make a car or a building. It’s a skill that, unfortunately, our schools do not teach.

It’s not just about getting along with the Soviets or the Iraqis or Libyans or whoever our most recent enemy is. It’s about getting along with yourself. The suicide rate among high-school kids is up about 500 percent since 1970. Among American women, beatings by the men they live with constitute the leading cause of injury. People don’t know how to get along with their housemates, their soul mates, their roommates, their love mates, or often themselves, because they haven’t been given the skills to do so.

THE SUN: A few days before the Gulf War began, I told some friends about a fantasy I’d had of a miracle that might prevent the war. One of them said, “Very nice, but you’re denying what’s really going on.” How would you respond?

McCARTHY: You’re like the person who’s walking down the street and sees a building on fire. The flames are out of control, but you call the firehouse and say, “Come put the fire out.” You can’t expect the fire department to put the flames out when the house is already consumed by fire, any more than you can ask a pacifist to stop a war once the bullets are flying.

Saddam Hussein did not suddenly appear on August 2. He was an ally all during the eighties. We sold him weapons, traded with him — he was our guy. We can’t act incredulous — “Oh, heavens, there’s a war going on.” On August 1 there were thirty-five other wars going on around the world. It’s naive of Americans suddenly to say, “There’s evil in the world.” It’s doubly naive for them to think you can call up the fire department and ask it to put these flames out.

Pacifists believe in force: the force of justice, the force of ideas, of love, of organized resistance to Caesar and the Pharaohs. Others solve their problems through the force of fists, guns, armies, and nukes. There’s no third way. Any problem you have, whether at home with your family or among governments, is going to be solved through the use of force: nonviolent force or violent force. Militarists took force away from us, and they always leave off the adjective. When Bush says, “We have to have a show of force,” he means a show of slaughtering force. Pacifists are not people who avoid force. We love it. We just don’t believe in using the force that our adversaries are using, which is violent force.

THE SUN: Is violence ever appropriate, personally or militarily?

McCARTHY: No, never. As soon as you allow a few exceptions — “Well, I’m opposed to war, but we’ve got this awful man in Iraq, or Northern Ireland, or El Salvador, and only guns will work,” then you have a world of exceptions, which is a world of war. Forty thousand people a month are killed in these wars. Anywhere you go — Guatemala, Kampuchea, Sudan, Angola, Chad, Somalia, Eritrea — talk to certain people and they’ll say, “We’re opposed to war, but here it’s so bad, we have to do it.” I know it’s easy for me to theorize. I’m a safe white American. No one’s shooting my kids, I’ll grant you. But either the idea of nonviolence holds up regardless of who’s advocating it and where, or it doesn’t. There’s a common thread running through the history of nonviolence: almost all the leaders were challenged, not from without, but from within their own ranks. I interviewed Archbishop Desmond Tutu from South Africa and he said, “The hardest thing is keeping the faithful faithful to nonviolence.” I interviewed Dr. King in Chicago in 1966. He was demoralized at the end of his life; he didn’t think he was getting anywhere. He said, “People say we’re not doing anything, they say we’ve got to get guns.” It happened in early Christianity. When Roman soldiers came to take away Rabbi Christ, Peter reached for his sword and cut off a soldier’s ear. Here was the one disciple who should have had some idea what Christ’s teaching was all about! Look at the history of nonviolence — it’s a great theory when there’s nothing going on; everybody’s a pacifist between wars. It’s like being a vegetarian between meals.

THE SUN: How do you respond, then, to those who say that Gandhi would not have met with the same success if he’d faced a Hitler?

McCARTHY: You can create a hundred scenarios where nonviolence won’t work. That’s easy. If you have a conflict, and you send in a hundred pacifists, and twenty of them get shot, what does society say? “Look at those naive dreamers.” If, in the same situation, you send in an army of twenty thousand and five thousand get shot, society shrugs and says, “That’s war.” Why don’t we say, “Look at those generals, they’re naive dreamers.”

THE SUN: They’re heroes.

McCARTHY: Of course! You saw it in the Gulf. We’re saying this was a great and successful war. Who are we kidding? Tens of thousands of Iraqis were slaughtered. You could send over the Peace Corps rather than the Marine Corps and I assure you, you wouldn’t have those oil wells shooting up flames today, you wouldn’t have anywhere near the amount of bloodshed. But it’s easy to create a scenario where you can prove nonviolence doesn’t work. And then if it should happen to work, say, in Gandhi’s India, well, that’s because the British were such gentle, understanding folk. In fact, the British army was ruthlessly violent. Neither system is foolproof. There are no guarantees that nonviolence will always work, any more than there are that violence will always work. All you have is a choice between two failures. Both systems have failed; which failure do you want to align yourself with? Far fewer people get killed when they defend themselves through nonviolent force than with violent force.

THE SUN: That doesn’t sound naive at all.

McCARTHY: No, but it takes fourteen weeks to get it through students’ heads in the schools, if then. I’m not making a judgment about them; they’ve been miseducated by American schools. I give a little quiz in the first class. I list five people like U.S. Grant, Caesar, Napoleon. The students always know the generals. Then I list five pacifists, who always draw a blank. Schools process students, they don’t radicalize them; the peace message doesn’t get across. It ought to begin in first grade.

I tell my students the first day that walking into my course is like coming into an advanced calculus class when you’ve never had a class in math. It’s not going to make sense.

THE SUN: How should it start in the first grade?

McCARTHY: You can discuss a little bit of Gandhi. Just familiarize them, the same way we familiarize them with General George Washington, and Robert E. Lee and Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett and all the hired military thugs and killers. We teach this list ably. But we don’t teach Gandhi or King or Dorothy Day or Schweitzer or Merton or Jesus or Saint Francis or Buddha. Our kids grow up in a state of ignorance, and they’re easily seduced by presidents who say we’ve got to defend America.

All our wars have been wars of intervention. Many of my students were in first grade when Reagan became president. They know little about Vietnam, Grenada, or Libya, so of course they’re cheering, “Oh boy, we showed them over there in the Gulf.” They’re easily suckered by the military’s line. If every day someone says, “Three and three are twenty-five,” you’ll start believing it.

Neither system is foolproof. There are no guarantees that nonviolence will always work, any more than there are that violence will always work. All you have is a choice between two failures. Both systems have failed; which failure do you want to align yourself with?

THE SUN: Was it a setback that Bush’s strategies were so successful, that they achieved certain goals?

McCARTHY: They weren’t successful. We still don’t know how many people were killed in Panama, let alone the Gulf. One reason is because the media was cheerleading this war. It was unprecedented. Twenty-four out of twenty-five of the leading U.S. daily newspapers editorially supported the war. A group in New York that monitors the media reported that during the Gulf War, 838 experts were interviewed by the networks. Only one was from a major peace organization. Seven were Superbowl football players asked to analyze the war.

THE SUN: They did a great PR job, and I was furious. How do we reconcile the reality of violent emotion with a commitment to pacifism?

McCARTHY: All of us lead two lives: a political life, which is us, and a personal life, which is me. Some people are stronger in their personal lives, others in their political lives. It’s hard to balance those out. It’s always a shock to students when they hear what wretched husbands and fathers Gandhi and King and Tolstoy were. Yet they were saintlike leaders in the world. And you can find wonderful wives and husbands who don’t do much for anybody outside the home. There are few people who are nonviolent in both their political and personal lives. We don’t receive much training in it.

Tonight’s class was about animal rights. Kids always ask, “This anti-war idea is great, but what can we do in our own lives?” You can start with your next meal. Don’t eat a dead animal, because it was violence that brought it to your plate. If you’re not serious about nonviolence, keep on theorizing, read your books and pack your head full of ideas, but don’t live them. The animal-rights issue is strong. It’s the one thing kids remember because it challenges them and changes the way they live.

THE SUN: And do a lot of them try it?

McCARTHY: Sure, particularly high-school students because they’re right at that age when they want to distance themselves from the folks at home. They love to go home and say, “No more dead corpses for me, Mom.”

THE SUN: In 1937 Aldous Huxley called it inconceivable that “French and Germans, Russians and Italians, Americans and Japanese would unite together” against a common aggressor. What’s changed in fifty-four years to make that suddenly conceivable?

McCARTHY: Alliances are always moving around, but the fact of the matter is that the U.S. continues to spend $800 million a day on military programs. That’s $300 billion a year, $1.5 million a minute, and $13,000 a second. We spend $800 million a day, whether we’re in the Gulf or not. And every day we produce two new nuclear bombs.

THE SUN: Are you saying that we’re in a war all the time?

McCARTHY: Yes. We have a war-preparation economy. That’s why the peace movement is slowly getting into economic conversion. In a war-preparation economy, we have war victims here whether we go to war or not: failed banking, health care, and education systems. Seventy percent of the federal research and develop budget goes to Pentagon programs, less than 1 percent to schools.

THE SUN: We’re victims of the war-preparation economy.

McCARTHY: We’ve never had a president yet who’s given a speech saying, “We now have enough weapons, we’re secure.”

THE SUN: We were talking earlier about converting to a peacetime economy.

McCARTHY: I’m full of hope. Everyone’s got to pick one small area and try to reform it. I try to concentrate on the schools. The Pentagon is already there. They spend $535 million a year on those ROTC programs, and they’re in 1200 universities. You have to admire that. I hope to be in the same number of universities before I’m done. They organized well and got money for it, and they’re in there doing it. I wish the peace movement was as sophisticated, but often, we’d rather hug trees or hold hands across America.

THE SUN: Just before the Gulf War, I was feeling very lonely, as if I were the only one who opposed it. Of course, I wasn’t, but I had to remind myself of that. There’s a danger of martyrdom associated with pacifism.

McCARTHY: A lot of those in the peace movement have a subtle hubris about them. We like our moral high ground. You can do a lot of damage that way. Everybody hops on the train to justice at a different moment. Somebody’s going to be the first, somebody’s going to be the fiftieth, somebody’s going to be the fifty millionth. Every flower blooms when it’s ready.

THE SUN: You’ve said it’s necessary to develop a philosophy of force. Can you elaborate?

McCARTHY: Every problem we have is going to be solved through the use of either violent force or nonviolent force. But since we are conditioned not to think of justice and love and organized resistance to governmental power as forms of force, we don’t realize that we can solve our problems through those forms. If we’re going to be effective, we have to learn nonviolence, just as you learn how to solve mathematical problems by going to first grade, then going on to second grade. But for some reason we neglect the study of peacemaking. I think it’s a major flaw of the American — I guess the global — school system. We teach almost everything but, and as a result, we have a violent world. The numbers are overwhelming. There are now forty thousand people killed every month in wars. There are ten million animals killed every day for food. Handguns figure in eleven thousand homicides a year.

THE SUN: As a pacifist, I find I sometimes want to deny that there’s violence within me.

McCARTHY: There are skills to deal with that. The three basics are these: any time you’re in a conflict, you have to define what you’re fighting about. Studies have found that three-fourths of the husbands and wives are fighting about separate issues. No wonder it can’t be solved! We saw that in the Gulf War. Saddam Hussein was fighting about a property issue. We were fighting about oil, “naked aggression,” jobs. Though we had a dozen reasons, we couldn’t even define what it was about. No wonder we had to shoot each other!

Define what you’re fighting about and then you have half a chance; often you don’t even have a fight anymore. The second thing you do is list your shared concerns, as against your unshared hostilities. You might share the same house, same car, same bedroom, same refrigerator, same children, same lawyer — any number of things. You’ll have a much longer list of assets you share than of disputes you don’t share. The things you share — that’s where you’re strongest. The body heals itself because it has strong cells that can overwhelm the sick ones. It’s the same in human relationships. When you fight, you’re arguing from where you’re weakest. You want to make sure that you deal from where you’re strongest.

The third essential part of any dispute is to strive not to bring adversaries to their knees, but to their senses. That’s hard to do because we’re trained to defeat the other person. We grow up with competition rather than cooperation. When you and I are in a fight, it shouldn’t be you against me, it should be you and me against the conflict.

THE SUN: Thomas Merton said, “The only real liberation is that which liberates both the oppressor and the oppressed.”

McCARTHY: Yes. Few of us go into the conflict saying we have to change the conflict. We say, “I’ve got to change you, because you’re wrong!” It takes years to learn those three little steps because we’ve been trained otherwise. In studying nonviolence, half the class is spent trying to get students to unlearn so many of the things that are already in their heads.

THE SUN: What do you want your students to get from this class?

McCARTHY: To realize that they have choices to make. We all feel small and frustrated, but we can be liberated by the choices to be made.