In the past week we’ve seen two models of how to deal with thugs. On April 6 Trump ordered U.S. forces to fire 59 cruise missiles at Al Shayrat air base in Syria in retaliation for the use of sarin gas on Syrian civilians in Khan Sheikhoun on April 4. On April 8 in Birmingham, England Saffiyah Khan confronted a gang of Islamophobes who had surrounded a woman in a hijab. She was armed only with a smile. Although Saffiyah admits that she did a fair bit of shouting herself, she said the smile was more effective. “Sometimes it’s more important to smile than to shout.”
There’s obviously a difference in scale between the situations. In one, the armed might of the United States is unleashed on an air force base of another country. In the other, a lone Asian woman faces down a crowd of white men on a city street. The bigger difference is in which worked.
Saffiyah’s smile worked to deflect attention away from the other woman. She also had some help. In the picture above you can see one protective hand of the cop on Saffiyah’s arm and the other on Ian Crossland’s upper chest to keep him back. In this second picture the cop has his hand on Crossland’s arm as he thrusts it at Saffiyah, who continues to smile.
Saffiyah’s smile and the placement of the cop’s hands both worked without making a big production of it. These photos have gone viral because of the obvious power of Saffiyah’s smile in the face of hateful rage. More subtle is the way the cop is practicing doing-by-not-doing. Sūnzǐ’s Art of War applies wú wéi to conflict situations. In the way the cop places his hands in these pictures, you see Sūnzǐ’s doctrine of positioning to avoid actual battle .
Skillfulness in moving an opponent about comes through
Positioning the opponent is compelled to follow ….
President Obama had a consistent strategic goal—stay out of a ground war in the Middle East. He found out the hard way that laying down a “red line” against Assad’s use of chemical weapons was not consistent with this goal. When Assad crossed that line, President Obama reverted to his basic strategy, at the expense of his credibility and of the people of Syria. He made some “brilliant” moves to cover his tracks. First, he asked Congress to approve the use of military force; then he made a deal with Assad and Putin to remove chemical weapons from Syria. They were “brilliant” ways to avoid doing anything. (Remember wú wéi means DO-by-not-doing, not don’t-do-anything.)
Mr. Obama knew Congress would not act, but then he could (rightly) accuse them of being all talk and no action. He really did not make sure that his deal with Assad and Putin worked. His deal only provided cover for not doing anything forceful. This month the people of Khan Sheikhoun paid the price of Mr. Obama’s fecklessness when Assad’s air force killed more than 50 of them with the sarin gas that had supposedly been removed from Syria. Even the Washington Post gave Susan Rice four “Pinocchios” for her claims that the deal resulted in the removal of chemical weapons from Syria. (It should be noted that Susan Rice played the same role with respect to Syria that she did in 1994 when she steered President Clinton away from intervening in the Rwandan genocide.)
Make no mistake about it. I’m angry and disappointed that President Obama laid down a “red line” and then went to great lengths not to make good on his word. The way he played at doing-by-not-doing without succeeding made me doubt this central theme of this blog. Saffiyah Khan restored my confidence that doing-by-not-doing works.
Make no mistake about it. Just because Trump has struck against Assad does not mean that he’s any more effective in stopping the suffering in Syria. His statements about working with Assad against ISIS and his praise of Putin emboldened Assad to use sarin gas on the people of Khan Sheikhoun, as much as anything President Obama did or did not do or say.
Make no mistake about it. Trump has no strategy. Without a strategy, his action of hitting Assad with 59 cruise missiles will carry about as much weight as the “red line.” Trump was effective, as he often is, in eliciting an emotional reaction. “Finally, we’re doing something to stop Assad!” We really didn’t.
Despite my philosophical belief in doing-by-not-doing, I am struggling with my underlying assumption that we should do something to stop evil men like Assad, or evil events like the Rwandan genocide. Actually there’s no question that “we” should. The problem is the other assumption that “we” includes our government and its military, and that “doing something” involves action by our government and its military.
In working through these assumptions I don’t intend to work myself into a state where I’ll march in the streets holding a sign saying “Hands off Syria!” That’s about as useful and morally correct as the people who said in 2001 that Americans brought September 11th on themselves.
I’m searching for a new frame or frames to avoid the trap that catches us into having to choose between approving cruise missiles or mindlessly alienating our fellow citizens with self-righteous posturing. I’m looking for a frame that incorporates Saffiyah Khan and the cop, a frame that translates to an international scale. In that pursuit I’ve been studying the story of how the Buddha stopped Angulimala from terrorizing the people of the kingdom of Kosala, and how we might use this story to frame our response to today’s dilemmas.
Angulimala fit all the characteristics of a terrorist. He was
brutal, bloody-handed, devoted to killing & slaying, showing no mercy to living beings. He turned villages into non-villages, towns into non-towns, settled countryside into unsettled countryside. Having repeatedly killed human beings, he wore a garland (mala) made of fingers (anguli). Angulimala sutta
The sutta tells us how the Buddha stops this terrorist without using force. Given the superstitions of its day, the sutta implies that the Buddha used supernatural methods. It is just as easy to read the story as the Buddha’s distracting Angulimala; more than just distracting he made Angulimala question his whole mindset. With that opening the Buddha was able to help a decent human being emerge. Afterward King Pasenadi came with his army to hunt down and kill Angulimala. When the Buddha introduced his new monk, the king was amazed to see how the terrorist had been transformed. “… We could not tame him with force and weapons, yet the Blessed One has tamed him without force or weapons.” MN 86,13.
I don’t have that new framework worked out in practical detail yet, but I look at the examples of Saffiyah and the cop for confidence that we can find ways to change the Angulimalas of this day and age so that
Who once was heedless,
but later is not,
brightens the world
like the moon set free from a cloud.
His evil-done deed
is replaced with skillfulness:
he brightens the world
like the moon set free from a cloud.