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Feminist Response to the Valor of Violence

THE DEMON LOVER: ON THE SEXUALITY OF TERRORISM by Robin Morgan, New York: Norton, 395 pp., $18.95

STARTING out in the 1960s, Robin Morgan was a New Left radical who believed that government had no business using violence against people, but that liberation movements did have the right to employ violent tactics against the far greater violence of the state. But her close acquaintance with the attitudes and methods of the '60s ``underground'' changed her mind. She now believes that neither the ``state-that-is'' nor the revolutionary ``state-that-would-be'' has that right, and that insofar as either claims it, both are part of the same problem.

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According to the radical thinker C. Wright Mills, ``the ultimate kind of power is violence.'' Against Mills's pronouncement, Morgan sets Hannah Arendt's declaration, ``Power and violence are opposites.'' What sort of power is the opposite of violence? Is it merely the potential of violence held in reserve that is the opposite of kinetic violence, violence in action? Not so, Morgan contends. Nonviolent forms of power have always been with us: the power to love, give birth, nurture, care, work, and create, the power to be patient, to tolerate ambivalence, to stop oneself from committing violence. These powers constitute what Morgan calls feminism.

Does feminism have any more to offer than the not inconsiderable, but still limited, strengths of pacifism (a movement that has long attracted women from Lysistrata to Virginia Woolf)? Since women are the majority of the world's population, Morgan reasons, their addition to the geopolitical equation may well shift the balance. And, from the feminist perspective, pacifism and other nonviolent movements can be viewed as signs and portents, outcroppings of a deeper feminist wisdom long buried beneath the foundations of patriarchal culture - or insinuated into the edifice - now ready to emerge in full power. This argument works neatly in reverse: As long as women have been devalued, so long have nonviolent movements enjoyed only limited success.

Morgan's point is not that all men are warlike and women peaceable, but rather that men have tended to act belligerently and women peaceably because those qualities have been considered ``masculine'' and ``feminine.'' And because most cultures value the masculine over the feminine, violence itself is valorized. So pervasive is the appeal of the figure whom Morgan dubs the Demon Lover that, for centuries, men and women alike have associated courage with heroic death, freedom with killing, and love with Wagnerian Liebestod (deadly love). Terrorism, in Morgan's view, is an appallingly logical outgrowth of our infatuation with the Demon Lover:

``There he stands: young, lean, garbed in black ... his gestures swift and economical as a predatory cat's, his muscled body not only bearing the magic tools of death but a magic tool of death itself ... he is someone wholly given over to a passion. But his passion is death.

``He is what passes for manhood. He is why a 17-year-old male Palestinian refugee, huddled over a charcoal stove in a camp near Damascus, can brag that he became a guerrilla fighter at age 14, and add, `I want to do a suicide mission with an explosive belt'....''

Yet despite this, most women and some men, Morgan speculates, do not really accept the Demon Lover's ``depraved idea that passion demands a victim.'' In one chapter, she retraces her own path away from the sexually charged violence of the radical underground group she joined in the '60s. In perhaps the most moving chapter, Morgan visits Palestinian women in refugee camps. Overworked, underfed, living in fear of the occupying forces and in terror of their own husbands, these women are sick of violence and the men who practice it.

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