Backfire: The dark side of nonviolent resistance

Michael L. Gross

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Although nonviolent resistance assumes the moral high ground because its tactics do not intend to harm adversaries, severe ethical difficulties arise when nonviolent activists intentionally provoke harm to themselves. This occurs in a process called backfire, as hunger strikers or demonstrators provoke a disproportionately brutal and often lethal response from their adversaries to draw world attention and sympathy to their cause. As cases studies from Ireland, East Timor, and Israel demonstrate, backfire can offer insurgents and national liberation movements significant strategic gains. In Ireland, a 1981 IRA hunger strike radicalized the IRA's campaign against Britain. In East Timor, the massacre of hundreds of Timorese demonstrating for independence in 1991 galvanized world opinion and eventually brought international intervention and statehood. In Israel, the Marmara flotilla of 2010 and mass demonstrations in Gaza in the spring of 2018 refocused world attention on Palestinian grievances while easing the Israeli-imposed land and naval blockade. These events were transformative, but their success depended upon the careful cultivation of violence. An anathema to ideological nonviolence, backfire is often used by strategic activists who will mix violent and nonviolent tactics as circumstances demand. Ethically discharging this tactic requires organizers to articulate feasible operational goals while protecting minors, to mitigate risk, to obtain free and informed consent from participants, and to constantly evaluate the costs and benefits of political action.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)317-328
Number of pages12
JournalEthics and International Affairs
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1 Sep 2018

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs 2018.


  • Backfire
  • Human right
  • Hunger strikes
  • Insurgency
  • National liberation
  • Nonviolent resistance
  • Proportionality
  • Protest
  • Self-defense

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Philosophy
  • Political Science and International Relations


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