The Challenge of Terror:
A Traveling Essay
John Paul Lederach
Having worked for nearly 20 years as a mediator and proponent of nonviolentchange in situations around the globe, and having interacted with people and movements who find ways of justifying their part in the cycle, I should like to pen several observations about what I have learned from my experiences as they apply to the current situation.
Some Lessons about the Nature of our Challenge
The first and most important question: How do people reach this level of anger, hatred and frustration? Beliefs that they are brainwashed by a perverted leader who holds some kind of magical power over them is an escapist simplification and will inevitably lead to wrong-headed responses.
Generational anger is constructed over time through a combination of historical events, a deep sense of threat to identify, and direct experiences of sustained exclusion. This is important to understand, because our response to the immediate events have everything to do with whether we reinforce and provide the soil, seeds, and nutrients for future cycles of revenge and violence, or whether it changes. We should apply the following strategic guidepost: Avoid doing what they expect.
They expect the lashing out of the giant against the weak, the many against the few. This will reinforce their capacity to perpetrate the myth they carefully seek to sustain: That they are under threat, fighting an irrational and mad system that has never taken them seriously and wishes to destroy them and their people.
What we need to destroy is their myth, not their people.
1. Seek to understand the nature of the organization: Over the years of working to promote durable peace in situations of deep, sustained violence I have discovered one consistent purpose about the nature of movements and organizations who use violence: Sustain thyself.
This is generally accomplished through decentralization of power and structure, secrecy, autonomy of action through units, and refusal to pursue the conflict on the terms of the strength and capacities of the enemy.
One of the most intriguing metaphors I have heard used in the last few days is that this enemy of the United States will be found in their holes, smoked out, and when they run and are visible, destroyed. This may well work for groundhogs, trench and maybe even guerilla warfare, but it is not a useful metaphor for this situation.
Neither is the image that we will need to destroy the village to save it, by which the population that gives refuge to our enemies is guilty by association and therefore a legitimate target. In both instances the metaphor that guides our action misleads us because it is not connected to the reality. In more specific terms, this is not a struggle to be conceived of in geographic terms, in terms of physical spaces and places, that if located can be destroyed, thereby ridding us of the problem. Quite frankly our biggest and most visible weapon systems are mostly useless.
We need a new metaphor, and though I generally do not like medical metaphors to describe conflict, the image of a virus comes to mind because of its ability to enter unperceived, flow with a system, and harm it from within. This is the genius of people like Osama Ben Laden. He understood the power of a free and open system, and has used it to his benefit. The enemy is not located in a territory. It has entered our system. And you do not fight this kind of enemy by shooting at it. You respond by strengthening the capacity of the system to prevent the virus and strengthen its immunity. It is an ironic fact that our greatest threat is not in Afghanistan, but in our own backyard.
We surely are not going to bomb Travelocity, Hertz Rental Car, or an Airline training school in Florida. We must change metaphors and move beyond the reaction that we can duke it out with the bad guy, or we run the serious risk of creating the environment that sustains and reproduces the virus we wish to prevent.
Realities are constructed - Conflict often involves the process of building and sustaining different perceptions and interpretations of reality. In the aftermath of horrific and unmerited violence we have experienced this may sound esoteric. But this fundamental process is how we end up referring to people as fanatics, madmen, and irrational.
In the process of name-calling we lose the critical capacity to the ways they construct their views; it is not merely lunacy or fanaticism. When we understand how they construct their reality, all things fall together and make sense. And when their views of the facts are reinforced (for example, years of superpower struggle that used or excluded them, encroaching Western values of what is considered immoral by their religious interpretation, or the construction of an enemy-image who is overwhelmingly powerful and uses that power in bombing campaigns and always appears to win) then it is not a difficult process to construct a rational world view of "heroic struggle against evil."
As we do it, so do they. Listen to the words we use to justify our actions and responses. And then listen to words they use. The way to break such a process is not through a frame of reference of who will win or who is stronger. In fact the inverse is true. Whoever loses, whether tactical battles or the "war" itself, finds intrinsic in the loss the seeds that give birth to the justification for renewed battle.
The way to break such a cycle of justified violence is to step outside of it. This starts with understanding that TV sound bites about madmen and evil are not good sources of policy. The most significant impact that we could make on their ability to sustain their view of us as evil is to change their perception of who we are by choosing to strategically respond in unexpected ways. This will take enormous courage and courageous leadership.
2. Understand the capacity for recruitment -- The greatest power that terror has is the ability to regenerate itself. We need to grasp how recruitment into these activities happens. Political leaders have most often believed that they could end violence by overpowering and getting rid of the perpetrator of the violence.
This may have been the lesson of centuries past, but it is not a lesson of the past 30 years. When people feel a deep sense of threat, exclusion and generational experiences of direct violence, their greatest effort is placed on survival. And time and again these movements have demonstrated an extraordinary capacity for the regeneration of chosen myths and renewed struggle.
One aspect of current U.S. leadership that coherently matches with the lessons of the past 30 years of protracted conflict settings is the statement that "this will be a long struggle." But this long struggle should be aimed at removing the channels, justifications, and sources that attract and sustain recruitment into the activities.
None of the perpetrators of recent terrorism was much older than 40; many were half that age. This is the reality we face: Recruitment happens on a sustained basis. It will not stop with the use of military force, in fact, open warfare will create the soils in which it is fed and grows.
Military action to destroy terror, particularly as it affects already vulnerable civilian populations will be like hitting a fully mature dandelion with a golf club: This will further perpetuate the myth of "evil United States military might" and will assure yet another generation of recruits.
3. Recognize complexity, but understand the power of simplicity. Our government can appreciate the complexity of our situation, but we have yet to fully comprehend its simplicity. From the standpoint of the perpetrators, the effectiveness of their actions was in finding simple ways to use the system to undo it. I believe our greatest task is to find equally creative and simple tools on the other side.
We can take three relatively simple, or at least straightforward, actions that will have a much greater impact on our current challenges than seeking accountability through revenge.
1.. Energetically pursue a sustainable peace process to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Do it now. The United States has much it can do to support and make this process work. It can bring the weight of persuasion to people on all sides to move toward mutual recognition to stop the devastating pattern of violent escalation.
If we would bring the same energy to building an international coalition for peace that we have applied to building international coalitions for war, particularly in the Middle East-and if we lent significant financial, moral, and balanced support to all sides that we gave to the Irish conflict in earlier years-the moment is right and the stage is set to take a new and qualitative step forward.
Sound like an odd diversion to our current situation of terror? I believe the opposite is true. This type of action is precisely the kind of thing needed to create whole new views of who we are and what we stand for as a nation.
Rather than fighting terror with force, we enter their system and take away one of their most coveted elements: The soils of generational conflict perceived as injustice used to perpetrate hatred and recruitment. Monumental times like these create conditions for monumental change. This approach would solidify our relationships with a broad array of Middle Easterners and Central Asians-allies and enemies alike-and would serve to undermine the terrorist platform. The biggest blow we can serve terror is to make it irrelevant; the worst mistake is to feed it by making terrorism and its leaders the center stage. Let's move from our own center, not theirs. Let's choose democracy and reconciliation over revenge and destruction.
Let's to do exactly what they do not expect, and show them it can work.
2. Invest financially in development, education, and a broad social agenda in the countries surrounding Afghanistan rather than attempting to destroy the Taliban in a search for Ben Laden. The single greatest pressure that could ever be put on Ben Laden is to remove the source of his justifications and alliances. Countries like Pakistan, Tajikistan, and yes, Iran and Syria should be put on the radar of the West and the United States with a question of strategic importance: Let's as how we can help you meet the fundamental needs of your people.
If we strengthen the web of our relationships, we weaken and eventually eliminate the soil where terror is born. A vigorous investment, taking advantage of the current opening given the horror of this week shared by even those who we traditionally claimed as state enemies, is immediately available, possible and pregnant with historic possibilities. Let's do the unexpected. Let's create a new set of strategic alliances never before thought possible.
3. Pursue a quiet but dynamic diplomatic support of the Arab League:
Explore the root causes of discontent with an ecumenical engagement about how to create a web of ethics for a new millennium that respects the heart and soul of all traditions but confronts the roots of violence within those traditions.
Our challenge is not that of convincing others that our way of life is better or closer to Truth; rather it begins with honesty about the sources of violence in our own house, inviting others to do the same. We need to generate genuine engagement and to build a political life responsive to fundamental human needs.
Such a web cannot be created except through sustained dialogue and authentic relationships at religious and political spheres of interaction and at all levels of society. Why not do the unexpected? Why not show that life-giving ethics are rooted in the core of all peoples through genuine dialogue? Such a web of political and religious dialogue will impact the roots of terror reaching into the generations of our children and grandchildren in a way far greater than any amount of military action could achieve.
The current situation poses an unprecedented opportunity for this to happen, more so than we have seen at any time before in our global community.
A Call for the Unexpected
To face the reality of organized, decentralized, self-perpetuating sources of terror, we need to think differently about the challenges before us. If indeed this is a new kind of war it will not be won with a traditional military plan. The key lies not in finding and destroying territories, camps or the civilian populations that supposedly house them. Such actions only feed the phenomenon and help assure that terrorism takes root in new generations.
We need to consider how a small virus affects a system and how to strengthen its immunity. Let's not provide the movements we deplore with fuel for self-regeneration, or fulfill their prophecy by providing them with martyrs and justifications.
They have understood the power of the powerless. They understand that melding and meshing with the enemy creates a base from within. They have not faced down the enemy with a bigger stick; they did the more powerful thing:
They changed the game. They entered our lives, our homes and turned our own tools upon us.
In closing, I reiterate that we will not and cannot win this struggle for justice, peace and human dignity with the traditional weapons of war. We need to change our own game. Let us take up the practical challenges of this reality and give birth to the new, to the unexpected.
John Paul Lederach