“On the far side of revenge”: John Paul Lederach on “The Challenge of Terror”

I am copying this from my website, as it is was posted on September 29, 2001, but it is available here as well. Lederach finished his essay by quoting the Irish poet, Seamus Heaney:

“We will not win this struggle for justice, peace and human dignity with the traditional weapons of war. We need to change the game again. Let us take up the practical challenges of this reality perhaps best described in the Cure of Troy an epic poem by Seamus Heaney no foreigner to grip of the cycles of terror. Let us give birth to the unexpected.

So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that a farther shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
And cures and healing wells.”

(forwarded by email, 9-29-01)

The Challenge of Terror:
A Traveling Essay

John Paul Lederach

So here I am, a week late arriving home, stuck between Colombia,
Guatemala and Harrisonburg when our world changed. The images flash even
in my sleep. The heart of America ripped. Though natural, the cry for
revenge and the call for the unleashing of the first war of this century,
prolonged or not, seems more connected to social and psychological
processes of finding a way to release deep emotional anguish, a sense of
powerlessness, and our collective loss than it does as a plan of action
seeking to redress the injustice, promote change and prevent it from ever
happening again.

I am stuck from airport to airport as I write this, the reality of a
global system that has suspended even the most basic trust. My Duracell
batteries and finger nail clippers were taken from me today and it gave
me pause for thought. I had a lot of pauses in the last few days. Life
has not been the same. I share these thoughts as an initial reaction
recognizing that it is always easy to take pot-shots at our leaders from
the sidelines, and to have the insights they are missing when we are not
in the middle of very difficult decisions. On the other hand, having
worked for nearly 20 years as a mediator and proponent of nonviolent
change in situations around the globe where cycles of deep violence seem
hell-bent on perpetuating themselves, and having interacted with people
and movements who at the core of their identity find ways of justifying
their part in the cycle, I feel responsible to try to bring ideas to the
search for solutions. With this in mind I should like to pen several
observations about what I have learned from my experiences and what they
might suggest about the current situation. I believe this starts by
naming several key challenges and then asking what is the nature of a
creative response that takes these seriously in the pursuit of genuine,
durable, and peaceful change.

Some Lessons about the Nature of our Challenge

1.. Always seek to understand the root of the anger – The first and
most important question to pose ourselves is relatively simple though not
easy to answer: How do people reach this level of anger, hatred and
frustration? By my experience explanations 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 us to very wrong-headed
responses. Anger of this sort, what we could call generational,
identity-based 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 very important to
understand, because, as I will say again and again, 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 be careful to pursue one and
only one thing as the strategic guidepost of our response: Avoid doing
what they expect.

What they expect from us is 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.. Always 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 done through a number of approaches, but generally it is 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. And 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 very serious risk
of creating the environment that sustains and reproduces the virus we
wish to prevent.

Always remember that realities are constructed – Conflict is, among
other things, the process of building and sustaining very different
perceptions and interpretations of reality. This means that we have at
the same time multiple realities defined as such by those in conflict.
In the aftermath of such horrific and unmerited violence that we have
just experienced this may sound esoteric. But we must remember that 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 understand
that from within the ways they construct their views, it is not mad lunacy
or fanaticism. All things fall together and make sense. When this is
connected to a long string of actual experiences wherein 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. Just 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 capable of envisioning a horizon of change.

2.. Always understand the capacity for recruitment — The greatest
power that terror has is the ability to regenerate itself. What we most
need to understand about the nature of this conflict and the change
process toward a more peaceful world is how recruitment into these
activities happens. In all my experiences in deep-rooted conflict what
stands out most are the ways in which political leaders wishing to end
the violence believed they could achieve it by overpowering and getting
rid of the perpetrator of the violence. That may have been the lesson of
multiple centuries that preceded us. But it is not the lesson from that
past 30 years. The lesson is simple. When people feel a deep sense of
threat, exclusion and generational experiences of direct violence, their
greatest effort is placed on survival. Time and again in these
movements, there has been 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. What is missed is that the
emphasis should be placed on removing the channels, justifications, and
sources that attract and sustain recruitment into the activities. What I
find extraordinary about the recent events is that none of the
perpetrators was much older than 40 and 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 significant and already
vulnerable civilian populations will be like hitting a fully mature
dandelion with a golf club. We will participate in making sure the myth
of why we are evil is sustained and we will assure yet another generation
of recruits.

3.. Recognize complexity, but always understand the power of simplicity
– Finally, we must understand the principle of simplicity. I talk a lot
with my students about the need to look carefully at complexity, which is
equally true (and which in the earlier points I start to explore).
However, the key in our current situation that we have failed to fully
comprehend is 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.


In keeping with the last point, let me try to be simple. I
believe three things are possible to do and will have a much greater
impact on these 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, the weight of nudging people on all sides to move toward
mutual recognition and stopping the recent and devastating pattern of
violent escalation, and the weight of including and balancing the process
to address historic fears and basic needs of those involved. If we would
bring the same energy to building an international coalition for peace in
this conflict that we have pursued in building international coalitions
for war, particularly in the Middle East, if we lent significant
financial, moral, and balanced support to all sides that we gave to the
Irish conflict in earlier years, I believe 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. I believe that 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 be a blow to the rank and file of
terror. The biggest blow we can serve terror is to make it irrelevant.
The worst thing we could do is to feed it unintentionally by making it
and its leaders the center stage of what we do. 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: How can we help
you meet the fundamental needs of your people?

The strategic approach to changing the nature of how terror of the kind we
have witnessed this week reproduces itself lies in the quality of
relationships we develop with whole regions, peoples, and world views. If we strengthen the
web of those 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 diplomatic but dynamic and vital support of the Arab
League to begin an internal exploration of how to address the root causes
of discontent in numerous regions. This should be coupled with energetic
ecumenical engagement, not just of key symbolic leaders, but of a
practical and direct exploration of how to create a web of ethics for a
new millennium that builds from the heart and soul of all traditions but
that creates a capacity for each to engage the roots of violence that are
found within their own traditions. Our challenge, as I see it, is not
that of convincing others that our way of life, our religion, or our
structure of governance is better or closer to Truth and human dignity.
It is to be honest about the sources of violence in our own house and
invite others to do the same. Our global challenge is how to generate
and sustain genuine engagement that encourages people from within their
traditions to seek that which assures the preciousness and respect for
life that every religion sees as an inherent right and gift from the
Divine, and how to build organized political and social life that is
responsive to fundamental human needs. Such a web cannot be created
except through genuine and sustained dialogue and the building of
authentic relationships, at religious and political spheres of
interaction, and at all levels of society. Why not do the unexpected and
show that life-giving ethics are rooted in the core of all peoples by
engaging a strategy of genuine dialogue and relationship? Such a web of
ethics, political and religious, will have an impact on the roots of
terror far greater in the generation of our children’s children than any
amount of military action can possibly muster. 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

Let me conclude with simple ideas. To face the reality of well
organized, decentralized, self-perpetuating sources of terror, we need to
think differently about the challenges. If indeed this is a new war it
will not be won with a traditional military plan. The key does not lie
in finding and destroying territories, camps, and certainly not the
civilian populations that supposedly house them. Paradoxically that will
only feed the phenomenon and assure that it lives into a new generation.
The key is to think about how a small virus in a system affects the whole
and how to improve the immunity of the system. We should take extreme
care not to provide the movements we deplore with gratuitous fuel for
self-regeneration. Let us not fulfill their prophecy by providing them
with martyrs and justifications. The power of their action is the
simplicity with which they pursue the fight with global power. They have
understood the power of the powerless.

They have understood 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 into our demise.

We will not win this struggle for justice, peace and human dignity with
the traditional weapons of war. We need to change the game again.
Let us take up the practical challenges of this reality perhaps best
described in the Cure of Troy an epic poem by Seamus Heaney no foreigner
to grip of the cycles of terror. Let us give birth to the unexpected.

So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that a farther shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
And cures and healing wells.

John Paul Lederach

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