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Conflict Transformation in an Age of Terrorism

“If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything that you see is a nail.” America has invested lavishly and narrowly in hammers. As a consequence, the mightiest nation in history responds simplistically to a problem of vast complexity. Rather than examine the full extent of the evil mess created by decades of destructive interaction between ourselves and others, we choose responses that under-estimate the gravity of our situation. We satisfy our need to act, but our children will bear the cost, for the problems will grow far worse on the long-term.

Conflict transformation responds to conflicts in ways that: 1) penetrate to the root of the problem, and 2) are developmental, advancing people’s capacity to address problems justly and peaceably.

WE SHOULD: Respond to causes, not symptoms. Like a Star Wars movie, our current muscular responses focus narrowly on destroying those who endanger us. The reasoning seems to be: remove them and we remove the problem. Conflict transformation looks deeper. What drives our assailants to engage in terrorism? What could we do that would diminish and remove the causes of anger against us?

WE SHOULD: Do analysis sophisticated enough to locate problems within a field of interacting events, relationships and dynamics. Nazi Germany was not the creation of one evil man. It emerged from a complex set of historical and political dynamics. Today we need to ask questions like: How has the history of colonialism impacted events within Iraq and the region? What values have our own two decades of interaction with Saddam, the Iranians, and others reinforced? What is the relationship between Saddam Hussein and his own people? Between him and the Iranians? Him and other Muslim countries? How do our attacks on him alter those relationships?

Regarding al Quaeda, no matter how many terrorists we kill, their numbers will multiply until we start asking questions like: How does the phenomenon of terrorism relate to the crisis that modernity presents for Muslims? How does the centuries of humiliation Islamic countries have suffered under colonial powers relate to terrorism? How does the domination of worldwide youth culture by western media (and its accompanying secularism, materialism, and hedonism) relate to terrorism? How have U.S. ties with brutal Islamic governments affected perceptions of the U.S. by the Islamic masses? How does the unresolved crisis between Israel and Palestine affect terrorists and the communities they seek to mobilize?

WE SHOULD: Give highest priority to responses that mobilize and interact constructively with resources and energies at the scene of trouble. Responses are far more sustainable if they are rooted in local institutions, wisdom and resources. What persons are present within the situation of conflict or close at hand that could be empowered to take peace initiatives? What cultural institutions or traditions could be drawn upon that would command the respect of those affected by the conflict?

Several weeks after the September 11 attack, two Pakistanis with years of experience working with Afghanis visited me with clear ideas about how to deal with bin Laden. The Americans should use the jirga, they said, referring to the traditional Afghani forum for resolving conflicts. If this is used, they said, Afghanis will be duty-bound to take them seriously and the chances are good they would act against bin Laden. Even the Taliban? Remember, they said, the Taliban controls the major cities, not the rest of Afghanistan.

Besides, few truly support the Taliban. Afghanis give their loyalty to those from whom they believe they will be capable of getting the things they need. If the Americans work carefully and patiently, and ensure there are jobs for key leaders and resources for their constituencies, even those now working for the Taliban will desert in vast numbers.

Recently in Bush at War, Bob Woodward revealed that the war effort was stall ed until Americans Special Forces began pouring millions of dollars into the pockets of Afghanistan’s many local and regional warlords. The Taliban collapsed within a matter of days. Maybe the plan of my friends would have worked without killing five thousand innocent civilians.

Today bin Laden remains at large. Suppose that instead of starting a war, last year the U.S. had announced its intention to pour billions into schools, hospitals, and employment for poverty-stricken Afghanis and Pakistanis over the next five years, and to support a sustained campaign for the emergence of democratic governments in these countries. Suppose we had let it be known that we consider it a high priority to have bin Laden turned over to the World Court and that any leader orchestrating his arrest would receive ten million dollars, and the government of the country in which he was arrested would receive an extra billion?

What if, instead of a global war on terrorism, the U.S. announced a plan to commit $100 billion dollars over the next ten years to economic development, education and healthcare in Islamic countries that will commit themselves to genuine democracy? What if we gave special attention to those countries where we believe terrorists are currently operating? What if we announced a second $100 billion commitment to new strategies to strengthen the UN, regional cooperation, and international responses to conflict?

Were the U.S. to consultatively and respectfully implement such programs, the odds seem high that vast numbers of Muslims and others would grow up seeing Americans as their friends. They would have powerful incentives to themselves marginalize the fringe elements currently endangering us. Dicey? Maybe, but surely less so than invading hostile communities around the globe to track down terrorists! Billions spent on weapons and inspections have failed utterly to keep out drugs. By what fantasy do we think we can keep out weapons of terror, which grow more deadly by the year?

WE SHOULD: Plan responses with a long-term timeframe. Bush rightly says the war may be long, but his strategies are short-term in perspective and character. They will multiply our enemies and make things far worse on the long-term. Transformation requires us to study both the historical roots of problems and the long-term implications of our responses. It pushes us to see the interaction between the future we seek and the means we use to create that future, and to use means consistent with the future we seek.


Ronald S. Kraybill

Dr. Ronald S. Kraybill is a facilitator, consultant and trainer in conflict resolution based in Silver Spring, Maryland. He was Senior Advisor on Peacebuilding and Development for the United Nations in Lesotho and the Philippines, 2009-2014, Professor of Conflict Transformation at Eastern Mennonite University, 1996-2007, Director of Training at the Centre… MORE >

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