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Listening to the Language and the Voices of Terrorists

On September 14, 2001 President Bush stood on the ruins and ashes of Ground Zero. He was addressing the rescue workers wearing a sports jacket with an open-collar shirt. The president had his left arm wrapped around the shoulders of one of them. In his right hand the president held a megaphone. He responded to all the rescue workers who were shouting ‘USA! USA! USA!’ loudly and clearly: “I can hear you and the rest of the world hears you and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!” The president expressed his anger at the despicable act of aggression and gave voice to the unspeakable desperation and resolve of the moment.

And the people who presumably are responsible for having “knocked these buildings down” are still hearing from the United States and from their allies with no less determination to eradicate terrorism and kill those leaders and followers that profess to perpetuate it.

The messages—the incessant exchanges of acts of violence on either side—do not seem to achieve their ends, however. On the contrary. What is being said by either expression of violence—the war on terror on one side and the proliferation of violent extremism on the other—is not heard nor understood just like in an incessant shouting match (if this disproportionate comparison may stand).

What is terrorism telling us? What are terrorists saying with their horrific deeds? What grievance do these voices express—justified or not? Whether the voices come from Palestine or Pakistan, from Afghanistan or Algiers, from Baghdad or Bali, London or Madrid? And what do terrorists hear the U.S. saying? Can we only communicate with each other through mutual mass murder? What does it mean when we interpret the acts of terrorism in this simplified formula: “They hate us. They hate our way of life”? These questions are debated among scholars and in the political science classrooms but not among the general public and generally not in the daily mass media.

Listening to the voice of terrorism and interpreting its language does never mean condoning it or diminishing in any way all that democratic governments have to do to protect and police their citizens in accordance with their laws.

Yet, what would happen if it was possible to understand that expression of violence as a language conveying hopelessness of fulfilling one’s life dreams, a sense of deprivation, disenfranchisement and utter desperation? Why would we wonder that in such social and cultural environments young men and women are easy prey for recruiters who know how to manipulate them into finding heavenly fulfillment by their sacrifice? And what if we understood their leaders to act from a need of personal aggrandizement or from a sense of having experienced humiliation, or of wanting to give more credence to their society, culture and deeply held beliefs? What if we asked: What is it that we do not understand and that you are really telling us? What would it take to comprehend terrorism not as an end in and of itself, but as a means to an end? As a tactics to meet fundamental needs? What if the terrorists understood what President Bush believes in, namely that he “defends freedom and all that is good and just in our world”?

What would be a different response to the voices of terror than the one chosen so far? How about making people understand that their fate can only be improved through their own constructive force and genius? How about a surge in educational assistance on a massive scale? How about books instead of bombs just as Greg Mortenson has shown us in ‘promoting peace in Pakistan one school at a time’ and as described in his co-authored book Three Cups of Tea?

Understanding and translating the language of terrorism and vice versa translating the Western responses would be a momentous task for mediators. Are mediators not specialists in listening carefully, understanding needs in a most differentiated way and in reframing language?

And hearing and seeing things differently and choosing tough diplomacy and economic assistance before war is what a President Obama promises. His hope and change message also offers hope and a chance to silencing terrorism by listening and by dealing with it with a lot more understanding of its complexity and in a more effective manner than the simplification of the current administration and the one Senator McCain intends to perpetuate.


Noa Zanolli

  Noa Zanolli, Ph.D., is a Swiss social anthropologist, teacher and mediator living in Bern, Switzerland. In the U.S., she worked for several years as a mediator in a community mediation center in Ames, IA, was Director of Education at the Iowa Peace Institute, and has been working internationally as… MORE >

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