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On Revenge

Catching Our Breath

As we come up for air from the relentless radio and television coverage that keeps us connected to the events of September 11th — events that we are morally obligated to monitor — we find ourselves inconsolably filled with conflicting emotions and thoughts that at once attract and repel each other. Like you, perhaps, we had connections to some of the people who died on the planes and in the buildings. In the catalytic chemistry of colliding passions, we are overwhelmed and in shock by the assault on our country, deeply pained by the loss of life of so many innocent civilians, and filled with tears when we hear the stories of those who died. Finally, we are unequivocally enraged by the acts of a few crazed fanatics. We will have our vengeance.

True anger, felt deep in the marrow of our beings, wants to lash out against terrorists of any stripe—whoever and wherever they are. Their lawlessness does not even deserve the deliberation of a trial and the evidentiary trappings of proof “beyond a reasonable doubt” to justify the revenge we want to exact. That is what that American movie icon, John Wayne, would do. That is what is on the minds of many Americans. And that is what is on our mind.

It is the instinct that boils up. And it may just be the proper response, much as we mediators hate to admit it. Notwithstanding our professional and personal commitment to peaceful dialogue and problem solving, a part of us wants nothing to do with negotiation. We want to go into “war mode” and hurt them back. More important, we need to protect ourselves. We need to “get them” before they do it again. And just perhaps, it is really true. Some people — especially religious bigots and extremist ideologues — only understand force. Understand this as clearly as you can: the people who did this to us would easily have killed every single one of us if they had the means on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. Here is Osama bin Laden’s idea:

“We — with God’s help — call on every Muslin who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God’s orders to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it. We also call on Muslim ulema (scholars), leaders, youths, and soldiers to launch the raid on Satan’s U.S. troops and the devil’s supporters allying with them, and to displace those who are behind them so that they might learn a lesson.” (1998 Edict on International Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Jews and Crusaders)

This quiet, bearded, soft-spoken man — or people like him — would have killed you, your spouse, your children, your parents, your neighbors, and your friends. They would have blown up your house and your neighborhood, done it gleefully, and considered it a good day’s work. That is the power and the depth of their belief.

Quite suddenly, then, we must confront the tight corners of our professional understandings and the smug certainties we have acquired from our years of conflict management practice. Despite our rage, not out of moral or humanistic belief but from practical experience, we also recognize that our anger unleashed will make the situation worse. The violence— at last count, some 6,714 innocent civilians missing or dead—– cannot be left unanswered. Conversely, we also know that doing what seems most simple and obvious will make matters far worse. It leaves us twisted and confused and stuck on the horns of a profound dilemma.

The Rupture Begins

This new form of warfare, borne of desperation and dogmatic zeal, scratches the eyes out of time-honored Western military traditions. It is a tactic elevated to strategem. There are no battle lines, no fine distinctions between civilian and combatant, no clear rules of engagement. The motives, methods, targets, and tactics of the protagonists are inscrutable. From here on, the wars we face will be fought in the shadows. Our professional soldiers will be pitted against disciplined holy warriors hyped up on hate and ambition to rid the world of people like you. The Geneva Conventions — care for the wounded, protection of prisoners, respect for neutrals, avoidance of innocent bystanders, reduction of collateral damage – no longer apply.

In this new world order, we can easily imagine what lies ahead: letter bombs at our places of business; a man with a backpack full of dynamite exploding in your local shopping center; chemicals in our drinking water; a pinch of powdered biological agents released into the wind from a hill just outside your city. And all on a scale never before imagined. The new terror will come from the right and the left. It might be radical Christians no less than radical Muslims. It could be a militia group in Idaho or an underground cell operating out of Winnipeg. It is a sad, barbarous way to fight. The sneaky bastards won’t even have the decency to try and kill us combatant to combatant, “mano-a-mano,” and eye to eye.

On the other hand, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by the unfolding of this new warfare on a scale un-imagined. Martin van Creveld, a military historian, observed some years ago that the “Clauswitzian” era of formal warfare between national armies is obsolete and in it’s place is warfare between ethnic and religious groups. (The Transformation of War, The Free Press, N.Y., 1991). It is, of course, exactly what others have been experiencing for some time. But always, it was in obscure places: Rwanda, Algeria, Columbia, Cambodia. Now it is in your backyard,

If warfare in the Twenty-First Century seems to have suddenly changed, it only reflects the new paradigm of modern planetary life that has so violently washed ashore in America. Differences in beliefs and conflicts between cultures can no longer be sidestepped by retreats into separate geographical locations. America can withdraw from international treaties on race and environment, but the boundaries that now matter most are more fluid than ever before in history. There is no escape.

So cause and effect blur together. Just behind the violence, the economic disparities between the “haves” and “have nots” glares out at us. But violence always begets more poverty. The systemic complexities of international economic, political, and technological relationships saddle the actions of all countries with risks and unintended consequences that compromise intended objectives. Like great, sub-continental plates grating against each other just before a series of earthquakes, the rituals and traditions of all cultures are shifting. It would be nice if the new realities were simply geopolitical. They are more fundamental than that. They are tectonic.

September 11th 2001 was the beginning of the rupture. The men and women who attacked New York and Washington D.C. were not lunatics, thugs or cowards. To dismiss them so simplistically is to our peril. They are far more threatening. They are disciplined fanatics who believe themselves to be oppressed and victimized by the very existence and lifestyle of you, us, and all Americans. Understand this: it is not just about the U.S. Government. It is personal.

Tom Friedman, in a New York Times piece called “World War III,” explained why we must not underestimate the force and energy of the number of “super-empowered” angry people in the Third World who hate the Western values that define our lives. What makes them super-empowered, he writes, is their genius at using the very networks and high technologies they hate so much as weapons. “They turned our most advanced civilian planes into human directed guided missiles—a diabolical melding of their fanaticism and our technology. Jihad On-line.”

Revenge Is A Dish Best Served Cold

So, ever so suddenly, the old paradigm, based on simplistic ethnocentric notions of respect for diversity and thoughtful dialogue, do not fit. This is especially disconcerting for those of us who practice the profession of conflict resolution. We don’t like “revenge.” Vengeance, retaliation, retribution, counterstrikes, and reprisals are inconsistent with our notions of productive dialogue, mutual gains bargaining, and the hunt for super-optimum solutions. We are now forced to accept that we cannot rationally discourse our way to a peaceful world with people who would really prefer us to disappear from the face of the planet. Nor can their hate, or the hate that is emerging in us, be cleansed through talking therapies. The anger cannot be vented. Appeals for prayer and urging people to their inner higher ground are good rhetoric but they are not viable political strategies. Remember that the men who stole those planes and drove them into our buildings in New York were supported by their own prayers at the point of impact no less than the terrified hostage passengers they had kidnapped. Prayer is nice but it won’t prevent the people who hate us from doing it again.

As negotiators and communicators, as facilitators and problem solvers, as honest brokers, mediators, and go-betweens, we now find ourselves in a terrible predicament. Believing that people will eventually be trustful and reasonable is our professional creed. It gives us strength. It is sensible and it is empirical. It gives us personal satisfaction and we know that it makes the world a better place. And we also know it works more often than people realize. But believing we could work things out if we could just talk person-to-person with certain people is naive.— and dangerous.

The great dilemmas of our work as mediators array themselves along two dimensions. . On the horizontal axis, we are subjected to powerful tugs and pulls between cooperation and competition. On the vertical axis, we are confronted by a fierce tension between morality and utility. If we are too cooperative, we risk being taken advantage of—being played for fools. If we are too competitive and push too hard, we intensify the competitive urges of our adversaries. We help them become what we most feared they were in the first place; because they have less to lose, they may just beat us at our own game. If we are too righteous and moralistic, we become stiff and unyielding. We miss those critical moments where real insight and understanding have a chance to grow. And if we are too pragmatic, too rational, too sensible and analytical, we lose our inspiration and imagination. The sparkle goes out of our eyes.

The harsh reality of our sudden new world order requires us to fully acknowledge and respond with an equal measure of passion to the messages of September 11th. We must be ready to engage with the harsh and hateful words that must be said by both sides. If not—if we intend to set the rules for the discussion before it is held—about the civil tone of the discourse and the courtesies to be enforced, then we suspect that discussion will be of little use. Our sense, from reading the on-line comments of many mediators and other professionals, is that there remains an expectation that simple renewed commitment to rational discourse and humanistic principles will be sufficient. Certainly, we can have discussions among ourselves at our professional conferences, organize poignant moments of reflection and prayer, and find solace in the company of colleagues and friends. It isn’t much but it is something. But we must also consider how our well-meaning, well-intentioned discussions run the risk of indirectly inciting more anger and violence. It’s more talk. Talk is cheap, especially to those who stand on the margins. “Democracy,” said Jawharal Nehru “is bad, but everything else is worse.” The United States is a great country. When the sum total of our civilization is added up, we will be credited with jazz, baseball, a few technologies, the constitution, and peanut butter . We will also be known as a people who seriously pursued and embraced the democratic experiment with its consequent protection of individual rights. We will have done much to improve the world: scientific advancements, health care, technology. That makes it all the more difficult to understand how our generosity could be so unappreciated.

Yet, as a human enterprise, we are understandably imperfect. We have not failed, but we have also not fully entered the game with the same energy we bring to making money or taming the frontier of space. We have spoken with forked tongues more than a few times. We have tried to do the right thing sometimes, but because the U.S. is the world’s largest economy, and the most righteous— founded “with God’s grace”— we have tended to allow ourselves to luxuriate in a myopia about the existence of the rest of the world. And for the last 100 years, we have regularly delivered ultimatums, invaded other countries, and broken agreements, all with impunity, and all because it was deemed necessary to protect U.S. interests.

We will never justify or excuse the acts of the September 11th terrorists and we will, eventually, settle those scores. But tempering our inevitable actions is the recognition that more than a few people on this planet (and in this country) have become so alienated and feel so expendable that suicidal acts have become their preferred and honorable way to live-on in death. You do not reach ideologues and fanatics with prayer, discussion, or negotiation. There have to be actions—both constructive and forceful—that set limits but provide hope. When retributive sanctions are levied for the terror of September 11th, which they inevitably must be, then there also must be constructive follow-up and real interchange. If not, the cycle of violence will continue building and extend to future generations.

The United States must be an active presence in the world. We cannot withdraw from international treaties and organizations on a whim when those commitments seem inconvenient, and then try to build “coalitions” only after we have been attacked. Most of all, true not only for countries but for mediators as well, we cannot expect people to begin being cooperative and reasonable because we want them to be. We will have to engage them forcefully without trivializing or dismissing the depth of the anger they hold and the circumstances that have given rise to their rage.

For us, the challenge is daunting. If history is our guide, protesting our innocence as Americans and unleashing our nationalistic rage, giving sermons against violence, or gathering for peace vigils are too facile and not effective. Such dithering leads to the question: whose peace is being sought, and at the expense of whom? Neither will “coolheaded” reasoning allow us to escape. The answer does not fit the cramped constraints of pure logic. Only when there is a passionate commitment to managing conflict with these terrorists, recognizing the complexity of the situation and limits of retribution, do we have a chance to survive with them and with others like them in this new millennium.

We know, from our work as conflict resolvers that revenge is a powerful motivator. We also know that it will never fill the emptiness that was created by someone on September 11th. The holes that we have inside us now are permanent. So, like many of you, the two of us will follow our muddling instincts and do the best we can. After revenge is exacted—military action that no matter how senseless appears politically compelled— we want the United States to be better prepared to face the hard work of learning how to live in a suddenly different world.

We recognize that our gifts are small, our insights limited. The best mediators, though, seem to have a knack for helping parties in conflict stumble upon the “teachable moment,” not by lecturing people about, but by choreographing circumstances so they find it themselves. The hardest thing for impatient Americans is learning to bide our time, staying attentive, and then seizing opportunity when it suddenly unfolds.

Our challenge now as mediators is to prepare more fully to work with people who do not share the values of peace and conflict resolution and who, in fact, are filled with hate. To do this, we must learn a far more versatile form of intervention, something we call “Protean Negotiation”—the ability to shift and accommodate our approach based on the realities of the situation, not based on how we would hope or expect the circumstances to be. Across the four points of the grid — with highly competitive, cooperative, pragmatic, and moralistic players — the greatest challenge will be dealing with fanatics and ideologues who are at the extreme end of morality/utility continuum. They say and some of us have been heard to say that negotiation is not an option: everyone negotiates at some point or another. Warfare and negotiation are like the bank and the stream of a powerful river. For the present, however, what is certain is that the fanatics are no longer remote. As never before in history, they can and will reach us where we live.

As for the two of us, we will heal our hurts, bide our time, practice our craft, and try in this terrible transition to be guided by the wisdom of a small poem written in 1959 by Elder Olson and called “Directions To The Armorer.”

All right, armorer,
make me a sword—
not too sharp,
a bit hard to draw,
and of cardboard, preferably,
on second thought, stick
an eraser on the handle,
somehow I always
clobber the wrong guy.

Make me a shield with
easy-to-change insignia.
I’m often a little vague
as to which side I’m on,
what battle I’m in.

And listen, make it
a trifle flimsy,
not too hard to pierce.
I’m not absolutely sure
I want to win.

Make the armor itself
as tough as possible,
but on a reverse principle:
don’t worry about its
saving my hide:
just fit it to give me
some sort of protection—
any sort of protection—
from a possible enemy inside.


Peter Adler

Peter Adler directs ACCORD3.0, a group of independent consultants specializing in foresight, fact-finding and conseneus building. He is the former President and CEO of The Keystone Center and has held executive positions with the Hawaii Supreme Court, the Hawaii Justice Foundation, and Neighborhood Justice Center of Honolulu. Peter can also… MORE >


Robert Benjamin

Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care. A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and… MORE >

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