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Quo Vadis? Reframing Terror from the Perspective of Conflict Resolution


The events on September 11, 2001 that overtook our daily lives and reoriented our national and global priorities pose significant challenges for our newly emerging century. They leave us with the question — Quo vadis — where are we headed? Where we are going and how we get there depends a great deal on how we define the nature of our journey, its challenges, and ultimately its proposed destination. We might best understand our destination as a horizon, visible as a guidepost but never removing the need for continued journey.

On the horizon: The building of global and local relationships among our richly diverse peoples based on the idea that the security and well-being of any one community is connected and interdependent with the well being of others, requiring respect, cooperation, and investment in our mutual destiny.

But what does a horizon of interdependence require of us? And what would such a horizon suggest about our current crisis of suspended trust, insecurity, and violent division?

The lenses that I bring to bear on these questions reflect the fact that I speak from a faith tradition that has for nearly five hundred years embraced the core value of the sanctity of life and sought to redress human suffering and conflict from the pathways of compassionate love, service of others and sacrifice, even on behalf of enemies. I am a Mennonite, a Christian denomination. Though not our language of choice, we are commonly referred to as pacifists, a term that has come under considerable duress in the cauldron of public discourse across America since September 11. These theological values, I recognize, are not often considered relevant in the mainstream of political ethics, in the “pragmatic” considerations of national security, or in the face of violent oppression and systematic hatred. Nonetheless, I prefer transparency over ambiguity when identifying a core element in the comments that follow.

In addition, I work professionally in a relatively new field often referred to as conflict resolution. My work in the past twenty years as a conciliator, teacher and practitioner of building peace processes has taken me to Colombia, Northern Ireland, Somalia, the Philippines, and Tajikistan among other sites of deadly conflict. I live a certain paradox: As a person who believes deeply in nonviolence I have spent most of my professional life working alongside people who for one reason or another justify, and sometimes sanctify, the use of the gun to protect or achieve a better world. I am no stranger to settings of violence, nor to deeply held views about its legitimacy albeit for radically divergent reasons, nor to the personal cost of seeking justice and peace in places where cycles of violence dominate daily lives.

I should hasten to add that while I feel these experiences have provided me a first-hand and realistic feel of the challenges we face in building a more peaceful world, I also harbor no pretensions. To put it bluntly, I offer no easy and ready-to-implement answers. Indeed, I have developed an appreciation for the complexity of the challenges and the need to think beyond any one perspective, including my own. Though it is not easy to admit, I have grown in my ability to say simply and directly, “I just don’t know.” That I suppose that is the luxury of not being an elected official.

Framing the Challenge

I have been struck in the last weeks with the extraordinary intensity of our efforts to construct a shared social meaning of the crisis. What is terrorism? What is the nature of this conflict? Who are our enemies and what are they up to? Who are we, and what are we up to? Interpretations and answers to these questions frame and justify our strategy and response. This process of building a shared meaning is so intense precisely because we are dealing with a phenomenon that does not fit common, traditional understandings, particularly as prescribed in politics and international relations as usual.

I have observed in our emerging public debate a tendency to engage the phenomenon we wish to address, in this case terrorism, as if engagement required a singular and linear causal definition and corresponding line of response. When we address complexity through simple causal equation, particularly in violent conflict, we reduce the challenge to a more manageable size, but at the cost of ignoring important dimensions of it. In my experience, sooner or later that which is ignored returns to haunt us.

Accordingly, we should multiply and attempt to comprehend, or see together, the various dimensions of the reality we face as we develop and assess courses of action. We must develop a greater capacity to think in paradoxes and dilemmas, wherein multiple social and political energies, even when they appear contradictory on the surface, are held in relationship at the same time. Let me suggest three paradoxes that appear frequently in our current debates and speculate on their implications for strategy and action.

The Justice Question: Accountability and Systemic Prevention

Much of the debate on our response to September 11 falls along two lines of thinking, posed as contradictions representing incompatible points of view. This forces the dialogue and the audience to move into an either/or choice of reason and action. While often seen as analyses, I prefer to engage the lines of argument as living social energies. They are voices. They talk and interact. Interestingly, both claim to speak for and to justice.

In the aftermath of the horrific violence committed on thousands of innocent people through the hijacking and use of civilian airlines as weapons, we find the deeply resonating voice that speaks from our very hearts and souls: That voice says: “Those responsible for these acts against humanity must be brought to justice.” The impulse of the voice pushes for retribution, at times crossing over into a cry for revenge. However, at its deepest level, the fundamental legitimate and necessary source of this social energy is a cry for accountability. Harm has been done and those committing the harm must be accountable for what they did to the victims and to humanity at large. The U.S. government has put forward a multi-faceted approach to pursue this agenda, including police, immigration, courts, and the military, at home and abroad.

The second voice we hear rises from a different source and creates a distinctive energy. Essentially this voice decries the patterns of political, religious, and economic roots of social exclusion, isolationism, and oppression that contribute to the origins of terrorism. This voice reminds us that the terror we have experienced in the past month has an extraordinary ability to regenerate itself. This voice argues that social injustice creates the soils in which violence germinates. The remedy calls out for prevention of a systemic nature: “We do not want this violence to ever happen again. We must stop the cycles of terror at its roots. We must address the sources of what gives it birth, not just react to its symptoms.”

It may be noted that both voices share the common goal of eliminating terrorism and both appeal to justice. Significant differences between them do exist and when these two voices enter the realm of public discourse they enter as mutually exclusive monologues.

Accountability is framed as immediate action aimed at the arrest and punishment of the perpetrators of the violence. September 11 is seen as a crime, an act of war, and aggression requiring an equally aggressive response. “We must act now and act firmly, or we will be seen as weak capitulators to our adversaries.” Significantly, the war in Afghanistan is framed as the key action achieving accountability and justice. It is an action that shows resolve, engages the enemy on his terms, and pursues just punishment. Prevention from this viewpoint will happen when the terrorist networks are physically destroyed.

On the other hand, systemic prevention advocates argue that the phenomenon of terrorism did not happen overnight and has a significant history. They would say that we are caught in a cycle with important and repeating patterns and characteristics. Our actions must be gauged at destroying the cycle, a process that will require time. From this view the way in which perpetrators are brought to accountability should carefully be gauged to avoid inadvertent contribution to the environment that promotes the regeneration of terror into future generations.

The Enemy Question: Threat as person and threat as social milieu

Let us consider a second paradox, the enemy syndrome. This paradox poses the question: Where does the threat to human security come from?

For many, the primary threat is found in the concept of a state “enemy.” Historically, this kind of enemy has two significant facets. First, the image of the enemy is built on a strong element of personalization. Second, the enemy is located in a territory. Personification and geography are the keys. In the United States our most significant financial, technological, and human resources for national security are constructed to wage battle with this kind of enemy. Our struggle, this voice now argues is to find, root out, and destroy the enemy, in particular the leadership in their home environment. The war in Afghanistan is the natural culmination of this view in the struggle against terror. The primary target is Osama bin Laden and al Queda in Afghanistan.

The impulse behind this voice is the key concept that people responsible for committing horrendous acts and must be neutralized. People who use violence against innocent populations are the enemy. No stone, this voice says, should be left unturned to make it impossible for them to continue their action.

The other voice argues that terrorism represents a kind of enemy that cannot be conceptualized in traditional terms. This enemy is Terror with a capital T. It is multi-generational, a social phenomenon built over time, without territory in a traditional sense. It is decentralized in cells, fluid and ephemeral, and ever adaptive to its own regeneration. The war on Terror is therefore mostly a war of culture, ideas, narrative, chosen myths, glories and traumas. It is a war of perception. Traditional weapons cannot win this struggle. In fact the inverse is true. Victimhood regenerates itself by losing a war. Keeping Terror alive for generations requires narratives built from perceptions of historic events, oppression and unwarranted evil, all grounded in direct experience.

Interestingly, the voice that defines the threat as the personal enemy and fanatical evildoer links itself with accountability. The best way to deal with such an enemy is to destroy the leaders while attempting to safeguard the innocent population they manipulate. But this voice rarely addresses the power of social milieu. It does not tell us how to deal with leaders who are draped with myths and perceived wrongs with which they regenerate themselves over decades, even centuries.

On the other hand, the voice that describes threat as social milieu promotes the view that the soil in which Terror is cultivated must be addressed at a systemic prevention level. It argues that we should not focus on the individual leader and person. Rather we should eliminate the source and social forces that create it. But this voice rarely addresses itself to the direct responsibility of manipulative leaders, the role of cycles of personified hatred, or the short-term solution to stop the violence.

The Change Question: Engagement from outside and transformation from within

A third question emerges in the recent metaphor that the events of September 11 have awakened a sleeping and peaceful giant who now must address the crime and promote change. This question asks us how we understand change. Again we find two distinct voices.

One voice, pervasive in the American ethos, promotes the idea that we prefer to be left alone, peaceful in our place in the world. “Don’t mess with us and we won’t mess with you.” But if we are provoked, we will rise to the challenge of global policing, creating and making order, on our own terms. This voice firmly believes that the best way to assure change is to eliminate or at least control the source of the problem “out there” through superior power and force. In recent weeks we have heard a plethora of adages that essentially say, “there is no better defense than a good offense.”

This view of achieving change suggests a core and important underlying concern: We do not and cannot live isolated from the world. Our engagement will be necessary. Change “over there” will require action and relationship with the world community.

The other voice concurs with the idea of engagement but disagrees with the use of outside force. In fact the opposite approach is advocated. The environment that creates Terror requires change processes from within the cultural and religious ethos and meaning structures that give rise to violent extremism. Sustainable change necessitates mobilizing and supporting internal human, religious and cultural transformation. This requires working at the level of hearts, minds and perceptions. This voice suggests we need to change how we engage the Arab and Muslim world. Ultimately, the change we desire will have to come from within and we should not make their work more difficult or impossible.

Reframing our Understanding of the Questions

We need to reframe the debate currently going on in the United States. Many will find that one voice promotes a nonviolent perspective and the other justifies the use of warfare. In broad strokes that is true, but the debate is much more complex than a dispute between dichotomous communities.

For example, some colleagues from the conflict resolution community passionately make the case that the terrorist act of September 11 has a parallel to aspects of dealing with domestic violence. The violent abuse by the batterer, they say, could be stopped and controlled and the victim protected by the intervention of a stronger power. If that is what we do in a case of specific violence, they ask, how can we not do it in the case of a large-scale violent abuse of innocent people?

On the other hand, some strategic think tanks and even military personnel make a case for another of our voices. In the Washington Post, Sunday Oct. 21, 2001, former Undersecretary of State Edward P. Djerejian who worked with the first Bush administration and now directs the James Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University said “we have to understand that social injustice is a major point of exploitation by extremists, and to get at it, the U.S. must proceed on dual economic and political tracks.” Or Colonel Richard Dunn, former chief of the Army’s internal think tank, who commented that “you can go and kill every one of their terrorists and hang bin Laden in front of the White House and you still have not solved the problem – and you probably have created hundreds of new terrorists. So you could win tactically, and lose strategically” (Washington Post, Oct. 21, 2001, A19).

Let us reframe the discussion. We are addressing a very complex set of realities that require us to hold the voices of the paradoxes together. We can ill afford to approach this debate as an issue of which voice is right or wrong. Figure 1 poses the three as linked.

Figure 1 – Posing Paradoxes of Terror

Justice as accountability
Justice as systemic prevention

Threat to Security: Leaders/groups using terror
Threat to Security: Social, political, economic milieu that gives rise to violence

Resource for Change: Outside engagement/intervention
Resource for Change: Internal engagement/responsibility

This approach suggests the core sources of each paradox are held together with the small word “and.” This shifts us away from an either/or construction of understanding. It moves us toward a both/and frame of reference for addressing complexity. This permits us to frame questions that explore each voice in depth but always in relation to its paradoxical counterpart.

1. How can we pursue rigorous accountability for the atrocity committed and at the same time promote systemic prevention that stops this phenomenon from recycling into our children’s’ generation?

2. How can we increase personal responsibility for the individual leaders that promote this use of violence and at the same time change the social, economic, political, and cultural milieu that produces generations of recruits?

3. How can we (U.S. and West) strategically respond as outsiders in the Middle East and Central Asia and at the same time support and encourage internal agents of change and the elimination of terrorism within the cultural, religious and political milieus of the region?

The Horizon of Interdependence

What does all of this suggest about our horizon of interdependence? I believe the essence of interdependence is the recognition that things are linked and are in relationship. When we frame our understanding and choices of action in reference to paradoxical questions we take the first steps toward understanding relationships and linkages. That may help us achieve three things. We can:

Increase our capacity to think comprehensively and more strategically about the phenomenon we face and the decisions we make; Ask each voice in the debate to take seriously the legitimate concerns of the other; and Provide mechanisms for measuring the strategic effectiveness of specific actions by the capacity of those chosen actions to address each set of voices. This leads naturally to the intriguing question of how our current understanding, articulated goals and choices stand up to the questions framed as paradoxes. Let me conclude with a personal assessment. I recognize that for very legitimate reasons others may well arrive at different conclusions to this question.

The declaration of war in Afghanistan, for example, has been framed as a way to achieve short-term accountability for the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks. This response is aimed at eliminating terrorist leaders whom the U.S. administration believes to be the most significant threat to our security. They have been defined as the enemy. However, warfare was and remains the choice of greatest risk in terms of perpetuating the perceptions of injustice and oppression in the social milieu that give rise to the regeneration of recruitment into Terror.

In my opinion, we have not had an adequate national debate as to value added by the choice of this war. It is not clear that the war in Afghanistan is more effective in achieving accountability, in both the short and long term, than rigorous domestic and international policing, legal and court based procedures, and coordinated financial blockades of specific individuals capacity to finance terrorism. The organizational capacity of Terror, as we know all too well, is not linked exclusively nor even primarily to central leadership or a specific geography in reference to its ability to strike now or in a foreseeable future.

What remains unarticulated in the anti-terrorist strategy is a compelling rationale and description of our goals. Where is this policy leading and how will the war in Afghanistan bring us closer to those goals? When considered in terms of the broader paradox, the war in Afghanistan is the weakest choice to effect accountability of individuals and systemic change. Far more effective would be the coordinated actions of new alliances, regional efforts to control the actions of the individuals and bring them to justice, and international policing and legal proceedings that place the case to global tribunals not just American justice.

Consider another example, the decision about the importance of a bombing campaign and military action during Ramadan. This will have significant effects on large portions of the Muslim world as to their perception about the nature of our intentions and goals. Many say this is unimportant since Arab and Muslim countries have engaged in war during Ramadan. Such a view misses the point. The key is that perceptions and interpretations of our action and about our motives are the key source of what will produce reaction and renewed terrorism. To ignore this point means we ignore future generations of terror. We must remember that what is perceived to be real is real in its consequences. There is significant debate within the Muslim community about whether this is a war against terrorism or a war that has broader motives, including religious hegemony. These are serious perceptions with historic roots.

Americans must come to realize that we are gauged by our actions not our words about intentions or motives. Our actions and the outcome of this internal Muslim debate will significantly affect the next decades and generations of our relationships and the capacity for recruitment into terrorism. Americans by and large are not equipped to understand what Peter Berger calls the “furiously religious world” in which we live. We have mostly sought to ignore or avoid what appears to us as “fanatical” reliance on religion in politics that we see in some parts of the world. Yet the greatest source of change within the Muslim world for dealing with terrorism is not likely to emerge from a secular elite. It will come from deeply religious — even fundamentalist believers — who firmly hold to their religion as a guidepost to politics but abhor the extremist views of hatred and violence against innocent civilians. They do not find in the Koran a justification for these violent actions. In my direct experience, these Muslim believers are ready and willing, at no small risk to themselves, to engage that debate of terrorism from within Islam. However, they are easily marginalized by the choices we make in choosing warfare as the perceived centerpiece in our pursuit of justice. Our actions, in spite of legitimate intentions, become counterproductive in the short and long term.

Next Steps: Pursuing the Unexpected

Quo vadis? Where are we headed with this conflict? What might the core paradoxes suggest in terms of immediate political action and response? First and foremost the United States government should clearly articulate the linkage between short and long-term goals. I believe it is best summarized in this: We want to Prevent Terror and Pursue Justice. This goal has short and long term horizons. What we wish to build long-term must shape the choices we make in the short-term. To create that linkage I suggest these immediate actions:

1. At the beginning of Ramadan we should halt all bombing in Afghanistan. Simultaneously this will signal the beginning of a global campaign to Prevent Terror and Pursue Justice. Our actions will speak louder than words. We must be bold, direct and global.

2. The global campaign to Prevent Terror and Pursue Justice must solidify a strategic alliance to address Central Asian regional security and the immediate humanitarian plight in and around Afghanistan. An international coalition to massively respond to the civilian humanitarian plight in Afghanistan and on its borders is desperately needed. At the beginning of winter season massive direct aid can potentially save millions of lives. The key: An international alliance including key Muslim and Western countries must publicly work side-by-side in the effort. At the same time this alliance must address security issues in and around Afghanistan as a coordinated effort, effectively controlling its borders in the short term and creating the platform for internal change in the mid term. The halt in the bombing campaign makes this coordination far more practical and feasible.

3. The global campaign to Prevent Terror and Pursue Justice must continue domestic and international policing, financial, and legal fronts to address the sources of responsibility for September 11 and the prevention of renewed threats of terror in the immediate term. Given the organizational structure of terror, these actions are more immediate and direct in the prevention of renewed violence on American soil than the war in Afghanistan.

4. Request that the U.N. Security Council establish an ad hoc international criminal court on terrorism similar to what was accomplished with U.S. leadership for Rwanda and the Balkans. Such an effort can clearly establish an international mandate and legal framework for the extradition of those involved in the events of September 11 with no statute of limitation for acts of terror as crimes against humanity. The U.N. must be engaged and strengthened in this and other roles, which have immediate and long-term implications for eliminating terrorism at a global level.

5. Promote energetic and unprecedented international efforts to reinvigorate A) the Israeli/Palestinian peace process toward a new level of stability, assuring the security of Israel and a functional homeland for Palestinians; B) the regional peace concerns, particularly of Pakistan and India on Kashmir. We must stabilize the volatility of this conflict where the use of nuclear weapons is in question. Both processes are ripe with immediate possibilities. Positive progress on both will create significant impact on prevention of terror and promotion of justice, in the immediate and long-term.


From the view of these core paradoxes the horizon of interdependence suggests an important challenge. We must link our choice of action to the clear development of short and long-term goals. Where we wish to go this century, including security at home and abroad, depends on our ability to build new alliances and change perceptions. We must take accountability and systemic prevention seriously. We must promote responsibility of leaders’ choices and make serious headway in reducing social injustice and exclusion. We must create external support for change that is rooted in respect for the evolving internal discourse of faith, ethics and politics in various regions.

Ultimately, interdependence requires us to be in relationship with, but not in control over the peoples of our diverse global community. The beginning of this century has provided a new wake up call. It offers us a horizon worth our journey. At the deepest core, the quality of our security at home is related not to the size or quantity of our weapons, but to the quality of our relationships and the well-being of the human family.


John Paul Lederach

John Paul Lederach is Professor of Practice for International Peacebuilding with the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.  He works as a practitioner-scholar, providing facilitation, mediation and training/education, with extensive experience at national and community levels in North and Latin America, Africa,… MORE >

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