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Seeking the Roots of Terrorism: An ADR Response to International Acts of Violence

I was deeply troubled by the recent bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and
Tanzania and disappointed but not surprised by the US missile bombings in response. I
know I was not alone in this. Many ADR professionals have begun to explore whether a
response utilizing the tools of dialogue and negotiation might produce a better outcome
than the prolonged war on terrorism now foreseen by the US administration. My
thoughts about this issue stem from long inquiry into what creates conflict and violence
and keeps it going. Having spent many years working in the mental health arena, I
naturally bring a psychological perspective to these questions. I am not satisfied with the
prospect of a prolonged international war on terrorism nor do I think that a negotiated
settlement at the present time would really solve anything. What would it take, I keep
asking myself, to end terrorism, to put a stop to all this unnecessary suffering?

Before exploring options for dealing with terrorism, I think we need to understand why
people become terrorists in the first place and why they choose this method of achieving
their aims. The most fundamental human need, once survival needs have been met, is, I
think, the need for loving connection to other human beings. That connection is most
rewarding when it is built on a foundation of respect, empathy and honest
communication. When deprived of that connection people feel extraordinarily alone,
frightened and ineffective. People will go to any lengths, I have discovered, to feel
connected to other humans and this is true, I am sure, of those who belong to terrorist
organizations. My hunch is that terrorists are people who feel very powerless inside, who
are enormously frustrated at not being seen, heard and honored for their uniqueness.
When a person feels that they can never get what they need, it is easy to project the
blame for that on whoever or whatever might seem to be the cause. If you feel powerless
inside the easiest way to feel powerful is to create terror in others, to make them suffer as
you are suffering. With the spread of American culture and products all over the world, I
can well understand that people in less developed nations feel overwhelmed by a wave
that threatens to destroy their culture, their religion, their way of life. That is a
frightening prospect and hence the US is a natural target. Being a terrorist also gives one
a strong identity, one which is very difficult to let go. If peace came, who would you be?
What would you do with your life? Better to keep on fighting. Thus if the enemy
responds with violence to your violence, how justified you must feel. And so it goes, the
endless cycle of violence, revenge and retaliation. The real question is how to turn off
this cycle, how to derail it. James Gilligan, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School
who has spent his professional life working with violent offenders, traces the causes of
violence to shame and powerlessness in the perpetrator. His book “Violence: Our Deadly
Epidemic and its Causes” offers a beautiful elucidation of this thesis. Of course there are
also historical, cultural and religious factors involved in this issue and I do not mean to
make light of them. I believe however, that underneath those issues, we will always find
human beings who are trying to meet their needs, who are trying their best to find
happiness no matter how unskillfully they may go about it.

We also need to think clearly about the ethical questions involved, i.e. what constitutes
justice when there have been acts of such violence and hurtfulness to so many human
beings? When someone has taken the lives of others and caused so much suffering we
need to say firmly and clearly, ” It’s not okay. It was wrong. You must stop.” The
individuals must be held accountable. If however, in doing that, we further shame and
demonize the perpetrator(s), they will only feel more shamed, more powerless, more
justified and refuse to take responsibility for their behavior. This is the conundrum we
face as a species: how to get perpetrators of violence to cease their violence entirely.
Unfortunately few perpetrators are able to truly see others as human beings, to
understand the damage they have done, unless and until they have been treated as with
dignity and respect themselves. To get such people to change, to show them that there
are better ways of getting their needs for connection and personal efficacy met, we need
to model that in how we treat them. This is an extraordinarily difficult and tricky thing
to do. Most of us err on the side of vengeance and punishment, which while completely
understandable, does not work in the long run. Others err on the side of excusing the
behavior, the oh you poor thing, you were so abused as a child syndrome. Few people,
let alone governments have figured out how to strike the right balance. It is clear
however, that a war on terrorism is unlikely to take us where we want to go.

To really ameliorate this situation it might make more sense for the US to pursue a two-pronged strategy: finding the perpetrators and putting them on trial (easier said than
done) while at the same time engaging in extensive and sincere dialogue with their
constituency base. What would the effect be if thousands of ordinary American citizens
went to Arab countries and took part in structured dialogues with Islamic citizens, asking
them “What is this all about?” and listened to what they had to say. If there have been
injustices or wrongs done by the US, we ought to own up to them. As we do this a space
might open in which we might then be able to share our grief at the losses and fear we
have experienced from terrorism. Dialogues on highly polarized issues are currently
being done in the US by the Public Conversations Project and in Bosnia by the
Foundation for a Civil Society among others. Another interesting idea I heard recently
on NPR was to bring American Islamic citizens into visible posts in the administration
and be willing to listen to their perspective. The message of this to the world’s Islamic
citizens would be that we care about them, we are interested in them and that we want to
know more about them. Thus we could model with integrity a true respect for the rule of
law and a willingness to listen to voices that are now unheard. And this, after all, is what
democracy is all about, is it not?

I was saddened that in the recent missile attacks on targets in Sudan and Afghanistan, the
US, while espousing a respect for law, engaged in an act of retaliation. I can understand
the fear of imminent attack that made it seem we had to defend ourselves. After all I
have no great desire to get showered with nerve gas or caught in a bombing. Yet I wish
we could, as a nation, risk exploring some very different kinds of responses. I was also
disturbed that these attacks were explained as necessary to defend Americans. In fact,
the overwhelming majority of victims in the embassy bombings were Kenyan and
Tanzanian citizens. This felt to me like yet another example of American chauvinism, a
tendency to see only our own needs. Surely this must anger people in other parts of the
world. Don’t their lives count too?

The biggest problem I’ve found in alternative dispute resolution is that people are
terrified of being re-traumatized, abused or violated again in the resolution process as
they were in the past. We have such enormous resistance to opening ourselves, to
genuinely sharing our pain, to being vulnerable. Yet if we want to heal and to end
intractable conflicts, that is precisely where we have to go, at least to some degree. How
do we in the ADR field, make it safe for people to go into such dangerous territory? For
me this means being willing to be vulnerable, to tell the truth in conflicts in my own life
and to be willing to see the humanity in the person I am in conflict with.

Maybe people as well as societies need to reach bottom before they are willing to try
things a different way. Perhaps this has finally happened in Northern Ireland since the
Omagh bombing. I was very moved by the action of David Trimble, the Protestant
leader, attending a mostly Catholic service for people killed in that bombing. “We may
be different,” his action said to me, “but we are alike in suffering and loss.”


Joy Helmer

Joy Helmer, Board Chairperson of The Compassionate Listening Project, recently ended a thirtysix-year career as a psychiatric/mental health nurse. For many years Joy has had a passionate interest in learning and practicing deep listening, dialogue and reconciliation between highly polarized sides in intractable conflicts. She has also pursued an avid… MORE >

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