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Should We Negotiate With Terrorists – A Counterpoint

Washington Mediation Association President Cris Currie writes on the website that we should be willing to negotiate with all, including terrorists. Indeed, the premise seems to be that we will find reason at the end of the tunnel if we just acknowledge the basic legitimacy of certain governments, regardless of how repulsive their actions, and the fundamental need of all humans to be accepted, regardless of their motivation. Currie cites the work of Roger Fisher as the foundation for his premise.

I have been a professional negotiator for 26 years and a mediator for 12. I served in the Army during the Vietnam War and have also been a police officer and am an FBI-trained hostage negotiator. I bring a different perspective to this discourse, and I differ with Mr. Currie.

First, I believe it is an error to compare the Gulf War with the current situation in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world. We were dealing with a conventional army that had military objectives that largely did not include annihilating large civilian populations in Kuwait. The Gulf War was a mostly conventional battle between armored divisions, infantry and air forces, even though there were elements of terror. The objectives of the Iraqi army, if not the political leadership, were to gain control of Kuwaiti oil fields and open access to the sea. While there were aberrations along the way, the process was mostly conventional land and air warfare.

Al Qaeda, and the Taliban where it found succor, are completely different and not analogous. The terrorists first tried to kill upwards of 50,000 people by toppling the World Trade Center through the massive use of explosives in the underground parking garage in 1991. A plot to crash an airliner into the Eiffel Tower was foiled. Al Qaeda is now implicated in the murder of hundreds of our sons and brothers through unprovoked bombing attacks on the Marines, our embassies, and the USS Cole. Mr. bin Laden has now taken credit for the slaughter of thousands of innocents on September 11, crowing that the results were better than expected. The tape is clear and unequivocal – he was the primary person responsible.

Mr. Currie states, “(O)ne person’s ‘terrorist’ is another’s ‘freedom fighter’.” That may be true. It is also irrelevant. A label is just that and means nothing by itself and it certainly does not offer the cloak of legitimacy. There is an old axiom that actions speak louder than words, and when there is dissonance between them we must judge by what is done, not what is said. That someone might call them “freedom fighters” does not confer legitimacy nor should we proffer that mantle by offering to settle this amicably. Mr. bin Laden and his cohorts by their actions have chosen their destiny: surrender or die.

Hostage negotiators must rely on one basic assumption – the perpetrator wants to live more than he wants to die. Even so, the negotiation is done with snipers and SWAT teams ready to move the second the situation goes sour. It is no different here. The entire concept of jihad runs counter to this basic negotiation assumption, for to die as a martyr in jihad is a glorious thing that gives instant entrance to heaven. One cannot negotiate with those who find great pleasure in slaughtering thousands of innocents at a time, who see this as a holy mission, who want to die in the execution of said mission and readily kill themselves as part of the process.

This is where the fundamental flaw in the article becomes apparent – it assumes that all worldviews have legitimacy and that all humans subscribe to Maslow’s hierarchy. This is purely western thinking and does not comport with the reality of radical Islam where the madrasas teach the students not how to live for the fundamental betterment of the human race, but how to die while killing as many “infidels” (that’s you and me, by the way) as possible. Ergo, for us the situation is not so much about negotiating needs as eliminating a threat to the lives of thousands, even millions. Mr. bin Laden has apparently attempted to obtain nuclear weapons and clearly was developing biological weapons. Is there a serious question that he would use them if possible?

It can be argued that U.S. policy in the Middle East has contributed to the problem. That fact, while interesting, is also irrelevant at this point and with this situation. Mr. bin Laden and Al Qaeda declared war on us through their actions. The Taliban supported and protected them. All are now paying the price.

I quickly learned on the street as a police officer that my brain through talk was my most useful weapon. I also learned that when talk failed and violence escalated my job was to neutralize the perpetrator as a threat as quickly and efficiently as possible. Finally, I learned that one could not talk with someone who is physically attacking you, is intent on killing you, and just as intent on dying in the process. We called it “suicide by cop”. The western definition of that action is insanity, not worldview.

Mr. Currie, on the other hand, quotes Fisher and Brown and posits, “But shouldn’t the enemy have to give something for this kind of acceptance? No, bargaining over acceptance is like bargaining over apology: acceptance is only effective when freely given, not when it’s withheld. It is coercive to use acceptance as a bargaining chip…” It is not coercive to defend oneself against an elusive enemy bent on killing as many of us as possible. There comes a time and place when an enemy forfeits the right to equality at a bargaining table, or even the right to approach the bargaining table.

Carlos Santayana remarked that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. History shows us clearly that negotiations are not only futile, but also even foolish in certain instances. As an illustration, it took two years for United States and Vietnamese negotiators to reach agreement on the shape of the bargaining table for the peace talks in Paris. During that time, the North Vietnamese continued to consolidate their gains. We only reached true negotiations during the massive bombing raids over Hanoi and Haiphong. Negotiations bogged down again after the raids ended. The Vietnamese knew of our need to be understood through talk and capitalized on it, resulting in the deaths of thousands more of our sons and brothers.

President Teddy Roosevelt put it succinctly when he cautioned the nation to speak softly and carry a big stick. Why? Sometimes it is appropriate to speak softly – and sometimes to use the big stick.

I suggest that anyone else interested in this topic read Friedrich Glasl’s Nine Stages of Conflict Escalation as outlined in Confronting Conflict (Bristol: Hawthorne Press, 1999).[An online summary of Glasl’s nine stages is available at] Mr. bin Laden et al. appear to be at Stage Nine. There may have been a time for talk, but that juncture has been surpassed by the need to protect ourselves as bin Laden attempts to drag us over the precipice to annihilation.


Darrell Puls

Darrell Puls is an adjunct professor of conflict management at Trinity Theological Seminary and private practice mediator, trainer, and writer living in Kennewick, Washington. He holds a doctorate in conflict management, specializes in organizational and church conflict resolution, and has worked in the conflict management field since 1976. MORE >

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