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Some Questions to Consider in Responding to Terrorism

Ariel Dorfman, a
writer tortured and imprisoned by terrorists who were officers in the Chilean
military under Pinochet, wrote:

“How easy it is to kill someone you don’t have
to mourn because you never dared to imagine him alive.”

This is the essence of terrorism, but it is
also the essence of war. Indeed, isn’t
terrorism simply a form of warfare directed at civilians? Isn’t every war,
regardless of its’ declared military aims, an assault on innocent
civilians? During
the 1920’s, Mary Parker Follett, a founder of the field of mediation

“We have
thought of peace as passive and war as the active way of living. The opposite is true. War is not the most strenuous life. It is a kind of rest cure compared to the
task of reconciling our differences…From War to Peace is not from the
strenuous to the easy existence; it is from the futile to the effective, from
the stagnant to the active, from the destructive to the creative way of life.
…The world will be regenerated by the people who rise above these passive
ways and heroically seek, by whatever hardship, by whatever toil, the methods
by which people can agree.”

There are so many
unanswered questions. Here are some of
Is it possible to block
terrorism without engaging in war? Do
peace and understanding merely condone the use of terror, or give permission to
kill more people? Can anything that be
done to halt terrorism without multiplying the number of innocent victims, surrendering
precious hard-won freedoms, and recruiting thousands of new terrorists?

Haven’t countless
efforts have been made throughout history to halt terrorism through military
force, with the primary result that terrorism has hardened, deepened, and multiplied? What, in the end, shall we say about efforts
to stop terrorism in Ireland, the Basque region, Sri Lanka, Angola, Haiti,
Columbia, Algeria, Croatia, Macedonia, Lebanon and the Israeli occupied
territories through military force?

Do we not harbor
in the US people who seek to assassinate Fidel Castro, believe in killing Jews
and African Americans, and want to block food deliveries to Iraqi
children? What might we still do to
encourage dialogue and peaceful engagement among those who are willing to
die? Don’t we ultimately have to learn
how to talk to each other and live together in peace? How does war help us achieve this end?

Isn’t terrorism
an emotional response to the unwillingness of those in power to recognize some
group’s legitimate interests? Isn’t it
an effort to communicate the frustration caused by the failure of dialogue and
the unwillingness to correct injustice?
Isn’t it a confession of the failure of political governments to promote
listening, negotiation, and conflict resolution? Haven’t we contributed directly
to this lack of listening? Haven’t we
as a nation funded, supported and participated in terrorism ourselves? Don’t we now need more listening, negotiation and conflict resolution rather than

Why did we not
respond more strongly to the terror directed against Afganistani women and
non-fundamentalist muslims? To the
destruction of art, the wearing of armbands and the arrests of non-Islamic aid
workers? Why were we silent when
Israelis used terror against Palestinians?
When Pinochet used terror in Chile, or Suharto in Indonesia?

Isn’t what terrorists do
different in scale, but not in kind, from what each of us does when we are in
conflict? Do we not terrorize each
other in countless ways? Are we not now
bent on terrorizing terrorists? Isn’t
war simply a legitimized form of terror that ultimately harms innocent
civilians and children far more than it does combattants, who are in any event
mostly drafted against their will? Do
we not now as a nation thirst for revenge, even if we are able to prevent
ourselves from engaging in its worst excesses?
What drives terrorists over the edge, and allows them to harm innocents,
even take their own lives, in order to harm those they find culpable?

How should we engage in battle with our
enemies? By trying to win at all
costs? By using methods they use
against us, and “fighting fire with fire”? Or by affirming our values and integrity in the ways we fight,
and battling what made us enemies in the first place?

How should we respond to internal divisions
and dissent within our own ranks? By
preventative measures which ensure mass conformity? By purging and punishing those who deviate? Or by encouraging and supporting criticism,
and seeing dissent as information and opportunity?

How should we respond to conflict,
difference and opposition? By labeling
it as heresy or treason? By
contemptuous silence or ridicule? Or by
applause and affirmation, celebrating the gift of a different perspective?

How should we respond to mistakes made by
our supporters, or crimes committed in
our name? By defending or justifying
them in the name of common ends? By
casting the perpetrators out or labeling them liars or false prophets? Or by acknowledging our common subjectivity,
taking full responsibility, and having no name one can commit crimes in?

Finally, here are 10 questions to ponder
before deciding to kill Osama Bin Laden:

1. Which is the greater evil, bin Laden or

2. By killing bin Laden, do we in any way
let terrorism off the hook?

3. Could you do it yourself — not by
pulling a trigger, but with your bare hands?

4. What would happen to you if you did? Would that be worth it? Who, or what, would have won?

5. What
about all the little bin Laden’s who made him possible? Would you kill them as well? Where would you draw the line? Does not the line separating guilt from
innocence run through every person?
Through the entire world?

6. Could you imagine a fate worse than
death for bin Laden?

7. What would you design as a form of poetic justice for bin Laden?

8. Why give him the lesser punishment and
let him off the hook by killing him?

9. Who does his life belong to, his
victims, or the government? If you gave his victims a choice between personally
killing him and having him work for the rest of his life so their children
could go to college, which would they chose?

10. Have we been complicit? What have we contributed to the rise and
success of bin Laden? Shouldn’t part of
our anger be reserved for ourselves?
What should our punishment be?

Hasn’t it been demonstrated
throughout history that there can be no lasting peace without justice? And doesn’t justice consist, as Aristotle
pointed out centuries ago, in recognizing someone else’s self-interest?

These are a few of the questions
we have been asked by tragic events — not simply to answer, but to meditate
over, examine deeply, discuss together, search for common answers, and allow
everyone to answer differently. We now
have a unique opportunity to act as a world community of nations, but will lose
this opportunity by going it alone as we did with the Kyoto treaty on
greenhouse emissions, or by going too far in our punishment of civilians, as we
did in our boycott of food and medicine in Iraq.

The events of September 11 have
created a world-wide opposition to terrorism that has the potential to reduce
its’ horrible capacity to harm innocents.
But unless we start to address these questions, we will increase rather
than diminish it. By confronting these
questions together, we may find ways to transcend the conditions that recreate
terrorism every day, and live together with justice, and without war.


Kenneth Cloke

Kenneth Cloke is Director of the Center for Dispute Resolution and a mediator, arbitrator, consultant and trainer, specializing in resolving complex multi-party conflicts internationally and in designing conflict resolution systems for organizations. Ken is a nationally recognized speaker and leader in the field of conflict resolution, and a published author… MORE >

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