How Might Peacemakers Respond to Terrorism?

A Proposal to Start a Dialogue

by David Brubaker, October 2, 2001

The events of September 11 may leave those of us committed to non-violent methods of conflict resolution puzzled about how to respond. As military and intelligence forces mobilize around the world, what is our responsibility? These tentative thoughts are an effort to start a dialogue, not merely define a position. Before suggesting possible ways in which we as peacemakers might respond, I lay out four “premises” that guide my thinking. I welcome responses.

Tentative Premises:

  1. The attacks of September 11 were apparently carried out by a group of Islamic extremists who targeted symbols of American political and economic power. This suggests that they likely viewed their action as retaliatory in nature – striking back at representations of what they believe has damaged something they greatly value. This further implies that American military “retaliation” for September 11 would probably be perceived as simply another episode in an ongoing cycle of violence.
  2. In published interviews, Osama Bin Laden (the apparent prime suspect) has condemned the influence of American culture in the Arab world, the presence of American troops on the “holy soil of Islam,” and American support for Israel. It would thus be logical to assume that the actions of September 11 were designed in part to advance the aims of reducing the American presence in those three areas. (Even terrorists have “underlying interests.”)
  3. When a group of people believes that their identity is threatened, it does little good to engage in actions that further threatens that identity. Therefore, the response of the world community to the terrorism of September 11 should be narrowly focused on identifying and arresting the perpetrators of the criminal act, rather than on a broad scale “war against terrorism.” (In addition, a “war against terrorism” is unlikely to be any more successful than the 20-year “war against drugs.”)
  4. Whatever the motivations of the terrorists who acted on September 11, their actions constitute what the United Nations has termed a “crime against humanity.” This obscene level of violence can neither be justified nor ignored. It is possible, however, to attempt to understand the level of hate that prompted the action and to refuse to respond in equally hateful ways. In addition, a crime against humanity requires a response from the entire world community, not just from one country. (Practically speaking, a worldwide network of terrorist cells requires a worldwide criminal justice response, not a single country’s reaction.)

Possible Responses:

  1. Peacemakers (traditionally pacifists who reject violence) should advocate for a criminal justice (rather than a warlike) response to terrorism, recognizing that force will be employed in the process. A criminal justice approach is critical, as it focuses on investigation, arresting those responsible, and due process in a court of law. (By contrast, a war-making approach foregoes due process and tends to result in much higher “collateral damage” – civilian casualties.)
  2. Since the most urgent conflict on the world scene appears to be that between the modern and secular West and at least several traditional and religious Islamic countries (including Israel and Palestine), a vigorous diplomatic effort also needs to be mounted to address the conflict. This diplomatic offensive should be multi-national in scope, and work within the perspective of a generational-long engagement. All of the mechanisms of “multi-track diplomacy” should be employed, including business, religious, and academic initiatives.
  3. More importantly, peacemakers must seek long-term reconciliation and justice. We need to engage in sustained examination of the root causes of terrorism, and consider our own contributions to the injustice, hopelessness, and violence with which some regions of the Arab world have lived for a generation or more – in some cases violence which originated in our own country. Peacemakers should be especially committed to understanding the underlying interests of Arab and Islamic countries, recognizing that what John Paul Lederach has termed “the virus of terrorism” requires certain conditions to flourish.
  4. Faith-based peacemakers in particular need to be prepared to confront our own fundamentalists, and to encourage colleagues in other traditions to do the same within their communities. If a “war” is truly needed, it should be a “war against hate” in all of its forms, albeit one waged with the weapons of truth and love rather than guns and bombs.
  5. Within our own communities, peacemakers need to practice patriotism (love of country) while rejecting nationalism (elevation of one’s country above all others). We need to give leadership to the welcomed national effort to condemn and avert hate crimes, and offer whatever moral and practical support we can to those individuals or communities who now feel especially vulnerable. We can also convene community dialogues to talk about how we might respond to the national trauma in ways that do not further traumatize.
  6. At a personal level, peacemakers need to nurture and sustain our hope. Effective peacemakers are first and foremost hope-bringers, and this contribution may soon be needed as much in American communities as it has been in other areas of the world. Hope emerges from one’s faith, one’s relationships, and one’s long-term perspective, and is not related to short-term optimism or pessimism regarding current events.

David Brubaker, PhD, is the associate professor of Organizational Studies at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. David is a former associate director of the Mennonite Conciliation Service with 15 years of experience in interpersonal, organizational, and international conflict transformation. David specializes in facilitation and consulting with organizations from a family systems perspective. David has also served in a variety of international settings as a trainer and consultant, including Mozambique, Angola, Rwanda, Northern Ireland, and Nepal.