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Breaking the cycle of violence

Responding to terrorism without promoting more violence.
By John Paul Lederach
January/February 2002 1.1.02

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The images of the September 11 terrorist attacks still flash in my mind. The heart of America is ripped, even our most basic trust suspended. As Americans we need to express our deep anguish, our sense of powerlessness and collective loss. The cry for revenge, too, is a deeply human response. But we also need a plan of action that seeks not only to redress the injustice against us but also to promote change that breaks the cycle of violence.

Having worked for nearly 20 years as a mediator and proponent of nonviolent change in situations around the globe where cycles of deep violence seem hell-bent on perpetuating themselves, I have seen how people locate at the core of their identities ways of justifying their part in the cycle of violence.

With this in mind I share these observations. I start by exploring the nature of the challenge we face. The response I propose takes the challenge seriously in pursuit of genuine, durable, and peaceful change.


The first and most important question to ask ourselves is, How do people reach this level of anger, hatred, and frustration? In my experience, explanations that suggest that people are brainwashed by perverted leaders who hold some kind of magical power over them is an escapist simplification that will inevitably lead us to wrong-headed responses. Anger that escalates to violence is generational, identity-based anger. It develops over time through a combination of historical events, a deep sense of threatened identity, and experiences of sustained exclusion. It is important to understand the worldview that accompanies such anger because our responses to the terrorist attacks may reinforce that anger. We may provide the soil, seeds, and nutrients for future cycles of revenge and violence. We should be careful to heed one and only one strategic plan: Don't do what the terrorists expect.

What they expect is the lashing out of the giant against the weak, the many against the few. Whether our military actions reinforce the anger can be judged only from the responses of the people so many call our enemies, and then only in the context of our overall response over time. But unless we are careful we will end up reinforcing the myth they carefully seek to sustain: that they are under threat, fighting an irrational and mad system that has never taken them seriously and wishes to destroy them and their people. What we need to destroy is their myth, not their people. This struggle is not about geographic places that can be destroyed, thereby ridding us of the problem. Our biggest and most visible weapon systems are mostly useless.

We need a new metaphor. Although I generally do not like medical metaphors to describe conflict, the image of a virus comes to mind because a virus enters unperceived, flows with a system, and harms it from within. The genius of people like Osama bin Laden is that they understand the power of our free and open system and use it to their benefit. The enemy is not located in a territory. It has entered our system.

You do not fight this kind of virus-enemy by shooting at it. You respond by strengthening the system's immunity to the virus. It is ironic that our greatest threat is not in Afghanistan, but in our own backyard. We surely are not going to bomb an airline training school in Florida. We must change metaphors and move beyond the reaction that we can duke it out with the bad guy, or we run the very serious risk of creating the environment that sustains and reproduces the virus.


It helps to remember that realities are constructed. Conflict is, among other things, the process of building and sustaining very different perceptions and interpretations of the same reality, defined by opposing sides on the conflict. In the aftermath of horrific terrorist violence, this may sound esoteric. But we must remember that this is how we end up referring to people as fanatics and madmen.

In the process of name-calling we lose the critical capacity to understand that within the framework some others use to construct their views, the attacks are not madness or fanaticism at all; in their view, all things fall together and make sense. They focus on a long string of experiences in which their views of the facts are reinforced. For example, years of superpower struggle in the region used or excluded them; Western values they consider immoral have encroached on their societies and challenged their religious interpretations; an overwhelmingly powerful nation has used its power in bombing campaigns and always seems to win. An enemy-image is constructed. From this perspective it is not difficult to construct a rational worldview of heroic struggle against evil. We do it, so do they. Listen to the words we use to justify our actions and responses. Then listen to words they use.

The way to defuse such a process is not by pursuing victory through strength. That's because whoever loses finds in the loss the seeds that give birth to the justification for renewed battle. The way to break such a cycle of justified violence is to step outside of it. This starts with understanding that TV sound bites about madmen and evil are not good sources of policy. The best way to undermine a sustainable view of us as evil is to change the perception of who we are by choosing strategically to respond in unexpected ways. This will take enormous courage—and leadership capable of envisioning a horizon of change.

Remember that the seemingly endless hatred and violence of apartheid in South Africa is, indeed, ended.


The greatest power that terror has is the ability to regenerate itself. What we most need to understand about the nature of this conflict and the process of change toward a more peaceful world is how recruitment happens.

In all my experiences in deep-rooted conflict, what stands out most is political leaders' belief that they could end the violence by overpowering and getting rid of the perpetrator. That may have been the lesson of the centuries that preceded us, but it is not the lesson from the last 30 years. This lesson is simple: When people feel a deep sense of threat, exclusion, and generational experience of direct violence, there is an extraordinary capacity for the regeneration of chosen myths and renewed struggle.

The current U.S. leadership seems to understand this much of the lesson of the past 30 years: this will be a long struggle. The emphasis, however, should be placed on removing the justifications that nourish the myths that attract and sustain terrorist recruits. This is the reality we face: Recruitment happens on a sustained basis. It will not stop with the use of military force; in fact, open warfare prepares the soils in which it grows. Military action to destroy terror, particularly as it affects significant and already vulnerable civilian populations, is like hitting a fully mature dandelion with a golf club.

The key we have failed to comprehend fully is simplicity. From the standpoint of the perpetrators, the effectiveness of their actions was in finding simple ways to use the system to undo it. I believe our greatest task is to find equally creative and simple tools on the other side. I believe three simple things are possible that could have a much greater impact than will seeking accountability through revenge.

1. Israeli-Palestinian conflict

First, we should energetically pursue a sustainable peace process for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and do it now. The United States can do much to make this process work. It can bring the weight of persuasion to nudge people on all sides toward recognizing and stopping the devastating pattern of violent escalation. We can help balance the process to address historic fears and basic needs of those involved. I believe the moment is right and the stage is set to take a new step forward—if we were to bring the same energy to building an international coalition for peace in this conflict that we have brought to building international coalitions for war, and if we lent significant financial, moral, and balanced support to all sides, as we did in the Irish conflict in earlier years.

Does this sound like an odd diversion from our current situation of terror? I believe the opposite is true. This is precisely the kind of action needed to create whole new views of who we are and what we stand for as a nation. Rather than fighting terror with force, we enter their system and take away one of their most coveted elements—the soil of generational conflict perceived as injustice that inspires hatred and recruitment. I believe that monumental times like these create conditions for monumental change. This approach would solidify our relationships with a broad array of Middle Easterners and Central Asians, allies and enemies alike, and would be a blow to the rank and file of terror. The biggest blow we can serve terror is to make it irrelevant. The worst thing we could do is to feed it unintentionally. Let's choose democracy and reconciliation over revenge and destruction. Let's do exactly what they do not expect, and show the world it can work.

2. Social investment

We should also invest financially in development, education, and a broad social agenda in the countries surrounding Afghanistan. The single greatest pressure that could ever be put on bin Laden is to remove the source of his justifications and alliances. Countries like Pakistan, Tajikistan, and, yes, Iran and Syria should be put on the radar of the West and the United States with a question of strategic importance: How can we help you meet the fundamental needs of your people?

The strategic approach to changing the nature of how terror reproduces itself lies in the quality of the relationships we develop with whole regions, peoples, and worldviews. If we strengthen the web of those relationships, we weaken and eventually eliminate the soil where terror is born. By taking advantage of the current opening, a vigorous investment is immediately available, possible and pregnant with historic possibilities. Let's do the unexpected. Let's create a new set of strategic alliances never before thought possible.

3. Build a new ethic

Let's also pursue diplomatic support for the Arab League to begin an internal exploration of how to address the root causes of discontent in numerous regions. This should be coupled with interfaith ecumenical engagement, not just with key symbolic leaders, but through a practical and direct exploration of how to create a web of ethics for the new millennium that builds from the heart and soul of all religious traditions to create a capacity for each to engage the roots of violence that are found within each tradition.

Our challenge, as I see it, is not that of convincing others that our way of life, our religion, or our structure of governance is better or closer to Truth and human dignity. It is to be honest about the sources of violence in our own house and to invite others to do the same. Our global challenge is to generate and sustain genuine engagement that encourages people to seek that which assures the preciousness and respect for life that their traditions and religions see as an inherent right and gift from the Divine, and to build a political and social life that responds to fundamental human needs.

Such a web cannot be created except through the respectful and sustained dialogue that builds authentic relationships in both the religious and political spheres of interaction and at all levels of society. Why not do the unexpected and show that life-giving ethics are rooted in the traditions of all peoples by engaging a strategy of genuine dialogue and relationship? Such a web of ethics, political and religious, would have a far greater impact on the roots of terror for future generations than any amount of military action can possibly muster. The current situation poses an unprecedented opportunity, more so than we have seen at any time before in our global community.


Let me sum up with simple ideas. To face the challenge of well organized, decentralized, self-perpetuating sources of terror, we need to think differently. A traditional military plan will not "win." Destroying territories, camps, and the civilian populations that supposedly house them will only feed the terrorist phenomenon and assure that it lives into a new generation. The key is to think about how a virus in our system affects the whole and how to improve the system's immunity. We should take extreme care not to provide the movements we deplore with gratuitous fuel for self-regeneration. Let us not fulfill their prophecy by providing them with martyrs and justifications.

The power of their action is the simplicity with which they pursue the fight with global power. They understand the power of the powerless. They have understood that melding and meshing with the enemy creates a base from within. They have not faced down the enemy with a bigger stick; they did the more powerful thing: They changed the game. They entered our lives and our homes and turned our own tools against us.

We will not win this struggle for justice, peace, and human dignity with the traditional weapons of war. We need to change the game again.


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