So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that a farther shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
And cures and healing wells.
The Cure of Troy by Seamus Heaney
hough natural, the cry for revenge seems more connected to social and psychological processes of finding a way to release deep emotional anguish, a sense of powerlessness, and our collective loss, than it does as a plan of action seeking to redress the injustice, promote change and prevent it from ever happening again.
Always seek to understand the root of the anger. How do people reach this level of anger, hatred and frustration? Explanations that they are brainwashed by a perverted leader who holds some kind of magical power over them is an escapist simplification. Identity-based anger of this sort is constructed over time through a combination of historical events, a deep sense of threat to identity, and direct experiences of sustained exclusion. Our response now may reinforce and provide the soil, seeds, and nutrients for future cycles of revenge and violence.
Movements that use violence sustain themselves by a thorough decentralisation of the power structure, autonomy of action through units, and refusal to pursue the conflict on the terms of the strength and capacities of the enemy. One of the most intriguing metaphors is that this enemy of the United States will be found in their holes, smoked out, and when they run and are visible, destroyed. This may well work for groundhogs, trench and maybe even guerrilla warfare, but it is not a useful metaphor for this situation. This is not a struggle to be conceived of in geographic terms, in terms of physical spaces and places, that if located can be destroyed. Quite frankly our biggest and most visible weapon systems are mostly useless.
The genius of people like Osama bin Laden is that they understand the power of a free and open system, and has used it to his benefit. The enemy is not located in a territory. It has entered our system. And you do not fight this kind of enemy by shooting at it. You respond by strengthening the capacity of the system to prevent the virus and strengthen its immunity. It is an ironic fact that our greatest threat is not in Afghanistan, but in our own backyard. We surely are not going to bomb Travelocity, Hertz Rental Car, or an airline training school in Florida.
Realities are constructed. Conflict is, among other things, the process of building and sustaining very different perceptions and interpretations of reality. This means we have multiple realities defined as such by those in conflict. In the aftermath of such horrific and unmerited violence that we have just experienced this may sound esoteric. This fundamental process is how we end up referring to people as fanatics, madmen, and irrational. In the process of name-calling we lose the critical capacity to understand that from within the ways they construct their views, it is not mad lunacy or fanaticism. All things fall together and make sense-years of struggle that used or excluded them, encroaching Western values considered immoral by religious interpretation, or the construction of an enemy-image who is overwhelmingly powerful and uses that power in bombing campaigns and always appears to win.
The way to break such a process is not through a frame of reference of who will win or who is stronger. In fact the inverse is true. Whoever loses, whether tactical battles or the "war" itself, finds intrinsic 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 most significant impact that we could make on their ability to sustain their view of us as evil is to change their perception of who we are by choosing to strategically respond in unexpected ways.
We must understand the capacity for recruitment-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 change process toward a more peaceful world is how recruitment into these activities happens. In all my experiences in deep-rooted conflict what stands out most are the ways in which political leaders wishing to end the violence believed they could achieve it by overpowering and getting rid of the perpetrator of the violence. That may have been the lesson of multiple centuries that preceded us. But it is not the lesson from that past 30 years. The lesson is simple: When people feel a deep sense of threat, exclusion and generational experiences of direct violence, their greatest effort is placed on survival. Time and again in these movements, there has been an extraordinary capacity for the regeneration of chosen myths and renewed struggle.
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 will create the soils in which it is fed and grows. Military action to destroy terror, particularly as it affects significant and already vulnerable civilian populations will be like hitting a fully mature dandelion with a golf club. We will participate in making sure the myth of why we are evil is sustained and we will assure yet another generation of recruits.
We must recognise complexity, but always understand the power of simplicity. The effectiveness of the attacks on 11 September was in finding simple ways to use the system to undo it. We must pursue a sustainable peace process to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and do it now. Now we need the same energy to build an international coalition for peace in this conflict that we have dispalyed in building international coalitions for war.
The biggest blow we can serve terror is to make it irrelevant. The worst thing we could do is to feed it unintentionally by making it and its leaders the center stage of what we do. Let's choose democracy and reconciliation over revenge and destruction. Let's do exactly what they do not expect, and show them it can work.
Let's do the unexpected. Let's create a new set of strategic alliances never before thought possible. The current situation poses an unprecedented opportunity for this to happen, more so than we have seen at any time before in our global community. If indeed this is a new war it will not be won with a traditional military plan. That will just provide them new martyrs and new justifications.
John Paul Lederach has served as mediator in conflicts in the Third World. He is professor of sociology and conflict studies at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, VA and a research fellow at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at Notre Dame.