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OJPCR: The Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution


12 Septmeber 2001

CONTACT: Derek Sweetman


An Appropriate Response?

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Washington, DC -- Terrorism is a political act, not the incomprehensible ramblings of a madman. It has a goal -- the creation of fear -- and a reason, known at least to the perpetrators. Along with our efforts to locate those responsible for the attacks, we owe it to ourselves to examine the ways in which we may have been complicit in encouraging and permitting this act.

This may be the only way to truly recapture the sense of security we had before September 11. This in no way means that the attacks upon the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were justified. No amount of political reasoning should be allowed to morally justify the taking of innocent life. It does mean, however, that there is an explanation for the attack, and that is what we should be searching for, along with the perpetrators.

It is natural when one is affected by terrorism to respond with virulent hatred and a desire for vengeance, but what is required to avoid further instances of this type is a careful contemplation of the causes of these acts. Those perpetrating terrorism are also consumed with hatred and vengeance for perceived wrongs. We risk descending into the same spiral of violence and hate that we have sought to avoid for so long.

The residents of New York and Washington have shown what good neighbors Americans can be individually; what is required is a realization among our leaders that we should be such a good neighbor to the other groups and countries that share our common global neighborhood. Part of this is recognizing when disputes occur and doing what we can to diffuse the tensions they can cause.

This does not mean we should immediately capitulate to the desires of others, especially when those desires are diametrically opposed to ours. It does mean, however, that we should recognize that it is unrealistic to expect others to capitulate to us.

Both airline and international security experts have pointed out that this type of attack was surprising, but not unexpected. They understand that there are trade-offs that are made with any decision. In the case of airline travel, we often trade convenience for security. In the case of foreign policy, we often trade limited short-term military objectives for stable, long-term positive security. This may be because we are a country with a short history and even shorter level of patience, or a byproduct of presidential administration changes and the need for reelection.

Countless commentators have called these attacks “Acts of War” and have implicitly, if not explicitly, stated that as such we are justified in making warlike responses. There are two acute dangers to this approach. First, attempting to mobilize the country as it was following the Pearl Harbor attack and rush headlong into conflict is to admit that this attack has done exactly what it was intended to do: change everything.

We cannot ignore what happened, but we also cannot ignore the history of diversity and tolerance upon which our country was founded and for which we have struggled through the anti-slavery, suffrage, and civil rights campaigns. We cannot allow this to change the openness of American society, even as we understand that we may need to change some of our expectations of convenience.

Second, we cannot let these attacks divide us. President Bush stated such in his speech, yet couched this in terms of presenting a united front to the perpetrators. The real danger is that fear and suspicion will unravel the rich and vibrant tapestry of American society from within. It is vital that no individuals or groups be the targets of American hate until we understand who is responsible and that, once responsibility can be assigned, we not allow our fear to engulf targets who were not involved.

If we find, as many expect, that Osama bin Laden is in some way responsible, we must remember that no man represents all members of an ethnic or religious group. We must ensure that we do not become a country that operates on hate and fear instead of the freedom and tolerance that has allowed us to achieve the success we have.

Derek Sweetman is Editor-in-Chief of OJPCR: The Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution and Executive Director of the Tabula Rasa Institute. The Tabula Rasa Institute is a nonprofit organization that promotes peace, understanding, and cooperation between people, groups, and nations by providing the resources, education, and leadership necessary to improve our world. Mr. Sweetman lives and works in Washington, DC.

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