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OJPCR: The Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution

Peace and Conflict Resolution in the face of Terror

By Derek Sweetman, Editor-In-Chief, OJPCR

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On September 11, after working my way out of downtown Washington, DC, I did what many others did: I watched too much CNN. While watching, along with many others, I felt helpless and began to ask questions like, "What can I do?" rapidly followed by "What can we do?" As time has passed, I realized I was trying to understand what place our field of peace and conflict resolution has after September 11?

It is my hope that, through this short essay, I can begin to develop my own answers to this question and encourage debate on the subject. Before jumping into that, there are two points to make. First, although the question I am seeking to answer relates to the role of peace and conflict resolution in general, I recognize that I am writing as an American and that my intended audience is largely American. To an extent, the question I am truly addressing is "What is the role of the American peace and conflict resolution community in American society after September 11?" I encourage readers outside this community to continue and hope that their insights and experience will be brought to bear on this issue, but do not be offended if my assumptions seem Americocentric.

Secondly, it may be that I am asking the wrong question. Before we evaluate the role of the peace and conflict resolution community, we must ascertain if such a community exists. At OJPCR: The Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution, we publish material on subjects as varied as interpersonal mediation and victim-offender reconciliation to international peacekeeping and peace theory. The simple fact that our readers identify themselves widely and indicate extremely varied interests yet return for each new issue would seem to indicate that there is a commonality.

In the face of this camaraderie, it is true that there is no overarching body organizing the field. While the Peace Studies Association and the Association for Conflict Resolution can each claim part of the landscape, no one speaks for or serves us all - which is probably for the better. In spite of this, I do believe that there are commonalities that link scholars and practitioners across the wide field of peace and conflict resolution. These include:

  • A common disenchantment with social relations under the traditional adversarial system
  • A common belief that human interaction and exchange is possible without exclusively zero-sum outcomes
  • A common belief that conflict is a complex phenomenon better understood than ignored
  • An understanding that settlement does not always mean resolution
  • A common belief that by applying the tools of conflict resolution, we will be able to produce more harmonious and, hopefully, more just societies and relationships
  • Although the hot watchwords change, we believe in solutions that not only meet the interests and needs of the participants in conflict, but work to improve their relationship

The extent to which these principles are evident in your daily work may change, but I do believe they are an important step toward recognizing our shared interests. Perhaps the most important of these principles is the belief that the world as it is is not optimal and that we can, in some part due to the application of the tools of conflict resolution, improve it. In this sense, peace and conflict resolution is more than just a scholarly or practitioner-driven field; it is a social movement, progressive in the simplest sense. Of course this does not mean we share the same politics or moral systems. We are however starting the journey facing the same direction.

If we are a community that shares certain foundational beliefs, what then is our role in the society we face today, after the attacks of September 11 and the beginning of the American response on October 7? Before looking at possible contributions we can make, two less encouraging possibilities should be considered.

First, although we have seen day after day of politician and media personality telling us "Everything has changed. Life will never be the same again," it is possible that our role has not changed. My experience, as well as, I expect, that of many others working in the field, is that old disputes still exist and old processes still work. Barring some scheduling difficulties and security issues, the consumer dispute resolution program I work with in Washington, DC has operated after September 11 as it did before. I have no plans to rework the program within a new "war-system" or "peace-system."

Second, there is perhaps no role for peace and conflict resolution in the current situation. This position has been used by some commentators, arguing that the necessity of unity in the face of terror means that the consideration of other options is unwarranted or, worse, undesirable.

While both of these possibilities should be considered, they should not be considered for long. We are, after all, in the conflict business and our current situation is a conflict by any of the varied definitions we use. To cede the opportunity to influence the form and sequence of this conflict to those who claim that war is different would be antithetical to the principles we share. Just as a conflict resolution practitioner can apply their knowledge and experience to a circumstance in which he or she is involved in interpersonal conflict, we should apply our knowledge and experience to the larger group conflict we are within. It is likewise inappropriate to assume our role has not changed, although the dynamics of the conflict around us definitely have. Most experienced practitioners will tell you that there are situations when a particular role or technique is appropriate and others where it is not. In effect, the dynamics of the system in which we operate has changed and we can only expect that the preferred role can as well.

In developing possible roles for peace and conflict resolution after September 11, I have tried to focus on elements of our shared principles that should be acceptable to a wide majority of the field. I understand that the advocate of nonviolence may add more than this, as could the lawyer, therapist, or any other individual. What I have tried to do is ask, "What can we do as a community?" with the understanding that we need the broadest support possible.

So what roles are possible? It is important to realize that we are not without constraint. The American military response has begun and most of us do not have access to the type of intelligence necessary to advocate some positions. However, there is much that can be done.

First, the peace and conflict resolution community could present information from an objective, conflict analysis perspective. Most of the formalized processes of conflict resolution encourage the creation or assumption of a third party role, whether to intervene or just analyze the conflict itself. This role is seen to be, to varying degrees, objective, meaning that those within it are able to step back from the conflict and see it as it would be to an outsider. I recognize that neutrality is an unresolved topic within conflict resolution discourse and practice, and I am not advocating neutrality on the issue. I could not expect to tell you to ignore your own fears, passions, or desires. Some of us undoubtedly knew people hurt or killed in the attacks. This does not mean that we should ignore the part of us that tries to understand the dynamics, causes, and conditions of conflict. To do so risks involvement in an unchecked escalation of this conflict.

Optimally, in a democratic society, this role is assumed by the media. However, it has become clear that the media is not attempting to be seen as objective, instead casting their role to motivate the American population to unity while keeping us glued to our sets. I am generalizing here. There have been admirable calls for thought as well as analyses that appear to consider much of what we know. On balance, though, alternatives were not raised and most everyone acted as if they were the primary party in the conflict. Our ability to step back and reflect on the attacks and the American response as a conflict, for which we have developed tools of analysis, will help encourage understanding of the detailed and complex tangle of interests, positions, and needs involved.

A second role for the community of peace and conflict resolution is in the upcoming societal debate about security. President Bush has promised to win this "War on Terrorism." Implicit in this is the belief that he can make the American people feel safe again. We have seen a rapid reevaluation of the notion of security byour politicians and the media as they struggle to accommodate differing viewpoints. I believe that as this conflict continues, notions of what our security is and when we feel it will become more important and will also be contentious. At some point, we will begin asking how we will measure when the "War on Terrorism" is won. The answer will relate to how we understand the nature of our own security.

Within the field, we recognize that issues that at least one party believe are a threat to their security are those in which escalation is most likely. Likewise, we have developed techniques for helping understand these perceptions of insecurity and working toward an understanding of mutual security in which all actors in a system can feel secure. These skills will be important to this process.

A third role is in applying the techniques and tools of our field to help our society recover from the trauma of the situation. Of course, individuals will be helped by qualified counselors or therapists, but there is a collective healing process that is necessary. This process will necessarily entail shared understanding and dialog. We are the people with the skills to assist this process. What may be called "telling stories" in mediation or what makes up, more generally, facilitation is the type of group process we need. I know of one major conflict resolution organization already developing a wide-scale plan to encourage fruitful dialog about the attacks. This can only help to move us beyond shock and anger to discuss the necessary steps to simultaneously remember and move beyond the attacks.

There is a related point that integrates this role with the first. It is surprising to me the extent to which those in the field fail to recognize they are in the middle of a conflict and fail to apply the tools they are often advocating. Whether the dyad is peace activist-military or community mediation center-litigious local bar association, we rely on the tactics in these conflicts that we recognize as counter-productive and work to keep participants in a conflict from using. By not using the tools and techniques we have, we instead play the game by the rules of those we are opposing. If we truly believe in the power of dialog, stepping into the other's shoes, integrative outcomes, and listening, why do we refuse to do these when trying to influence society? The answer, of course, is that we are faced with the same dilemma the participants in our processes are: the understanding that to talk with your enemy you must be prepared to accept that what you hold to be true may not be held by others. Reluctance to enter mediation, in part, is caused by parties not being able to believe an integrative solution is possible. Likewise, we often believe our struggles against militarism, excessive litigation, and the like are all-or-nothing. This approach puts us at a disadvantage. We are skilled at a different process and should use it.

The final role for peace and conflict studies occurs after this conflict has been settled. We recognize that conflict settlement is not the same as conflict resolution (much less transformation). Two parties agreeing not to fight or not to sue does not mean a collaborative, beneficial relationship exists. There will come a time when this conflict will end in its current form. It is imperative that we focus on addressing the underlying causes and conditions of this conflict in order to ensure it does not just arise a generation, or less, later. This work can take many forms, from international dialog to peace education to the promotion of nonviolent dispute resolution and social justice. I believe we are uniquely situated to lead this process as a field. We understand, more than others, what can drive conflict, how it occurs, and how to avoid its destructive effects. This knowledge will be needed.

To summarize, I see four major roles for peace and conflict resolution:

  • Treat the attacks and response intellectually as a conflict, for which we have a great body of literature and experience to draw from
  • Participate actively in the coming debate on the nature of security and how to achieve it
  • Apply the techniques and tools of peace and conflict resolution to problems you may not have approached in the past
  • Utilize our knowledge and experience for post-conflict peacebuilding and reconciliation, as well as prevention.

This is in no way an exhaustive list. I hope that it will help formulate a debate within our field. We must recognize our strengths as well as our shared principles and bring these to bear on the problems we encounter.

Tabula Rasa Institute

The Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution is published by the Tabula Rasa Institute.

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