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Five Lessons about Our Challenge as Peacemakers

by John Paul Lederach

Excerpted from “The Challenge of Terror: A Travelling Essay”

On September 11, 2001, John Paul Lederach found himself delayed at a South American airport as “the heart of America ripped.” Waiting for a flight out, he felt compelled to respond somehow. “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 feel responsible to try to bring ideas to the search for solutions. With this in mind I should like to pen several observations about what I have learned from my experiences and what they might suggest about the current situation.” The “Five Lessons” below are a part of those observations. The full text to “The Challenge of Terror: A Travelling Essay” can be found here. Ed.

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  1. Always seek to understand the root of the anger.

    Professor Lederach speaking at the National Older Adult Conference, 2013 – Photo: Church of the Brethren/ Cheryl Brumbaugh-CayfordThe first and most important question to pose for ourselves is relatively simple though not easy to answer: How do people reach this level of anger, hatred and frustration? By my experience, explanations that they are brainwashed by a perverted leader who holds some kind of magical power over them is an escapist simplification and will inevitably lead us to very wrong-headed responses. Anger of this sort, what we could call generational, identity-based anger, is constructed over time through a combination of historical events, a deep sense of threat to identify, and direct experiences of sustained exclusion.

    This is very important to understand, because, as I will say again and again, our response to the immediate events have everything to do with whether we reinforce and provide the soil, seeds, and nutrients for future cycles of revenge and violence. Or whether it changes. We should be careful to pursue one and only one thing as the strategic guidepost of our response: Avoid doing what they expect. What they expect from us is the lashing out of the giant against the weak, the many against the few. This will reinforce their capacity to perpetrate 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.

  2. Always seek to understand the nature of the organization.

    Over the years of working to promote durable peace in situations of deep, sustained violence I have discovered one consistent purpose about the nature of movements and organizations who use violence: Sustain thyself. This is done through a number of approaches, but generally it is through decentralization of power and structure, secrecy, 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 I have heard used in the last few days 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 guerilla warfare, but it is not a useful metaphor for this situation. And neither is the image that we will need to destroy the village to save it, by which the population that gives refuge to our enemies is guilty by association and therefore a legitimate target. In both instances the metaphor that guides our action misleads us because it is not connected to the reality. In more specific terms, 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, thereby ridding us of the problem. Quite frankly our biggest and most visible weapon systems are mostly useless.

    We need a new metaphor, and though I generally do not like medical metaphors to describe conflict, the image of a virus comes to mind because of its ability to enter unperceived, flow with a system, and harm it from within. This is the genius of people like Osama Bin Laden. He understood 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. 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 we wish to prevent.

  3. Always remember that realities are constructed.

    Conflict is, among other things, the process of building and sustaining very different perceptions and interpretations of reality. This means that we have at the same time 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. But we must remember that 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. When this is connected to a long string of actual experiences wherein their views of the facts are reinforced (for example, years of superpower struggle that used or excluded them, encroaching Western values of what is considered immoral by their 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) then it is not a difficult process to construct a rational world view of heroic struggle against evil. Just as we do it, so do they.

    Listen to the words we use to justify our actions and responses. And then listen to words they use. 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. This will take enormous courage and courageous leadership capable of envisioning a horizon of change.

  4. Always 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 learned from the 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.

    One aspect of current U.S. leadership that coherently matches with the lessons of the past 30 years of protracted conflict settings is the statement that this will be a long struggle. What is missed is that the emphasis should be placed on removing the channels, justifications, and sources that attract and sustain recruitment into the activities. What I find extraordinary about the recent events is that none of the perpetrators was much older than 40 and many were half that age.

    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.

  5. Recognize complexity, but always understand the power of simplicity.

    Finally, we must understand the principle of simplicity. I talk a lot with my students about the need to look carefully at complexity, which is equally true (and which is in the earlier points I start to explore). However, the key in our current situation that we have failed to fully comprehend 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.

Go here for more than a dozen videos you can download for free of Professor Lederach teaching peacemaking.

A Bibliographic Survey of John Paul Lederach’s Contribution

Professor Walter A. Wright from Texas State University in San Marcos wrote an extended bibliographic essay surveying the work of peacemaking theorist and practitioner John Paul Lederach. The introduction to Wright’s 2004 essay is copied below with a link to the whole article.

Since 2004 Professor Lederach has continued publishing, including The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace (2010), which asks, “How do we transcend the cycles of violence that bewitch our human community while still living in them?”

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John Paul Lederach is an important author and practitioner in the fields of conflict transformation and peacebuilding. The purpose of this article is to familiarize readers with Lederach’s writings in his fields of interest. This article highlights Lederach’s four English-language books that focus on conflict transformation and peacemaking: Preparing for Peace: Conflict Transformation across Cultures (1995), Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies (1997), The Journey toward Reconciliation (1999), and The Little Book of Conflict Transformation (2003). In addition, it examines two English-language books that Lederach co-edited: From the Ground Up: Mennonite Contributions to International Peacebuilding (2000, edited with Cynthia Sampson) and A Handbook of International Peacebuilding: Into the Eye of the Storm (2002, edited with Janice Moomaw Jenner). Finally, it briefly identifies some of Lederach’s Spanish-language writings…

To read the rest of this article, click here.