Peter S recommended forwarding you this editorial that a colleague and I
wrote, for distribution on the email list you moderate.
Hoping for peace,
Declare War on Escalation
Andrew Jones and Elizabeth Sawin
Which came first, the violence or the retaliation? That is today's somber
version of the old "chicken or the egg" riddle.
On September 11th, it sure felt like the violence came first. But the men
who attacked the U.S. almost certainly saw their actions as retaliation
for earlier violence. Osama bin Laden once offered a justification of his
destructive methods: "The evidence overwhelmingly shows America and Israel
killing the weaker men, women and children in the Muslim world and
elsewhere." And why had we killed people in the Muslim world? Partly in
response to earlier violence such as the bombings of the USS Cole and the
U.S. embassies in Africa.
Now, with U.S. leaders offering rhetoric such as, "I say bomb the hell out
of them. If there's collateral damage, so be it," [Senator Zell Miller, NY
Times 9/13/01] the United States appears ready to answer retaliation with
So, blame them? Blame us? No on both counts. While those who attacked us
must be held accountable, laying blame for the repeated cycles of violence
will not prevent similar tragedies in the future.
Blame makes sense in a world of straight lines, where any event has a
clear, single cause. But in a world of circles and cycles, where
retaliation causes violence which causes more retaliation, the idea of
blame only distracts us from the real problem - all the players on both
sides are deeply stuck in the trap called "escalation."
We have seen this trap before and elsewhere. In the Middle East with
Israelis and Palestinians. In Ireland with Protestants and Catholics.
In the exponential growth of nuclear weapons during the Cold War.
What can we do to break out of the escalation trap? Drawing from the
field of system dynamics, which has analyzed escalating systems from arms
races to price wars, we offer three practical escape routes.
1. We can pay attention to the long-term trends.
If we respond to this attack in isolation, we doom ourselves to being
solely reactive. We should see this event as the culmination of a long
trend of violence on both sides of the conflict reaching back to the '79
Iranian hostage crisis, the Gulf War, various hijackings, and multiple
military strikes. Looking beyond a tragedy as large as the catastrophes
of last week is not easy, but we need to search for patterns and then for
the root causes of those patterns.
2. We can ask ourselves how our actions have helped create the current
If we see the recent attacks as random events or caused by evil, insanity,
or religious fervor, our only solution is to exterminate everyone with
violent tendencies towards the U.S., build our defenses, and hope for no
more bad luck.
But we have an alternative. We can explore our role in the escalation
cycle. This does not mean giving in to terrorists, but it does mean asking
uncomfortable questions and not settling for simple answers.
For example, we all live with the presence of injustice and inequity in
the world. But is it possible that the way we live contributes to the
despair and desperation of others? Do we ask or allow our government to
take actions that push people to follow extremists like bin Laden? Even
asking if our own children's comfort is bought at such a price feels
devastating. Perhaps a careful look will convince us that we are
unconnected to the conditions that bred the attacks on the U.S. But,
caught as we are in the dynamic of escalation, our security now depends on
whether we have the courage to examine these tough questions.
3. We can focus on actions that de-escalate long-term conflict.
Conflicts carry a huge payload of momentum. Ramping down the tension feels
like leaning your shoulder into the front of a slow-moving train - the
momentum just brushes you aside. But the same mechanics that drive
escalation - misunderstanding, aggression, blame - can be tipped in the
opposite direction to de-escalate tensions via understanding, engagement,
and respect. We can begin the long slow movement towards peace by
demanding that those responsible for the recent attacks be brought to
justice out of respect for the rule of law, not out of a reflexive demand
We must bring to justice the criminals who have killed innocent people in
such staggering numbers. But we must do more than that. We must avoid
accelerating the cycle of violence and ramp down the tensions that are the
root-cause drivers of conflict. This will only be possible if large
numbers of us are able to examine our impacts on the lives of people in
the Arab world and explore our own impulse to retaliate.
If we can rise to this challenge we might see a new riddle emerge - which
came first, the restraint or the peace?
Andrew Jones and Elizabeth Sawin work with Sustainability Institute,
(sustainabilityinstitute.org) a think-do tank dedicated to sustainable
economies, environment, and communities, based in Hartland Four Corners,
Vermont. They can be reached at email@example.com and
"Andrew Jones" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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