TRANSCENDING THE SPIRAL OF VIOLENCE
Reflections on September 11th and Beyond
by Toh Swee-Hin
2001 is the first year of the United Nations' International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Nonviolence for the Children of the World, a campaign to encourage all nations and peoples to build a more peaceful, compassionate, just and sustainable world. Tragically, it is also the year marked by the violent September 11th attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon which constitute a crime against humanity, a gross violation of the basic rights of thousands of human beings. As preparations forge ahead for military retaliation by the United States and allied governments, millions more, already living in desperate conditions in war-torn Afghanistan, will suffer amidst the growing tide of refugees. As the United Nations warns, a great humanitarian disaster is already underway.
In countries like Canada, children and adults have been deeply affected by grief and emotional shock. Many are worried that the crisis may spiral into a wider conflict, further terrorist violence, and perhaps a new world war. There have been loud expressions of anger among citizens and political leaders as they call for revenge and justice, now crystallized as a "war against international terrorism." However, although less visible in mainstream media, there are also voices counseling against armed retaliation, advocating for a non-violent response to the attacks and the concomitant political crisis.
Amidst this complexity of emotions, reactions, analyses, strategic planning, advocacy and lobbying for the minds and hearts of citizens, all educators face major responsibilities and challenges. Foremost is the task of creating respectful spaces where dialogue can equitably occur among a range of perspectives or worldviews. Regrettably, much of mainstream media has not opted to foster such dialogue. Second, it is crucial for education about "September 11th and beyond" to help overcome feelings of despair and powerlessness, and empower everyone to act to transform the crisis. In my view, it means education that diverts nations, leaders and citizens from pursuing a culture of violence and war towards building a culture of peace and nonviolence.
The case for waging a relentless "war" against terrorism, including the use of military force if necessary, has been loudly proclaimed by leaders and well advertised by mainstream media. Propositions that promote active non-violence for resolving conflicts have been muted or inadequately discussed. But if we are to learn from the recent history of long-standing violent political conflicts, it has not been the continuing armed fighting or terrorism and counter-terrorism, which opened the door to possible peace. Rather, as in the cases of Northern Ireland, Central America, the Philippines, Israel/Palestine, and South Africa, it was through the political will of combatants or opposing sides to negotiate that peace accords resulted. While these accords still require effective and complex implementation to prevent a relapse into violence, they provide ordinary citizens some human rights protection and respite from the cross-fires, group/state terrorism, and dehumanizing refugee conditions. In contrast, militaristic responses have been shown to escalate and perpetuate the cycle of violence and counter-violence.
Many individuals and groups have appropriately called the September 11 attacks a crime against humanity. Nevertheless, rather than envisioning the call for justice in narrow terms of vengeance and vigilantism, the task of bringing the perpetrators to justice needs to embrace the rule of law. Significant progress has already been made in the human rights field to have those guilty of crimes against humanity stand trial in international tribunals (e.g., Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia). The "right" to armed response in self-defense of national or group interests, much like the "just war" doctrine found in some religions, has an inherent limitation — it can be invoked continuously by combatants in a conflict. Nonviolent application of the rule of law will often need patience but it can transcend the cycle of violence more sustainably.
Some commentators also advocate the wisdom of seeking justice with reconciliation, such as witnessed in the South African experiment. As Bishop Tutu noted, key leaders of a repressive apartheid regime and the ANC-led freedom movement decided it was in the best interests of all South African peoples not to pursue the spiral of violent conflict which can only lead to a mutually destructive civil war. Instead, creative and courageous forging of a negotiated settlement based on "truth and reconciliation" laid some basic conditions for building a more just and non-racist society. Equally inspiring is the plea of the widow of a US military officer killed in September 11th, asking her nation's leaders "not to take the path that leads to more widespread hatreds that make my husband's death just one more in an unending spiral of killing."
Like other people worldwide, I grieve deeply over the loss of thousands of human beings including the dedicated, heroic rescuers who lost their lives in September 11th. My grief and empathy, however, is based on a sense of common humanity, that the victims were all human beings regardless of nationality or culture. As I grieve, I also remember that I have been grieving for a long time, ever since I became more aware of world issues and problems. I recall my first vicarious encounter of state terrorism inflicted on countless South African human beings, which moved me to join the non-violent anti-apartheid solidarity movement. I still feel the grief of the thousands of Chileans tortured or executed by the Pinochet dictatorship which received aid and backing from some powerful North nations. I feel great grief over the 200,000 East Timorese killed by the Indonesian military under President Suharto, a then favoured ally of North nations inclined only to protect their economic and geopolitical interests in Indonesia. I still grieve for the 58,000 US soldiers and the over 1 million Vietnamese who died in a needless Cold War-inspired conflict. I grieve for the 500,000 Iraqi children who have died due to the post-Gulf War sanctions, or the over 10 million children yearly whose lives are prematurely ended by hunger and disease in our very unequal world order. For indigenous peoples worldwide, I continue to grieve over the past 500 years of colonial violence, cultural destruction and displacements they have endured and continue to face under today's aggressive globalization from above.
I need to express these moments of past and continuing grief because it is only ethical that we are not selective in empathizing with human beings in suffering. We need to express a universal mode of grieving over injustices, repression and crimes against humanity. My grief for the September 11th victims is certainly not diminished in respect and compassion, even as I recall the many episodes of violence worldwide over many centuries, nor does this imply a reduced condemnation of this recent crime against humanity. Most importantly, by practising universal grieving, we are better able to appreciate how sometimes, it may well be "us" who are directly or indirectly complicit in acts of violence or terrorism against "others".
Another reflection brings me to the issue of root causes of conflicts and violence. Any policy which seeks to effectively and sustainably resolve a societal or world problem such as terrorism requires a deep understanding of underlying causes. In this regard, there is already a body of analyses which identifies a range of historical and contemporary political, economic, social and cultural injustices and marginalization at the roots of these conflicts and enmities. Specific foreign policies, not just of the US but also other powerful North states and agencies and allied South elites, that serve narrow geopolitical and economic interests (e.g., safeguarding oil resources, Cold War aims, profit-maximizing globalization) have set in motion the cycles of frustration, bitterness, hatred and a sense of victimization that are fertile grounds for the growth of armed resistance and contemporary terrorism. Equally important, internal root causes must be addressed, such as social/economic injustices, "fundamentalist" religious interpretations and practices, xenophobic schooling, and authoritarian governance by local elites.
This is not to imply that challenging structural inequalities is inevitably violent. There are various exemplars of peaceful people power movements in both North and South societies. But if we wish to truly transcend wars and violent conflicts rooted in such inequities and marginalization often backed by state-sponsored terrorism on citizens, then those political, economic, social and cultural roots must be addressed, not symptomatically repressed by powerful doses of missiles, military aid or installing "friendly" regimes. Military victories over one or more groups do not necessarily prevent the formation of new groups or fresh recruits for new rounds of more violence.
Regrettably, some commentators have distorted calls to address root causes as somehow supporting the September 11th attacks or terrorism in general. Hence, it bears reiterating here that seeking to address the causes of conflicts and violence does not mean justifying counter-violence. It means understanding why and how such violent reactions and strategies have emerged. It calls on committed efforts to resolve the armed conflicts through negotiation, and to implement a global truth and reconciliation project. It means definitely that those groups, individuals and state leaders who commit acts of violence or terrorism are not absolved of personal responsibility, and hence need to be non-violently brought to justice. Importantly, it means a humble sense of self-criticism, a willingness to acknowledge that some groups or leaders now identified as terrorists were originally nurtured and supported by powerful nations and allies in the cause of "defending democracy and freedom."
Our educational institutions can contribute much to the critical and constructive understanding of complex issues and themes around the tragic events of September 11th and beyond. At all levels, it is possible to infuse education for a culture of peace so that all learners and teachers can understand the root causes of violence and conflicts. This understanding, in turn, will hopefully empower citizens to actively participate in the formulation of their nation's foreign and domestic policies underpinned by principles of justice and active nonviolence. Hence, even when armed retaliation begins, countries like Canada, with our "middle-power" status and a long record of peacekeeping, can still play a vital role in mobilizing nonviolent conflict resolution strategies. Political leaders will need to exercise critical independence to transcend coercive edicts like "either you are with us or you are with international terrorism," and to disengage from a "war" coalition to building a "peace" coalition. But this is more likely to happen when a critical mass of Canadians realize the grave dangers of militarized escalation of the cycle of violence, and begin to grieve with the millions of Afghanis fleeing from the threat of imminent war, desperately cut off from humanitarian relief.
Education for peace also calls for deepening and extending the concept and practice of "safe and caring" or "peaceful" schools, now found across Canada and other countries. If we are encouraging our children to approach conflicts and violence in constructive nonviolent ways, how credible would our call be if we do not apply these same principles to building safe and caring societies, and a safe and caring world? Just as war and counter-violence are not encouraged in schools, likewise adults and leaders need to role-model such conduct in the wider society and world. Citizens can legitimately expect their governments to enhance their personal safety and security (e.g. an effective policing and justice system), but this should not entail resorting to war and armed violence.
In Canada, multiculturalism and multicultural education have helped to enhance inter-cultural respect and appreciation of diversity. What is limiting, however, is a superficial approach focusing on "dance, diet, dress and dialect." As a result, substantive and difficult issues of discrimination, racism, and structural inequalities are neglected, while an authentic dialogue among civilizations — a deep, respectful and humble self-critical sharing of civilization's values, strengths and weaknesses — rarely happens. The urgent need for such critical multicultural education and dialogue among civilizations is highlighted by the backlash of intolerance, stereotyping, "collective punishment" and racist attacks experienced by Muslims and Arab North Americans or Europeans in the aftermath of September 11th. Without such in-depth dialogue and understanding, "demonization" and "racialization" of the "other" happens all too easily.
Education for a culture of peace also focuses centrally on the role played by media in reporting the attacks and subsequent events. Over the past three weeks, it is clear that, apart from the space given for grieving and empathy, significant sections of mainstream media have opted to directly or indirectly support feelings and policies based on vengeance, armed retaliation, ultra-patriotism and intolerance against a demonized "other." Educators hence need to help learners and citizens demystify such dominant media presentations, and to seek alternative sources of "truth" and perspectives that have not been invited into mainstream media space.
In recent days, there has also been a disturbing emergence of official and media voices that do not respect or tolerate alternative worldviews speaking for nonviolent resolution strategies and/or analyzing root causes. To question official policies of "war" has somehow been reduced to support or sympathy for "terrorism" or even "anti-Americanism." Education for peace needs to assertively challenge these voices, for they undermine the very basis of the democracy being "protected." If active citizens cannot exercise their rights to think and speak freely and critically without being labeled "enemies," what kind of "civilization" are those voices speaking for?
A final reflection brings me to the space of our inner being, where profoundly complex and challenging issues of spirituality are nurtured. As thinkers and practitioners of many faiths and spiritual beliefs constantly remind us, we need to struggle to cultivate values of peacefulness, non-violence, justice and compassion. Not only would these values help promote intercultural and inter-civilizational understanding and respect, they also integrally link with life-world issues like consumerism, materialism and power. As we rethink the root causes of conflicts and violence worldwide, we are challenged to deeply transform excessively consumerist lifestyles that fuel policies and structures of inequity and human rights violations. In sum, are we willing to live gently with billions of human beings and also planet earth in an authentic spirit of nonviolence, solidarity, justice, sustainability and compassion?
Toh Swee-Hin is a professor in international, intercultural and global education, University of Alberta. In 2001, he was awarded the UNESCO Prize for Peace Education. This paper was presented at a Teach-in called "Education for a Culture of Peace: Lessons from September 11th and Beyond" held September 26th, 2001 at the University of Alberta in Canada