October 2002

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Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.

Views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of the AFSC.

September 11 and the Field of Peace Studies

Gordon Fellman teaches sociology at Brandeis University and chairs its Peace and Conflict Studies Program.

We are as a society currently embedded in "war culture," assumptions and institutions that promote force, violence, and victory as more important and more viable than peace, justice, and truth. The field of Peace Studies is based today largely on the hypothesis that there are nonviolent ways of resolving disputes from interpersonal ones to international ones. That proposition is based in the idea of a growing "peace culture," whose assumptions and institutions posit peace as possible and more desirable than war.

Peace culture is already promoted in much of Buddhist and Christian peace traditions, in social movements that seek justice, in the actions of peace workers in many groups, and in countless dialogue efforts across parties in conflict. One of the visions that drives many people in Peace Studies is the promotion of the growth of peace culture to the point where it is more pervasive and attractive to people than war culture, which currently dominates our society and most of the world.

  You! Stop asking questions! poster
Poster by Micah Ian Wright. To see more "updated" propaganda posters from the 1940s and '50s, visit
In addition to encouraging peace culture, a prime focus of peace studies is on the theory and practice of nonviolent conflict resolution, to bring together contending parties to discuss conflicts; to open themselves to their underlying political, economic, historical, and social psychological issues; and to find ways of resolving the conflicts to both sides' satisfaction without violence. This is not only a vision. There are many examples of the success of this process in operation.

The attacks of September 11 knocked many of us in Peace Studies for a loop. Terrorism is a form of conflict that does not lend itself clearly to nonviolent conflict resolution because the terrorist party often does not claim responsibility for its acts and even if it does, does not present itself as open to discussion about anything. If the US government wanted to meet with people of Al Qaeda, which appears to be behind the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings, whom would they have called? Who could Al Qaeda have possibly sent? And anyway, if Al Qaeda's goal is to destroy the West, what point would there have been in taking part in a process of dialogue inspired by nonviolence?

And if nonviolent resolution is not possible in such cases, what happens to the premise of Peace Studies? It does not, as it turns out, collapse.

The popular version of terrorism has it that terrorists are consumed with hatred and want only to destroy. That is an analysis of terrorism that has much caché today in government circles, among others. What follows from this analysis is that terrorist training centers must be annihilated. That, it is expected, will at least partially contain terrorism.

It appears, though, that learning the trade of the terrorist is easily transportable from one site to another. There is no way all possible sites can be located and demolished. Bomb one, another pops up. Part of what is learned from the current Israeli government's effort to assassinate terrorist leaders is that they are amazingly easy to replace, and there is no way of identifying and killing all of those who will step forward to take the place of those killed. And the same regarding places that teach terrorists how to make and use bombs.

This fact leaves the governments of the victims of terror doing the best they can to pursue their image of containing terrorism and steeling their populations to endure endless acts of violence against them. The government's task is to persuade citizens that this is inevitable and that nothing more can be done than what the government is doing.

This is also, as it happens, the core of the right wing world view, writ large: it is natural for peoples to hate each other. One must be as strong as possible to counter-attack when assaulted and simply swallow hard and accept one's losses as part of what life and organized society are about. The right wing is convinced that there is no viable alternative.

But there is a viable alternative, and it is likely that if the right wing could be persuaded to listen, it might even find this attractive, though doing so would necessitate painfully moving from one paradigm to another. The feasible alternative is to try to discover what underlies the philosophy and practice of terrorism. This means, of course, abandoning glib convictions that terrorists are evil or insane. We get further if we assume they are acting according to some rationality we may not like but which in an objective way, can be made understandable.

Peace Studies makes a crucial distinction between "negative peace" and "positive peace." Most of social science and political practice settle for visions of negative peace, which is simply the absence of war. The Cold War saw negative peace between the US and the Soviet Union. India and Pakistan are usually in a state of negative peace in their relationship with each other. Israel and the Palestinians have periods of negative peace which are a relief to both parties, as violence is suspended at least temporarily.

The right-wing world view's concept of peace is negative peace. Nothing more.

Positive peace means the creation and existence of conditions of justice, respect, and access to needed resources, conditions that presumably would end the logic and impetus that lead to violence. War is often driven by certain kinds of leaders who promote war upon other parties to gain their resources. Tribal wars may take this form. The wars of imperialism in its classic and current modes fit here. War is a way of taking something away from people because you want it and they don't want to part with it. Riches for the Crusaders (and for those leading many other wars), land for Hitler, oil for the United States, sacred places for Hindus, Muslims, and Jews.

Many Palestinian terrorists appear to feel hopeless to affect the Israeli degradation they experience, to find themselves at dead ends with no perceived ways out in their personal lives, and to consider suicide bombings as ways of inflicting revenge on an enemy that seems unable or unwilling to respond to rational pleas for discussion and justice.

By contrast, the September 11 bombers appear to have been highly educated and from privileged sectors of their societies. What would possibly motivate them?

The efforts to understand this are impressive. There is in recent use a word and a concept that has not, I believe, been paramount in social science or governmental political analysis until now: humiliation. (In his analyses of the effects of Western imperialism on Arab Islamic nations, Edward Said has been writing about this for years.)

The humiliation that subdued peoples feel at the hands of the "victors" is more than galling. For many people, it is insufferable. Yet it is an unstated assumption of the culture of war that losers have to accept that the superior party won, and that is that.

That premise is the Achilles heel of the "adversary paradigm," that underlies the culture of war. [See my book Rambo and the Dalai Lama: the Compulsion to Win and Its Threat to Human Survival (Albany: SUNY Press, 1998) for a full explication of a theory of what could be an imminent paradigm shift from adversarialism to mutuality.] Losers rarely take loss gracefully. Why should they? Who would? Losers seek redress of grievances, and if they can't get it, they look for revenge. Terrorism is the revenge of last resort.

The only rational way to address this state of affairs is to acknowledge the humiliations inflicted by centuries of colonialism and imperialism (both classical and "neo-") which appear to underlie the complaints against the West. Some people who identify with Islam appear to be determined either to restore the former glory of Islam somehow through force, or at least to have the humiliations and degradations inflicted upon Islamic cultures by the West avenged in the most awful, useless ways, by massive destruction.

How to handle the reality of experienced humiliation and exploitation is, I am convinced, the issue facing us today. There is a glimmer of a process on the horizon that would, I believe, speak forcefully and successfully to the issue. It is a vast expansion of a recent innovation already partially in place.

Not long after South Africa became free of apartheid, the new majority black government established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The task of this brilliant innovation was to persuade the people on both sides of the race conflict who had violated human rights during the decades of apartheid to come forward and admit what they had done. Victims and victimizers were, figuratively and sometimes literally, to look each other in the eye and admit their actions and the consequences, including feelings. Out of this practice has come the possibility of the victims' satisfaction in the revelation of the truth of what was done to them and in some cases, actual reconciliation between victimizers and victims.

The TRC is a variation of a movement already in existence in the US and many pre-industrial societies now called Restorative Justice. Its goal is to bring victimizers and victims together in interpersonal cases of violence, to create conditions where victimizers face and deal with the pain they have inflicted upon victims, and to seek and, where possible, find ways of coming back together in a community through mutual human recognition, confession, and forgiveness. It is the common humanity of all parties concerned that is the core focus of this process, which seeks less to punish than to acknowledge perpetration and pain and to restore good relations in a context of resentment, imbalance, and hurt.

It was appropriate that the free government of South Africa called a world conference on racism for the year 2001, in Durban, South Africa. It was an invitation for all powers that had invaded through the centuries to meet with their victimized peoples and begin processes of telling the truth and seeking reconciliation.

Thus did an opportunity open up for the invaders, who neither dwelt upon nor, usually, even taught their sordid histories of invasion, conquest, and exploitation, to face their victims and themselves, the perpetrators. It would have allowed a start in coming to terms with tragic historical events that happened long ago but whose effects--both material and emotional--continue every day in the lives of the peoples in the invaded countries.

The Durban conference could have been a splendid beginning of this process, but it was partially derailed by the US government, of course the one still most actively engaged in invading countries.

The vision of a global TRC practice is grand and huge: a series of inquiries in public, revealing what really happened in the centuries when Western powers assaulted and tragically exploited and damaged cultures throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Imagine scholars and common people from invading and invaded peoples collaborating in open hearings and in presenting imaginatively produced films for global television, depicting the true histories of the processes of undermining countless cultures and humiliating their inhabitants. Imagine Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, and the United States seeing what had happened from the point of view of the vanquished. Imagine the gratification of aggrieved peoples seeing their true story placed before the world.

Imagine further--and this would be a crucial piece of the process--the once-victorious nations agreeing to engage in the most massive reparations process in history. The conquerors of yore would acknowledge that their wealth came from the lands, lives, economies, and cultures of the aggrieved peoples. They would then agree to spend massive amounts of money, best taken from drastically reduced military budgets (were this process here proposed to be undertaken, the very premises underlying most wars would be undermined), to enable the once defeated countries to build viable economic, educational, health, housing, and other institutions. Helping all peoples live comfortably and with dignity would go a long way toward correcting the complaints that appear to underlie the terrorist hatred of the West.

Such an effort would require a gigantic movement of peoples in both developed and less developed countries, prevailing upon existing governments to take
responsibility for their continuing actions and also those of their predecessors. This appears to me to be a truly viable method (there may be others; this is the one that occurs to me so far) for dealing with what are most likely the real issues underlying the events of September 11 and further terrorist acts that may follow. It is not likely that the expected and continuing responses of war culture--which usually sets in motion a cycle of horrible violence--is up to the task of meeting this challenge.

We might coin a new slogan for the possibility I am laying out here: Give peace culture a chance.

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