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Beyond reciprocal violence: morality, relationships and effective self-defense

By Ervin Staub


A few hours after the 9/11 attacks, speaking on our local public radio station in Western Massachusetts, struggling with my tears and my voice, I said that this horrible attack can help us understand people’s suffering around the world, and be a tool for us to unite with others to create a better world. Others also said similar things. But that is not how events progressed.

Our response to that attack led to three wars we are still fighting, including the war on terror. How we fight these wars and what we do to bring them to an end will shape our sense of ourselves as a moral people, our connections to the rest of the world, our wealth and power as a nation, and our physical security.  What can we do to reduce hostility toward us, strengthen our alliances, and regain our moral leadership in the world?

One of the basic principles of human conduct is reciprocity. As one party strikes out at another,  the other, if it can, usually responds with force. Often the response is more than what is required for self-defense. It is punitive, taking revenge, teaching the other a lesson. But the first party  takes this as aggression, and responds with more violence. Israelis and Palestinians for many years engaged in mutual and often escalating retaliation, sometimes reciprocating immediately, sometimes, the Palestinians especially, the weaker party, waiting for the right opportunity.

Many young Muslims, and even non-Muslims converting to Islam, have been “radicalized” by our drone attacks, and our forces killing civilians in the course of fighting. The would-be Times Square bomber has talked to people about his distress and anger about such violence against Muslims. While we kill some who plan to attack us, especially as we harm innocent others, more turn against us.

Of course, we must protect ourselves. But positive actions are also reciprocated—not always, but often, especially if the intention for the action is perceived as positive. Non-violent reactions and practices must be part of effective self-defense. Respect is one of them. Many Muslims were killed in the 9/11 attacks, and we should have specifically included them in our public mourning. Many Arab and Muslim countries reached out to us afterwards, even Iran, and we should have responded more than we did to their sympathy and support. Effective reaching out is more challenging now, and after the mid-term elections the world might see reaching out by President Obama as acting out of weakness. But the U.S. is still the great power, and both the administration and members of Congress ought to reach out to the Muslim world.

But even as we show respect and work on good connections, we ought to stop supporting repressive Muslim regimes. That has been one of the grievances against us. An important source of Al-Qaeda has been Egyptian terrorists, who fought against a secular repressive Egyptian regime. Then as Al-Qaeda was organized by the Mujahideen, who fought against and defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, they turned from such “near enemies” against the far enemy, the United States, which supported these repressive regimes.

Another important matter is dialogue between parties. Dialogue can be abused, used simply to gain time, or as a show to pacify third parties, or can even be a fraud as in Afghanistan where an “impostor” played the role of a Taliban leader in dialogue with the government . The Bush administration strongly opposed dialogue with terrorists—but then with money and other inducements got Sunnis in Iraq, who have been attacking us, to work with us. In persistent dialogue, in contrast to the very occasional negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, the parties can develop relationships, gain trust, and then become ready to resolve practical matters.

To resolve our wars, we cannot simply bomb and shoot. We must also develop relationships. The less we harm innocent bystanders and the populations where we fight wars, the more moral our actions, the greater is the chance for peace.

Ervin Staub is Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and Founding Director of the Ph.D. concentration in the Psychology of Peace and the Prevention of Violence, Emeritus. He is the author of Overcoming Evil: Genocide, Violent Conflict, and Terrorism.

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