Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Constructing Stories About How Terrorism Might End

18 September 2007

This is yet another “essay” that will require much additional future work.

I have been contemplating recently how human change comes to pass. In essence, no emotional or behavioural change is possible without a change in thinking. This has led me to the following hierarchy with respect to how we humans can change our ways of thinking, feeling and behaving.

1. Ideas are strong.
2. Beliefs are powerful.
3. Stories are transformative.

That is, our best prospects for creating fundamental change in our response to adverse life events is through the re-telling of stories, in particular, stories of injury and loss.

Let’s think about the stories we tell ourselves about how terrorism might ultimately end –as one day it certainly will.

One storyline might proceed as follows: Terrorism will end when all the terrorists are jailed, killed or defeated. Interestingly, this story parallels the policy of Egypt, which has aggressively jailed and executed terrorists from the birth of the Muslim Brotherhood over a half century ago. The Egyptian policy, though often severe and brutal, has been relatively successful, when contrasted to the examples of, say, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

Saudi Arabia is a particular offender, as Saudi petrodollars have been funnelled into the support of terrorist causes to the tune of billions of dollars.

Recently, the Muslim Brotherhood has foresworn violence and entered electoral politics in Egypt. Now, is this an authentic change, or an expedient political strategy? That I do not know. It is certainly concerning that this longstanding terrorist organization has been able to garner 20% of the popular vote in recent Egyptian elections by donning the garb of moderation.

However, let’s imagine another storyline altogether: Terrorism will end when terrorists no longer desire to kill, and so lay down the arms voluntarily.

This is once again a very different kind of story, as it is about an inner transformation that might occur in the hearts of those who are presently committed to terrorism. Were we to desire to actualize this story, the implications would be quite different than those of the former story (based on the Egyptian policy model).

How might our own behaviour change so that we could become actors in this obviously more positive story? I cannot imagine any course of action that would not involve confrontation and face-to-face dialogue with individuals presently committed to terror as a lifestyle, policy and ideology.

Presumably the dialogue would focus initially on such questions as “What would we have to do to cause you to determine to bring your use of terrorist tactics to an end?”

Presumably, if our present adversaries were to agree to enter into such a discussion with us (I do not know if they would – but I also don't know that they won't), they might place some demands on us, and I presume that many of these demands would be unconscionable, as were the
recently-released statements of Mr. bin Laden.

We might then talk about what we could and could not do, and perhaps ask, if we did some of those things but not all of those things, would anything change about your commitment to the deployment of terror as a continuing strategy?

Perhaps simultaneously, we might intentionally cultivate relationships with moderate Islamists who oppose terror, and through our friendships with them, expect them to apply influence on our behalf with those who practice terrorism. I suppose that at the same time, we would presumably make some adjustments as well (I am not sure what these would be).

Yet another story line might proceed as follows: Terrorism will end when terrorism stops working.

Now, what would cause terrorism to stop working?

Well, from my own viewpoint, terrorism is already “not working,” but it is clear that its proponents see the matter differently. Such as bin Laden and al Zawahiri are presently riding a surge of strength as their violent gestures win them adherents in the angry and embattled Muslim world.

Certainly Westerners will not be won over to convert to Islam by being bombed and killed. In fact, our sympathies will be driven quite the other direction. Then again, we might come to ask, how will we win the hearts and minds of the Palestinians or the Iraqis while they are being bombed and killed by ourselves and/or our allies?

That is, in this third storyline, we might be influenced to desist from policies which we perceive to be unworkable for our adversaries, because they also are not working for us.

So perhaps through this third storyline, we might conclude that our military policy in the Islamic world is not working, so we must change it. This then might lead to the unfolding of a chain of events in which Islamic military policy also changes, and a possible twist is that the popular support which is presently sustaining Islamic terrorism might dwindle rather than grow.

So, to recapitulate: What if terrorism ended because it stopped working, and its proponents had a change of heart, no longer desiring to live and die by the sword and the bomb, laying down their arms and returning to peaceful ways?

If this were to come to pass, would we do the same?

Similarly, if we were to do exactly the same thing first, would that change anything on the other side?

I do not mean to suggest a policy of appeasement, but I have often thought that in Afghanistan, for example, the west should be sending perhaps three reconstruction workers for every soldier. And in the West Bank, we should perhaps be assisting unemployed Palestinians to develop businesses and assisting local communities to grow gardens and to build playgrounds for their children.

That is, when we being to imagine what terrorists might do differently, it becomes increasingly possible to imagine what we ourselves might do differently.

If this sounds overly idealistic – and I expect that it does – then consider that there is a well-supported example of exactly the kind of imaginative, positive story-telling response that I am presently discussing, in the book,
Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson.

Here is one reader’s review of the book from Amazon.ca:

Secular Sainthood: One Man's Road to Saving Humanity Through Education, Jun 30 2007

By Donald Mitchell (founder of the
400 Year Project to demonstrate how to make improvements 20 times faster in Boston)

"Do you like to read heroic tales of overcoming daunting odds to achieve great things? Do you believe that we are past the age of heroes? If you answered yes to either question, you need to read Three Cups of Tea immediately! Here's the overview of this book. Greg Mortenson was a determined mountain climber on his way back from challenging K2, one of the world's highest and most dangerous peaks in the Himalayas, when he lost his way. He was exhausted from just having helped in the all-but-impossible rescue of one of his fellow climbers. As a result of the second of his mistakes in leaving the so-called trail, Mortenson found himself needing help in a Balti village in Pakistan that he had never heard of, Korphe. The villagers nursed him back to health, and Mortenson began listening to their grievances against the Pakistan government which supported an on-going conflict with India over Kashmir, but did not provide a school for their children. The grateful Mortenson promised to build them a school. Many people make such promises, but few fulfill them. Mortenson headed back to California and raised the $12,000 he estimated it would take to build the school. With the money in hand, he flew back to Pakistan and started buying supplies. Arriving at the village, his new Balti friends reminded him that there was no bridge to transport the supplies to the village. Mortenson headed back to raise the money for the bridge. After many more trials, the school was built and a teacher installed. Mortenson had found his life work. He wanted to provide schools for all of the Pakistani children who didn't get an education, especially the girls, who were more likely to stay in their villages and improve living conditions. Everything was difficult. Pakistanis didn't trust him. Muslims thought it was all a plot to convert children to Christianity. Some wanted bribes. People in the United States were generally opposed to helping Muslims unless they had been climbers in that part of the Himalayas. Mortenson got hate mail. But he persevered. Eventually, his vision expanded to helping with water projects and to providing scholarships for higher education for those who graduated from the schools he built. Conditions in Afghanistan also called out to him, and he established a similar program there. But his slim efforts were being overwhelmed by madrassas funded with Saudi money that were often used to recruit and train terrorists. His life changed forever when in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan Parade Magazine wrote an article about his efforts to secure a lasting peace in the region by supporting moderate Muslims with educational aid. This book is powerfully coauthored by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. I seldom recall reading such an excellent story about serving humanity in a selfless secular way that isn't tied to a religious vocation. The book's title refers to a story that Mortenson learned from those who wanted him to slow down and stop acting like an American: The local people wanted to ally with him, and he was trying to run everything. Results improved when he stepped back and became an ally instead of an authoritarian leader. Here's the basis of the reference: Haji Ali, his first Balti friend, told Mortenson that he had to respect Balti ways. "The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger." "The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest." "The third time you share tea, you are family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything, even die." May God bless the authors, their families, and those who work with Mr. Mortenson to expand the light of education to those who wish to see with it."

So perhaps terrorism ended because the terrorists decided that terrorism doesn't work, and our own leaders also decided that militarism doesn't work - whereas friendships and alliances with moderate Muslims do.

There are other possible stories, and I do not oppose any story that will bring terrorism to an end. However, given that we presently have a choice of stories, I find this one to be more warming and affirming than the story of the terrorists’ military defeat alone.

Perhaps a combination of all of the stories – including stories other than these – is what will be required. I suspect that is the most likely outcome.

I know that all of my own stories are uncertain and possibly flawed, but I like the second and third stories better than the stories which solve this problem only militarily, so I'm sticking to it for now, and I'm going to try to figure out what other non-militaristic stories might be workable in some way so as to bring a joint end to militarism and terror.


  1. I'm going to have to get that book Laurence ... it sounds really good.

  2. Narratives help heal unpleasant thoughts. Even if the narrative never comes true it still helps our hearts feel better.

  3. My brain can create all kinds of positive and negative stories, and all of them seem at least in part plausible.

    I think we need to spend enough time creating the bad stories to be prepared for the worst, but after that is done, I think we behave better as individuals if we go forward based primarily on the positive stories.