Response to the terrorists actions: The best long-term strategy for a just, peaceful, humane and sustainable world. A letter from Morton Deutsch, PhD,
E. L. Thorndike Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Education, and
Director Emeritus, International Center for Cooperation & Conflict
Resolution (ICCCR), Teachers College, Columbia University

                                                               September 20, 2001

Dear Colleagues,
         We are all horrified and shocked by the horrendous events which have occurred recently in which thousands of innocent victims were killed by well organized terrorists actions directed against people and buildings in New York City, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.
         From various news reports and statements of U.S. government officials, it seems that our government believes that:

1. The terrorist actions were planned, organized, and carried out by the bin Laden group

2. The Taliban government in Afghanistan has provided harbor for the bin Laden group

3. Elements within the government of Iraq, and possible others, have provided support of various kinds for the bin Laden group

The U.S. government, with the support and possible cooperation of other nations, is preparing a series of responses directed at the bin Laden group, the Taliban government, the Iraqi government, and to the general problem of terrorism.  Among the likely responses is a strong military action by the U.S. and its allies.

What can those of us who have been working for a just, peaceful, humane and sustainable world do in the light of the above?  I suggest that we should be sending the following message to our political leaders: to the President and members of his Cabinet, to members of Congress, and to other people who influence policy:
(1) It is important to encourage thoughtful, deliberate policy-making which has a long-term perspective and which fully takes into account the possible long-term consequences of one's action.  There should be every effort to resist premature judgements and actions.  Time must be taken for careful policy-making.  Hot-tempered actions, based upon a primitive impulse for revenge, are likely to be ineffective, costly, unduly dangerous to ourselves and to many innocent people, and to produce long-term consequences which promote rather than eliminate terrorism.

I suggest that the best long-term strategy will involve:
(a) Differentiating Islam and the terrorist groups so that the terrorist groups are perceived to be anti-Islam rather than acting as agents of Islam.  This will involve very strong opposition to anti-Muslim actions in the U.S. and elsewhere.  It will also require getting the active support of Muslim religious authorities in denouncing terrorism and terrorist groups.  We do not want our actions against terrorist groups to provoke a war with Islam (this is exactly what the terrorists want).  We want to cooperate with Islam in de-legitimizing violence against civilians whatever their religious background.  We should encourage leading Islamic religious figures to broadcast statements that people who engage in terrorism are not acceptable in the Islamic community, will not be allowed
to enter paradise in the after-life, and will be condemned for eternity.
(b) Addressing the causes which engender hatred and terrorism toward the United States.  The causes are discussed below under [3].  Although it would be a mistake to feel that the actions and policies of the United States in any way justify the terrorist actions, it is well to examine in what ways we can prevent or reduce the animus against the United States.

(2) We can support diplomatic, political, economic, and limited military actions to bring to justice those who planned, organized, or provided support to the terrorist actions.  The implementation should be so focused and limited that it results in no or minimal harm to the population of the countries attacked.  Through disproportionate and cruel actions we do not want to create a backlash which will only create more terrorists and a continuous cycle of destruction.

(3) We must begin to think seriously about the causes of terrorism and address its causes rather than believe that violence against terrorism will eliminate it.  Long-term effective action to eliminate terrorism and other forms of violence will mainly involve positive action to eliminate its causes.  Its causes are manifold: psychological, economic, political, religious, educational, and the easy availability of highly destructive weapons.  Each of these causes are addressed briefly:

(a) Psychological: It is important to understand the underlying motivations and cognitive perspectives of both the leaders and also the followers of organized terrorist groups.  At a deep level, it has been well stated that "violence is the expression of impotence grown unbearable."  At a more direct level, the leaders of terrorist groups such as those connected with the drug traffic are mainly seeking to protect and promote their illegal business.  In contrast, the leaders of such groups as bin Laden's are seeking to promote a political-religious ideology under conditions in which they feel impotent to achieve their objectives through peaceful means.  Osama bin Laden apparently seeks to destroy the modern, secular, democratic, dominating, globalizing capitalism as symbolized by the United States and return to a more medieval, pre-capitalistic theocratic world (such as found in the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan).  The leaders of terrorist groups are often well educated, from backgrounds of upper-middle or higher social-economic backgrounds, but often of marginal, disrespected ethnic, nationalist, or religious groups within their society.  They often harbor deep resentment against the leaders of their own society and those who are allied with them.

The active followers of the terrorist leaders are often alienated,

educated people from petit bourgeois families who are seeking a power and prestige-enhancing self-identity as well as the emotional and economic support of being a member of a close-knit group.  The political-religious ideology of their leaders provides them with an acceptable moral justification for their violent behavior.

(b) Economic:  During the past decade, the United States has gone through a period of considerable economic prosperity but many people throughout the world, as well as in the U.S., have not shared in this prosperity and a considerable number have seen their economic situation worsen.  Some believe that those who have prospered have done so because they have exploited those nations and people who have not.  There is considerable envy and resentment toward the U.S. as a result.  To overcome these feelings, as well as for other good reasons, it is important for the U.S. to take an active, leading, and visible role in improving the economic well being of those nations and people who are suffering economic difficulties.

(c) Shortsighted policy-making: In the past, we were so anti-Communist that we supported any group (including bin Laden's and the Taliban) that fought against the Soviets whether or not, they shared any of our other values.  Our bombing of Sudan was seen to be an unjustified terrorist attack against a Muslim state which, in turn, justifies an attack against us.  Apparently, our limited foresight can produce policies which are destructive to our own interests.

(d) Political: Political violence, to paraphrase, grows out of unbearable political impotence. In other words, political violence is less apt to be stimulated in a democracy where one has the freedom to express one's political views and to openly try to persuade others to elect to political power and leadership those who represent your views and interests than in the dictatorial nations of the Middle East.  Dictators are, often, able to prevent internal violence by severe, repressive controls and by deflecting the pent-up rage on to other targets.  The United States, partly because of its support of Israel as well as its leading role in the modern globalizing world, has become a handy target for this displaced rage.  It is evident that the U.S. has much to gain by supporting the development of democratic institutions and leadership to replace the backward autocratic
governments in this region.

(e) Religious:  The central tenets of all the major religions - Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Jewish - respect the sanctity of human life. They all oppose violence against innocent human beings.  However, there are deviant radical "fundamentalist" groups in some of the religions who distort the basic teachings of their religion to condone and, even, encourage politically inspired violence against innocent victims. Although this has been particularly true, recently, in the Middle East, where deviant "fundamentalists" have legitimized and even glorified people who have engaged in terrorist violence, it has also occurred in the United States, Israel, Ireland and other countries.  The United States should encourage the religious leaders of all religions to take very active leadership in de-legitimizing violence against innocent victims.

(f) Educational: Education in many parts of the world, as well as in the United States, does not provide students with the knowledge, attitudes, and skills to become active participants in - and advocates of - a peaceful world.  Too often, it is narrowly ethnocentric, glorifies violence by one's own group and dehumanizes members of out groups.  It predisposes students to use zero-sum power strategies and tactics in conflict wit out groups, rather than cooperative, problem-solving methods.  Clearly, if we are to have a world free of terrorism, much effort will have to be directed at educating our students to have the knowledge, attitudes and skills for constructive conflict resolution.

To sum up, we are in a win-lose conflict with terrorism; we must not allow it to escalate to a conflict with Islam or Muslims.  We must also prevent it from battering our democratic freedoms as we take steps to decrease our vulnerability to terrorism and to de-legitimize as well as undermine terrorist groups.  And, of course, we must continue our active efforts to create a world that is characterized by a cooperative peace, social justice, and a sustainable environment.

(g)       Availability of Weapons: The U.S. government pursuit of an anti-missile defense program is likely to lead to a unilateral ending of an important arms control treaty and hamper the development of international agreements to limit and control the production and widespread availability of weapons of mass destruction.  Our emphasis should be on developing effective international control of such  weapons rather than on taking actions to militarize space unilaterally.

Respectfully Yours,

Morton Deutsch
E. L. Thorndike Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Education, and
Director Emeritus, International Center for Cooperation & Conflict
Resolution (ICCCR), Teachers College, Columbia University