Creating a big circle for a difficult discussion: Keynote address for the first teach-in at Eastern Mennonite University

Thank you so very much for inviting me to give this first keynote address for the teach-ins at EMU. First, I would like to congratulate Marcus Miller and the entire SGA committee responsible for putting together the teach-ins. They have done a most impressive job of organizing and creating programs that make everyone on campus feel welcome and heard.

I would also like to thank our President (Joe Lapp), our Provost (Beryl Brubaker), our Dean (Marie Morris), and my fellow faculty members for supporting this endeavor. The faculty decision to “relocate” classes and engage their “teaching energies” around issues in which they may or may not have substantive expertise — demonstrates the unique character of a community marked both by faith and by a commitment to a liberal arts education. Over the weekend, I was with colleagues from half-a-dozen colleges and universities, including George Mason University and the University of Virginia. They were all extremely impressed – and more than a little envious of me – when I described the ways this campus community has collectively grasped the opportunity presented by the September 11 crisis — to engage in a shared search for wisdom and understanding.

As the newest member of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding faculty and as a non-Mennonite, I am deeply honored by your invitation. I am also a bit humbled by your trust. Given the brain-power and the heart-passion for peace and social justice among my colleagues – not to mention their publication and practice credentials in the area of peacebuilding – I recognize that there were many others who could have been invited to kick off this ambitious project.

Marcus and I spoke about this session last Tuesday, just as I was preparing to leave for Toronto to attend the First Annual International Conference of the Association for Conflict Resolution. Don’t let the “first annual” fool you. The Association for Conflict Resolution (or ACR) was formed out of three long-standing organizations dedicated to the advancement of conflict resolution practices at all levels of society. So I was fortunate to spend the past weekend with colleagues who have dedicated years – and in many cases three or more decades – to developing, refining, using, and promoting the acceptance of alternative, nonviolent methods for responding to conflict in families, schools, neighborhoods, organizations, churches and other religious communities… in short, wherever conflict occurs.

Naturally, the events of September 11 and the follow up responses from the United States and other nations were very much on our minds. And, the conference organizers convened two separate 3-hour sessions to discuss the current crisis. In each session, two of our bravest colleagues agreed to facilitate a discussion of this difficult topic for a room of 50-60 persons all trained in facilitation and conflict resolution – and, I might add, all perfectly willing to make process suggestions from the floor. It probably won’t surprise you to hear that these sessions were a bit like “herding cats” – trying to get 50-60 process experts to agree on a process is no easy task. Personally, I think my colleagues who volunteered to facilitate these sessions deserve hazardous duty pay.

What probably will surprise you… is the fact that the participants did not limit their disagreements to issues of process. We were, in fact, coming from extraordinarily different places in our responses to the September 11 attacks, the subsequent actions of the United States, the appropriate response from the conflict resolution community, and the long-term implications of this crisis for our work and for our lives.

Some of the variety in our responses could be traced to differences in our proximity to the September 11 attacks. Many persons from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and the Washington D.C. area were clearly coping with trauma. Sadly, many of these persons had not had an opportunity to start processing their trauma, and they were looking to their community of conflict resolution colleagues to help with this. We did our best to assist them in starting what will be a long process.

But proximity to the attack was not our only difference. We also discovered the full range of action-responses coming from our gathering of conflict resolution professionals.

  • Some individuals were ready to sign up with the nearest recruiting officer and head to Afghanistan — and they were fully supportive of our bombing campaign.
  • Others were already actively organizing a peace movement response.
  • Many had started working in their local communities on anti-bias work and outreach to their Muslim neighbors. This group included individuals supportive of the war on terrorism as well as those opposed to it, which points to the complexity of individual views and attitudes in this situation.
  • Most were still sorting out the nature of the events and identifying useful, appropriate, or helpful responses. In this, they were often confused about where their talents and skills as conflict resolution practitioners fit into the current situation.

Fortunately, our profession has taught us the importance of listening to diverse voices around any conflict — and we were able to put our values into practice during our time together. We just listened to one another without judgment or argument, and in that listening process, three themes resonated with the group.

One colleague – arguing against splitting the group into a trauma-healing group and an action-planning group – said:

“We don’t need to split our hearts and our heads. We need to use our hearts to draw our circle bigger so that we can embrace all of the peoples involved in this crisis and our heads to figure out what to do in that circle.”

A second member of the group said:

“This whole event has just completely knocked me off center. I don’t fully know what I believe anymore. I don’t know how to act in response to this situation. And, I don’t know whether the conflict resolution tools I have relied on for twenty years have any relevance in this case.”

A third said:

“I feel like we have been given a wake-up call. We can either ignore it and go back to sleep, or we can take on the largest challenge we will ever face.”

I am going to take these themes in reverse order as a way of framing our conversation today – about the causes of September 11 – and also as a way of making some suggestions about how we can “be” together and learn together during the series of four teach-ins.

The Wake-Up Call

To say that September 11 was a wake-up call, is also to say that we have been asleep – we have somehow missed or failed to recognize profoundly important events and/or changes in our world. In some way, September 11 has directed our attention to those events or changes, but even now – one month after the initial attack – we are not completely sure what has changed, or how it has changed. We certainly are not clear about what we need to do in response to the wake-up call. Let me share a few snippets from my own “waking-up” since September 11 and from things I heard at the ACR conference.

  • The “global system” is real; we live in a world that is profoundly different from the world as it existed even when I was an undergraduate. Which to many of you will seem like centuries ago, but it really was not in the Middle Ages.

You know all the protesters in Seattle, Milan, and Washington? They are not just making noise and they are not just trying to re-live the 1960’s. I knew this intellectually, even though my own response to the problems created by the globalizing system did not include street protests. But I really recognized it at a gut level when I looked at a map of the countries that suffered casualties in the World Trade Center. This map, along with a list of the countries that lost people in the September 11 attack is posted on the U.S. State Department web site, and I urge you to visit it some time to experience the full impact of a visual depiction of the global system. [unfortunately this link is no longer available]

Working on the hypothesis that any country that did not lose someone in the Trade Center may be excluded in some fashion from the global economy, the map is truly shocking. Only five countries on the African continent suffered casualties on September 11. They are South Africa, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Kenya, and Egypt. The Central Asian countries (Afghanistan, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan) are absent from the list of victims. Also absent from the roll call of casualties are Iraq, Syria, and Libya (countries the United States has punished through economic policies because of previous terrorist incidents) as well as most of the Islamic Middle East – Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar.

In short, we were attacked by individuals from countries that have little stake in the world economic system, or from countries where the elites but not the masses are integrated into the global system. And, when our African friends tell us that they are not part of the global economy, they are speaking truth and not just using hyperbole to get our attention. It is no accident that earlier terrorist attacks on the United States occurred in Africa and in Yemen. If we really wake up to the reality of the global system, then we must grapple with and address the economic, social, cultural, and political inequities of that system. For in those inequities lie some of the root causes of September 11.

  • The United States is not separate from the rest of the world. We cannot withdraw from the community of nations however much some of our political leaders would like to pursue separatist or isolationist policies.

In the months prior to September 11, President Bush withdrew from the Kyoto accord on global warming, removed the U.S. delegation from the World Conference on Racism, and indicated a willingness to set aside a long-standing arms control treaty with the Russians. Each of these multi-lateral efforts has strengths and weaknesses that can be debated. What was striking about the US withdrawal from these efforts, was that in each case the reason for backing out or not participating was couched in the pursuit of US interests, which it was argued cannot and should not be subject to global considerations. Even our friends chastised us for these decisions and for this “go it alone” approach. In the years prior to September 11, the United States failed to pay its dues to the United Nations – a problem that is being corrected since September 11. We also have a decades long record of exempting ourselves from prosecution in various international courts. This, of course, weakened our ability to turn to international justice systems, for assistance in responding to the attacks of September 11.

The famous sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset talks of “American exceptionalism” – the belief that America is different from all other countries and therefore not subject to the same rules of behavior or norms of conduct that apply to other nations. If you don’t think that American exceptionalism is real or you don’t understand how it impacts our assumptions and behaviors, I urge you to speak with some of our international students. Last week, one of the CJP students told me how surprised he was at the United States’ failure to turn to the United Nations as a venue for addressing the crisis created by September 11. In his country, the UN would have been the first institution to which the leaders would have turned for assistance. Only now, living here during these events, did he fully understand the depth of the American sense of self-reliance and exceptionalism.

  • One of the wake-up calls on September 11 was caused by the death of American exceptionalism. We have not fully recognized the implications of this death, but the loss is real and profound.

We have now experienced in a deeply personal way the type of violence that has become commonplace in all too many parts of the world. We have, in this terrible experience, joined the family of nations. What we do not yet know is exactly how the death of American exceptionalism will impact our daily lives, our attitudes, our behaviors, and our expectations.

If you have lost a loved one, you know that it takes months or even years before you really, really come to grips with their absence. The first holiday season, for example, you discover that you were unconsciously expecting grandma to make her special stuffing, or you were assuming that your dad would put up his goofy decorations. And, in those moments, you experience your loss all over again, even as you re-knit your family and create new rituals and expectations about how you will “be” in the absence of your loved one. So it will be with the United States as we grapple with the fact that we will never again be able to assume that we are an exception to the experiences of violence that are sweeping the globe.

I was struck by the difficulty individuals are having grasping this idea while sitting on the plane coming home from Toronto. Our flight was late taking off and it took an hour-and-a-half longer than scheduled, because the military had closed down a vast expanse of air space over Washington. So, we had to fly west as far as Cleveland and then south before they let us head east and finally up to Baltimore-Washington International Airport from the southeast. In the midst of this, a man in the row behind mine asked his neighbor, “How long do you think it will be before things are back to normal?” To which his companion – reading my own mind, I think – replied, “What do you mean by normal? We will probably never approach flying the same way, again.”

Indeed, there are many, many things about our lives that will change as we integrate the experience of September 11 into our collective psyche, our daily routines, and our institutions. And, this points to the fact that in crisis, we also have opportunities to remake systems. The global system may be real and the United States may not be able to escape membership in that system, but it is not carved in stone. In some ways, it is the very fragility or vulnerability of the system that has shocked us. We are just starting to recognize that we live in an “emerging” system and we all have a role to play in deciding the shape of that system in the post-September 11 world. No wonder we feel “knocked off center.”

“Knocked off Center”

When experienced conflict resolution practitioners talked about being “knocked off center” by September 11, they meant a number of different things.

  • “Being centered” is a term used by many mediators to describe the state of calm and dispassion that they attempt to achieve during a mediation session.

Many of the professional mediators at ACR were shocked by the waves of fury and passion that overtook them on September 11 and in the ensuing weeks. Their rage is leading them to question their professional identities. Were their professed belief in calm, careful problem solving – their claim that conflicts can be turned into problems to be solved – their argument that conflicts are opportunities for transforming personal lives and interpersonal relationships – just so much bunk? Are they hypocrites who see nonviolence and problem solving as tools for use with other persons, but not for incidents involving themselves, their loved ones, or their country? Some of you may be experiencing a similar sense of being unbalanced, particularly if you were raised in a Mennonite or other pacifist tradition. No matter how deeply you have integrated this identity, the shock of such a violent attack on U.S. soil against U.S. civilians may be causing you to question your beliefs.

  • “Being centered” also implies that we understand how the world works and that there is a predictability to our reality.

On September 11, we all lost our sense that the world was a predictable place. Since September 11 – and most notably since the bombing began last Sunday – we don’t know what to expect. That unpredictability is, by the way, part of the experience of terror. Terrorists work in ways that deliberately keep their victims “off balance” and under stress. This profound sense of unpredictability has always been part of the experience of war for civilians. We are just not accustomed to having our wars come home to us in this manner. The “hot” battles of the so-called “Cold” War were fought in other peoples’ countries, usually using other peoples’ soldiers as our proxy warriors. The full-scale wars fought with our own troops – Korea and Vietnam – were not victories, but at least the violence did not show up in our daily lives on the home front. Our one big post-Cold War confrontation – the Persian Gulf War – came to us via CNN and it looked more like a Nintendo game than a deadly, violent confrontation. It certainly did not lead to massive destruction in the United States, and for most Americans the region and all of its problems faded into the background once the media moved its attention to President Clinton’s scandalous sex life and other pressing matters.

On a personal level, many of you may be reconsidering your career plans. A few among us may yet be called up for active duty and others may decide to enlist in the military. Many of you are waiting anxiously to hear whether the government will reinstate the draft. And if it is reinstated, you are anxious to know what types of provisions will be made for conscientious objectors. In short, many of you are probably feeling a bit knocked off center, too.

It is easy – under these circumstances – to draw narrower and narrower circles. If we do that, then: we talk only with those persons we know share our views; we define our enemies to include those persons on the home front who disagree with us; and we push the enemy/Other into the category of non-human or sub-human entity. In our time together during the teach-ins, I am going to suggest that we would do well to “use our hearts to draw our circle bigger and our heads to figure out how to talk with one another in that circle.”

Creating a Big Circle for a Difficult Discussion

If we draw a large circle when thinking about the causes of our current crisis, we will extend the time horizon for our analysis and we will make sure that we subject all parties – including our own country and our traditional allies – to an even-handed analysis and scrutiny. I have been trying to draw that larger circle, and in so doing I have recognized some unpleasant truths about U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and in Central Asia. I am not going to elaborate on those lessons, because I think some of our panel members can do that better than I.

[The following section was not included in the speech on October 15 due to time constraints.]

Instead, I want to focus on a question about which I have some expertise based on my research into apocalyptic religious movements that come into conflict with state authorities.

  • What would make individuals hijack planes and fly them into buildings? In other words, “Why do they hate us so much?

To answer this question, we must think in decades and we must expand our circle of thinking outside of the psychological realm. The individuals who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon did not just wake up one morning and say, “Gosh, what a great day to attack those infidels in the United States.” The motivations and actions of the persons who carried out the September 11 attacks, were shaped by the institutions and cultural systems in which they grew up. Just as our motivations and our actions are shaped by our institutions and cultural systems. Such systems and institutions take decades – if not longer – to create. For example, the current U.S. response to the September 11 attack is rooted in a universal human urge for justice or perhaps revenge. But the inclination to revenge is manifested through institutions (e.g., the military) that have grown out of our decades-old decision to put massive resources into a war-making system. Had we put those same resources into developing a system for responding to international crime, we would have other options available to us during this crisis.

The motivations of the attackers were shaped by institutions in their own countries, but it is important that we understand how much the prior policies of the United States – and before us, the policies of European colonial powers – shaped those institutions. U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and in Central Asia has privileged the elites while marginalizing the masses within many Islamic countries. Even though we talk about spreading democracy to other countries, we have historically made alliances with and in many cases placed into power, persons whose methods of rule were authoritarian and repressive.

This has been particularly true in regions of the world that are rich in natural resources (the Middle East) or strategically located in relation to some enemy we want to contain (such as Central Asia in relation to the Soviet Union). In other words, all across the Islamic world, we have a decades-long tradition of choosing to pursue our own immediate strategic interests over the needs of the masses and the creation of longer-term stability.

One consequence in the Islamic world has been the creation of fundamentalist schools, which are often the only source of education for the poor. While learning to read, write, and do their math, poor children all over the region are being fed a steady diet of fundamentalist Islamic teachings that explain how the United States is the source of all evil and the architect of the poverty and inequity in the region.

If you want to understand what an equivalent situation would look like in this country, think about what would happen if the public schools in the poorest communities collapsed, and the government left education for poor white children in the hands of Christian Identity pastors. Poor White children would learn anti-Semitism, racism, and a mandatory return to traditional family values that includes no higher education for women, no work outside the home for women, and the subservience of women to their fathers, brothers, and husbands. Many of the women in this room would not be here. Jews in this country would live in fear, as would persons of color. If a similar collapse of the educational system occurred in primarily Black communities and the educational system were placed in the hands of militant black leaders preaching a hatred of White people and a revolutionary opposition to dominant cultural institutions, we would eventually have a race war.

The themes of fundamentalism and the potential for fanaticism are present in every religious tradition. It only takes the right set of contextual circumstances to bring those themes to the fore.

[That concludes the section that was not included in the speech on October 15, 2001.]

Finally, I want to direct our attention to the circle in which we are thinking about the current crisis. And, I want us to consider how we can modify that thinking in order to create a larger circle for dialogue, analysis, policy-making, and articulating our individual responses to September 11.

For this, I am going to give you a pop-quiz. I am going to read a series of statements. These are summaries of ideas from speeches or written texts prepared by President George W. Bush or Osama bin Laden. For each statement, you tell me who said it. Where I use the word God, I am also encompassing the concept of Allah, so you can mentally re-write the statement. This quiz is a little different; I want you to cheat. Work with three or four persons sitting around you and see if you can agree on your answer.

  1. There are evil forces in the world.
  2. Those forces of evil have invaded our space and threaten to overrun us.
  3. We, the forces of good, must fight against the forces of evil until they are defeated.
  4. They (the other side, the forces of evil) understand only force.
  5. We, the forces of good, cannot reason with the forces of evil.
  6. We ask God’s blessing to help us defeat the forces of evil.
  7. We are committed to fighting this battle as long as necessary.
  8. They, the forces of evil, hope that their evil acts will frighten us. They are wrong.
  9. They, the forces of evil, hope that their evil acts will deter us from acting. They are wrong.
  10. We call on all those who agree with us to commit to our cause.
  11. This is the first war of the new era.
  12. This war will not be like other wars.
  13. We will fight this war by unconventional means.

How many of you reached perfect consensus on your answers? How many of you were confused or uncertain? Well, what is going on here? Why are our answers not obvious? Because each of these statements can be found in speeches and texts prepared by both President Bush and bin Laden.

At the national level of policy making we are trapping ourselves in a very small circle indeed as we plan our responses to the current crisis. We are already limiting our thinking to a war-system in which the parties become mirror images of each other. This narrowing of the circle is apparent in the media, too.

One of the side effects of this narrowing circle is that persons who do not agree with the war-response are demonized. We have already seen the publication – locally and in the national media – of editorials that equate a failure to support war as a manifestation of craziness or evil. This is, no doubt, of great concern to many of you.

On the other hand, sitting with us today, we probably have persons who feel that the campus community has gone the other direction – that anyone not supporting a nonviolent response to the current crisis is allying him or herself with evil.

It is up to us to use our time together to model another way of responding to crisis. We can do this by following the example of the conflict resolution experts in Toronto. We can sit with one another, listen to one another without judgment, and use our hearts to draw a big circle in which we can have a difficult discussion about critically important matters.

Jayne Seminare Docherty, PhD, is the professor of Conflict Studies at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding.