Richard Rubenstein

Professor of Conflict Resolution and Public Affairs at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: Let's talk about terrorism a little bit: fundamentalism, extremism, other "isms." Are there common misconceptions about terrorism or religious terrorism that people dealing with conflict resolution should be aware of?

A: Well, the common misconceptions about religious terrorism are pretty much an extension of the common misconceptions about secular, or non-religious, terrorism. The interesting thing about terrorism, and this is kind of a side remark, is that in a way it's always religious. If you look at the ideologies and forms of organization, practices, and so forth of the secular terrorists, beginning with Narodnaya Volya, the Russian terrorists in the 19th century, you find that in some ways they seemed structurally a whole lot like religious terrorism, or vice versa. That is to say they often involve martyrdom, they often involve a kind of faith that if we do these violent acts, ultimately our cause will triumph. And it's not necessarily a rational thing, it's pure faith, it's a leap of faith. They often involve extreme feelings of unworthiness and dedication on the part of the martyrs.

One of the figures in a book of mine is a Russian socialist revolutionary, a member of the socialist revolutionary party in the first decade of the 1900s named Kaliayev. He was also the subject of a play by Camus and Kaliayev is the guy who decided he was going to throw himself along with his bomb under the Grand Duke Sergei's carriage and blow himself up with the grand duke. His theory about that was that his death would compensate for the death of another person.

These were highly moral people in the sense that they didn't believe in taking a life without giving a life. They had kind of a weird theory of compensation.

If we weren't so anti-Islamic, basically, and anti-terrorist, I mean if we wanted to look at terrorism with a little more detachment instead of seeing even the terrorists of 9/11 as monstrous beasts and unreasoning fanatics and so forth, you might even also see there an indication of the same kind of theory of compensation: If we're going to take life, we're going to give it.

Q: As opposed to some kind of laser-guided bomb that drops onto somewhere and is more immoral?

A: Yes, as opposed to the totally impersonal. You know, partly people do terrorism because it's the only form of violence that's available to them. They don't have the laser-guided bombs. But people keep asking me, why don't they explode a dirty bomb in Tel Aviv or Washington or someplace? And I don't think the answer is because they don't have it, I think the answer is because it's not their style for lots of other reasons. But anyway, in Man's Fate by Andre Malraux, a great book, one of the protagonists of the book is a Chinese terrorist called Chen, who is a communist. He's proposing to throw himself at the limousine of Chiang Kai-Shek and blow himself up along with Chiang Kai-Shek. He's taking his leave, he's saying farewell to his comrades, and they say what do you want to tell us as you leave? And he says, multiply the martyrs. He says an idea is only as strong as the amount of blood shed in its name. One of his comrades says, 'You're making a religion of terrorism.' And he says, 'That's right.' So, there are these parallels between religious terrorism and non-religious terrorism anyway. But the original question was how do people think about it.

Well, they think that terrorists are either mad or bad. There's the theory that they're crazy, which had to be abandoned because of studies beginning with Walter Laqueur at Columbia, and lots and lots of studies showing terrorists are not crazy. They represent a wide spectrum of personality types. And are they bad? Well, yes, of course you can say anybody who takes innocent life is bad, and you want to call them a fanatic or evil. But the way that George Bush and people in his administration and others around the world who are opposing terrorism use this kind of Augustinian concept of evil, that the terrorists are evil, it's totally ahistorical. It's not just saying these people are bad because they shouldn't have done this, they hurt innocent people and it's not proportional to the injury that they were done, or whatever you want to say; making an ethical argument against it is fine. But to view it as absolute evil, as some eruption from the underworld, is a way of refusing to deal with it as an historical phenomenon.

And the reason people refuse to deal with it as an historical phenomenon is because they don't want to implicate themselves. The don't want to take responsibility for themselves as actors in history, for being part of a situation that produced terrorists. To my mind that's what's really crazy. It's certainly self-defeating because if the United States can't recognize the role that U.S. imperialism and participation in various kinds of globalistic schemes, if they can't recognize the role of U.S. activities abroad, whether it's economic activities or propping up dictatorships or spying or selling arms or whatever, they can't see that they have something to do with the conditions that spawn terrorism, then we're never going to get rid of it.

So in conflict resolution, it seems to me, this is the conflict analysis part, and that's what we can do and need to do. We're doing some of it already. We need to do more of it. It's not a question of blaming America, but it's a question of blaming - if you want to blame - a global system, in which America is a major player, that produces violence. But it also means being willing to take the heat. If we're going to say that we're blaming America, then we'll have to take that heat, because if we don't analyze this system which some American interests are profiting from as being productive of terrorism, then we're not going to be able to do anything about it.

Q: So say we do become self-aware of our own role in generating terrorists and unsymmetrical attacks-

A: Before you finish that sentence, how do you become aware? Conflict resolution can't just be considered mediation and facilitation in the narrow sense of having two parties or more parties and they all sit around the table and you facilitate. In this case, conflict resolution would involve, I think, facilitating a congressional hearing on the real causes of terrorism. Or putting a multi-organizational task force together to do a report based on interviews, based on first-hand information, of how the system operates that seems to be generating violence, and what the alternatives are.

I mean, could you get Osama bin Laden and George Bush together to sit at the same table without having one or the other of them immediately blow up the table, just as a thinking game?

They would not be able to begin to solve the problem, not only because they're both so narrow minded, but also because it takes the kind of capacity to analyze the system that they'd need more people to help them do that. So how to do that kind of analysis of the system and have it be the sort of analysis that real people in the real world would pay any attention to? I don't know.

We're trying to set up a new kind of think tank in Washington that would be an alliance of forces interested in doing that kind of analysis. It would be great if the United States Institute of Peace were interested in it, but they're not. They're compromised by their dependence on government funds. There may be some congressmen and senators who would be interested in doing this sort of thing, who realize that we're kind of short of ideas on what the alternatives to the imperial model are. So I think this in an important new frontier for conflict resolution.

Q: So basically we're inventing the tools right now to deal with terrorism?

A: That's exactly right. Exactly right.