Eastern Mennonite 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: Everyone is always puzzled by the settlers, this phenomenon, they don't seem to have a ton of support in Israel and yet they expand, and obviously the Palestinians aren't big fans and yet they are a huge issue in the whole peace process. So what's going on with that and how do you deal with such vastly different world-views there?
A: People are afraid of them because of their religious fanaticism and people don't know what to make of that because it doesn't operate in the interest based, rational analytical behavior. It's identity based behavior in its extreme and they are part of the problem, but in the same way the radical Palestinian terrorists are a part of the problem and the way Islamic fundamentalists are apart of the problem. We are not going to address that issue world wide of the rise in fundamentalisms and extremisms by dismissing them as crazy and irrelevant and somehow non-modern throwbacks to some other thing. We have to deal with that and they have to be apart of the solution.
Q: Which brings us to terrorism and the future of the war maybe, as we know it. So include terrorists in the solution?
A: I don't think you include the hard-line settlers or the hard-line terrorists at the negotiation table, but I think you do recognize that those two groups are the radical expression of a much bigger narrative about reality and they depend very much on communities of support. Terrorist organizations cannot operate in the absence of communities that support them. And support them in different ways.
I mean in this country in the early 80s, we had the Posse Comitatus, running across the Midwest, in hiding, being chased down by the FBI. It was one of those cases where farmers were in the middle of the farm crisis and farms were being sold off and auctioned and all kinds of issues going on. A lot of people in the rural Midwest would see them, know where they were and kind of do the thing where the cops would come in and these people would say "they went that way" and point right, when they really went left. Or don't know, haven't seen them, don't know where they are.
That kind of support system is absolutely necessary for a violent group to operate and that's where the energy should be. Both in terms of trying to bring people in to a dialogue about why they feel threatened, about what their world feels like and how we can do it, and looking at the structure of sources of their own insecurity, because this rise in fundamentalism in all stripes including secular and political and not just religious is coming out of the globalization and the turmoil created by major structural upheavals in people's lives. People feel very threatened.
Q: A sort of reaction to globalization in a sense?
A: Well, I think, let's just take it down to Harrisonburg, Virginia for instance. Little old rural Harrisonburg, Virginia in the middle of the Shenandoah Valley. It is the fastest growing city in the state of Virginia and is now up to a population of 42,000. It is becoming increasingly diverse, ethnically for a lot of reasons, and situated in the middle of the biggest agricultural county in the state of Virginia. So we have farmers, including older Mennonite farmers who drive buggies, but who have electricity in their chicken houses because their tied to multi-national corporations for raising poultry, but they don't have electricity in their houses.
So everything's tied to this global agricultural economy and part of the increase in the diversity of the population has a lot to do with people coming up from Latin American to work in the poultry processing plants, as well as with the beef cattle and some dairy. So, you have this microcosm of the world and everything's very not like it was twenty ears ago and everybody knows that. There are the daily discomforts of having people who speak a strange language, people who behave differently, the growth, the pressure on the land crisis for the agricultural community because the city isn't managing its growth very well. All of these things create huge instability in people's sense of identity and stability. Then they got Evian flu last year. We had to execute 6 million birds and not put them to market, because of evian flu in the country here. Six million chickens and turkeys.
Q: So, it's like the mad cow?
A: It is, except there's no indication. I want to make that really clear on the tape, there's no indication that Evian flu transfers to human beings in any way but as a safety precaution, they will not take those birds to market. So 6 million birds were not taken to market and 170 plus farmers took a real hit. Japan and Russia shut their markets down to Virginia poultry and it put a big hit on us, in portions of this community, it had a rippling effect. That's what I mean by a global economy and a global sense that you're not in control of your own life, because you know, along comes Evian flu, we've had that before, but now it has this huge impact on us economically and culturally and our whole county and the city. That's our tax base, a lot of things. So when people experience life that way, and they don't feel that they're in control of their destiny anymore, one place that they turn is to religion and a sense of their must be some sort of order to this world, parts of this feel very unjust, but don't worry, justice is coming, and so one of the things we see is an increase in apocalyptic thinking that there will be one last big battle, and then the good guys and the bad guys will be sorted out and the world will be ok again.
I think we're seeing that all over the world in every religious tradition. In political systems as well that were allegedly secular that still have that end time, battle between good and evil and that's what's shaping the global war on terrorism. If you look at the Bush administration's rhetoric, if you look at bin Laden's rhetoric, if you look at the settlers, if you look at Christian fundamentalists, if you look at Buddhist fundamentalists, any of them, you're seeing a lot of those same themes cropping up and I don't think it's coincidental. I think it has to do with the change in structures probably.
Q: Absolutely, and let me get this straight, you said the way to work through that is with the support basis of your, what will eventually turn out to be your armed groups or with guns or bombs tied to their bodies, etc. So how do you go about doing that, how do you work with those communities of support? Those extremes?
A: I think one thing we have to recognize, is that anything we do to deal with the extremists, the armed extremists, isn't just a problem solving activity like let's go get these guys. Anything and everything we do has meaning to those who are watching. If we go in and we bomb people into the stone age because we're looking for terrorists, they may well have thought, that it might not be such a bad idea to get rid of some of these armed guys. But you're reinforcing the part of the narrative that says we're the evil, we're the out of control evil that needs to be resisted.
Q: So, like we the people who are the extremists, or we the people who are doing the bombing
A: We, the people who are doing the bombing. So if the US goes in and bombs somebody, in other words we have to think really carefully, is this a police operation or is this a war? Because you're going to handle it quite differently. If it's primarily a law enforcement problem, are we going to use community policing tactics which involve making relationships with the community and helping nurture good solid relationships that allow or encourage people to turn in these people who are dangerous? Thus allowing them to hold their own communities as safe as well in relationships that build capacity in the community to meet its own needs and strengthen its own economy and place in the world.
Or are we going to use a SWAT team kind of approach to policing and present an attitude that says we don't care if the neighbors get hurt or it's collateral damage if the neighbors get hurt, while we're going in to get these bad guys, sorry about that. Because if we take that approach, the SWAT team approach and that's what we think we're doing, exterminating bad guys, other people might get hurt in the long run, sorry about that, or in the short term, sorry about that. Then we are reinforcing the narrative of the extremists that says we are evil, we will harm people, and we don't have the real interests of the community at heart. We is the operative word: we the SWAT team, we the US, we the whoever who is going in to arrest the terrorists or to kill them. And all of that matters.
Q: So you end up polarizing the community that might have been sympathetic to our goals or the SWAT teams' goals in that case but then ultimately, you come out in favor of the extremists.
A: The key I think is to recognize that the communities that extremists come out of are very complex. They are not all in agreement with the extremists, in terms of the tactics they use even though some of them will say yes, in your analysis the west is being very oppressive and that they are suffering under this new system and that they're harming us and that they want to undo our culture, that they hate us. We agree with your analysis but we don't necessarily agree with your tactics. Then there are people who say, no, it's not that bad, there are parts of western culture that we really should be thinking how do we work that in. We should be nurturing the roots of democracy in our own culture. All of those nuances get completely lost in this, and keep driving the people who are more moderate to the more extreme position by behaving like the terrible bad guy that the extremists say you are.
There is an example from WACO that illustrates this. The negotiators kept saying to the Branch Davidians, "Come out, we'll make sure you're not harmed" and while they were saying that and building the good relationships and trying to encourage people to think this through, the hostage rescue team was running military vehicles and tanks across the front yard, crushing their cars.
So the Branch Davidians would listen to this and say "OK, we think we trust you and we kind of like some of the negotiators, you're ok, and then they'd look out the window and say, "Looks like Armageddon to me, looks like the beast of the book of revelations is running across. And in fact the US government is the beast" They were trying to make meaning the whole time. You have to understand that communities that are motivated by meaning-making and by a narrative like this are very dynamic in their meaning-making, so everything you do is interpreted by the text. So everything the FBI did, the Branch Davidians would go back to the book of revelations and the prophet and say, "What does that mean? What did that action mean? Ok, tanks, ok, chariots spitting fire," and it was all in the transcripts. The big reality dilemma for them was, "Is the US this good nation at the end time, the sort of nation without being fully saved? Or is it the beast?" And that was the constant, are you the good or the beast, the good or the beast? Of course when you keep running tanks across their yard and when you renege on agreements that you've made about giving their children who'd come out to the families they requested and instead you gave them to child protective services, and you get these betrayals, ok, you're the beast of negotiation.
We're seeing that same scenario play out globally right now. A lot of people in the Islamic world, a lot of people all over the world, see the US as this beacon of light and democracy or is it a tyrant gone mad? You know, the Roman Empire run amuck with high-tech 21st century weapons. The beacon of democracy or was this a tyrant? Every time we go and we're doing what we're doing right now, we're reinforcing the tyrant image. It doesn't matter how many food packages we drop. It doesn't matter; we are reinforcing that image.
Q: So basically, the same principles that apply to the interest based stuff like trust building, also applies to the relationship confidence building measures. It's just that you need to understand the context from which people are defining how you build trust?
A: Right, it's very anthropological in its orientation. You have to get inside the world-view, inside the other culture of the other party in order to understand as a trust-building activity actually resonates, what meaning it has for them because it may not mean what you think.