RETURN TO
MAIN MENU
PHILOSOPHY
PROJECTS
LEADERSHIP
NETWORK
 
"9-11" 
 
AVOIDING A GENERATION OF TERRORISM IN AMERICA:
TEN LESSONS FROM SRI LANKA

 

 
 
 
AVOIDING A GENERATION OF TERRORISM IN AMERICA: 
TEN LESSONS FROM SRI LANKA

Three weeks ago, the Tamil Tigers attacked and blew up a fuel ship in Jaffna Harbor, a successful suicide attack in one of the most heavily defended waterways on the island of Sri Lanka.  You probably didn’t hear about it.  Sri Lanka is a world where suicide bombings are so routine they don’t make a ripple in the international news.  (And, since Americans did not get killed, the Western press deemed it unimportant.)

The Sri Lanka government has been fighting “terrorists” for almost two decades, with no end in sight.  On the other hand, the American “war on terrorism” is only two months old.  Is there anything the US can learn from the conflict in Sri Lanka?  Can America head off twenty years of bloody suffering by looking for lessons in Sri Lanka?

I live in both worlds.  For half of my year, I live in Portland, Oregon, what is arguably the best city in America, as far from civil war and suicide bombers as I can get.  The other half of the year, I live in steamy, tropical Sri Lanka, the teardrop hanging off the tip of India, so far from Portland that, no matter which way I leave the island, I’m returning home. 

THE OPPOSITE OF SERENDIB
The Arab traders who visited the island in ancient times called it "Serendib": the land of happy surprises.  (This is the root of the word "serendipity").

Now, Sri Lanka is anything but happy.  I was in Sri Lanka in July for the Tamil Tigers’ stunning attack on the international airport, a swift kick in the gonads to the already struggling tourist industry.  Over one dozen military and commercial aircraft were destroyed in the pre-dawn raid.  The ripples are still spreading from the attack: the costs of all forms of foreign transport soar through the roof, cargoes of tea go uncollected on the ports as ships sail right by the ports of Colombo and Galle; the tourist hotels are EMPTY as foreign tourists heed the call of their governments to avoid the war and political strife that plague the island.

My reason for being in Sri Lanka is simple:  help stop the two decades of debilitating war that is sapping the vitality and civility of an otherwise beautiful island.   I do this through the application of the Philosophy of Inclusivity, a search for a “third way” solution that does not support either party to the current struggle.  Our goal is to permanently break the cycles of victim-villain-violence.  I work with Sarvodaya, a 40-year-old self-help development organization based on Gandhian and Buddhist principles.

In my time in Sri Lanka, I’ve learned a few things that can be applied to America’s new-found “war on terrorism”:

1. THE WAR COULD GO ON FOREVER.  Armed conflicts can last for generations.  The longest “hot” war of modern times is the conflict in Angola – 45 years, with no end in sight.  The military standoff in Korea is also multi-generational.

Sri Lanka: 
“Terrorist” attacks become so routine they simply aren’t news anymore.  Each attack further reduces the vitality of the island and her inhabitants.  Politicians meet each new attack with words of outrage and promises of retribution.  However, for most Sri Lankans, raised for a full generation on daily doses of terrorism and violence, the ongoing cricket matches are more newsworthy than unending stories of horror and retribution.  

America:  
Airplanes, skyscrapers, anthrax, bridges, federal buildings, alerts…  Attacks and rumors of attacks are becoming so prevalent that many people are already turning off and going numb.  This trend will continue – the public will become more numb as more terrorist attacks occur.  

LESSON #1:  Violence never resolves anything.  At some point in time, people will stop shooting at each other and will start talking to each other.  Nonviolent dialog is the only proven way to resolve conflict.
 

2. THE TWO SIDES ARE FIGHTING VASTLY DIFFERENT “WARS”, BASED ON VASTLY DIFFERENT VIEWS OF REALITY.  Because the wars are different, the standards of “winning” are different.  The fighting goes on for decades, with both sides claiming victories.

Sri Lanka: 
The government sees itself fighting a war against a handful of terrorists who are trying to destroy the government.   The Tigers see themselves leading a movement for national liberation against a Sinhalese government that wants to exterminate the Tamil ethnic group.  Both sides see themselves as the victim and the other as the perpetrator of violence.

America:  
The government sees itself fighting a war against a handful of terrorists who are threatening the American way of life.  The Al Qaeda group sees itself fighting a war against foreign invaders in their homeland.  Both sides see themselves as the victim and the other as the perpetrator of violence.

Lesson #2:  Help formulate and articulate a “third way” position (beyond government and insurgent positions.)  This “third way” must look at reality from the point of view of the people, not the advocates of violence.
 

3. WHAT EACH SIDE SAYS ABOUT THE OTHER IS TRUE.  WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT THEMSELVES IS NOT.  Each maximizes the sins of the other, while minimizing their own.  Both sides commit atrocities.  Each justifies its actions while vilifying the actions of the other.  Because of anger, history and psychological filters, the two sides cannot see or hear each other.  They each seem unreasonable, “evil”, to the other.  

Sri Lanka:  
The government always refers to the LTTE as “terrorists”, and stresses their unprovoked attacks on unarmed civilian populations, Sinhalese, Muslim and Tamil, as well as their use of suicide attackers and child soldiers.  The Tigers refer to the government as oppressors, and stress the military’s well-documented record of “disappearances” and other violation of human rights.

America:  
The US government refers to Al Qaeda as “terrorists” and “evildoers” and stresses their unprovoked attacks on unarmed civilian populations.  Al Qaeda refers to the US government as invaders and oppressors and “evildoers”.  They stress the military’s occupation of Muslim land and the hundreds of thousands of Muslim deaths at the hands of the American military.  Each claims that God is on their side.  (Either God is very busy, or both sides are deluded into thinking that God is on the side of the violent.)

Lesson #3:  Articulate the “third way” position that is against VIOLENCE, not against either of the parties to the conflict.  Help both sides understand that their actions are part of the problem, and that all sides, including “the enemy”, is part of the solution.

4. BOTH SIDES BELIEVE THAT THE OTHER IS THE AGGRESSOR.  Each side feels justified in fighting the war, since they see themselves as “defending” the unprovoked aggression of the other.

Sri Lanka:  
The government states that the LTTE started and maintains the war, and that the government is only defending the Sri Lankan people.  The LTTE says that the Sinhalese majority and the government started the attacks on the Tamil people, and the LTTE is only defending against those attacks.

America:  
The government states that the Al Qaeda members are the aggressors, and that the government is only defending the American people.  Al Qaeda says that the US government started the attacks on Muslim people, and they are defending against those attacks.

Lesson #4:  Help all parties understand that it simply doesn’t matter who “started” the conflict.  The willingness to use violence creates the “aggressor”.  There are no innocents in modern warfare.  No one who holds a gun can claim to have “clean hands”.  
 

5. FEAR FAVORS THE EXTREMISTS.  IT IS EXTREMISM THAT FUELS THE WAR.  The extremists on both sides gain from conflict.  As long as this is true, the conflict will continue.  Extremists benefit from the atrocities committed by the other – they gain a false sense of righteousness.  Extremists also increase their power whenever the Other acts.

Sri Lanka:  
Sinhalese nationalists and hardliners call anyone who talks of peace a “traitor”.  LTTE punishes those who do not hold to their line.  

America:  
Those who criticize the US government policies in Afghanistan or domestic restrictions are seen as “giving comfort to the terrorists”.  Dissenters are threatened, fired from their jobs or otherwise punished for speaking out.

Lesson #5:  Isolate the extremists.  Do not allow extremists on either side to dictate the dialog on war and peace.  Understand that the purpose of violence is polarization and separation – refuse to be separated from “the Other”.

6. THOSE IN POWER HAVE CONFUSED, UNCLEAR AND EVEN CONFLICTING GOALS, FED BY A VARIETY OF POLITICAL AGENDAS.  THE INSURGENTS, ON THE OTHER HAND, ARE SINGLE-MINDED.  

Sri Lanka:  
At any given time, the Sri Lanka government says that its military goal is “wiping out terrorism”, “protecting the rights of the Tamil people”, “devolving power”, “protecting the rights of the Sinhalese people”, “bringing the Tigers to the peace table”.  

America:  
The stated goal the “war on terrorism” is “punish the Taliban” (who determines when they have been “punished”?), “destroy the Al Qaeda network (who determines when it has been “destroyed”?), “restore security to America” (who determines when “security” has been “restored”?)  After a full decade, America is still fighting its war against Iraq, with constantly shifting goals and priorities.

Lesson #6:  Without absolutely crystal-clear, definable goals, war becomes anything and everything.  There is no place where victory can be declared, the “war” ended and healing processes begin.  The military must not be allowed to act unless the political goals and objectives are crystal clear, specific in definition, time limited in duration, with a timetable set for achieving those goals.  

7. EXTREMISTS ON BOTH SIDES GAIN FROM CONFLICT.  AS LONG AS THEY GAIN POWER, THE CONFLICT WILL CONTINUE.

Sri Lanka: 
Simply follow the money and follow the power.  People on both sides of the conflict benefit financially from arms sales and from the insecurity that comes from war hysteria.  The Tigers get stronger from every human rights violation by the government and military.  The hardliners in the government and military gain power with every Tiger suicide attack.

America:  
Simply follow the money and follow the power.  Arms merchants on both sides benefit from the war.  Both the US government and Al Qaeda gain power and prestige in their respective spheres of influence.  If America kills bin Laden, he will become an international martyr; if not, he becomes an international hero.  Either way, we enhance his power.

Lesson #7:  Research and publicize who benefits from conflict.  Continue to articulate the “third way” approach.  Argue against any use or escalation of violence as a method to resolve the conflict.  
 

8. WAR CANNOT END BY THE CONSCIOUSNESS THAT CREATES AND MAINTAINS IT.  WAR WILL END ONLY WITH A PROFOUND SHIFT IN CONSCIOUSNESS.

Sri Lanka: 
After 20 years, both sides still maintain that victory is right around the corner.  The Sri Lanka government maintains that their war on terrorism will end through military dominance: by deploying their latest weapons systems.  The LTTE maintains they will win through strategic attacks: in the latest ground offensive or the most recent bombing.  Both are wrong.

America:  
The US government maintains that their war on terrorism will end through military dominance.  The Al Qaeda group maintains that they will win through strategic attacks.  Both are wrong.

Lesson #8:  Continually advocate the “third way” position as a shift in consciousness that can end war.

9. NEITHER SIDE CAN WIN.  AND, PARADOXICALLY, NEITHER SIDE CAN LOSE.  MORE VIOLENCE CREATES MORE KILLING, NOT RESOLUTION.  THE ONLY WAY THE CONFLICT CAN END IS BY BOTH SIDES TALKING TO EACH OTHER.

Sri Lanka:  
Both parties are locked in a cycle of mutual terrorism and retribution.  Both sides have made honest attempts at peace, but have had them ignored or dismissed by the other.  Both parties call for “peace talks”, but have those calls rejected by the other as not serious.  Both parties are locked in a cycle of mistrust and violence.

America:  
Both parties are about to lock into a cycle of mutual terrorism and retribution.  Neither party has made any attempt at peace or talking; the conflict is too new.

Lesson #9:  Both parties will find peace through dialog.  Not through violence.  The only question is how long it will take for them to learn the lesson.  Our goal must be to shorten the learning curve, from generations, to decades, to years, to now.
 

10. THE ONLY WAY THE WAR CAN END IS THROUGH THE LEADERSHIP OF THE PEOPLE, NOT THE EXTREMISTS.  

Sri Lanka:  
Both parties have promised “victory” for almost 20 years.  Without a shift in leadership, the conflict in Sri Lanka will become a multi-generational war.

America:  
Both parties promise “victory”.

Lesson #10:  There is no violent “victory” possible, only increasing levels of violence, increasing cycles of animosity.

Who’s Lessons?
The above ten lessons are not for George Bush, Osama bin Laden, or any other party to conflict.  People who use violence tend to stay locked in that way of thinking.  As Voltaire said, “if you only have a hammer, you tend to see all of your problems as nails”.

The lessons are for you.  The lessons are for all of us who seek fundamentally different ways to handle and resolve our issues.  The lessons are for those of us who will be the leadership of the next generation, a generation that is learning to reach for the telephone before reaching for the gun.  

Peace,

Sharif Abdullah
 


 
 

Return to "9-11" Menu





 


 
 
RETURN TO
MAIN MENU
PHILOSOPHY
PROJECTS & SERVICES
LEADERSHIP
MENDER 
NETWORK
PUBLICATIONS