The death of Osama Bin Laden has prompted a myriad of emotions, discussions, and questions among the PARCC bloggers. Gearoid Millar will start the discussion with a piece reflecting on the failure of the field of conflict resolution to shift paradigms and practices. Miriam Elman will follow with thoughts on the future role of Al Qaeda. I am struck by how symbolism and practice have changed from World War II and now, regarding perpetrators of war crimes. For the United States, bringing leaders to trial was a powerful symbol of crime and punishment – and the rule of law- and the model for the new world order. Why has America changed its views? What opportunities have been lost? Isn’t this symbolism now more important than ever?
Bin Laden is Dead: The Legitimization of the Military Option and the Failure of Conflict Resolution
by Gearoid Millar
I write these words on May 2nd 2011, after watching news of the death of Osama Bin Laden on the morning news shows. In those reports I saw images of jubilant crowds outside the White House and in the streets of New York. After almost 10 years of violence, the application of U.S. military force, and the deaths of tens of thousands in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, the symbol of the 911 attacks has been killed, with a bullet to the head. This most violent of state acts, not the final killing of Bin Laden but the use of force throughout the region over the last 10 years, is in many ways being legitimated by this additional act of violence, this final application of force. The jubilation witnessed in these crowds, the feeling of justice, or vindication, or just general euphoria that drives such celebrations, is understandable, but in many ways it is also ominous and disconcerting. It says something about our society’s acceptance of death and ruin as foreign policy practices. This acceptance shows that our reliance on state violence reflects, not only failed diplomacy, but our own social norms and the lack of alternatives to violence.
I remember, on September 11th 2001, a co-worker receiving a fake weather forecast for Bagdad via e-mail in which the forecast for September 12th was 80,000 degrees with mushroom shaped clouds. Similarly, just this morning a Facebook friend, a youth pastor and military chaplain in Nebraska, posted this message, “Was hoping Obama would go all Braveheart and hold up Bin Laden head during his address.” Such expressions of aggression and acceptance of the projection of our machinery of war lead me to wonder, not about the state’s use of violence for its strategic ends, but about the failure of the field of conflict resolution (CR), after all of these years, papers, publications, conferences, workshops, trainings, and supposed successes, to undermine our society’s reflexive resort to forceful means and our seemingly unconscious support for the machinery of organized state applications of violence.
The field of international relations (IR) has broadly come to see organized state violence as acceptable. Violence is one option “on the table” and it is permissible for a state to resort to bombing, invasion and war. Such a normative approach to questions of state violence has been clearly dominant even in these post-Holocaust, post-Cold War, post-911 times. In this most contemporary of struggles waging war for the purpose of peace and security seems actually to be normal. As Arundhati Roy lamented at the very start of this campaign against terrorism that has itself resulted in untold terror, “War is Peace” (2001). The populations of the Western states and particularly the United States, have renounced the right to creative options, have placed the priority on the state use of force, and have, I would argue, largely resigned themselves to the whims of the statist military industrial complex. Society has taken a step back, or perhaps just stood where it always has been, and closed its eyes, allowing the state to exact its military form of revenge.
But throughout the latter half of the 20th century the field of CR, working partly within but also significantly counter to the dominant trends in IR, has progressed towards a broader understanding of peace and conflict. Growing from the thoughts and practices of the peace communities of Quakers and Mennonites, and advancing from the theories of the Alternative Dispute Resolution movement (ADR) and scholars such as Boulding, Coser, Galtung, Allport, Sharp, Deutsch, Kriesberg and others, the CR field has provided alternative ideas of how to respond to acts of violence. Over the past 60 years we have developed a large body of literature that describes alternatives to violence at the individual, group, and state level. We have a handful of very respected journals, hundreds of academic programs, a number of influential research foundations, and a burgeoning field of professional peacemakers, peacekeepers, and peacebuildings.
So why aren’t these theories used? How can a youth minister in Nebraska hope to see the President of the United States holding the head of a defeated enemy? Why has CR not more generally influenced our norms towards state violence? And what can we do to reverse this failure? Finding the answer to these questions is a challenge for the entire CR community. Consolidating our findings, utilizing the tools of traditional and social media for effecting normative change in our society, expanding our practice to affect as much the society in which we live as the literature in which we publish, and influencing policy on a practical level to undermine the unconscious resort to militarist responses, need to be prioritized, somehow, within the field. Any truly democratic peace demands a normatively and behaviorally peaceful society. When society fails to demand a broader social peace we open the door to a fascist, corporatist and militarist form of government, as opposed to one grounded and legitimized by an informed and engaged polis. The resignation of decisions regarding international relations and diplomacy to the institutions of the executive and the military is the sacrifice of the very foundations of the democratic order.
This post does not have the answers to these problems. But was written to highlight the fact that the answers are also missing from our field. It seems 60 years of theory and literature have failed to undermine our society’s tendency to demand blood, to revel in violence, to celebrate death, and to choose a passive allowance of violent expressions of a national will. This speaks to our failure, thus far, to affect our society, to be socially relevant, to impact policy and undermine shortsighted and unpredictable military options. If anything, the celebrations of Bin Laden’s death should serve as a wakeup for the CR field. The celebration of yet more spilt blood and the legitimization of military solutions to complex social problems should be a call to new efforts for social activity and policy relevance within the field.