Dear President Obama,
Congratulations on your election. We look forward to working with you to heal our country in every way we can.
We are interdisciplinary conflict analysis professionals – psychologists and other social scientists – devoted to the study and practice of violence prevention, tension reduction, conflict transformation and reconciliation. Like you, we are deeply concerned for our friends, colleagues, relatives and all citizens of Israel and Gaza. We fear the consequences of this cyclical violence and failure to respond appropriately to the devastating damage. It will require expert intervention to heal wounds and reverse cycles of violence.
You recently said, “If my daughters were living in a house that was being threatened by rocket attacks, I would do whatever it takes to end that situation.”
In conflict, it can be difficult to remember that “whatever it takes” includes caring for basic human needs – food, water, warmth and protection, allaying fears, and providing safety, as recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
What if “whatever it takes” requires supporting legitimate political goals, addressing just grievances, and allowing life with dignity, self-determination, prosperity and freedom? People prefer to get their needs met by decent means, and resort to violence when thwarted.
Our children would be safer if we could empathically bear equal witness to each historical narrative and rise above both sides to gain a true perspective of cause and effect, and the dynamics of asymmetrical power.
We have two traumatised peoples, gripped by fear and moral outrage, whose actions have spiralled into escalating reverberating reactions of mutually provoked traumatic re-enactment, endlessly ricocheting back and forth. In this malignant process, each side draws people into believing the need to destroy the other.
However, many on both sides work for peaceful coexistence.
Severe trauma on both sides, as well as fear, envy, humiliation and anger, make it critical to provide a massive infusion of effective healing interventions. Please lead us in healing wounds, compensating losses and using principles of restorative justice rather than punitive approaches, which, as history has repeatedly shown, only fuel instability. Time doesn’t heal wounds, people do.
Doing “whatever it takes” to create conditions for a viable and just coexistence, addressing the desires for self-determination of all people, will reduce desires for revenge and create hope for the future. Then you, the Israelis and the Palestinians will sleep safely.
However, if by “whatever it takes” you mean killing those who threaten you and destroying their community, then we must be prepared for long-term violence and suffering.
As conflict analysts, we recognised that Israel’s overwhelming military reaction, supported by the United States, understandably believed to be in “self defence” would have the opposite effect. We predicted that military action, intending to eliminate a threat, would inevitably terrify, enrage and embolden widening circles of witnesses and strengthen extremists.
We are aware of political pressures to take positions falsely framed as so-called “pro” or “anti” Israel or Palestinian. This zero-sum thinking has no endgame. The only way to be more secure is to make your enemy more secure. We must rethink what it actually means to support Israel and to be pro-coexistence, and establish a policy of “Mutually Assured Survival”, and mutually supported flourishing.
A rich body of knowledge, not well known outside academia, describes methods demonstrated to reverse cycles of violence. We are beginning to understand how terrorism ends and how extremist groups become non-violent and productive through participation in legitimate political processes – and also what causes radicalisation and drives people to extremes (for example, when Hamas won in a fair election, they were prepared to form a coalition with Fatah, until they were punished and threatened).
Since the dominant public mindset believes in the use of violence to defeat enemies, it is important to educate the public about effective, tension-reducing strategies, and a balanced rendering of historical narratives. People must be mature enough to realise that by focusing on blame, which is easy and automatic, we always get to be “right”(and so can “they”) but we will never get to be safe.
We offer any assistance in analysing conflict dynamics, working with you to design strategies for healing and de-traumatisation, and guiding the delicate work of reconciliation needed to rebuild viable social and political institutions and reach equitable solutions to this historic tragedy.
There are many creative conflict transformation strategies – beyond dialogue, diplomacy and negotiation, beyond carrots and sticks and even beyond “Smart Power”. “Wise Power” instead addresses a complex ecology of interacting forces and events within the depths of human experience.
Understanding principles of conflict studies, psychology and other social sciences will go a long way to help produce conditions for viability, enduring security and a lasting, just peace.
We appreciate your thoughtfulness and openness to new ideas, and hope we can help political leaders, the media and the American public to understand this new security paradigm that is capable of reversing cycles of violence.
To see the full list of signatories, please visit: consciouspolitics.wordpress.
* Diane Perlman is a clinical and political psychologist and co-chair of the initiative on Global Violence and Security for Psychologists for Social Responsibility and the American Psychological Association Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict and Violence. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.
Source: Huffington Post, 19 January 2009, www.huffingtonpost.com
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