Should We Talk to Terrorists?

isisThe Big Question, the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations – in partnership with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue is asking the question, should we talk to terrorists.

I’m sure it will be a great discussion. Since I won’t be able to attend, here are my thoughts.

I would like to re-frame this question. The relevant question, from my perspective, is about communication, not talking. A better question might be: How can we maximize our chances of meaningful communication with those who have influence within terrorist organizations?

Communication can only happen if the intended messages between both parties are heard and understood. Without this objective being met it is likely more harm than good will come of the talking.

When there are cultural differences; when the milieu, physically and psychologically, is vastly different between those who are talking, communication takes special skill and is difficult at best. Even if effective communication takes place, for mediation of differences to take place both parties must agree that they want to make things better between the two.

For a meaningful dialogue to take place between any person or organization and “terrorists” there are several things to consider.

1. When you say “terrorists” who do you mean? When you say “we” who do you mean? Is this communication with specific people or between two figure heads who represent organizations? What kind of influence does this “terrorist” have? With who?

2. What is the objective of the talking? Do both parties share the same objective? Is the objective to mediate differences or to publically express a point of view?

3. Does the person representing “we” understand the psychological situation of the “terrorist”?

If the psychological situation of the “terrorist” you are talking with has been thoroughly considered the questions that must be asked are these.

“What are the chances of effective communication taking place?” Is there a real chance of mediating our differences, toward an objective we hope for? Could this meeting, if true communication does not take place, be used, ultimately, to reinforce the goals of the terrorists?

It is my experience that the chances of true communicating taking place with someone who is locked in extremist thinking is very low. Chances of defensiveness increasing through debate is very high. If this discussion happens in public there is high chance that it will ultimately be used to increase the fervor of “us vs them” among the different sides.

It is my opinion that talking with terrorists can only be effective if there is a specific objective and if everything has been done to increase the chances of effective communication taking place across the cultural divide. This needs to be weighed and considered carefully.

Talking with terrorists could be a political move that makes “us” look good among “our side”. If that is the objective, let’s be clear about it.

If instead we want to actually accomplish communication and mediation of differences, let’s be clear about our chances of that happening. Remember the word terrorist implies that the person or organization believes there is a necessity to use terror to accomplish their goals and that this terror is justified.

If we look closely at the psychological milieu of someone who holds a belief in using terror to accomplish God’s will and then we look at the psychological milieu of someone who would like to convince them there is another way, we need to be realistic about how to bridge that divide.

I’m not saying it is impossible to talk with terrorists and have a good outcome. I am saying we need to be realistic about the task at hand.

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