The twin towers, Madrid, July 7, Charlie Hebdo… the list of terrorist political acts and their victims feels endless. When people are killed and lives threatened for political motivations, demands for immediate reprisals and military counter-measures usually follow suit.
Military force and policing is our default tactic – and talking to terrorists, by contrast, feels counter-intuitive. After all, surely talking to murderers, criminals and fanatics will only legitimise their aims and tactics.
And yet, from Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress to Gerry Adams’ Sinn Fein to Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organisation, history shows that talking with terrorists has often been a prerequisite for peace.
A recent debate organised by Coventry University’s Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations brought together a former terrorist, the daughter of a victim of a terrorist bomb attack and experts on extreme violence to discuss whether we should in fact talk to terrorists.
The resounding conclusion was that there is no choice other than to talk to terrorists to bring their violence to an end. But, for genuine dialogue which addresses root causes as well as violent symptoms we need to shift our own ways of thinking too. We need to talk with those who are defined or labelled as terrorists, not simply to or at them.
One of the panellists, Christof Wackernagel, was sentenced to prison in Germany in 1977 for shooting a policeman while a member of the terrorist Red Army Faction. But he had never considered himself a terrorist; he thought of himself as an idealist fighting a state which itself used terror to maintain gross inequalities between rich and poor.
Christof’s experience is just one example of how terrorists are often motivated by what they consider will make the world a better place. It is through dialogue that these motivations can be found, understood and confronted through non-violent means. Cases from Northern Ireland to Afghanistan show that dialogue already does take place to find common ground with groups and individuals.
On the other side of that coin was panellist Jo Berry, the founder of Building Bridges for Peace. She lost her father in the 1984 Brighton IRA Bombing, but would later meet with Patrick Magee, the man who planted the bomb. By both talking and listening, she challenged him to consider the people who had suffered as a result of his actions.
Berry realised that violence had dehumanised Magee, making him unable to see and empathise with other people. She commented to us that, “in that moment [of talking and listening] something happened, he said ‘I don’t know who I am anymore'…he had taken off his political hat and opened his heart. It showed me we can empathise with anyone by listening with an open heart”.
Similarly, only when Wackernagel finally met the policeman that he had shot and injured did he realise that he too could have lost his own humanity by taking another person’s life.
Our other panellist, Ross Frenett of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, who works with former members of organisations such as the Real IRA and al-Qaeda, stressed the crucial difference between talking to groups and talking to individuals associated with them.
He explained that talking is particularly effective when we start the conversation before violence occurs, and before individuals and groups are labelled as extremists, radicals or terrorists. People about to cross the ideological line which moves their motivations on to violent methods can be stopped – but to do so it must be acknowledged that terrorism is a societal problem requiring broad and inclusive discussion and debate: it cannot be left only to politicians. Viewed in this way, he argued, we all have a role to play.
Beyond the mantra
The mantra that “we never talk to terrorists” is already blatantly untrue. But that it is still trotted out by politicians all over the West for fear of appearing cowed or weak reflects that the true importance of talking is still poorly understood.
The misconception is that talking to terrorists means offering them legitimacy and justifying their violence. Once a place at the negotiating table has been given, it’s perfectly logical to expect further violence to earn further concessions.
Talking to terrorists does not imply blind acceptance of their motivations or methods. It is not negotiation, which involves recognising and balancing demands as part of an exchange. Instead, talking allows individuals who use violence to be better understood and to see the consequences of their actions on a human scale, not a political one.
Talking to terrorists is about trying to understand terrorism in an entirely new way. Extreme violence is our foremost public security threat, and understanding the individual motivations behind it is paramount. But talking and listening also signal to those engaged in violence and extremism that we are prepared to question ourselves – but only if they question themselves and their actions in turn.
As Jo Berry and Patrick Magee have found, that is often the only way to rediscover our common humanity in the face of terrible violence.
The Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations seeks to achieve transformative change through its research and societal engagement. The Big Question is a seminar series creating a vibrant public space to discuss contemporary challenges with leading figures from academic, policy, media and the general public. For more information please contact Simon McMahon on firstname.lastname@example.org.