Several years before 9/11 I was surprised to hear Pakistani peacebuilder, Hassan Yusufzai, say "Violence is a form of communication." Since then, whenever I hear news of violence, I remember his words. Hassan insisted that we could not afford to refuse to communicate with people who commit violence, even (perhaps especially) if they are considered to be ‘terrorists’ because many of those people feel they have no other means of being heard. He believed that by listening, there was a chance of averting future violence. In Pakistan, it was Hassan's job to go into the most dangerous and remote tribal areas simply to talk to people there. For his own safety, and for the sake of the conversations, it was of utmost importance to be seen as neutral and therefore trustworthy. Because of this, he had to be very careful of how he entered a community and with whom he talked. Instead of following the normal protocol of contacting known community leaders (who might skew the conversations or limit access only to people they approved of) he would camp on the edges of town, in an open field, flying a white flag, and wait for people to come to him. Success could not be measured in terms of outcome, only by the range of people who came to speak with him and how openly they spoke.
The online Free Dictionary defines terrorism as “The use of violence, or the threat of violence, especially against civilians, in pursuit of political goals.” The Oxford English Dictionary adds, “The unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in pursuit of political aims.” By these definitions, the US government has long been a terrorist, here and abroad. The majority of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis. This year, US arms sales to Saudi Arabia topped $1 billion, with total global arms sales in the first half of 2018 over $46.9 billion.
Author and teacher Malidoma Somé says that when there is violence we must look toward the edges, not the center. Certainly, Hassan was an ‘edgewalker’. In Permaculture, edges are well known as the most fertile growing areas because they are where nutrients and species are found in profusion, reducing or eliminating harmful pests, attracting rain, and increasing vitality by providing both more nutrient-rich soil and a greater mix of beneficial birds and insects. And, crops grown along edges (forest and field, along rivers, on the coast) are both more productive and more nutritious. Sierra Leonean peacebuilder, Dr. Ba Foday Suma, has long advocated strengthening border communities in volatile regions instead of putting people in refugee camps after an emergency overwhelms an area. This is uniquely wise idea: Many colonial borders were drawn arbitrarily by conquering powers, separating families, tribes, boundaries of land ownership, wildlife corridors and other aspects of community life that were poorly understood or of little interest to outsiders. Now, when people must flee natural disaster, war or the climate crisis, those refugees surge across those same borders and, often, the border communities accept and integrate them. Ba Foday argues that we would do well to bolster the resilience of those communities so that they can function like the living connective social tissue that they already are. His ideas have fallen on deaf ears at the U.N. and other transnational alliances. Even worse, there is little interest in exploring the root causes of terrorism – multi-generational trauma, poverty, social injustice, starvation, civil war and, now, the climate crisis.
The conversation here at home about the possibility that the US may be one of the world’s leading terrorist states isn’t yet on the radar, though a reckoning would do us, and the rest of the world, good. Listening to animals and to the Natural World – also severely terrorized by humans, is considered outlandish and far-fetched. Terrorism of every kind will continue to be a global scourge until we are willing to look in the mirror and listen deeply.