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April 2002

Transforming the Encounter with Terrorism

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Comment submitted in response to the American Council for the UN University's
Millennium Project survey on counter-terrorism (April 2002)


Will the future see "counter-terrorism" as having proven to be the most fruitful way to frame the challenge - like the "war against drugs"? What might the future see as the characteristics of a more productive Plan B?

An alternative framing could draw on alternative policy metaphors as recommended by Donald Schon (1979): 'the framing of problems often depends upon metaphors underlying the stories which generate problem setting and set the direction of problem solving'. Could it be that "counter-terrorism" is a metaphoric trap that guarantees the perpetuation of the cycle of violence - as the Middle East may demonstrate?

Western military training actively acknowledges the merit of classics like Sun Tzu's Art of War and Miyamoto Musashi's poetic Book of Five Rings. There is therefore a case for exploring the philosophy guiding the more advanced levels of expertise in Eastern martial arts (such as aikido) where great emphasis is given to the attitude towards the other in any threatening encounter. This attitude is reframed so that the nature of the relationship has more degrees of freedom -- accompanied by both a greater intimacy and a greater vigilance. The other is sensed in other ways and opposition is positioned in ways that may allow any conflict to be transformed and avoided. According to Yagyu Munenori, for example:

'The goal of training in the martial arts is to overcome six kinds of disease: the desire for victory, the desire to rely on technical cunning, the desire to show off, the desire to psychologically overwhelm the opponent, the desire to remain passive in order to wait for an opening, and the desire to become free of these diseases.'

As in the game of go, the real challenge to civilization may therefore be at the contextual level - recalling Scott Boorman's (1969) analysis of why the USA failed to win the Vietnam war in the light of a comparison of go-strategy with chess-strategy. This analysis is echoed in the International Bulletin of Political Psychology (Vol.10 No.13 Apr 13, 2001) comparing Vladimir Putin's judo-influenced strategy with that of the "weight-machine" mindset of the USA. Does the fact that the few web references to "defensive terror" in a counter-terrorist manual are followed by numerous references extolling its merits in American football lock strategic thinking into a particular mode?

In such terms the strategic challenge has the elements of a non-linear shadow game that will always out-maneuver any obvious achievements against obvious targets desperately sought. Targeting itself becomes a metaphoric trap.

For the only UN agency based in Japan, it is ironic that the survey it has sponsored may fail to draw upon Japanese cultural insights into the ultimate terrorist -- in the classic Zen tale of the Ronin (adapted into novel form by William Dale Jennings, 1968). From such a perspective, the focus on counter-terrorism may frame the challenge so as to obscure conceptually any more fruitful approach - especially for those who only have a strategic "hammer" and must therefore define all strategic challenges in terms of "nails".

How might Plan B be cultivated? The key might be to make extensive use of those with proven skills in contextual, non-linear, lateral, non-binary thinking in order to reframe a challenge now framed only in binary terms. In what way? That is precisely what it is worth allocating a fraction of the resources devoted to "counter-terrorism" to discover. In the spirit of martial arts, how can the energy of "terrorists" be itself used to engender a new pattern of relationship - essential to breaking the cycle of violence?

It is those less experienced in martial arts, like aikido, that focus on use of physical violence -- when at the core of such arts is the cultivation of a highly sophisticated mastery of nonviolent strategies in responding to opponents. Those so skilled act otherwise - or even not at all - and so transform a dangerous encounter into a vital learning experience that "counter-terrorism" may dangerously postpone.

Can civilization risk postponing such learning through endeavouring to apply the learnings of the past to defend the mindsets of the past? Is there not a case for learning from a terrifying encounter in the present in order to frame the future anew?

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