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Working with conflicts of Zone 1(1)

The example of "The war on terrorism"


Else Hammerich

The Danish Centre for Conflict Resolution, Copenhagen

TFF board member



When tense international crises occur, we tend to react due to impulsive feelings and mainstream attitudes. Prejudice, enemy images and ideas of retaliation and revenge may thus form public opinions, and these may again become part of the escalation of violent hostilities.

The conflict worker (2) however has the possibility of using the methods of conflict resolution in order to stay more balanced, think more deeply and come up with sober arguments and alternatives to the use of violence.

As conflict resolution is part of the nonviolent mindset, our perspective is how to promote genuine and sustainable security in this crisis (3). Security is the key word. It links to the most important and global of all Human Rights of the UN charter, namely the right to life.

As conflict workers we try to rise above war propaganda, rumours, animosity and shortsighted clinging to military escalation as the only means to obtain security. We do not take sides with either of the clashing parties. We side only with the civilian populations, who must carry the untold sufferings of any warfare and who have a justified and fundamental right to security. We do not judge in order to distribute guilt, but try to be aware of our own biases and look more soberly at the causes of the conflicts and the consequences of different strategies to cope with it.

In this paper we shall outline some of the tools of conflict resolution and link them with the current international crisis, which manifested itself through and after the attacks on World Trade Center and Pentagon September 11th 2001. We shall bring forward some suggestions of how we may understand the events and how we may anticipate the results of different approaches to them.



When conflicts escalate we know that perceptions and language are distorted within the warring parties (4). The distortions are partly spontaneous and partly organised in order to promote public willingness to engage in warfare, bear the economic burdens, and face the human misery of war, toning down compassion. Enemy images, prejudice, ignorance, fear and ideas of "an eye for an eye" are cultivated and used to strengthen the citizens' fighting spirit. Or, as one saying goes, when war breaks out truth is its first victim.

In the current crisis even the headline war on terrorism is a distortion. It is so widely used in the media, that we almost see it as globally true and adequate. But it is not. It is a political statement. The inhabitants of an Afghan village may have seen it as an attack on our homes. The Northern Alliance may call it the war against Taliban. Some see it as an aggression against the Islamic world. The name war on terrorism is part of a strategy used by the U.S. coalition and its sympathisers.

Terrorism as well is a concept used as if it has an agreed upon meaning. But until now no international assembly has been able to find a common definition to it. Many would agree to a definition like terrorism is a deliberate method by which violence against innocent people is used to create fear and chaos in order to obtain certain political goals. But when it comes to who commits terrorism the harmony stops. Can a state commit terrorism? Or is it only non-governmental groups? Were the atrocities of the South African apartheid system terrorism? Today most people would say yes, but how about the U.S.' nuclear bombing of Hiroshima? Russia's violence in Chechnya? And by the way, who are freedom fighters and who are terrorists?

So in wartime words are used as weapons. They mould our thinking, narrow our outlook and prepare us for almost any escalation of violence. We should therefore be careful of the language that we take in and the language that we forward. By using a more thoughtful language we open to more broad-minded perspectives.

We might also consider how we ourselves use the language when we stand up for our nonviolent values. If we judge and attack the advocates of military solutions with names like warmongers, hypocrites, fanatics, state terrorists, criminals, cynics etc., we cut off the necessary dialogue not only with them but as well with people, who are simply in doubt and who seek clarification, trustworthy arguments and alternative suggestions. We risk becoming part of the fighting. In stead we could try to rise above it and become part of the solution.

Nonviolence is not a passive abstaining from the use of violence. It is an active effort of thought, speech and action. None of us could claim to be perfectly nonviolent, but we can at least try to pay attention to the words we speak.



In classic conflict resolution we work with three main ways of meeting attacks and provocations. Two of them are "fight" and "flight" (5). We are here speaking of impulsive reactions, not of deliberate decisions to fight or evade. The "fight" reaction could be retaliation, violence, revenge, whereas "flight" could be to run or to do nothing. A third possibility is to regain calmness, take a pause for reflection and then decide on what to do. This approach we name "to open" - - we open to the problem, trying to understand its reasons, and then to choose adequate answers. By the first two reactions we cut off our contact with the problem as well as with the people who caused it. We act impulsively out of feelings like anger and fear and do not address the problems behind the aggression nor the aggressor. Neither do we think much about the consequences of our response. These reactions are very natural.


The third approach is much more demanding. It means

- to get a grip on oneself and the strong feelings raised by the attack

- to ask into the attack and the problems behind it

- to consider the consequences of various responses.


The attack on WTC was so unexpected, gigantic and brutal that feelings of fury and horror were overwhelming, especially in the U.S. Nevertheless - - besides expressions of deep compassion - there was an urge from a number of Nobel Peace Prize Laureates to the government of the U.S., not to act impulsively but to responsibly consider what measures to take, and to reflect on the fact that violence causes more violence (6).

What conflict workers can do in these grave circumstances is to appeal to their politicians and media to act with awareness and responsibility for the common - - in these times even global - security, not accelerating the circle of violence. And we can do more. We can try to understand the crisis more deeply and thus provide the public with balanced analyses, based on the tools of our profession.



Any conflict has three main characteristics: there is an incompatible contradiction between the parties, they have certain attitudes to each other and they show certain behaviour (7). This is what we know from the A-B-C triangle of conflict where

A = Attitudes (e.g. hatred)

B = Behaviour (e.g. violence)

C = Contradiction (e.g. block)


The three aspects are equally basic, and they are interrelated. The contradiction means that one goal stands in the way for another, one party is an obstacle for the other. In serious conflicts this will cause anger and distrust, and violence, physical or verbal, may be introduced. When this happens, we see a destructive conflict, or as Johan Galtung puts it, Conflict the Destroyer (8). When a conflict turns violent, the original contradiction, the root conflict is overshadowed by the meta-conflict: to win or to lose, to inflict harm or to be harmed. This blocks the original contradiction and thus creates more hatred, more violence, further blocking, more hatred, more violence, etc., etc.

The triangle becomes a spiral of violence, which nobody really wants, inflicting endless sufferings to the civilian populations and the soldiers involved. It was against this spiral, the Nobel Prize Laureates and many other thoughtful people warned, before the bombings of Afghanistan.

Retaliation has no end. When conflict workers state this argument, they are having a strong case, since most people know that it is true. The experience of the vicious spiral of violence is deeply and painfully rooted in most cultures, and there will be sayings like "violence breeds violence", in many languages.

But the events of the current war show that mere knowledge of the spiral of violence is not enough to stop it. When fear and hatred take over, their power is awesome. When fear and hatred are cultivated for political purposes, they are even stronger. These feelings can even make the collective experience of "violence breeds violence" evaporate. They are linked to an emotional and intellectual powerlessness that seems to give space for only harmful responses: either we give in and make ourselves victims of the next terrorist attack (flight) or we strike back with even stronger violent means (fight).

What else is there to do? This is the question we meet again and again. It seems that only the choice between pest and cholera is left.

And yet we know that there is a third way, which is not only better but also in fact indispensable in this global situation, when nobody can assure safety of any territory and any population by military means.

The most challenging task for conflict workers is always and especially in this historical moment to offer trustworthy and creative ways to stop the spiral of violence and make way for more solid and life-affirming solutions. If we wish to do so we have to go deeper into an understanding of the crisis.

It seems that the leaders of the U.S. and its coalition based their response to September 11th solely on one of the triangle's corners, namely behaviour: the terrorist behaviour, which - - as all sensible people would agree - must be stopped. There was not much asking into the other two corners: How did this hatred develop? What is the root conflict, what are the contradictions that build up the conflict? There were numerous statements that concentrated on the meta conflict: who will win this fight, who has more power to harm the other, who is in control? The root conflict was obscure and not an object for thorough investigation (9).

It is obvious that the majority of political comments and media reports looked only at the surface of the conflict triangle, and that they mostly focused on the behaviour of the other part, and how to stop it. And the decision to launch the "war on terrorism" was apparently taken on this fragile basis.

What the conflict worker can do, is to cultivate a broader outlook and to offer it to the public. We can contribute to weaken the spiral of violence by insisting on the wholeness of the problem.




The dangerous and complicated international conflict was described, as if the terrorist attacks were the beginning of it, and if the capture and punishment of the offenders and their supporters were the end of it. The conflict was narrowed down to the outbreak of violence and the immediate response to it. But outbreak is only part of a conflict.

In order to understand the conflict, a much longer perspective of time is vital: before, during and after the outbreak. Violence has causes that go far back in time, and the way violence is met has consequences for a long period of time, maybe for generations.


<- Before: causes - Outbreak of violence - After: consequences ->


When we are imprisoned by fear and hatred, we seem to forget causes as well as consequences, which is understandable in everyday life, but extremely dangerous when done by statesmen and media, who so to say have the lives of vast numbers of people in their hands.

The response to violence must be based on analyses of what went on before it, what its reasons were, and on analyses of what could be the consequences of different reactions. If reactions are based only on the outbreak, it is likely that the spiral of violence is accelerated (10).

In the case of the attack on the WTC it was a complicated affair to identify the "before", since nobody stood forward as the attacker. But it was treated like a simple affair, as Osama Bin Laden and the Al Queda network very quickly were pointed out as the perpetrators (11). The U.S. counter attack in Afghanistan was built on that premise. Most observers seem to agree that the WTC attack was planned and implemented by Al Queda network or some other groups, rooted in a militant Muslim movement.

If this is the case it is possible to identify the "before". In interviews and on videos bin Laden again and again has stated the causes of his violent intentions (12). He speaks of the American presence in the Gulf area and of "the massacring of Muslims in Palestine, Chechnya, Kashmir and Iraq". And he speaks of the consequences of the coalition's counterattack: "My cause will continue after my death… They think they can solve this problem by killing me. It's not easy to solve this problem. This war has been spread all over the world".

His statements are clearly fuelling the spiral of violence. But no matter how we judge them, they show something concrete about the "before" and the "after" of the crisis. It points to some serious and complicated areas of conflict, which could nevertheless be dealt with, and they point to how impossible it is to solve contradictions and to provide sustainable security by war.



Very few conflicts have only two participants, since we live in networks of human relations. And Zone 1 conflicts practically never are restricted to two parties. But they are often outlined as hostilities between only two parties, maybe to make it easier to "understand" the complicated problem and then take sides.

Furthermore international conflicts are often described, as if they had only one problem and one cause, in this case "terrorism".

In it's most gross form the current war is described as George W. Bush against Bin Laden. Other two-party versions are "the coalition against terrorism" and "U.S. against terrorist sponsor countries"- or "rogue states".

The problem with this simplification is that it amplifies enemy thinking and the urge to respond violently. It steps up the notion of "we" who are right, and "they" who are wrong, for which reason "we" have the right - - or even the obligation - to use violence against "them". Simplification feeds the spiral of violence.

Another problem is that that the two-party version simply is not true. It is not realistic, and therefore it is of no use when we try to understand the crisis and develop solutions to it. When we see only two adversaries and only one problem we are not able to understand in order to pave the way for realistic solutions.

This point is clearly stated by H.H. the Dalai Lama in the following quotation: "If we understand the reasons, causes and conditions, time factors and so on, then we realise that there is no concrete object to pinpoint as the main cause. If you do a research, you cannot pinpoint a concrete object, and consequently you can reduce your ill feelings…when the wars were fought, it was through pointing out one concrete object to be undesirable, without seeing how many inter-connections there are. When using force to destroy the opponents, it was presumed that there was only one object. However, the reality is completely different" (13).

Looking at the present conflict, a number of participants and interests seem obvious, besides "terrorism", the U.S. and the Al Queda network including their supporters:

Afghanistan with its traumatic history and many opposing militias

The neighbouring countries, especially Pakistan with its ongoing Kashmir conflict with India

Russia with its war in Chechnya

Uzbekistan with its militant Muslim rebellions

Israel - - Palestine

The Gulf area with many opposing interests

The weapons production - - the military industrial complex and its interests (14)

The oil industry and its interests

The global gap between the privileged and the under-privileged.


This list is by no means complete. Furthermore it is not within the reach of conflict workers or the single NGO to analyse the whole spectrum. To do that a team of highly qualified experts must work together. What we can do though is to show that the problems are far more comprehensive than the headline "we against terrorism", and to point out some of the important factors.

But does this complexity not make it much more difficult to find constructive responses to the problems? Yes, definitely. In the short run it is much easier to act on simplistic abstractions. But the consequences of doing so are serious: more hatred, more violence, more suffering, more blocking of the contradictions, etc.



After the crime of the attack on WTC and Pentagon it is evident that the criminals must be found and held responsible. But - - as many thoughtful people have stated - - it should happen within the framework of international law and without twisting the law or taking it in one's own hands - those of the U.S. The problem is in fact international .It should be dealt with internationally and the UN given the leadership of identifying, getting hold on and prosecuting the perpetrators (15).

It is likewise obvious that measures must be taken to increase security internally in the countries. But not at the expense of democracy and civil rights like the right to express oneself freely - for instance against warfare - and the freedom of assembly.

For the spiral of violence not to run wild it is important to maintain laws and regulations that govern the societies and the international community. The conflict worker could also make a contribution to this matter.



When violence breaks out it the conflict has escalated to a step, where dialogue has stopped. The parties are no longer in contact with each other, so the way is paved for misunderstandings, misinformation, prejudice, black-and-white perceptions, myths, hatred and enemy images. Stepping up violence is the next phase.

To revive dialogue and to negotiate are crucial steps out of the spiral of violence. There are probably no other methods to obtain sustainable security. There are several ways in which conflict workers can contribute to the resumption of dialogue:

- Request our governments to take up communication with "the enemy", being concrete and giving examples. This is not an easy thing to do. We may face the risk of being seen as naive (16). In polarised situations there is not much space for middle way people. There are tense periods, when it is very hard to advocate communication with the opposing side, especially if one's own country is directly involved in war. But there are many more periods, when in fact it can be done.

- Encourage our media to report in an unbiased way of the conditions and convictions of the other side of the battlefield, not only the leaders but the civilians as well (17). Acknowledge reporters, who do so ("the press" is always blamed in general)

- Keep up or establish personal contacts with civilian people from the opposing side and publish their human stories. It can be fairly easily done by e-mail.

- Stick to the tools of sober dialogue when debating with people, who advocate warfare as the means to manage the conflict. Be firm on the issue and open to the person; avoid judging the other's motives. In stead we can express our facts and opinions clearly and ask into the consequences of the other's points of view.



None of us can carry the weight of the world. Nor are we powerless. Every single person - - conflict worker or not - who feeds some sensibility and some hope into the hostile and confused atmosphere, which war brings about, is very valuable. When we pool our resources we can accomplish even more. This can be done in small groups or on a larger scale. It is already being done.

In these days we see something encouraging: The Internet is used to link people together who wish to break the spiral of violence and suggest more life-affirming and sustainable ways to security. After September 11th and the military response to it, the lines are glowing. Analyses, arguments, protests, alternatives, sarcasm, collections of signatures, facts, revelations and suggestions are distributed from one end of the world to the other every single day - - sometimes in overwhelming doses. So much engagement, so much energy!

I am sure that these and many other nonviolent activities that are carried out in this wartime are having an impact. And we all wish to see that impact become greater and more visible. How can it be done? A unification of this great moving interaction is impossible to imagine and even not to be wished for, since the flow lives by its diversity and freedom.

But maybe some centres for conflict research and resolution from various parts of the world could put their heads & hearts together and organise a small, practical network, which is able to react - - and proact - very quickly, as the international situation develops. They could use their experience, knowledge and tools to come up with some deep rooted analyses and some trustworthy answers to the most challenging question: what else is there to do? (- than escalating violence). These answers should be of such awe-inspiring solidity and creativity, that they would be widely quoted in the media and even find their ways into the corridors of power. And everybody, who wished, could use them. This would definitely be helpful.

Of course it is not the solution to the grave challenge we are facing. But together with all the other initiatives it might be an important contribution.

I am writing this in the depressing days, when the Northern Alliance and U.S. Airforce besiege the Afghan town Kunduz. Some 30.000 Taliban troops including foreign fighters are inside the walls. I do not know how many civilians - - the media do not tell. The commander of the besieged troops is in contact with the commander of the Northern Alliance and has asked for negotiations under the auspices of the UN. He has put some concrete negotiation positions, including safe corridors for escape. The U.S. government has promptly refused negotiations, demanding either capture or death of the besieged troops. Rumsfeld gives three days for surrender, or the town will be attacked - - with horrifying consequences for the soldiers and the civilian population inside the walls (18).

We are up against the logic of war with its terrifying primitivity. Our immediate influence seems to be non existent. What difference can a well meant and modest article like this make?

In this downhearted moments I the think of a young Serbian doctor, I met in Belgrade during the war in former Yugoslavia. He was a realistic and courageous person, who transported medicine to "the other side", the besieged citizens of Sarajevo, Bosnia. When asked about his immediate hopes for his country he answered pessimistically. But then he said: "I no longer believe in organised systems, I believe in the chaos theory. I must do what my heart tells me is right to do. My actions then will form some small particles that will meet other particles, and hopefully some day become a greater wave, which can lead to social changes".

Well, his particle is now transmitted, and that feels good.





1) These tools may also be applied in Zone 2 conflicts. Zone 1= the area of the greater society, governments, socio-economic conditions, international affairs. In this area the conflict worker has normally no direct relations, and no face to face communication. Zone 2 = our every day life, where we are directly in contact with the people involved in a conflict. Zone 3 = the area of learning how to deal with conflicts in Zone 2 and understand conflicts in Zone 1.

2) By conflict worker we understand a person, who is educated to understand human conflicts and to support other people to understand their frictions and find constructive solutions to them. The conflict worker may thus function as a dialogue partner, a mediator, a trainer, a facilitator and a moderator of meetings. But also as an analyst of Zone 1 conflicts.

3) Nonviolence is not the same as pacifism, and a conflict worker is not .the same as a pacifist. He or she might be, but not necessarily.

4) See Danish Centre for Conflict Resolution: "The Art of Conflict resolution", Copenhagen 1999, and Else Hammerich "Meeting Conflicts Mindfully", Dharamsala 2001.

5) See note 2.

6) See

7) According to Norwegian peace researcher, Professor Johan Galtung. See

8) There is also the promise of Conflict the Creator, conflict seen as a challenge. When the triangle's corners transform into an attitude of openness, a behaviour of restraint and the contradiction is softened by creativity. See note 2.

9) This goes for political statements of primarily the U.S. government, and for a majority of Western mainstream media. At the same time there were many sober comments from knowledgeable journalists, experts and private people. And there were politicians, who spoke up about underlying causes of the crisis: the global injustices, the gap between the rich and the poor and the need to take action to fill up the gap, to gain sustainable security.

10) Of course the immediate safety of the U.S. population had to be secured. And the offenders had to be found and held responsible. The discussion here is about the character of the exterior response.

11) Until now Bin Laden has not taken the responsibility, though he has spoken of the attack with sympathy. Only a few members of the U.S. government and partly Tony Blair have seen the proofs.

12) See for instance interview by Jason Burko in the Observer, November 11th

13) Said in a lecture to the trainees of Tibetan Centre for Conflict Resolution, November 29th 2000. Printed in Else Hammerich: Meeting Conflicts Mindfully, Dharamsala 2001.

14) A concept invented by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to signify the close collaboration between the weapons producers, the armed forces and politicians - - and pointing out its dangers.

15) Knowing the vast difficulties of the UN, especially the problematic composition of the Security Council. For instance it includes no nations of the Muslim world. To start a reform of the UN could be part of the solution of the present crisis.

16) Or even as traitors. This is happening right now, in the U.S. as well as in Muslim countries. So nonviolence is - - as Gandhi put it, not for cowards

17) During the war in Afghanistan CNN was the only international media, who had a reporter placed in the Taliban area. He produced extremely useful and unusual information, an example of broad-minded journalism.

18) Indian Express, November 21st.



 Posted December 12, 2001


© TFF & the author 2001  


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