Dark Thirty in the Garden of Good and Evil

A preface to a resolution of what the US/individuals in Boise can do to further a peaceful resolution of conflict in Iraq (and related territories) following US action (preemptive invasion and destruction of Saddam Hussein's/Baathist party control of Iraq in spring of 2003 and the consequent occupation and coercive control of the country)

WHEREAS the people of the United States of America support the rule of law, and the sovereignty of law-abiding nations; and

WHEREAS our continued military presence in Iraq does not serve any of the reasons that have been offered as justification for starting a war;

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that we call upon the President to begin immediate withdrawal of military forces from Iraq, at the most rapid pace that ensures their own safety and the safety of essential embassy and civilian personnel who may remain;

and BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that we call upon the Congress of the United States to exercise its Constitutional power of budgeting to withdraw its implicit support of the military occupation of Iraq;

and BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the United States of America will provide assistance to the people of Iraq to rebuild their infrastructure and public institutions.

(Draft proposal for consideration by the Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, by Tom von Alten)

My background: readings in human history of the territory; literary, cultural and philosophical history as recorded in folklore, including speakers at the BUUF symposium, books of the Bible; research in conflict resolution; reports of scholars, military experts, journalists and others, as I understand them.

What I've gained from experts in the Mideast and conflict: those who led us into provocative action, invasion and occupation did not correctly calculate the dangers of the damage they were causing. Essentially we made an uneasy accommodation much worse and don't know how to fix what we broke. We do not yet, as a nation, understand what we broke and don't agree on why. Further, we need help from neighboring countries because the dynamic within Iraq is part of a regional problem. Those nations and people most affected by US action have a relationship with the US marked by hostility and mistrust. Experience has shown that outside arbitrators are essential to reduce conflict in such situations.

From those who practice conflict resolution and negotiations in conflict reduction: our best hope may be a controlled situation that does not get worse and allows for possible future resolution by now-unknowable methods and choices. The US may have a support role in the work toward a solution.

The job of the US in this situation (expressed in language of our nation's dominant religious faith):

  1. Confess our sins.
  2. Beg forgiveness of those we have injured.
  3. Ask those we have injured what we must do to help them, then do as asked.
  4. Pay the cost of damages and remediation (or go to hell/jail).

For the US, a change of direction as well as change of heart is needed. In mental health terms, we have become a nation of bullies who inflict harm in order to control others. We show little capacity for empathy. Like those with anti-social personalities, we attack those who cannot defend themselves, then blame our victims rather than take responsibility for our actions. As is common with bullies, our acts become more extreme, we over-generalize, ignore our historical judicial protections and restraints.

Even as our nation escalates the extremity of its acts, those who defend these actions feel increasingly isolated and betrayed. Their language, and the acts they are willing to support, grow more extreme. As someone has said, "we are most cruel toward those whom we have already betrayed."

The pattern over time, among abusive and bullying personalities (and groups) is clear: the effect of their actions on others around them leaves them feeling increasingly isolated and threatened. They respond by using the tools they know. A majority will engage in increasingly violent, criminal acts. When asked they will describe themselves as victims. Victory, in their terms, is seen as annihilation of enemies who shimmer ahead like heat mirages on a Nevada highway. (A summary of these patterns of escalation of conflict, and what is needed to resolve it, is described in Speed Leas' Levels of Conflict.)

Bullies with significant powers rarely, if ever, recant and reform. They do not retreat or apologize. No matter how extreme their actions, or how unsuccessful, their only perceived option is victory, a total win over enemies. Their strategies destabilize their entire community, which is traumatized and less capable of healthy self protection. Bystanders are forced to flee or take sides. Learning stops, long-term planning stops, collaboration ends. Everyone is cast back into a fight-or-flight emotional mode.

Among the losers are the inciters of violence. As they narrow their options into aggression and manipulation of supporters, they neglect to nurture their own bodies. Thus great civilizations undermine themselves and disintegrate, with few participants or observers able to describe what went wrong. As one Greek legend describes, aggressors are left with no other sustenance but gnawing their own bones.

Today, our stakes are this high or higher. Despite the dangers and the damage done, we have a sizeable minority with resources and desire to change direction. They are connected in a variety of ways; they support each other. Although the path out may be long, it is worth trying. Here are a few ideas that I have collected.

One essential element is educating our youth. After the school shootings in several developed countries, including ours, research turned to understanding the conditions in which some children turn violent. This has led to programs in schools for increasing empathy and for teaching skills in conflict reduction. Schools and communities can also select leaders and then offer parenting classes that guide effective, nonviolent parenting strategies, healthy boundaries, and proactive guidance through adolescence. Communities can assess the adequacy of daycare, after-school supervision, transportation for youth, supervised activities including sports and community service, all incorporating a sense of fairness and just treatment of others.

Policy changes will be essential. As was noted at our Jan. 13, 2008 Iraq Symposium, reduction of organized violence usually requires a change in leadership. This requires reconsideration of who achieves leadership and how; it may require new systems for training and encouraging community leaders, as well as election reform. Communities and other groups may train each other and practice peaceful, nondefensive strategies as well as educate themselves in cognitive research. There are experts around us: counselors, cognitive relearning programs already utilized in probation and other counseling programs.

Because those who feel anxious, powerless and threatened often look to recognized authorities, with others, I see advantages to gathering all efforts toward conflict resolution and reduction into a Department of Peace, a cabinet-level office directly under the president, one expected to coordinate with departments of state, health and welfare, and education. This position should also be part of policy-making in all areas of the public good, such as use of public airways. Needs for changes in laws, educational initiatives and coordination of citizen groups would all benefit from high-level coordination.

January 19, 2008

Jeanette Ross     jross_∂t_fortboise_⋅_org