Listen for peace

If the assault on terrorism were a traditional war, the lopsided defeat of the Taliban-Al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan would have been recorded weeks ago as a win for the American military colossus.

But as the White House reminds us, we are still early in a new kind of global contest. Rather than front lines between opposing military formations, our maps show the topography of clan, language, religion, and historical experience. Whether military forces win or lose, whether governments fall or stand, now matters less than whether social webs trace affinity or enmity. Hatreds, not weapons, are now the engines of war; connections, not borders, are now the bulwarks of peace.

Just as computers and precision missiles seem to be moving us into a new era of short, clean combat, we find ourselves immersed in the most primal, bloody, and long-lived of human family fights: "us" versus "them."

We seem each to have inherited from our earliest ancestors a personal radar that constantly rates those around us for tiny differences along a scale of family-friend/ stranger-enemy. Hammering those sensitivities with spectacular brutality, the terrorist herds an aggrieved "we" into his camp ready to battle "them."

Once started, this is hard to stop. Political violence traps all sides in cyclones of reprisal to the profit of the arsonists who struck the matches.

As a civilization, we have no tasks more important than learning how to prevent these fires and figuring out how to put out the ones already burning. The hard part is not the terrorist cells themselves – those are matters for the police and, occasionally, for the military when an extremist cell metastasizes into an armed militia. Force itself is not the answer. The goal is comity, a quality that cannot be hammered into a community by explosives.

Where do we start? With prevention. Terror arsonists must be outflanked in the communities and cultures where the fires of violence are not yet in full flame. Beyond the immediate task of halting the violence, future prevention should also be considered in such places as Palestine-Israel, Colombia, West Africa, and Kashmir. The only way to shorten the long list of hot spots is to keep violence mongers from driving "us-them" wedges into their targets.

The attackers use violence and extreme politics to open two kinds of gaps in a society: They divide and conquer by fracturing a community into arguing pieces. (Remember how Slobodan Milosevic turned the peaceful mosaic of Sarajevo into a lethal siege of Serb against "Turk" against Croat against Serb.) And then they isolate their targets from the outside world. (Recall the Osama bin Laden/Taliban calls for jihad against everything non-Muslim.)

What is an appropriate counterattack? A strategy of connections.

Tactics must go beyond a flashy campaign for "hearts and minds" or the jingoistic celebration of American values. The whole civil, prodemocracy world is in a global fight for our future – a world that includes millions of moderate, peace-and-freedom-hungry Muslim families.

We all must move beyond outrage at the terrorists' ruthless killing to understand why their kind of violent "message" can be so powerful in at-risk societies – and why the "message" of America's global cultural and economic presence can be converted to hostility even among people who yearn for the freedoms that America exemplifies.

Understanding begins with listening. Strategic, bridge-the-gulf listening requires more than sitting through a TV newscast about the latest incident in the Middle East. The civil world needs to be seen listening to the ambitions and fears and crises that preoccupy those who are being preyed upon by the terrorists.

How to do visible listening? Send official listeners. Everyone saw Vice President Cheney get an earful from Arab leaders during his recent Middle East tour. Send Congress. Hearings by bipartisan delegations, perhaps joined by European and Asian parliamentarians, could have a huge impact.

The US offers another tool: multibillion-dollar aid programs. The Bush administration wants to make foreign-assistance spending more relevant. So, invite people from at-risk countries to come to America and share publicly what sort of help they need.

There is a role for the military. The US is now making a great show of sending soldiers out to provide counterterrorism training. This is an opportunity to learn. Send some teams out to listen, not just preach.

More, be seen hosting meetings, so countries under attack may learn from one another.

Whatever we do, let's act now. A recent Gallup poll in the Muslim world revealed a stunning gulf between "them" and "us." That gap must be closed before Osama bin Laden and his terrorist friends manage to split off an entire chunk of the Muslim world into a culture of armed hate.

It's time to augment our vigorous military assault on terrorist pockets with some visible listening. In the long run, we will do more for comity with our ears than with our trigger fingers.

• Larry Seaquist, a former US Navy warship captain and Pentagon strategist, chairs The Strategy Group, a global-action network of professionals devoted to peacebuilding and conflict prevention.

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