Friday, August 07, 2009

Negotiating with terrorists.

Smack at the barbed-wire-surrounded heart of conflict resolution, this issue could sober up anybody, even at a Friday happy hour after the end of a legislative session.

The questions at hand: Did the U.S. negotiate with terrorists by sending Bill Clinton to North Korea? What does the U.S. policy "We do not negotiate with terrorists" mean - that is, what are its limits and history? And finally, should we negotiate with terrorists? What are the issues at stake, and are they issues of ethics, politics, or simply practicality?

North Korea is, technically, a legitimately governed/recognized country. Lisa Ling, TV personality, has related that her sister, Laura Ling, former hostage, concedes having been on North Korean soil "for about 30 seconds." Arresting two journalists while there does not, technically, constitute an act of terrorism. Just to top it off, Clinton holds no formal position in government, and our Secretary of State denies that he apologized to the government there.

The journalists may have been illegally held, charged egregiously, etc. etc. I in no way mean to suggest North Korea was justified. As a journalist, I am aghast at the entire situation. As a philosophical analyst, however, I'm just suggesting that a recognized government's reprehensible actions may illegitimate the ethical or moral status of said government, and certainly give them (in this case, merely worsen) a nasty case of p.r. acne, but it does not automatically turn the government into terrorists.

My second question - What is the U.S. policy, what are its limits and history - is cited because it follows, but it's a larger question than I can answer. It makes sense that a government does not want to set a precedent of rewarding illegal and despicable activity.

As one example of a prior situation, according to a New York Times article, the terrorists who beheaded United States independent contractor Nick Berg in May 2004 claimed that they offered an exchange of hostages. The article, from May 11, 2004 - the day the video of his beheading began to circulate, three days after his body was recovered - states that before the beheading, one of the captors said on camera: "For the mothers and wives of American soldiers, we tell you that we offered the U.S. administration to exchange this hostage with some of the detainees in Abu Ghraib and they refused." Full disclosure: As stated in my biographical information, I live in West Chester, PA, Nick Berg's home town.

The United States government denies that any such offer was made. Would we have agreed to an exchange if it had? The U.S. government, after all, does not negotiate with terrorists.

Which brings me to the third question. In an article on, Chris Currie, a mediator and conflict management trainer since 1987, argues that we should, in fact, negotiate with terrorists. Currie, who holds a Master of Arts degree in conflict resolution from Antioch University, writes:
But doesn’t negotiating with someone whose behavior you abhor grant them legitimacy that they didn’t have before, and therefore reward criminal activity? Won’t this encourage further bad behavior because it means we have given into pressure? According to Fisher, it may confer a little legitimacy, but this effect can be minimized by involving relatively low level or non-governmental personnel in the initial talks. The effect could actually be eliminated if we had a policy of negotiating with anyone. With such a policy, no one could attain special status just because negotiations were opened.
His concluding paragraph offers the observation, "One person’s 'terrorist' is another person’s 'freedom fighter.'"

Ethically, to whom is our responsibility? To the Nick Bergs - and to some extent, Laura Lings - of the world and their families? Or to the potential, as-yet-faceless hostages who might be abducted if abduction were certain to lead to gain?

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