The week remembering September 11, 2001, began for us with a sad reminder, in Malegaon this time, that terrorism is truly worldwide and is alive and well. Of all the chatter on the box on this occasion, by far the most constructive and moving was the dialogue series on BBC World Service anchored by the bishop Reverend Desmond Tutu, in which pairs of perpetrators as well as the victims of violence in Northern Ireland voluntarily took part, with their families. Gently, ever so kindly, he nudged them, with his beatific smile, towards facing the truth, which was the title of the programme. One of them involved an IRA militant who at age 16 had shot and wounded a police constable, known to be unarmed, on the streets of Southampton. Having suffered many years of imprisonment, he obviously saw the events of decades ago with the wisdom of hindsight, and in the end offered, visibly affected by the meeting, to shake hands with the PC whom he had attacked.

Peep into the past

The real highlight, however, was both of them coming to terms with their past. As the IRA activist put it, each of them was doing what he genuinely thought was his role. What is more, he saw it as justified by the previous chain of events mostly injustice, economic disparity, exploitation and neglect by the majority. A not unfamiliar chronicle of failings in any society. Facing the reality of history and looking into their own consciences, they willingly admitted that it was a difficult task to see the world from another's point of view; and that while they could understand what happened, there was no real long-term defence for violence. In a peculiar way, however, both were obeying their particular orders of the day to disturb the peace and foment trouble, on the one side, and maintain law and order, on the other.

Dialogue versus debate

But a deeper lesson was contained in the poignant, unanswered question articulated by the bishop: When will human beings really act upon the truth that violence never ever solved any problem, especially those involving human communities and relationships? All violence can be justified by the ideologues who formulate the justification and the executors of the collective will, the foot soldiers who simply follow orders.

So long as divisions are emphasised and there are people who carry a grudge and feel revenge is necessary and possible, there will always be violence. And unless there are a few people who are willing to open their hearts and see the world as it really is and heal themselves and others, the future will be no different from the past. What was amazing was that the bishop demonstrated what expert facilitated dialogue can do as distinct from debate and argument. A dialogue in the true sense, as David Bohm said, is a conversation with a centre but no sides.

Some people will be uncomfortable with placing a rebel and a policeman on the same footing. And, yet, is it not true that whether we feel someone is merely doing his job or asserting a right is largely in the eyes of the beholder? Of course, it is hard to face this truth about our conditioning and inherited ideas, but that indeed is the crux of the matter. Can we go on celebrating differences publicly, and as opposing sides, as if in a game, and not expect violence? Little wonder that some feel the term United Nations is itself an oxymoron.

S. Ramachander

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated September 11, 2006)
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