Welcome to From Insults to Respect.
This time of year, as usual, I’ve been spending some time feeling the “peace on Earth, good will to our fellow human beings” spirit. However, my goodwill spirit has been intermittently challenged by the media regularly presenting updates of the deeply sad ISIS situation. Is there, in however small a way, something that I can do about it?
Last year at about this time, I wrote the following post. I’ve decided to dust it off, and throw it out there once again in the hopes that it might lead folks to get beyond the usual cry of we’re going to beat ISIS, with little or no specifics about how this will be done.
This post begins by presenting what President Obama’s approach has been for dealing with the ISIS situation. A brief summary of the main alternatives being discussed in the media will then be presented. I’ll then describe an alternative perspective that makes the most sense to me, and explain how this perspective suggests a set of actions that is more promising than the other alternatives being discussed.
President Obama’s Approach
In a nutshell, here is what the US conflict with ISIS is all about: The vast majority of US citizens desire that they be free of violent acts from foreign forces, and no one should be enslaving people. Interfering with these two desires of these US citizens is the fact that ISIS has killed a number of US citizens, is encouraging its supporters to kill more of them, and is currently enslaving people. A substantial number of US citizens believe that ISIS is guilty of terrorism and violating basic human rights.
On December 6, 2015, President Obama, who refers to ISIS as ISIL, explained to the American people how he intends to deal with this conflict:
First, our military will continue to hunt down terrorist plotters in any country where it is necessary. In Iraq and Syria, airstrikes are taking out ISIL leaders, heavy weapons, oil tankers, infrastructure. And since the attacks in Paris, our closest allies — including France, Germany, and the United Kingdom — have ramped up their contributions to our military campaign, which will help us accelerate our effort to destroy ISIL.
Second, we will continue to provide training and equipment to tens of thousands of Iraqi and Syrian forces fighting ISIL on the ground so that we take away their safe havens. In both countries, we’re deploying Special Operations Forces who can accelerate that offensive. We’ve stepped up this effort since the attacks in Paris, and we’ll continue to invest more in approaches that are working on the ground.
Third, we’re working with friends and allies to stop ISIL’s operations — to disrupt plots, cut off their financing, and prevent them from recruiting more fighters. Since the attacks in Paris, we’ve surged intelligence-sharing with our European allies. We’re working with Turkey to seal its border with Syria. And we are cooperating with Muslim-majority countries — and with our Muslim communities here at home — to counter the vicious ideology that ISIL promotes online.
Fourth, with American leadership, the international community has begun to establish a process — and timeline — to pursue ceasefires and a political resolution to the Syrian war. Doing so will allow the Syrian people and every country, including our allies, but also countries like Russia, to focus on the common goal of destroying ISIL — a group that threatens us all.
As for the suggested alternatives to the President’s strategy that I’ve seen bandied about in the media, they tend to be of the following types: Doing what the President is doing, but more of it under a stronger leader. Some want to impose a no fly zone over Syria despite the objections of the Russian government. Others want us to bring back a full scale ground invasion similar to what we did during the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, but now we would have to expand it into Syria and several other countries where ISIS currently has a presence. Then there are those who would like us to do less than what the President has us doing. The range of opinions that fall under this type of proposal include ending the bombing while continuing to offer support to those in the region willing to fight ISIS; to those who believe we should let those living in the regions that ISIS is operating work out their problems without any US meddling in their affairs.
What I have not seen discussed as an alternative is a proposal that utilizes a developmental psychological perspective as it applies to violence and human rights.
A Developmental Psychology Approach
The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined is a brilliant book by Harvard University professor of psychology, Steven Pinker. In the course of reading its 700 plus pages, we learn that human violence has not only dramatically declined, support for civil rights has surged. As we become familiar with important aspects of these trends, we also begin to discover clues about the factors that foster these developmental changes.
In thinking about what I learned from reading the good professor’s book, along with some other knowledge about the nature of human development, I have come up with a five step plan for dealing with the ISIS situation that strikes me as a more promising alternative to those I outlined above. Before we get into these five steps, let’s first take a few moments to look at some crucial aspects of the “reduction in violence and increase in civil rights” trends.
The Reduction In Violence and Increase in Civil Rights Trend
In the earliest period that humans thrived, they were chiefly hunters and gatherers. At that time it has been estimated that death came as a result of one person killing another about twenty percent of the time. Evidence for this was obtained by looking at the skeletons from that period. Quite often we find arrowheads imbedded in chest cavities and fractured skulls.
Then came the development to an agricultural civilization with cities and governments, beginning around five thousand years ago. With that, there was a more or less fivefold decrease in rates of violent death. With the consolidation of a patchwork of feudal territories into large kingdoms with a centralized authority and an infrastructure of commerce, violence decreased another tenfold to fiftyfold.
Another dramatic decrease occurred around the Age of Reason and the European Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries. It saw the first organized movements to abolish slavery, dueling, judicial torture, superstitious killings, sadistic punishment, and cruelty to animals.
After World War II, two-thirds of a century has passed without the European nations waging war against one another. This is unprecedented.
European countries that used military interventions to maintain its colonies have largely gotten out of their colonial enterprise and replaced it with engaging independent countries in peaceful commerce. The Berlin Wall came down without a shot being fired. The Soviet Union collapsed not as a result of a foreign invasion, but by ongoing observations of comparing the results of their own economic and civil rights system with that of the other countries that utilized a more open free market-free speech approach.
Reflecting on the changes that have occurred, note that the United States is made up of 50 states, and since its Civil War 150 years ago, none of them have violently attacked another. To the US’s north is Canada, the largest undefended border in the world, and yet over 200 years have gone by without a war between these two countries. To the south is Mexico, a country that the US has managed to live in peace with for over 150 years.
In most places on Earth, humans have now reached a point at which they kill other humans at a rate of approximately 2 per 100,000, a tiny fraction of the amount of earlier times. And there are signs that this number has been continuing to go down during my own lifetime.
The first war that I remember during my lifetime was the Vietnam War. It began for the US basically in 1961. I was 11-years old at the time. It went on until 1975. Approximately 60 thousand US military personnel and a million Vietnamese died in that conflict.
After that war, Americans campaigned and succeeded in ending the US military draft. Consequently, with its now all voluntary army, from 1976 to the present there has been a dramatic reduction in the military death rate. Approximately 10 thousand US Service personnel have died in battle over the course of this 39-year period–a 6-fold reduction compared to the amount killed during the 14-year period of the Vietnam War. And while it is has been difficult for me to track down how many people who have been defined by the US as enemy combatants that ended up getting killed during the 39-year period by the US military, the number that comes up most frequently is about 500,000–a 50 percent decrease from the much shorter period of time that constituted the Vietnam era.
Since President Obama has taken over the US administration, the vast majority of Americans have made it clear that they are opposed to using any military ground offenses to deal with conflicts abroad. Respecting this position, the president has dramatically reduced this type of military action which has led to far fewer deaths over the course of President Obama’s two terms in office than the deaths that occurred under the previous administration.
Also during my lifetime, there has been dramatic increases in civil rights afforded to people. When I was born, blacks were not permitted to play major league baseball. Then Jackie Robinson came along, as did Martin Luther King, Jr. Meanwhile, women began entering into a host of professions they had been quietly excluded from, and we have, in just a very few years, seen a sea change in the attitudes toward gays and lesbians. The previous president’s administration supported torture; the current administration has put a stop to this.
Now, despite these changes in huge sections of the world, we find that the people who have joined ISIS have not followed a similar developmental trajectory. Since these people are Muslims, many are asking the question, Are Muslims, because of their religion, less capable of psychological development?
Actually, we find that the vast majority of Muslims who are living under the same set of conditions as other religious groups in the developed countries are in no way more violent, nor are they more likely to violate what are now viewed by most as basic human rights. Also relevant to this question is the fact that people from religious groups other than Muslims, when raised under the conditions that were present in earlier times were every bit as violent as those currently pledging their allegiance to ISIS.
In one single war in China, one third of its entire population were killed. When Christians began to run away from European countries to find religious freedom in the New World, a substantial amount of them worked toward killing the natives and enslaving people. Historian Ron Chernow describes one such setting on an Island in the Caribbean in the early 1700s,
“Violence was commonplace in Nevis, as in all of the slave-ridden sugar islands…. The Caribbean sugar economy was a system of inimitable savagery, making the tobacco and cotton plantations of the American south system almost genteel by comparison. The mortality rate of slaves hacking away at sugarcane under a pitiless tropical sun was simply staggering: three out of five died within five years of arrival, and slave owners had to replenish their fields constantly with new victims.”
The evidence that people can alter their attitudes and behavior as a result of shifting conditions, whether they are Muslims, or some other religious or national group, gives me considerable hope. When I examined the various conditions that actually foster the type of psychological development that leads to a reduction in violence and an increase in supporting basic civil rights, and then sought to apply them specifically to the ISIS situation, I managed to come up with the following five step plan.
The Five Step Alternative For Dealing with the ISIS Situation
In my view, ISIS is at about the same psychological developmental level as the largely Christian southern states were just about when the American Civil War began. These southern states had, like ISIS has today, an ideology that slavery was essential to their way of life, and outsiders (the northern states) were actively interfering with what they believed is right. Moreover, the confederate states used quotations from their holy book to defend their beliefs and to justify going to war to protect their ideology in a way that is similar to how ISIS utilizes sections of their holy book.
Now some may believe that the only way to have created the conditions for the confederacy to change their ideology to one more consistent with a higher level of development was to engage them in a bloody civil war. I hasten to point out that in many other places in the world, the slavery ideology changed without a war. In England, for example, certain conditions changed and its citizens peacefully ended slavery within its own borders. England continued, for some time, to use force to maintain its hold on colonial labor, but Mahatma Gandhi effectively used nonviolent resistance to put an end to colonial rule. Soon afterwards, colonialism ended elsewhere.
I will just add here, that the American Civil War actually did little to change the ideology of those who lived in the southern slave states. Rather, it embittered many, and in fact hardened, for many, their prewar positions. This was reflected in how southerners instituted “Jim Crow” laws. In the end, the non-violent approach of Martin Luther King, Jr. proved to be far more effective in creating the conditions for real psychological development in that region of the US.
So, given where ISIS is on this theoretical developmental level, let’s take a look at five steps that, when taken together, might be a better alternative to dealing with ISIS than the others that were discussed at the beginning of this post.
Step1: We would want to reduce the impression that we are guilty of seeking to violently control the lives of the people in the regions where ISIS has a presence. As Alexander Hamilton once aptly noted, “Tis only to consult our own hearts to be convinced that nations like individuals revolt at the idea of being guided by external compulsion.”
There are some credible reasons for supporters of ISIS to feel that there has been an ongoing effort to force them to do whatever is in the interest of the US. Years before the creation of ISIS, meddling in Middle East affairs occurred by the US’s CIA. Then came the US invasion of the largely Muslim inhabited Afghanistan and Iraq countries. Now we have the current US bombing campaign while President Obama has been calling for destroying ISIS.
A fair balance to this idea of the role that the US has played in the level of violence in the region would necessarily point out that before the US had any involvement there, the patchwork of various sectarian groups in the region had been engaging in devastatingly violent actions for centuries. Nevertheless, to begin to reduce the impression that the US is guilty of currently seeking to violently control the lives of the people in the regions, my plan calls for the president to openly state that the US has indeed been involved in using force in the past. He would then state that we now realize this causes far more harm than good, it took us some time for us to develop to this point, but we are now ready to move forward in a non-violent manner. The president would declare that he or she is ending any violent approaches including its ongoing bombing missions.
Step 2: It is my belief that we, the citizens of the US have not come so far in our development that we can stand by without doing anything if after step 1 has been announced ISIS chose to continue to call for killing US citizens or those of our allies. Nor can we stand by and just watch ISIS enslave people. The president, under my plan, would inform ISIS that in the event any supporter of ISIS were to carry out a violent act against a US citizen or the citizens of any of our allies, our response would be a brief retaliation bombing mission. Working in cooperation with our allies, we would only engage in a retaliation bombing mission designed to produce no more harm than the amount ISIS had done. Once this specific mission is accomplished, the US would again cease violence toward ISIS members. Such retaliation bombings typically would take a few days at most, in contrast to the current approach of ongoing bombing missions with no end in sight.
With regards to responding to the enslaving of people, the US would use nonviolent approaches such as boycotting any goods or services that might fund ISIS operations, along with boycotting any country or enterprise that does business with ISIS.
Step 3: In contrast to seeking to destroy ISIS, as President Obama has declared, my plan calls for declaring that we only seek to provide the conditions that have led to other countries freely choosing a more peaceful style of interacting with others. In this regard, the US would make it clear that it will continue to seek to encourage those who have become members of ISIS, and others living in the region, to engage in a mutually beneficial manner. However, this encouragement will not use force, except for the retaliation missions described above. The US would launch an all out peaceful advocacy effort to have the United Nations offer to fund a constitutional convention for all of the stakeholders in the regions that ISIS is operating. ISIS representatives would be invited. UN Peace Keepers would be employed throughout the convention period to help decrease the likelihood that some would seek to violently sabotage such efforts.
Professor Pinker points out that although UN Peacekeeping missions, at times, had its share of failures, when all of the available data is looked at, these missions led to an 80% reduction in the probability of a subsequent war.
The constitutional convention would aim for dialogue on how to set up an infrastructure that would justly and peacefully resolve the various types of conflicts that have been occurring in these regions for centuries, and to create a declaration supporting basic human rights.
Step 4: In step 2 of this proposal, it was mentioned that the US, in response to ISIS’s enslaving policies, would boycott its commerce as one means to nonviolently encourage a change in policy. It is important to point out, however, that one of the conditions that Professor Pinker has identified as hugely important for the development of nonviolent approaches for resolving conflicts and an increase in respecting basic human rights is improvements in commerce. When people wish to do business with others, they typically seek to improve relationships with them, make them feel welcome, and offer opportunities for shared benefits.
The Middle East region does have some unique challenges in this regard. And in fact, many believe that it is this set of challenges that is the main cause of the region’s problems. In mid-day much of the region is often so hot it could make the Dalai Lama ignite in irritability. Large sections of this region are as parched as the moon’s surface. But the region does have plentiful sunshine. Thus, solar power is a major natural resource. Couple this with plentiful oil supplies, we find that inexpensive energy is one of the region’s major assets. Nevertheless, the region remains rather poor in contrast to the more developed countries.
Under my plan, the US would work with the United Nations to offer the stakeholders of the region an opportunity to set up a convention that can tap world experts on economic development with the goal of coming up with plans that are designed to improve sustainable commerce in the Middle East region. ISIS would be invited to participate if they change their violent actions and position on slavery. However, without such an agreement, these convention efforts would go ahead with the hope that with improved commerce in the regions that are not under the control of ISIS, fewer people will be drawn to join ISIS. Moreover, once ISIS members begin to see the progress of others in the Middle East, many will end up abandoning the current ISIS ideology.
Step 5. One of the conditions that foster psychological development is the availability of stories that reveal the humanity of people that lie outside our immediate circle of family and friends. Professor Pinker notes that prior to the invention of the printing press there were very few books available. Those people who lived in the upper classes rarely had much direct contact with the lower classes. A nobleman’s quick glance while passing by a downtrodden worker often merely left the impression of a filthy, smelly soul, hardly human at all. After novels became available, a nobleman might read of a poor young woman pressed into very sad circumstances by a cruel person of the upper classes, and discover tears running down his cheeks. To discover that people all over the world, in all classes, and other religions have very similar desires, dreams, and feelings that we can all relate to, increases empathy and the desire to deal with a wider range of humanity in kind and respectful ways.
A few story lines that would be particularly relevant with regards to promoting the psychological maturity of those sympathetic to ISIS are:
A few young friends living in America have become bored with the routines of their daily lives. They begin to hunger for what has been displayed in the ISIS literature as the thrilling lives of men fighting for a just cause. When they leave America and join up with ISIS, they soon learn that there is even more drudgery in the day to day life of an ISIS recruit. Whereas they had some choices that they could make living as an American, in their ISIS camp they are assigned to a leader who insists his orders are followed exactly, and the slightest violations lead to brutal consequences. After some of their fellow recruits who they have grown to care for, are brutally killed, the former Americans reach a point at which they have had enough of the ISIS approach to getting into heaven. They have come to realize that there are ways within their Islamic faith to enter into heaven through acts of kindness and mercy. Now, when they have decided to leave the ISIS camps they discover that although they were welcome to join the group, leaving is not so easily accomplished.
A group of young women who have grown up together find that they are drawn to different paths. A few like the idea of following the strict Islamic codes set out for women, but the others are interested in trying out some more secular options. The trials and rewards of the different paths are revealed.
Some workers at an airport in southern Egypt begin to discover that a couple of their fellow workers are hatching a plan to place a bomb on a Russian plane. Because those who have discovered this have some sympathy to the ISIS ideology, they turn a blind eye to the deadly plot. However, once the bomb succeeds in bringing down the plane, some unanticipated events come to light. Many people who used to choose to fly in and out of their airport end up choosing to fly a different air route out of fear that something like what happened to the Russian plane could happen again. With far less business going through this airport, their entire livelihood is destroyed, leaving them, their family, and many other completely innocent workers destitute.
How would we get these kinds of stories before those who are prone to join ISIS and those who are current ISIS fighters living in their occupied territories? There are ways to make these types of stories particularly accessible on internet sites that people prone to join ISIS tend to visit. And instead of the steady dropping of bombs in the ISIS occupied regions, an international coalition could drop little parachuted packages that include a little tasty healthy treat, a little toy or stuffed animal as a gift to the children, an interesting puzzle that adults would enjoy doing, and the type of short stories that I have just described.
Okay then, there you have it, my proposal for an alternative approach for dealing with the ISIS situation. In coming up with it, I leaned heavily on what I learned from reading Professor Pinker’s book, but also drew on my own knowledge of psychological development.
Let me be clear that I am not suggesting that Professor Pinker would fully support my alternative, and in fact, I’m not sure I wholeheartedly support it either. Before it would be placed into action, I strongly advocate that a thorough vetting process would occur.
In sum, my proposal begins by recognizing that pretty much all people, regardless of their religion, where they currently live, or where their parents came from, have connections to the past that were every bit as violent and disrespectful to basic human rights as ISIS members are currently displaying. Rather than trying to destroy ISIS, my proposal calls for fully confronting the fact that we Americans have engaged violently in the largely Muslim region occupied by ISIS, including using acts of torture. We would emphasize that we have ourselves undergone, in recent years, considerable psychological development. This is evidenced by our people more fully recognizing that our violent military interventions can lead to far more harm than good. We have thus dramatically reduced our violent ground operations and, under President Obama, eliminated the torture of prisoners.
Under my plan, we would be ready to take five more steps consistent with our new level of development. First, our president would declare that he or she is ending any violent approaches, including its ongoing bombing missions designed to compel Muslim people to follow American desires. Second, although the US would retaliate against ISIS violence against our own citizens and those of our allies, it would do so only very briefly, and only to the extent that the same amount of harm occurs to ISIS. Immediately after, the US would again cease any violent actions toward ISIS. Rather than violent approaches to encourage ISIS to end its violent actions and support for slavery, nonviolent approaches would be utilized, such as boycotting all ISIS commerce operations. A clear statement would be made to ISIS members that once they put a stop to their violence and end their slavery, US nonviolent efforts would end. Third, the US would launch an all out peaceful advocacy effort to have the United Nations offer to fund a constitutional convention for all of the stakeholders in the regions that ISIS is operating. Fourth, the US would work with the United Nations to offer the stakeholders of the region an opportunity to set up a convention that can tap world experts on economic development with the goal of coming up with plans that are designed to improve sustainable commerce in the Middle East region. And finally, the US would step up its efforts to bring more realistic stories than ISIS propaganda to those who are prone to join ISIS and those who are current ISIS fighters living in their occupied territories.
I present this plan in the spirit of seeking a less violent approach to dealing with ISIS. To those who might see it as too weak, I argue that it may actually be a far more powerful approach than the heavy handed violent approaches of the past that have needlessly cost so many lives. The nonviolent resistance approach has its share of successes.
To those who feel that they can never forgive such acts as occurred in Paris and San Bernardino, I offer Nelson Mandela’s story as something to humanize their position. No one had more reason to not forgive, than Mandela. In the end, he found a far more helpful path forward for his people, both white and black, from the old South Africa, to a new, less violent, and more just South Africa.
Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.