The twin towers, Madrid, July 7, Charlie Hebdo… the list of terrorist political acts and their victims feels endless. When people are killed and lives threatened for political motivations, demands for immediate reprisals and military counter-measures usually follow suit.
Military force and policing is our default tactic – and talking to terrorists, by contrast, feels counter-intuitive. After all, surely talking to murderers, criminals and fanatics will only legitimise their aims and tactics.
And yet, from Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress to Gerry Adams’ Sinn Fein to Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organisation, history shows that talking with terrorists has often been a prerequisite for peace.
A recent debate organised by Coventry University’s Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations brought together a former terrorist, the daughter of a victim of a terrorist bomb attack and experts on extreme violence to discuss whether we should in fact talk to terrorists.
The resounding conclusion was that there is no choice other than to talk to terrorists to bring their violence to an end. But, for genuine dialogue which addresses root causes as well as violent symptoms we need to shift our own ways of thinking too. We need to talk with those who are defined or labelled as terrorists, not simply to or at them.