Negotiate with Terrorists?
Are there reasons why we should negotiate with criminals and
aven with terrorists? It depends on what is meant by "negotiate."
Some take it to mean that one must concede something of value
to the other side, and so support them in some way. But a simple
dictionary definition is, "To confer with another or others
in order to come to terms or reach an agreement."
In other words, it can mean just talking in order to "come
to terms." Suppose a terrorist sets up camps in a country
and says he is going to do something evil. A "negotiator"
sits down to talk and tells him that the plan is to hunt him
and his cohorts down and kill them, but that if they move out
of the country and cancel their plans, they'll be left alone
for now. The terrorist comes to terms with what might happen
and cancels his plans.
You might argue that this is unrealistic, but there are many
historical examples of aggressors backing down when confronted
with the likely consequences of their actions. In any case, the
first option is always still available, isn't it? Looked at this
way, it not only seems stupid to say that we will never talk
to bad people, but it also seems like an incredibly immoral stance.
Should we wait and watch as thousands are killed by these criminals,
just so we can display some kind of principled machismo in public?
Another example: Suppose a leader of some country plans to
invade an innocent neighbor, a country that the U.S. has promised
to defend. Now suppose that because the U.S. president at the
time refuses to "negotiate with terrorists" he instead
makes threats which are played on the news every night. He talks
about how evil the aggressor country is. The "evil"
leader is angered by this public criticism and goes ahead with
the invasion. The United States gets involved and the resulting
war kills thousands of people.
Now consider an alternative. The president or his representative
talks to the leader in private. He listens to what the man has
to say, and even acknowledges any valid points he may make. Then,
when all is said, he quietly lets the leader know that the United
States has promised to defend the country they plan to invade,
and that the likely outcome will be the death of this leader
and the destruction of his forces. How this will be accomplished
may even be laid out in detail, to be convincing. The leader
may be upset, but he sees the consequences clearly, he hasn't
been publicly humiliated or challenged, and he wants to live,
so he calls off the invasion.
Even during the cold war we talked to to leaders in the Soviet
Union in order to prevent simple misunderstandings from becoming
a nuclear war - and that was with a regime that did truly evil
things. Would it have been better to say, "We refuse to
talk to people who do such bad things, so we'll just get our
nuclear bombs ready?"
Sometimes to understand an issue you have to create a simple
analogy. Suppose a man takes hostages in a bank, but after a
"hostage negotiator" suggests talking to him, the chief
of police announces, "we don't negotiate with evil,"
and orders the officers to go in and start shooting. Many innocent
hostages die along with the criminal.
That would seem stupid, wouldn't it? After all, there have
been many instances when a hostage taker has been talked into
surrendering, meaning all the innocent people survived. Again,
other options are always there if talking fails. Call this "negotiation"
if you like, but generally the criminal is just shown that he'll
be more likely to survive if he turns himself in.
That last point is very important, because there is a gross
misunderstanding in many people's minds when it comes to "talking"
to terrorists and other bad types. The common impression is that
it means encouraging them in their pursuits by giving them credibility
or rewarding them in some way. This can happen, and certainly
history abounds with examples of appeasement leading to greater
crimes. But it's not the only possible outcome.
Also, choosing when to confront evil actions - and when not
to - is not appeasement. You are not supporting or agreeing with
the man who mugs you at gunpoint just because you hand over your
wallet. There is a better time, place and way to deal with such
a crime, and the same is often true in international affairs.
Talking to Terrorists - Three Reasons
1. Talking prevents misunderstandings that lead to greater
harm. Even if we will eventually have to fight, isn't it better
to avoid those battles which are unnecessary? If a mugger incorrectly
thinks you said something insulting to him and so wants to hurt
you, does it make sense to say nothing? Isn't it better to correct
his mistaken belief?
2. Talking delays fighting, buying time to find a better resolution.
Even in the simple bank robbery example, it is clear that talking
to a hostage taker has at times allowed a sniper to get in position.
3. Talking means warnings can be given and consequences outlined
in private. In this way a leader or group is less likely to go
forth with an evil plan because of public challenges or humiliation.
It may feel good to insult and threaten people with evil intentions,
but it makes as much sense as daring a hostage taker to start
killing his hostages.
Some people think that you give too much importance and credibility
to a rogue leaders and terrorists by talking to them. This is
a real danger, but there are ways to deal with it. You can make
it clear, for example, that you do not support their goals in
any way, but that you are willing to talk to prevent unnecessary
violence. You can also be very careful not to give any tangible
support to evil plans. Agreeing to not kill a man if he stops
attacking you is not giving him support.
In the end, talking may not always help, because sometimes
people really are beyond any rationality or even beyond the desire
of self preservation. But the latter is rare, and agreeing to
talk doesn't rule out other options. So are there good reasons
why we should negotiate with known terrorists and other bad characters?
I think so. It would be almost criminal to exclude the option.