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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.


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Negotiate with Terrorists

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