Building Peace in Times of War

Sep 25, 2014

America has the military superiority to win wars, yet where is our superior vision for building peace? Eternal warfare on our shared planet is now within our grasp, blinding us to our collective knowledge about the activities of peacebuilding and the psychology of peacemaking.

Building peace does not mean being stupid. Any parent who has sent their child off to school knows that bullies must be confronted not sweet-talked. The brutal beheadings, murders, rapes, and attempted genocide in the mid-east may call for a military response in the short term. The tragedy does not call for World War III.

When problems cross boundaries, so must solutions, in more ways than one. For almost fifteen years, the aviation community has used the phrase “Solution Sets” to describe multiple and simultaneous strategies to modernize our airspace system. In a similar way, the problems of social violence call for a range of solutions and strategies all applied at the same time.

Solution Sets that control or transform violence is the preferred approach – in every location imaginable, from mid-east villages to our own American cities, homes and schools. And the broadest view of violence includes damage to our environment and poison seeping into our air, water, land, forests and food.

Finding a set of solutions for complex problems of violence may mean immediate military or police or civil action. It also means community involvement in defining justice and restitution; coalitions aimed at economic development and job training; partnerships that provide improved education, healthcare, mental health services and environmental cleanup; and most of all for resolving and transforming conflict, these solutions must include safe opportunities for genuine, face-to-face dialog.

Solution sets for complex issues is not a pipedream. In the summer of 2013, almost 450 young people on probation in New York City were divided into groups of eight to ten, each group with two mentors and a probation officer, and assigned to clean up and rebuild a home or neighborhood damaged by hurricane Sandy. Sounds simple enough, yet the impact was profound.

These generally angry and already in trouble youthful offenders learned the basic skills of keeping a job – arriving on time, dressing for the task at hand, understanding the day’s work and how it fits into a larger goal, and perhaps most importantly working in a team that helps not harms a neighborhood.  Each team worked on individual houses or staffed soup kitchens.  Each team huddled every morning and at the end of every day to talk about personal and team progress – from learning how to use a tape measure or answer a telephone in an office setting to finding ways to deal with the teasing and even bullying when old friends saw new behaviors.  Construction skills were learned, minds were opened to new possibilities, and families that were the victims of the storm showed appreciation for good work to teens that all too often had never heard words of encouragement. In some instances, individual law enforcement officers saw “juvenile offenders” in a new light and made personal connections. In small ways the relationship of neighborhoods to government agencies grew more trusting.

The overall impact was broad and deep. Re-arrests, nationally around 65% were about 11% in this program. From a systems point of view, social results are the sum of the effects of many programs, including this one, and contribute to the historic low levels of crime and violence in New York City.   

The complex issues of violence, around the world and here at home, call for the full range of solution sets that address root causes. Enduring success rests on the basic assumption that the activities of peacebuilding must be accompanied by the psychology of genuine dialog.  This is my theory of peacemaking: People joined together in face-to-face dialog generate a field of energy with patterns of balance and rhythms of harmony across multiple levels of awareness.

We cannot wait for that tipping point of global warfare or community turmoil to put in place the peacebuilding activities we know make a difference. America is the strongest country on the planet. It is time to find the strength to tilt our policies and programs toward the full set of solutions that can solve the complex problems of violence both here at home and around the world. We the people are wiser than never-ending warfare.