Monday, March 17, 2008

A St. Patrick's Day Message of Hope

On St. Patrick's Day, 2008, I happily recall a trip I took to the Emerald Isle a couple of years ago. The village of Belleek, in Northern Ireland, is known for its pottery, and our tour bus stopped there to give the passengers a chance to pick up a few souvenirs. Having no interest in pottery, I walked across a bridge in search of a pub.

Nothing remarkable about this other than the fact that the bridge crossed the River Erne and took me from County Fermanagh to County Donegal in the Irish Republic. Those of you younger than thirty might not grasp the significance of this, but as I sat down in the pub with a cool pint of Guinness, I reflected on how I had just crossed one of the most contentious borders of the 20th Century without encountering a checkpoint or even seeing so much as a local constable.

When I was a kid, the word "terrorist" was generally used to describe two organizations often referred to by their three-letter abbreviations: the PLO and the IRA. The Palestine Liberation Organization, during the 1960s and 1970s, filled the unfortunate role in the Arab-Israeli conflict now held by Hamas and Hezbollah. Its notorious leader, Yasser Arafat, was one of the most hated men in the world. Nevertheless, in 1993, under the hopeful eye of U.S. President Bill Clinton, Arafat and Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin shook hands in public for the first time and agreed on a commitment to mutual recognition. Although both Arafat and Rabin won the Nobel Peace Prize, the result was only a partial success and cost Rabin his life (he was assassinated two years later).

Bill Clinton's record in international affairs remains badly underrated, especially here in the United States. If his efforts in the Middle East never reached fulfillment, his record in Northern Ireland was nothing short of exceptional. Clinton and his emissary, former Senator George Mitchell, after months of hard work, brought together Protestant loyalists and Catholic IRA leaders on a power sharing agreement and peace treaty signed on Good Friday in 1998. A decade later, the political situation in Belfast remains volatile, but non-violence generally presides in Ulster.

At the time, of course, many Protestants and their British allies viewed the negotiations with the IRA as a stark example of appeasement. The provisional wing of the Irish Republican Army, after all, had been responsible for countless bombings and other acts of deadly terror. And now, many felt, they were being rewarded for their evil deeds by gaining a share of power in Northern Ireland that they had never before enjoyed. These fears multiplied when a Catholic splinter group set off a bomb four months after that wonderful Good Friday in the city of Omagh in County Tyrone. Though the IRA strongly condemned the attack, many Protestants feared that this was only the beginning of the price they would pay for appeasing terrorists.

But it wasn't, at least not so far. Even when political stalemate set in several years after the accords were signed, the IRA did not resort to violence to strengthen their bargaining position. Random assassinations are no longer a daily fear, nor do people treat each parked car as a potential time bomb. And over in Belleek, American tourists can casually stroll across a bridge between two countries that have turned from adversaries to allies.

If there is a lesson here, it is best reflected by John F. Kennedy's inaugural admonition that we must never negotiate out of fear, but we must never fear to negotiate. While the actions of terrorists are often horrible, inhuman, and despicable, little is accomplished by simply dismissing them as being entirely rooted in evil. Evil, after all, is unyielding, unthinking, and utterly divorced from any motivation other than all-encompassing hatred. All negotiation with evil is, by definition, appeasement, since evil will never back down or reverse course.

The things that the Irish Republican Army did during the 1970s and 1980s shocked the conscience of any fully civilized person. But they weren't the product of some satanic darkness of the soul or some fanatical religious fervor that could only be satisfied by killing the unconverted. Rather, these vicious acts of terrorism were a tactic designed to achieve certain objectives. And the objectives were, in the end, points that could be successfully negotiated.

My point--and I hope this is clear--is not that terrorism or terrorists should go unpunished. As JFK said, we cannot negotiate out of fear. But we must also understand that Manichean notions of good and evil, the sort that undergird much of the Bush administration's approach to the world, are ultimately both counterproductive and false.

And right at this very moment, someone is unknowingly proving this simply by crossing the River Erne from Fermanagh to Donegal.

Happy St. Patty's Day.

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