President Bush's remarks, made last week in Israel, suggesting that anyone who wishes to talk with a violent enemy is the contemporary equivalent of a Hitler appeaser, are so wide of the mark, patronizing, and simply untrue that they must be challenged.
The fact that he used the emotive context of Israel's 60th anniversary celebrations as the background for these comments is an abuse of an already misused people. And implying that Sen. Obama wishes to appease terrorism is not only factually inaccurate, but morally troubling.
Why? Because this is to suggest that the only two options available to "good people" in responding to terror are to terrorise the terrorisers, or to cower in fear or denial. This has never been true. It does not become the president of the United States, a self-affirming follower of Jesus, to endorse the sport of violent revenge and the belief that there are certain people in the world who are so irredeemable that we should not talk to them. This aside, it is not politically efficient to suggest that terrorism can only be defeated by beating its proponents down.
I live in a place -- Northern Ireland -- where the government is now stewarded by two parties, both of whom could be caricatured as representing ancient warrior traditions. Their most recent manifestation, in the form of Irish Republican terrorism (the IRA) and militant Protestant fundamentalism, contributed to the horrors of my childhood, where political murder was a near-daily occurrence. After decades of terror, we did exactly what President Bush denounced last week -- we negotiated with each other and arrived at a settlement that sees former terrorist leaders share political power with those who consider themselves to be their victims. Successive U.S. administrations did not condemn this. In fact, the negotiations between terrorist leaders and constitutional democrats were chaired by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell. President Bush has visited Northern Ireland to endorse the process. He has shaken the hands of former terrorist leaders. He made a video appearance at an investment conference in Belfast two weeks ago, encouraging U.S. businesses to set up shop here and to work with, among others, the current representatives of the organizations responsible for our violent conflict.
His suggestion, therefore, that anyone who wishes to sit down and talk with terrorists is automatically the moral and political equivalent of a Hitler appeaser is not only historically false (in that we know for a fact that such negotiation at least sometimes actually does produce peace), but so absurdly detached from the reality of his own administration's practices that it suggests either a malevolent and politically expedient attention-grabbing propaganda opportunity, or that President Bush simply does not know the truth about Irish politics.
I imagine I will be criticized on at least two fronts for writing this. One, that I am singling out President Bush for no reason other than my personal antipathy toward him. To that I respond with the following: I believe President Bush is a human being in need of redemption, like the rest of us. I do not share much of his politics, but I have been willing to offer praise when he has made good decisions, such as his progressive engagement with HIV/AIDs in Africa. I also believe that his predecessor made terrible errors of judgment regarding violent conflict, not least in Rwanda, and might have been likely to make similar remarks had he been in office and in Israel last week. I hope I would have had the integrity to write this article about President Clinton were he seeking to make the same dishonest political capital.
The second criticism is more nuanced -- the suggestion that the Northern Ireland conflict is not comparable to that in the Middle East. To which I can only reply that the sectarian political divisions on this island have lasted for at least 800 years, and that the violence has at times been at least as barbaric as anything done by Hamas or al Qaeda. I think the real reason that people don't consider my home conflict comparable to others is quite simply racist: They think that Northern Irish Christians are more capable of persuasion than Middle Eastern Muslims. Or, more practically, they don't want to acknowledge that the distasteful and difficult journey traveled in Ireland may have broken the path that the rest of us need to travel too.
What is even more likely, President Bush's remarks mask what might be called another inconvenient truth. When historians uncover the background story to this moment in international relations, they will discover one of two possible facts -- either that the Bush administration is already secretly negotiating with terrorists, or that they really do believe their own propaganda. British military intelligence had a secret back channel to the IRA from at least the early 1970s. Without this, alongside the contribution of politicians, business and church leaders, and other forces, there would be no peace in Ireland today. It would be unthinkable if the U.S. authorities are not already, in some sense, talking to representatives of Hamas, Iran, North Korea, Hugo Chavez, Raoul Castro, and all the other members of whatever "axis of evil" we are told is most threatening at present. For to be honest, if the Bush administration is not engaged in dialogue with such as these, President Bush is both failing to heed the lessons of the history of conflict resolution, and, more seriously, to protect the American people.
Gareth Higgins is a Christian writer and activist in Belfast, Northern Ireland. For the past decade he was the founder/director of the zero28 project, an initiative addressing questions of peace, justice, and culture. He is the author of the insightful How Movies Helped Save My Soul and blogs at www.godisnotelsewhere.blogspot.com.