The Negotiator Magazine

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Terrorism and Negotiation

Steven P. Cohen

“Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” John F. Kennedy

Terror is an enemy of civilization. It is a means of attempting to force others to do your will. In the workplace, bosses who are martinets may be able to terrorize subordinates into following orders, but they have not succeeded in convincing people to agree. When people agree out of fear, the long-term results are negative.

News stories keep bringing us examples of how some people or groups use terror as a tactic in their strategy to get other folks to change their minds. The aim of terror is to break down the underpinnings of civilization by bringing fear to target groups and undercutting civilized means for resolving differences.

Terror is not negotiation. There is no ‘give and take’ bargaining between parties. It is a matter of ‘you give and I take.’

All too often the way someone or some group responds to terror has an impact on how they are perceived by others.

Sophisticated terrorists sometimes make reasonably accurate predictions about the actions of others, then orchestrate their terror tactics to make it appear as if their actions have forced those others to take a step or make a decision they were going to take anyhow. The train bombings in Madrid in the spring of 2004 are an excellent example of that; a preponderance of Spanish voters wanted to elect a new government to end their military participation in the Iraq war. Terrorists created a tragedy just before the Spanish election – and that action gave outsiders the impression that planting bombs could force the electorate in a democracy to change their minds – and change their government.

Less sophisticated terrorists bombed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City – and achieved the objective of causing death and destruction – but nothing in the way of convincing people to take them seriously.

When the barbarians who use terror are able to convince private citizens or governments to take a particular action, the terrorist threat destroys public confidence and leaves normal people exposed to chaos.

Dealing with terrorists can only work if the process brings terrorists into a civilized negotiation that leads to willingly accepted mutual agreements.

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November 2004