Listening to the Bad Guys

by Kathleen LaCamera

Essay published in Creating America: Reading and Writing Arguments

Belfast, Northern Ireland – “Why are Americans giving money to terrorists to kill our children?” As an American journalist working in Britain, it’s a question I’ve been asked over and over again by people during the nine years I’ve been coming to Northern Ireland. Today the question comes out of the mouths of Loyalist paramilitary members, people who themselves have been labelled “terrorists.” I’m sitting around a table with a dozen top Loyalist paramilitary leaders - part of a newly formed “Loyalist Commission” as they discuss how they feel the official peace process in has betrayed them. At least that’s what I thought was the plan. But the conversation quickly begins to focus on me, the American in their midst. Suddenly I’m the one being grilled.

Their question is about the perception, that across the US, especially in cities like New York, Boston and Chicago with strong Irish immigrant roots, Americans are stuffing cash into boxes that fund the IRA’s fight for a united Ireland. My gut reaction is to wonder what gives these guys the right to ask such a question when guns and bombs also have been part and parcel of their Loyalist paramilitary trade for some many years. Then I take a deep breath and remember I’m sitting with people who - no less than their Republican counterparts - are also fathers, brothers, sons, uncles, nephews, and friends to those murdered and injured in the thirty years of Northern Ireland’s Troubles.

The answer I give them reflects much of what compels me to write about this and other troubled spots around the world. It responds to the kernel of truth that is real and the mountain of misunderstanding and vacuum of information that distorts it. It relates to the need inside so many of us to label some of the worst atrocities in Ireland, the Balkans, the Middle East, in Rwanda and even at Ground Zero as “pure evil” or “senseless destruction.” For someone out there, those actions made sense. Understanding how that is possible does not condone it, but gives us a power to prevent it from repeating itself.

With regard to Americans raising money for the IRA? It’s true. American money has helped fuel the conflict in Northern Ireland for years. We’ve bought into the image of the Brad Pitt-beautiful freedom fighter, who is, sure misguided, but in his heart of hearts, a decent, caring soul who wouldn’t hurt a fly if he weren’t forced into it. Listening to Loyalist paramilitaries talk about the loss and pain their community has suffered at the hands of the IRA is worth doing. It helps to understand why, what seems like such a senseless conflict, continues. It does not in anyway justify the Loyalists’ equally destructive activities perpetrated on Catholics and Protestants, including children, over the years.

Despite that fact that we Americans are notoriously uninterested in much beyond our borders, Loyalists talk as if all 280 million Americans actively see them as the bad guys. This perception only contributes to the feeling amongst Loyalists that they have been backed into a tight, lonely corner. The truth is that most Americans don’t know or don’t care much about Northern Ireland (whether that’s good or bad is another story). But here is the tragic irony: Loyalists’ misperception of the extent of US support for “the other side,” actually contributes to the real, increasing alienation and desperation of the Loyalist Protestant community. That in turn affects the peace process. That’s amazing and awful!

So where does that leave us in a world full of conflict and terror? I think it leaves us with a mandate to listen, particularly when we don’t want to. Especially when the actions of those asking for our ear (and sometimes they do that with violence) repel or baffle or terrify us. We have to talk to those we think of as “the bad guys” as well as those who are their “victims.” We need to know more about who they are and what they are thinking. Dare I resort to the old cliché; we need to walk a mile (or two) in their shoes. And we need to do it as directly and as personally as it is possible.

It also means turning to more than just our local newspapers and regular television news and radio reports for information. Through the internet, the world’s media is at our fingertips. What not log on and see what both Irish and South African newspapers are saying about peace talks in Northern Ireland? While you’re at it, have a look at what newspapers in England are saying about the US war in Afghanistan? Then check out the Hong Kong papers for stories about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. Don’t forget you can log on to radio worldwide through the internet as well.

I’ve lived for ten years in Europe and, believe me, there is a whole world of stories and opinions reported that Americans rarely see or hear. No doubt the reverse is true as well. There are many stories reported within the US that the rest of the world never get a look at. Information gaps – they are dangerous.

Daniel Holloway works with a group in Northern Ireland called Community Dialogue. It specializes in bringing together people on all sides of Northern Ireland’s conflict to hear each other’s story. With a laugh, Holloway told me that through dialogue at the very least “people come know better why they want to kill each other.” But more often, he reported, telling their stories means that people who were once just “the other side” begin to have a human face and the common ground that links one to the other becomes more obvious.

“There’s nothing mysterious going on here in Northern Ireland,” said Holloway. While specifics change, the basics of conflict and reconciliation are remarkably similar whether you’re in the Northern Ireland or the Middle East, Kosovo or Afghanistan, South Africa or New York City. The way to peace almost always involves sitting down, talking and then listening to those we see as the bad guys.

Conflicts like those in Northern Ireland can seem far to complex, deep rooted and down right confusing for us to engage. They are not. We don’t have to wait for Colin Powell, or Yasser Arafat or Gerry Adams to enter into the process of making peace. We can begin today, listening deeply to people on all sides, even the ones we suspect are the bad guys.

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