Can terrorism be forgiven?

Imagine that you are the parent of Steven Sotloff, or Alan Henning, or Moaz al-Kasasbeh, all of whom were assassinated brutally by Islamic State. The first two were beheaded while the third, a Jordanian pilot, was burned alive.  Your children were taken from you and died in some of the most horrific ways possible.

Now imagine that someone tells you to forgive the bastards who carried out these heinous acts and to move on with your life.  How would you react?

This is what was being asked, in essence, of the people of Colombia today.  They were asked to agree to a peace deal negotiated between the government and the FARC (Frente Armada Revolucionaria de Colombia) to end a war that has lasted over a half century.  When they had their say, Colombians rejected peace – or so it seems.

What had been negotiated was not quite a total amnesty.  Rank and file members would have been allowed to re-enter normal society while those guilty of war crimes would have been subjected to special tribunals and likely given sentences such as land mine removal.

For  many Colombians this plan went too far.  One felt that there was “no justice” in the deal and that if the no vote carried the day then at least the country would not have been “given away” to the guerrillas.  Many want to know what happened to their loved ones, those who had been kidnapped by the FARC.

In the aftermath of the rejection of the government’s talks with the terrorist group there is much uncertainty.  Both sides say that they are not keen to go back to war but some politicians want more stringent conditions to be placed on the former fighters.  If the whole package is re-opened anything can happen.  Let’s hope that we don’t return to the tragedy that resulted in 220,000 dead and 6 million displaced.

It is easy to understand the reluctance of many, especially those who have suffered losses directly, to support peace with a terrorist group.  Emotions run high and the need to see those responsible pay for their crimes is equally high.  Anything else would be capitulation.  And wouldn’t it show that terrorism works?

Not necessarily.  The FARC is not winning anything really.  But if the violence comes to an end all of Colombia wins.  In the end it is up to each society to determine what they can swallow and what they can forgive.  No one should think that any of this is easy.

And yet Colombia is not the first nation to go through this gut-wrenching exercise.  Ireland went through it with the Easter Sunday accords that did not stop all violence but did make for a safer society in the north.  South Africa had  its truth and reconciliation commission where those guilty of human rights violations, including the former terrorist group and now governing party African National Congress, were given amnesty.  There is no doubt that some were vehemently opposed to these measures, but in the end they were successful – ish.

No, Colombia is not Ireland and it is not South Africa but there are perhaps lessons that can be learned and applied.  Each nation will have to decide the best way forward.

In the end is there really a choice?  Is rejecting peace a serious option?  Before you go and cite appeasement and remind me of Neville Chamberlain’s “peace in our time” pronouncement, look at the alternatives – more war, more misery, more destruction.  Is that what anybody wants?

Peace is not easy and it has to be entered into with eyes wide open.  It is like any other negotiation as the participants give and take and arrive at a happy medium both sides can live with.  It is never perfect.  But it is the best hope for the future we have.  Perhaps it is time to have a little faith and take the leap.  Are you listening Colombia?


By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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