In a dangerous world, we need to seek COMMON SECURITY

The Campaign for Peace, Disarmament and Common Security (CPDCS) advocates for peace and nuclear disarmament within a framework of common security among nations. People and populations can only feel safe when their counterparts also feel safe.

Security can't be achieved against a nation's rival, but only with it

Security can't be achieved against a
nation's rival, but only with it

Security can't be achieved against a nation's rival, but only with it

Chosen Traumas, Enemy Relationships, and Common Security?

By Paul Joseph

Introduction by Joseph Gerson

We are excited to be launching CPDCS’ occasional blog with Paul Joseph’s excellent short article “Chosen Traumas, Enemy Relationships, and Common Security.” His essay speaks to our moment, to history and the future. Read it with Israel and Palestine, Russia and Ukraine, the U.S. and China, red states and blue in mind. As Gandhi said many years ago, “An eye for an eye for an eye leaves us all blind.”  Common security, which Paul describes in his essay provides life affirming alternatives that are essential for peace, justice, and environmental sustainability.

Dr. Paul Joseph, member of the CPDCS board of directors,  is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Tufts University. He served as Sociology  Department Chair, Chair of Tufts’ Peace Studies Program, and President of the U.S. Peace Studies Association. His books include Cracks in the Empire, Are Americans Becoming More Peaceful, and Precious Cargo. He edited the Sage Encyclopedia of War and was Distinguished Chair for the U.S.-India Education Foundation (Fulbright program.)

Portrait of Paul Joseph.

Portrait of Paul Joseph.

We are living in a moment where enemy images are gaining more influence.  Human behavior continues to rest far more on tolerance and acceptance than on rejection of other people. And genetically we are programmed more thoroughly for cooperation than for hostility. Nonetheless, it hard to escape the fact that at least for now tensions are rising, fault lines previously considered dormant are reemerging, and hot conflicts are replacing the cold. With new and more intense tendencies to identify enemies, much of the world seems to be moving away from the goal of trying to find peaceful solutions.

Take red states vs. blue states as an example: Where the differences used to be a choice between political parties, the clash now seems deeper, more about fundamental identities, how we see ourselves, and how we see others. Disagreements about abortion, crime, guns, and immigration are not played out by reasoned argument. Those on the other side of those issues appear as different people, maybe even from a different nation.  “They” not only think differently, but they are also creating actual harm.  They have done something to us. And, since they can’t be convinced of anything through logic, we might as well stop trying. The process is not helped by declining levels of social trust, and lost confidence in the effectiveness and fairness of key institutions such as government, the judicial system, and the media. Political opponents are enemies who must be fought.

One of the most important underlying continuities in the enemy-making dynamic is the role of the “chosen trauma,” or past actions that a presumed enemy has carried out against us. These traumas can be “real,” as in the September 11 terrorist attacks against the US, or the genocide carried out against Armenians at the end of the first World War.  Traumas can also be false but still serve as an effective motivator. A key example is the election allegedly stolen from Donald Trump in 2020.  The call to “stop the steal” resonates strongly among MAGA audiences. Or the trauma can be amplified to promote an already existing cause such as “Remembering the Alamo” encouraged territorial annexation of parts of Mexico. But chosen traumas are always socially constructed, they are shaped, interpreted, and spun by powerful actors so that they become part of a story that animates a larger population.  Who tells that story and how it is understood carries an agenda.  The audience is called to remember and act in certain ways. Chosen traumas link the past to the present and the future.

Chosen traumas are also revelatory in the sense that they, supposedly, demonstrate the true perfidious character of the enemy. For example, the attacks at Pearl Harbor not only killed more than two thousand Americans and destroyed a significant portion of the Pacific fleet. In the logic of the chosen trauma, the fact that they occurred on a “peaceful Sunday” reveals the “sneaky,” “deceitful,” and “aggressive” core traits of the Japanese.  The October 7 attacks carried out by Hamas led to more than a thousand Israeli deaths. In the rhetoric employed by much of Israel’s leadership, the assault demonstrated that all Palestinians, not just Hamas cadre, are “animals” “uncivilized,” and “driven by fanaticism.” As these traits become essentialized, they can be used to justify the most extreme acts of revenge such as dropping atomic bombs on civilians in the case of Japan, and killing and starving innocent people in Gaza.

Chosen traumas are especially pernicious when they become reciprocal, when each side can point to suffering that the other has perpetrated against them.  So Pearl Harbor, what Japan perpetrated on the US, becomes counterposed with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, what the US inflicted on Japan.  In the current Middle East crisis a real trauma, the holocaust, lies alongside another, the nakba, the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestinians that occurred during the formation of the Israeli state. The holocaust was terrible – and it has been used to justify terrible things. The nakba continues to fester and underscores many perceptions of Israel by Palestinians. The recent October 7th attacks carried out by Hamas, and the crimes committed by the IDF during the ongoing occupation of West Bank, continue to keep the original chosen traumas alive.

Common security is linked to peacemaking because both require enemies to identify and work toward common interests rather than an attempt on the part of each to achieve security unilaterally.  Clearly, clinging to chosen traumas interferes with that process.  At the same time, it is difficult to forget traumas, especially real ones, and it is probably not a good idea to try and do so. Any attempt to force harm and suffering beneath the surface is likely to backfire. Nonetheless, it is still possible to contextualize chosen traumas. Indeed, heroic peacemaking rests on this process. Dealing with reciprocal chosen traumas is admittedly difficult and usually controversial because it necessitates recognizing that your side committed injurious acts.  It helps when each side acknowledges that it carried out violent acts against the other.

“Difficult” is a fraught word in this discussion.  The attraction of common security and peacemaking should not be sugarcoated with platitudes. Promising to wave a magic wand only obscures the hard work required to overcome differences, many of which are real. On the other hand, continuing to wage war or otherwise perpetuate enemy relationships is costly and thereby also “difficult.”

Moving past chosen traumas is also challenging because the process will be opposed by extremists on each side.  They will want to prolong the antagonism, largely because they have acquired political or economic interests in the extension of the conflict.  Extremists on each side thus serve as de facto allies. If they can continue to blame each other, and prevent useful negotiations on each side, their own position remains secure. For example, the Good Friday peace process in Ireland, which has certainly reduced the level of direct violence, involved negotiations between Catholics political institutions such as Sinn Fein and Protestant parties such as the Ulster Unionist Party, and between moderates and the “real IRA” within the Catholic community, and between moderates and the die-hard “Orangemen” within the Protestant community.  Typically, the peace making process involves a settling of accounts within one own community as well as between communities.

This observation is certainly true for the Middle East now. For peace to emerge, Israeli’s moderates will have to deal with the settlers and ultra-right orthodox parties, and Palestinian moderates will have to grapple with the most violent members of Hamas.

What steps can help warring parties overcome or at least recast their chosen traumas so that they are less likely to interfere with the resumption of more peaceful relationships?  While not usually recognized on the left, on the state level, the restoration and expansion of commercial exchanges can also contribute to the peace making process.  The expansion of trade certainly helped US relations with Japan and with Vietnam after the conclusion of Washington’s respective wars. Anticipated access to the economic benefits of the European Union eased the Good Friday process in Ireland just as the tariffs and other border related obstacles associated with Brexit threatens its future.

The purely market driven version of these exchanges enable corporate interests on each side dominate even as direct violence recedes. Still, the “negative peace” that enables toys to be imported and soybeans to be exported with China is far preferable than going to war over Taiwan.  Ideally there are other pathways where exchanges between rival parties encourage protection of the environment, reduction of inequality, and attention to other social justice issues.  Symbolically, museums, monuments, and healing ceremonies and gift-giving can also play important roles.  On the micro level, some of these measures are associated with indigenous peoples whose peacemaking traditions are often far more advanced than ours.

While enemy images can encourage the most violence acts, hope can also be found in the remarkable ability of human beings to reach out even in the more dire circumstances. Israelis and Palestinians, and Hutu and Tutsi, live side by side in some villages.  They are friends, they celebrate holidays together, they know and care for each other’s children. While recognizing the importance of pragmatic considerations in peacemaking, we never want to overlook the spirit and faith that enable people to move past the chosen traumas.

This essay draws on the work of William Gamson, John Paul Lederach, and Herbert Kelman.  Comments are invited.

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