Keeping the Peace

“First they ignore you; then they ridicule you; then they resist you; and finally, you win!”

Author Marianne Williamson’s paraphrasing of Ghandi’s observation on the inevitable mainstream adoption of righteous ideas perfectly described the mood of organizers and attendees at the Department of Peace campaign’s third annual conference in Washington, D.C. the weekend of Sept. 11.

The goals of this three-day gathering of 500 forward-thinking souls (mostly female and middle-aged), were two-fold: to hear from people who are already having success with “best practice” strategies and techniques to decrease violence, and to rehearse for the lobbying of more than 10 senators and 100 members of the House to pass a bill which would establish a cabinet-level Department of Peace in the executive branch of the U.S. government.

The bill already has 56 co-sponsors in the House, including sponsor Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio. It would set the newly created department’s budget at the equivalent of two percent of the current defense budget.

According to Williamson, author of Healing the Soul of America, the cause of peace urgently merits “a place at the table.”

“All we are saying is that we need to give our president the broadest array of problem-solving options” to resolve conflict, she said. She alluded to how the current outcome in Iraq might have been avoided had the president had cabinet-level advice on how to deal with post-war reconstruction, “nation-building,” and cultural awareness.

Although the U.S. government already has a smattering of programs in various departments that address the issues of peace and violence, the newly-created department would gather those under its umbrella, as well as foster new programs that have been statistically proven to work.

From the variety of presenters at the conference, it is clear that these programs, especially those dealing with peace on the home front already exist, but they are desperately under-funded and unrecognized. For example:

Ten years ago, Azim Khamisa’s 20-year-old son Tariq was delivering pizza to a household of gang-bangers, and while leaving, was shot dead in cold blood by a 14-year-old as part of his “initiation” process. At the trial, the wannabe gang-member apologized, which moved Azim to contact the child’s grandfather (and guardian) to discover how both of them could heal.

They decided that, as a team, they would go into schools and demonstrate that forgiveness and reconciliation are ever possible, and to reject gangs. They have so far reached 350,000 students, but want to go nationwide.

Khamisa, a Sufi Muslim, said that when they go into some schools, 90 percent of the students say they would like to join a gang. At the end of the day, only 10 percent are so inclined.

He spoke of how we need “restorative justice” as an alternative to the punitive justice that in his opinion exacerbates the problem. In restorative justice, the criminal needs to take responsibility for their crime, apologize, and somehow “give back” and also be able to function in society.

Psychologist Lauren Abramson has been having success in Baltimore with “community conferencing,” a technique inspired by the Maori in Australia.

She gets people who are in conflict together, to have a “structured conversation,” to find out what happened, how everyone has been affected, and what can be done to heal things and move forward.

“It shouldn’t be who’s guilty and how should she be punished but who’s been affected, and how can harm be repaired?” she said.

To those who say that institutionalizing peaceful strategies into the executive branch of government is naïve, Williamson noted how all of the watershed rights that have been won over the last 200 years also seemed unattainable at the time—ending slavery, the right to vote for women, and full civil rights for African-Americans.

“And in any case,” she said, “anyone who thinks we can continue in the same direction today—and survive—is naïve.”

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