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September 19th, 2002
Soul of India
Interview: Senator George Mitchell

September 19, 2002: Senator George Mitchell discusses India with host Jamie Rubin.

Jamie Rubin: Senator Mitchell, thank you for joining us here on Wide Angle. We’ve just seen a very powerful film about ethnic violence, religious violence in India. Why do you think the American people and the American government should be concerned about this kind of extreme violence in India?

Senator Mitchell: If there’s a lesson from 9/11, it is that what happens in rural parts of the world can have an effect here in the United States, on 9/11 the dramatic, violence, tragic event of which had its origins half way around the world. In fact, in a place very close to India, in Pakistan. The relations between Hindus and Muslims in the Indian subcontinent, of course, is part of the larger conflict between India and Pakistan. They once were part of the same entity, divided when they gained their independence from Britain. And still was the subject of considerable tension and violence as this show has demonstrated, but complicated, compounded by the factor that both India and Pakistan possessed nuclear weapons. There is a lot of attention these days to the Middle East and Iraq. It is a credible argument that what is happening in India and Pakistan is even more critical to our future, given the numbers of people, given the explosive nature of the tensions and given the possession of nuclear weapons. So I think Americans should care a lot about what goes on on the Indian subcontinent.

Jamie Rubin: In the film, we see the extent of the hatred that seems to exist between peoples as much as between their leaders. Even during the Cold War, the American people and the Soviet Union’s people were not as angry at each other as perhaps their governments were. When people suggest that nuclear weapons might be used in anger in the Indian subcontinent, do you think part of it is the dehumanization of the other populations?

Senator Mitchell: Yes, of course, it is. I think there are two factors involved. First, of course, the dehumanization of opponents is not unique to that conflict, nor is it new in human history. I was a very young boy during the Second World War and I can still recall the dehumanization of Germans and Japanese here in this country. A few years later, after I graduated from college, I went to Germany as a young man, as an U.S. Army intelligence officer and I can recall thinking I was surprised, gee, they’re just like us.

Jamie Rubin: (Laughs)

Senator Mitchell: This wasn’t what I remembered from my earlier days, as a kid during the Second World War. So dehumanization is a part of conflict and has been throughout human history and will continue. The second factor, which is I think what makes it hard for Americans to understand, is that almost all Americans think of themselves first as Americans. They don’t think of themselves as first Protestants or Catholics or Jews or some other religion. But as you saw in this film, and as is the case for much of the world, many people tend to think of themselves — their primary identity — is as a part of a religious group. They are Muslims, they are Hindu, and then they are Indians or Pakistanis or some other group.

So I think that it is a difficult, complex circumstance where religion is in some cases, not even the dominant factor feeding conflict, but it is a very important factor.

Jamie Rubin: The United States has played a role, and certainly you have … and we’ll get to that in a moment … in conflicts in Northern Ireland and the Balkans and the Middle East. How important is it that the world’s only super power, the United States, plays a leading role in trying to make peace in these kind of situations?

Senator Mitchell: Well, again, the lesson of 9/11 is we’re going to play a role, either active or passive. If we sit back and do nothing, uh, we’re likely to be the recipients, uh, of this type of crime and horrific activity because we are the dominant power. Throughout history there have been dominant military and economic power, but I think some historians believe that never has the gap been greater. Never has the dominant power been so dominant, certainly not since Roman times. And with the continuing spread — not just of American influence through military and economic power — but cultural, language and every other way, it’s very clear that for some people, every problem in the world is an American problem. And every grievance, whether real or imagined, however local, is attributed to the dominant power. You’ve traveled around the world and I’m sure you’ve been as astonished as I have that how many people think that everything that goes on is a CIA plot.

Jamie Rubin: That everything is our fault.

Senator Mitchell: I mean, the Americans had something to do with everything that happens.

Jamie Rubin: Right.

Senator Mitchell: Now, we think of this as fantastic and simply not the case, but it’s a deeply held view in much of the world, and in much of the Muslim work. And so I think our position on the world’s stage makes it inevitable that we will be a party to a lot of what goes on in the world and we’re better off trying to take an active role to shape them in a positive way rather than the passive role of being the recipients of 9/11.

Jamie Rubin: Let’s talk about the Muslim angle for a moment. Right now the Bush Administration in the United States is trying to make very clear that the war against terrorism is not a war against Islam. Do you think it’s important for us to make an example of those times when Muslims are the subject of oppression, as they have been in this film and try to show the Muslim world that we come to their defense as much as we do in responding to Muslim extremism?

Senator Mitchell: Yeah. I think we should do it because it’s the right thing, not so much to make it an example. And in fact, we have done so. The United States intervention in the Balkans — in Bosnia and in Kosovo was largely to protect Muslims from what we and others in the international community perceived as inappropriate activity by others. Violence visited upon them, although of course, it went both ways and there were other complicating factors.

But we have done so, there and in other places and we should make that clear that we defend values: democracy, individual liberty the right of self-determination not religions or ethnic groups and we should have the view that we do the right thing, and hopefully that will be seen around the Muslim world, although I think we have to acknowledge that so far at least that’s not the case.

Jamie Rubin: Right. Let’s talk a little bit about your experiences. Senator Mitchell, you were asked to join and lead an effort in Northern Ireland in 1994 and you spent four long years working on that problem, leading to the famous Good Friday agreement and then worked again in 1999 to save that agreement. Many people credit you with being a decisive influence. Can you reflect with us a little bit about the negotiating lessons you’ve learned from that experience?

Senator Mitchell: Well, first I think it makes an important point that should be repeated in the United States today and that is religious conflict does not always involve Islam.

It didn’t begin with Muslims and it won’t end with Muslims. There’s a long history of religious conflict among Christians and Jews and others. That is a significant factor now with respect to the Muslim world, but let’s not think that they have a monopoly on religious conflict. In Northern Ireland there is a religious factor that has deep historical roots, but it’s not the only factor.

There, there’s a question of national identity, British identity versus Irish identity. There’s a territorial factor, there’s an economic factor, there’s always an economic factor in these conflicts, but in my experience, the principle conviction that I gained is that there is no such thing as a conflict that can’t be ended. Conflicts are created and sustained by human beings. They can be ended by human beings. In Northern Ireland, after years of fruitless negotiations, the public came to believe, by overwhelming numbers, that no agreement was ever possible. People have caught me on the street and said, “Well, thanks, Senator, we appreciate what you’re trying to do, but you’re wasting your time.” We’ve been killing each other forever, we’re going to keep on killing each other for the rest of time. In fact, we’ve got an agreement because overall, people get sick of conflict. The public became sick of it, women became politically active and demanded action.

Jamie Rubin: The exhaustion factor?

Senator Mitchell: Exactly. Now, it isn’t over. There’s still some violence. There are many problems of implementation of the peace agreement, but I think the path has largely been set and I hope it’s irrevocable toward peace.

Jamie Rubin: One of the hallmarks of your effort there, according to many of the participants, was the emphasis on small steps rather than one giant break through. You’ve been involved in a lot of negotiations — in the United States Senate, and Northern Ireland, the Middle East — is how important is the idea of small, incremental steps rather than a break through?

Senator Mitchell: Well, what you hope, of course, is that the small steps lead to a break through. But they’re essential, primarily, to establishing minimal level of trust. What you find in all these situations is a complete absence of trust in a presence of a total mistrust.

They don’t believe anything the other side says. They assume the worse of the other side. And, as a result, that infects their own actions. And so you have to try to bring them to a point where they’re at least willing to listen to the other side and credit their arguments and trying to accommodate there was another question. And that’s a very important factor and that’s what the small steps do. They help you create — not what I would call really trusting close relationships — but the minimal level necessary to permit political compromise.

Jamie Rubin: To take one step forward?

Senator Mitchell: Political compromise is difficult because you have the conflict between the demands of one’s immediate constituency and the needs of the larger society. We experience it in this country, but we don’t have the overlay of political violence that goes with it. And I think in those countries it’s very difficult for leaders, so they have to get to a situation where there’s enough of a basis that they can move forward without suffering the consequences themselves.

Jamie Rubin: Let’s turn to the Middle East. There’s a report out there called The Mitchell Report. You were asked in the fall of 2000 to try to help stop the violence that had begun in September of 2000 and your report was deemed even handed, it was accepted by the Israelis, by the Palestinians, endorsed by the Bush Administration. But here we are more than a year later and has anything really changed?

Senator Mitchell: No. In fact, it’s all the more disappointing. We were surprised, pleasantly so, by the overwhelmingly favorable response. The Israelis accepted it, the Palestinians accepted it, the Bush Administration, the Europeans, everybody endorsed it. But that has made the disappointment at inaction all the greater.

The fact that nobody has done anything to actually implement it, has been a real source of disappointment for me and the other members of our committee and I think the many people around the world. But I believe the time is coming, and it may soon be here, that the exhaustion factor works. During my last visit there, quite a while ago, both Prime Minister Sharon and Chairman Arafat said to me separately, “Senator, we must end this because life has become unbearable for our people.” Now, the one thing I know about the two of them is they don’t coordinate their messages. But they said the same thing to me within a day of each other. And that was a year ago.

Jamie Rubin: Right.

Senator Mitchell: It’s getting much worse since then. Life is unbearable. Life is unbearable for ordinary Israeli citizens because of the fear of the suicide bombings and other threats. Life is unbearable for ordinary Palestinians. Their economy has been destroyed, so I think they’re soon reaching the exhaustion factor when they’ll recognize that there is no military solution, that they’ve got to take the steps. Either the ones that we’ve recommended or something like them, to get back into negotiation and try to reach a political compromise.

Jamie Rubin: And what role, in your opinion, should the United States be playing in this conflict? Should it be analogous to what you did in Northern Ireland, should it be analogous to what President Clinton did? How important is it that the United States play the brokering role in the Middle East?

Senator Mitchell: It is of critical importance. It can’t be done any other way. There is no government, no entity, no person capable of bringing the parties together and leading them to a resolution of this conflict other than the United States government. That’s the reality. Now, there has to be a determined and intense effort to try to bring them together. To try to develop what I call a work plan, a work plan back to the negotiating table and then away from it. When I first went there, I thought that the most difficult problem to solve would be the so- called final status issues: Jerusalem, refugees, land. I don’t think that anymore. I think the toughest problem is getting to the negotiation table. Getting started, not ending it. One of the tragedies of the deaths that are occurring now is that if you talk to Palestinians and Israelis and I talk to them all the time government officials private citizens. There’s a vast consensus on both sides about that way it’s going to end.

Jamie Rubin: How do you think it will end?

Senator Mitchell: It’s going to end just about the way President Clinton outlined before he left office in January of 2001, in which he synthesized what had happened at Camp David and what had happened in the subsequent negotiations at Taba. And that’s about where it’s going to end, it’s the only way to end and people recognize that. Despite all of the turmoil, violence, conflict, a steady majority of two-thirds of Israelis and Palestinians believe that the only way out of this is through a negotiated two-state solution. It is the only way.

Jamie Rubin: Let’s compare that to Northern Ireland. Is it true that prior to the Good Friday agreement, when this exhaustion factor kicked in, that people also knew what the end point was going be and it was just a question of getting there. So do you think those situations are analogous?

Senator Mitchell: They’re analogous in some respects, but not entirety. Each situation has unique factors and you transpose a solution from one to the other. In Northern Ireland you had a somewhat different situation where the political entity, Northern Ireland, is a part of the United Kingdom. The Protestant majority wants to keep it that way. The Catholic minority wants to make it part of Ireland. What the Good Friday agreement says is that both aspirations are legitimate and can be pursued through political means, but not through violence. That is you have to use democratic, political means. And then it says that the decision will be made by the people of Northern Ireland. That’s a crucial factor. People of Northern Ireland will decide their future. If they want to stay as part of the United Kingdom, which they now do, that’s the case. If they ever decide they want to change, then everybody who’s part of that agreement, agrees that they will help facilitate the change.

Jamie Rubin: Through democratic means?

Senator Mitchell: Through democratic means. Non-violent democratic means. That’s the crucial part of it.

Jamie Rubin: You talked about the majorities in the Middle East, the majorities in Ireland being exhausted or suffering and wanting an outcome, but we all know that the majorities occasionally are pushed by the extremist. In this film tonight, we saw how extremists can stir up the problems.

Senator Mitchell: Yes.

Jamie Rubin: So how do you marginalize the extremists in these cases, and in societies that may not be as democratic as they were in Northern Ireland?

Senator Mitchell: Very difficult and getting more difficult all the time, for a reason that we don’t really like much to discuss. We live in an age of technology, from which we benefited enormously. That television camera, the television screen on which this will be shown, cell phones. . .

Jamie Rubin: The Internet.

Senator Mitchell: The Internet, everything. We benefit enormously. But the reality of human history is that technological developments advance more rapidly and spread more quickly in the art of killing, more than any other factor. And so today, it is possible for a small number of people, without large resources and with relatively small numbers of skillful technicians, to kill large numbers of other human beings than ever before.

Jamie Rubin: Using technology?

Senator Mitchell: Using technology. So what, what happens is that you have to have a bigger and bigger majority. 80 percent doesn’t do anymore. 90 percent doesn’t do anymore. So what you have to do is to begin in the middle with the largest majority you can assemble and then gradually try to move that out to the extremes on both sides, to crowd out the extremist, to deprive them of the traditional community support or tolerance and condoning, which makes it possible for them to succeed in their efforts. It’s very hard to do and what it takes, above all else, is courageous political leadership. That’s a hard thing to come by any place at any time.

Jamie Rubin: Let’s talk about the ways in which extremism and technology feed off each other. The word normally used is incitement. Do you think in the modern era, with all these new means of communications, the extremists have this new advantage to use the technology to insight the population to anger, to religious hatred, to ethnic violence?

Senator Mitchell: I wouldn’t call it an advantage to them, because everybody has access to it. The President can address the nation and the world through television, each side has access.

Jamie Rubin: But they previously might not have had a way to communicate with everybody.

Senator Mitchell: Well, that’s true. It amplifies their voice that in a way didn’t previously exist. And that’s why you need courageous, political leadership to combat incitement. And we go back to the very beginning of this discussion, the dehumanization. There’s a powerful temptation in conflict to dehumanize your opponent. Incitement is a way of doing that and particularly starting with young people. Their minds are not fully formed, their views are still tentative. It’s much easier to influence them in this way and given the horrors of modern technology as we’ve seen in the Middle East, very young children can become direct combatants in the kind of war that goes on there. I think it’s a critical factor, but it takes strong, political leadership. It’s tough to do. Because many people in your own society will say, “Well, it’s weakness, it’s lack of conviction, it’s lack of principle. Anybody who compromises is seen by their constituencies as weak.

And so you have to balance it with the, the demands of a political leadership. But I think that it’s too easy and too tempting for leaders –you can see this all across the world today — to succumb to the view. Let them go ahead and have the incitement and that will take the pressure off of us.

Jamie Rubin: Let’s talk a little bit about incitement. What are you really asking leaders to do to avoid incitement? Is it censorship, pushing them not to say what they really think at critical moments? What does it mean to fight incitement?

Senator Mitchell: Well, first off, of course, it means clear, strong moral statements from the leaders. It’s not censorship. I don’t think Americans, who so prize the right of free speech, can credibly urge others to enforce something other than that in their own society. But it’s the use of official organs to spread incitement and hatred — which does occur in the Middle East. Government controlled media, which, as you know very well, is the case in the large parts of the world is used for incitement. Officials. Many of the people interviewed in the program that you’ve just seen are government officials.

Jamie Rubin: Yes.

Senator Mitchell: Who are supposed to be there representing all the people, but obviously perceive their task as representing only a certain constituency. So I think you begin by saying there isn’t going to be any official use of means of incitement and then you try to spread it. You try to make it first the government policy and then the culture and political norm. And I think it can be done. I don’t think there’s any inevitability about stirring up hatred, although they say it has a long history in human affairs. People can in fact, governments, leaders, private citizens, can, in fact, take effective steps against it.Jamie Rubin: Let’s talk a little bit about how hard that is and the concept of revenge. We saw in this film, you know, terrible atrocities committed against innocent men, women and children. You’ve seen in the Middle East the way the innocents have been killed

Senator Mitchell: Yes.

Jamie Rubin: In Ireland innocents have been killed. And how do you convince a population not to choose an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth?

Senator Mitchell: It is probably the most emotional and most difficult aspect of conflict resolution. It is simply human nature to want to revenge the murder or death of a loved one. In Northern Ireland, I can tell you that the release of prisoners who had been placed in prison for committing what the victims thought were ordinary crimes, what the perpetrators thought were patriotic acts, has been one of the most difficult, emotionally laden, and potentially serious problems, in the agreement. It’s very, very difficult and it’s understandable. But in the end, leaders must say to their constituents that if we spend all of our time on the past, then the past will become the future. And the cycle will be never ending. At some point, a society must turn the page and look to the future. That means, sadly, that there will be unresolved grievances.

That means that there will be individuals who will feel betrayed or unfulfilled. But you can’t resolve every grievance, you can’t satisfy every demand for revenge. That’s why it’s necessary in all of these conflict situations to defuse the violence. You can’t ask political leaders at a time of high violence to make compromise because high violence means high emotion. One of the staples of life in Northern Ireland, when I first went there, was the well attended , highly emotional, highly publicized funeral.

Jamie Rubin: In the Middle East that happens all the time.

Senator Mitchell: In the Middle East you see it now. It happens all the time. Thousands of people whipped into a frenzy of emotion at funerals.

Jamie Rubin: At funerals.

Senator Mitchell: And so you have to bring that down, reduce it, let the emotions subside. But I don’t want to underestimate the difficulty. It’s hard to do and it’s a hard thing to ask politically, too, because politicians want to stay in office and they’re not going to stay in office if they get too far away from the feelings of their constituencies.

Jamie Rubin: In the film we saw the apparent involvement of local government officials in some of these massacres. What role do you think the Indian government, essential government has in disciplining those who might be involved?

Senator Mitchell: Well, first, as you know, my law firm represents the government of India, and while that doesn’t influence my views on this show, I think it should be stated so that you and your viewers are aware of it.

I think the government has an important role to enforce and uphold the law, and to work to see that the violence doesn’t occur. As you saw in the film a high national official was sent to the scene to try to reduce the violence and to make certain that people were not victims solely because of their religious differences.

The central government, in every society, has a primary role in seeing to it that there is not communal violence based on religious or other differences in their society, and as you saw the Indian government sent a high national official to the scene for that purpose. I think it’s an important part of every government’s responsibility.

Jamie Rubin: In your work in Ireland and in the Middle East, you’ve talked about the problem of the demonization of another people. How important is that to stop in a place like Northern Ireland or the Middle East if we’re going to get to the bottom of these conflicts?

Senator, we’ve talked a little bit about the importance of stopping revenge killings, stopping the cycle of violence. Related to that is, is the question of history. Each one of these conflicts has long, long histories. In Northern Ireland, you were probably subject to a lot of history lessons. How do you get the parties to look beyond their historical grievances and look to the future or to the present?

Senator Mitchell: About the time I went to Northern Ireland, the New York Times carried a series of articles on the ignorance of Americans about their history. The answers to the simplest question weren’t known by many people, including many students, and I thought, as I’m sure most readers thought, “Isn’t this appalling? We don’t even know our own history.”

And I went to Northern Ireland, and I saw people who really know their history. They go back to 1691, to 1196, they are immersed in history. And I thought, “Well, too little knowledge is a bad thing, but too much knowledge can also be a bad thing.” And I think that’s one of the problems in these conflicts situations. There is a looking to the past that so roots present thinking and makes it impossible for political leaders to move forward. I guess the way I put it when I’m in Northern Ireland is knowledge of your history is a good thing, but being chained to the past is not. It’s one of the reasons for the spectacular success of American society, in my opinion. First, we’re a nation of immigrants and for many people history means something that happened…

Jamie Rubin: Somewhere else.

Senator Mitchell: Some other place, some other continent, and they come here. One of the reasons for the success of American society, I believe, is that the people are forward looking, and they don’t root themselves in the past. In fact, we’re a nation of immigrants, and people come here from somewhere else, so for them history is something that happened on another continent in another era, and they want to look forward. They’re trying to escape from that. In other countries it’s different. There’s almost a fixation and obsession with the past that hampers the ability to look to the future. And I think it’s something that Americans have to take into account.

As an American who’s been involved in conflict resolution in other societies, I had to learn to adjust my thinking to that. I had to try to begin to understand the manner in which the political leaders in those societies think and how they form their views. Now I tried very hard to nudge them to the future. You can’t just order that. It’s a way of thinking; it’s a cultural thing. But I think it’s clearly an important factor. It’s a vast difference between our way of thinking and that in many other societies, and unless people there look to the future, they’re going to continue to live and relive the past with all of the negatives that brings.

Jamie Rubin: Senator Mitchell, I thank you for joining me here on Wide Angle.

Senator Mitchell: Thanks for having me.

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