Humanization of Extremists

Juan Gutierrez

January 2004

What are "Extremists?"

The practice of dealing with extremists is highly controversial, as even the word "extremist" is controversial. Peter Coleman and Andrea Bartoli discuss this issue in their essay Dealing with Extremists elsewhere in this knowledge base. My use of the term is similar to theirs: "activities (beliefs, attitudes, feelings, actions, strategies) of a person or group far removed from the ordinary. In conflict settings it manifests as a severe form of conflict engagement."[1]

There are many different ways of confronting extremists in intractable conflicts. The appropriate approach depends on the conflict, the power-balance between the two adversaries, their cultural backgrounds, the potential consequences of the conflict and whether or not an adversary can be labeled as an extremist. It is essential to assess these approaches and determine which one is most conducive to making a conflict tractable and to ending violence. This paper is an effort to tentatively establish some basic guidelines that can serve as a compass to navigate a confrontation with an extremist.

There are two main approaches you can take towards an adversary you are in conflict with. The first is an "enemy image" approach, which tends conceal your adversary's humanity. The second approach is to look at your adversary as a human being, what I will call the "search for humanity" approach.

Enemy Image as a Tool

"Enemy image" is a well-known term, both in social psychology and in conflict theory. My purpose here is not to define it, but to focus on its use as a tool.

Since the second cold war the world has entered since September 11, the "enemy image" approach can be easily seen in most mainstream media and in the speeches of those in power.

The enemy image normally has a core of truth. However, this core appears expanded in the image, as if surrounded by a ghostly halo. The image denies the humanity of the adversaries. It melts together the actual characteristics of the enemies with elements projected onto them by their opponent. Eventually, it becomes difficult to weigh the real threat of an enemy against the projected shadow, especially when there are situations in which an enemy publicly behaves in ways that seem to confirm the projected shadow.

If your enemies are devils, there is no common ground to be shared and their identity becomes exclusively connected with their evil deeds and purposes. They deserve to be eliminated, excluded from the community of human beings. If they are imprisoned, they should not be rehabilitated, but sent to the death chamber. Human rights do not apply to them, whose life is perceived as their antithesis. Their wickedness comes from an ingrained perversity and not their personal history. In fact, it is best to ignore that history as it may reveal a previous partnership with you. Suspicion becomes undisputable evidence and demands pre-emptive actions in order to prevent the greater disaster that would come from reacting too late. To wait for a legal procedure to produce evidence is a dangerous lack of responsibility. Association becomes complicity, and there is no space for neutrality. If you are not with us, you are against us. The confrontation may appear as a crusade of good against evil, and you become a hero against whom no criticism is allowed.

The bigger the shadow and smaller the core of truth in the enemy image, the stronger the tendency to indulge in double standards, to establish hierarchies and to reject equal rights. The reasons given for resisting and destroying the enemy hide the real purposes for provoking the confrontation. Today's global agenda reveals this dramatically. The enemy's alleged weapons of mass destruction matter less than access to cheap petroleum. The enemy image is strongly reinforced by the mass media and public opinion leaders.

It is difficult to distinguish the core of truth from the shadow. This requires critical analysis and testimonies from independent sources. However, such a distinction may not be desired, because the enemy image can be a very useful tool.

The enemy image is not useful as a target. The bigger the shadow and smaller the core of truth are, the less precise it is. No general would trust such a shadowy image to pinpoint an enemy. This does not matter, however, because the enemy image is not a tool for targeting, but a rallying flag calling people to unite against the "enemy."

When faced with a shadowy enemy, the alliance leader's violent confrontation of the enemy appears to be protective, gallant, courageous and strong. Their violence becomes palatable. In such a way, the destructive character of weapons is concealed, and they become symbols of strength and leadership.

In order to be convincing, the enemy image has to be shared by all allies. The more fact-finding processes shake its credibility, the more cynical the alliance becomes towards you. Then a crisis of credibility might develop and turn into crisis of legitimacy. An enemy image devoid of credibility backlashes, making not the chosen enemy but yourself vulnerable.

The Search for the Human Nature in the Adversary

The second approach, the "search for humanity," is a less common approach than the "enemy image" approach. Many people think that because this approach seems to avoid confrontation, it is a peacenik line characterized by weakness and an inability to respond to the challenges of reality. It is seen as Chamberlain yielding to Hitler as opposed to Churchill transforming defeat into victory. Because this approach has such a low profile, I will use a relatively unknown but compelling testimony from common people facing terror in Colombia to show how effective this approach can be.

The search for and recognition of human traits in the adversary can overcome antagonism and denial. This is exemplified in the linked interviews recently conducted in Oriente Antioqueno, Colombia where members of rural communities under severe threat have non-violently faced "armed actors" as they call paramilitaries, guerrillas and the army.

Transcriptions of Interviews Conducted in Oriente Antioqueño, Colombia

In English

En Español









When an armed actor imperiously demands a face-to-face meeting, it is usually a community leader who goes to meet him or her. The community leader behaves respectfully and shows appreciation for the armed actor's arguments and values. The leader then confronts the armed actor with the needs of his community and shows him the harm, destruction and pain that have resulted from the armed actor's violent behaviour. In a way, he acts as a mediator between the actions of the armed actor and their effects on the community.

Even more importantly, the leader constantly refers to the shared humanity of both the community and the armed actor and points out their joint undertakings and shared past. Patiently and clearly, the leader attempts to persuade the armed actor to adhere to his values as before, but to step aside from the dynamics of violence he is entangled in. The leader listens attentively to the needs the armed actor expresses, shows empathy and readiness to help, but refuses to show the slightest complicity with either the armed actor's destructive dynamics or with the armed actor himself. The leader then returns to the community and tries to prove to them that they are not siding with their enemies. The leader explains how the community is forced to behave due to the threat of the armed actor. The armed actor is held accountable for the harm caused by his violent behavior, but he or she does not become linked and identified with it. The leader does not ask for his or her exclusion or extermination. The armed actor is not treated as an alien, but instead as integrated and rehabilitated. In this sense, the armed actor is identified by his or her human traits and potential.

The experiences reported in these interviews have led to proposals to the Regional Government of Antioquia and to the National government of Colombia made by 23 municipalities of Oriente Antioque

no plus the neighbouring ones. The proposals have mostly been accepted.

Shortcomings of the "Search for Humanity" Approach

The testimonies in these interviews confirm something that has become more and more evident in the last few years; non-violent confrontations of armed adversaries can humanize a conflict and contain violence. However, this alone cannot solve an intractable conflict or end the threat of terror. Furthermore, if it raises expectations that it cannot fulfill, this approach may even become counterproductive. This seems to be the case in Colombia where the failure of three years of talks between the government and FARC has resulted in the frustrated public's increased support for the paramilitary forces. Similarly in Israel, the Oslo agreements have not been able to achieve a settlement and establish peace. In the Basque Country, the end of the ETA's 14-month ceasefire has only hardened the two sides against each other. In all three cases, failed negotiations have only strengthened the extremists on both sides of the conflict.

On one hand, a non-violent confrontation with armed extremists that reinforces both sides' humanity is an essential step to overcome violence. On the other hand, an inability to enforce these changes can make the confrontation ultimately self-defeating.

However, the choice is not between a violent and a non-violent confrontation. In democratic countries, a combined civil and military confrontation can complement each other. But what matters here, is the choice between the enemy image and the search for humanity. The decision must be to search for the humanity in others instead of relying on the shadowy enemy image.

Oriente Antioquen as a Peace Laboratory

A laboratory experiment explores the ways one agent interacts with other agents in a given environment in order to achieve an intended purpose. Oriente Antioque can be looked at as an experiment in attempting to find a peaceful solution for the intractable conflict in Colombia. The results of the experiment suggest two faces of peace: positive peace and negative peace.

Negative peace is commonly defined as no war and no violence. Its purpose is to protect and shelter positive peace, which is the peace of a broad, shared life as opposed to the narrow pursuit of your own interests. Positive peace can be understood as the core of peace and negative peace as its protective shield.

The key agent for overcoming terror and establishing peace is a civil society based on positive peace actively participating in a democracy. This civil society is essential, but alone it is not able to achieve peace. Consequently, researchers should focus on finding ways civil society can interact with other sectors of society in order to overcome terror. There are five crucial sectors of society that are needed to support civil society:

  1. a democratic state,
  2. a thriving egalitarian economy,
  3. mass media and public opinion leaders impregnated by a culture of peace,
  4. knowledgeable peace practitioners and
  5. a friendly international community.

All these factors are, of course present and active everywhere in Colombia. However, they are not complete. The state is not purely democratic; it also promotes terror. In the case of globalization, the economy is not egalitarian, but beneficial almost only to the privileged. The media are not always influenced by a culture of peace, but also by a culture of war and they tend to project shadowy enemy images galore. Scientists compliantly administer their knowledge only to power-holders. The international community is not only friendly but also greedy. Peace seems to be out of reach. The question is how to improve the interactions of these sectors to make them more concerned with peace.

Civil Society

An empowered civil society can create change by moving into the open to express the community's values and identity. Citizens can attempt to communicate how rich and integrative positive peace is, how it is harmed and threatened by the agents of terror and what a common belonging means. This expression would acknowledge the human dimension of their adversaries, but would also hold them accountable for the harm they have caused.

Civil society includes the dead and to a certain extent, the still unborn, who are going to inherit the natural environment, historical background and identity of the present. It is essential to express the past. The future requires imagination, meaning, testimony, dignity, mourning, liturgies and biographies.

Such an expression would make the state a bit more democratic, the economy a bit more egalitarian, the media and public opinion leaders a bit more life-oriented, the scientific community a bit more concerned with peace and the international community a bit friendlier. It would even influence the civil society it portrays and encourage peaceful leaders to step forward.

For people oppressed by terror, expressing the harm and threat they have suffered is both an urgent need and a danger because the same terror threatens to suffocate them. Therefore, this expression requires protection. Civil society needs the protection of democratically controlled armed forces and police. Members of civil society are also dependent upon publicity from the media. This publicity fosters solidarity and attracts witnesses, another form of protection, whose testimony is extremely valuable in dissipating the shadows from the enemy image. Furthermore, members of civil society are encouraged when they realize their voices are being heard. Finally, truth-finding processes similar to the South-African Truth and Reconciliation Commission foster a culture of remembrance. This may become another form of protection when it convinces potential perpetrators that they will not get rid of victims by killing them and that one day the perpetrators will have to face even dead or missing victims.

The expression of civil society includes the expression of other agents including military, police, administrative, judicial and political voices. As human beings, all these agents can side with the civil society they belong to. Furthermore, because accountability is an essential requirement to distinguish core from shadow, the presence of independent, reliable observers watching in all directions is required.

The testimony of observers, although it is necessary to protect the expression of civil society, cannot fully replace it because this testimony refers to the crimes, to the black of death. It marginalizes the fullness, dignity, joy, glory, sound and color in the peace of life conveyed by the expression of civil society.

The expression should reach from the small, intimate circle of family and close friends, to the broadest international circles. This is why, by drafting this paper, I intend not only a contribution to the Beyond Intractability project, but also to peace in Colombia.

[1] Peter Coleman and Andrea Bartoli, "Dealing with Extremists" in the Intractable Conflict Knowledge Base. University of Colorado Conflict Research Consortium. Available at

Use the following to cite this article:
Gutierrez, Juan . "Humanization of Extremists." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: January 2004 <>.

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