Time to Take Stock

"We're not only fighting back militarily, but we're also fighting back with our values."

Like the rest of the world, we at Fast Company are trying to make some sense of the horror that gripped our world last week. In an effort to understand the tragedy and its implications, we turned to some of the people featured in our archives for insight and wisdom.

Mediation expert Susan Podziba immediately came to mind.

A faculty associate with the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, Podziba has an unusual perspective on the cataclysm: She has facilitated dialogue between Israelis and Arabs in both the United States and in the Middle East. "I've been studying the Israeli and Palestinian conflict for years and years," says Podziba, a native New Yorker. "It's the issue I'm most drawn to, and it's the issue that brought me to a career in mediation."

Last Tuesday, it also brought her to tears. Two days after the attacks on Manhattan and Washington, DC, Podziba sat down to talk with us about the hijackers' possible motives, the United States' smartest course of action, and the urgent need to remember democratic principles. We invite you to consider her opinions and add your own in Sound Off below.

What scares you most about the recent terrorist attacks on America?

I can't get over the fact that someone declared war on us and we don't know who it is. It's just different from anything that's ever happened. How can we know precisely what to do? We can only learn by trial and error.

No one knows how big this is. Did the terrorists use all their resources and capabilities in planning last Tuesday's attack? Do they have additional smaller attacks in the works? We really can't know their intention, but they seem to have reached a new level of sophistication. They work in cells that have limited information. If members of one cell are caught and interrogated, they can't talk about the rest of the operation. The psychology of terrorism is to create unknown fear, and that's what we face now.

We are in a totally new era. We don't have reference points or strategies, and we're going to learn, but we're going to get hurt along the way. That's the reality. We don't know what to do, but we do know that we need to secure our people in a way that we never had to before.

If no country has faced a threat like this before, how can our allies in NATO help the United States design a plan of attack?

NATO recently voted to enact its article five, which states that if any NATO nation is attacked, every NATO nation is attacked. It enables Americans to discuss our next steps with other nations, and with the people of our own nation. We need to lean on the best of our principles, and democracy is one of our bedrock principles.

Democracy is about negotiating and talking through conflicting ideas. I hope we will discuss things within NATO so that the response is measured and appropriate, and I hope we'll learn from the Israelis, who've dealt with terrorism more than any other country in the world. We should look at strategies that have worked and those that have failed -- everything we can get our hands on.

Most Americans would say that negotiation sounds like an absurd means for resolution right now. As a mediation expert, what do you think?

We are negotiating with other nations to join our coalition in the war against terrorism -- among them are nations that have supported terrorists in the past. But we will not negotiate with terrorists.

Some people suggest that negotiating with terrorists is out of the question, because we don't know who they are and we don't know what they want. But that's not true -- we know what they want. But we don't want the kind of world that they want, and we can't negotiate with them because we can't trust that they'll never do something like this again.

What next steps do you think the United States should take?

We have to take military action. The stakes have been bid up too high. We didn't take military action when the World Trade Center was bombed in 1993, when U.S. embassies were bombed in Africa, or when the USS Cole was bombed in Yemen. Now we have to be clear that the most recent acts will provoke a serious military response from the United States.

I think these fundamentalists are trying to trigger an Islamic war, a jihad, a holy war. That's obviously not in our interests. So we need to be clear not to make the whole Islamic world our enemy. We are at war with extremists. And our reaction needs to focus on them.

What dangers do we face in pursuing a war against terrorism?

The United States is asking all the nations of the world this question: Are you with us, or are you against us? States that are sponsoring terrorist activities need to make a choice -- a choice with some action attached to it.

But what will happen in the countries where leaders take our requests seriously? Will they be able, given their own domestic politics, to stand with the United States on this issue? It's possible that political regimes will crumble because of this request. In the past, we said, "We know you can't say this publicly, but we'd like you to act this way." Global politics were more subtle and nuanced. Today, we are asking nations to take very public stands. That openness will have ramifications within the domestic populations of some countries.

What insights do you have about the motives that prompted these terrorists to attack innocent Americans?

First, we have to be very careful in pointing out that this attack is not Islam against the Judeo-Christian tradition. These terrorists belonged to a fringe, extremist segment of Islamic people that is condemned by the majority of religious Muslims. Suicide bombings is not what Islam is about.

In Arabic cultures, being humiliated is not acceptable. Arabs are very careful in their own language and interactions to show absolute respect and never to humiliate any other Arab publicly. There is a perception by these fringe groups that the United States has been humiliating them ever since we started fighting from Saudi Arabian soil during the Gulf War. The fact that we've left some troops in the Gulf is perceived as humiliation by these extremists.

This sense of humiliation is bumping up against a fantasy of historical periods when Arabism was all-powerful. This fringe group is overwhelmed by a sense of "What we have been, what we should be, and what we rightfully ought to be." That sentiment contradicts the reality that Arab countries are powerless in today's global economy. That impotence is a constant source of humiliation.

These terrorists have mirrored the humiliation they've felt from us. They took our planes, they trained at the most sophisticated flight-training centers in our country, and they slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon -- two symbols of our national power. We are angry, shocked, and frightened, but I don't know anyone who feels humiliated right now. If humiliation was their intent, they failed.

What does this mean for the United States' foreign policy?

Let me be absolutely clear in saying that no matter how humiliated anyone feels, they don't have the right to take life. At the same time, we need to think about ensuring that we don't humiliate other nations. The United States needs to be more mature about the power it carries. We are the most powerful nation in the world. We don't have to rub people's face in that. We need to be subtle in the use of our power but clear that we have power. We don't need to be arrogant or cowboyish. We need to make it absolutely clear that we have the capability to act swiftly and strongly, and that we won't accept certain things from other peoples. The world has gotten very small. We need to consider ourselves part of the world, albeit one of the most important players.

What final thought would you like Fast Company readers to consider in the coming days and months?

If it's correct that United Airlines Flight 93 was headed for the White House, the passengers who overtook their hijackers saved an enormous number of lives. They are heroes. I'm incredibly moved that they voted, from the back of the plane, on whether to try and overpower the hijackers. I'm moved that, in this moment of virtual death, they leaned on a democratic principle. That is America. No terrorist act can kill that.

We need to maintain those democratic principles in our military response. As a nation, we must all agree on what the right response should be. And embedded in that response are our values. If we do that, we are fighting back on another level. We're not only fighting back militarily, but we're also fighting back with our values.

Anni Layne Rodgers (arodgers@fastcompany.com) is the Fast Company senior Web editor.

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