Why We Talk to Terrorists: response to Supreme Court ruling on "material support" of foreign terrorist groups

talkto.jpgIn John Brockman's Edge newsletter, an essay by Scott Atran (left) and Robert Axelrod (right), two social scientists who study and interact with violent groups "to find ways out of intractable conflicts." The piece is a response to a recent Supreme Court decision that amounts to a real "chilling effect" for anyone working for peace and reconciliation through dialogue with foreign groups that have a history of armed conflict. Before the ruling, we knew that sending money or guns to any of the four dozen groups currently designated by the secretary of state as terrorist organizations was punishable by up to 15 years in prison. But now the law has been clarified to show that, say, holding conflict resolution workshops with them, or even interviewing one of their officers for an op-ed piece, could merit the same penalty. This NPR News analysis is a good place to start for real-world examples.

From Atran and Axelrod's Edge essay:

In the course of this work and in our discussions with decision makers in the Middle East and elsewhere we have seen how informal meetings and exchanges of knowledge have borne fruit. It's not that religious, academic or scientific credentials automatically convey trust, but when combined with a personal commitment to peace, they often carry weight beyond mere opinion or desire.

So we find it disappointing that the Supreme Court, in Holder vs. Humanitarian Law Project, ruled that any "material support" of a foreign terrorist group, including talking to terrorists or the communication of expert knowledge and scientific information, helps lend "legitimacy" to the organization. Sometimes, undoubtedly, that is the case. But American law has to find a way to make a clear distinction between illegal material support and legal actions that involve talking with terrorists privately in the hopes of reducing global terrorism and promoting national security.

Edge 321 -- July 8, 2010 (Edge.org)