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Mohawk: Peace seems as elusive as ever

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Our species, which has been known to brag that it is the most intelligent of all of earth's creatures, has a depressing habit of engaging in war. There are about thirty wars in progress at any given moment, and the world spends far more on its military than on its social needs. Children are starving, people are dying of contagious diseases, plants and animals face extinction at the hands of parasites and people, but the arms industry thrives. In the somewhat depressing history of humanity since writing was invented, the 20th century was the worst. About 175 million people were killed in conflicts between states or between states and "insurgents."

Our species is intelligent enough to build weapons of mass destruction, but not wise enough to act in ways that are likely to keep them under control. There exists today enough firepower to wipe out all human life (close to population centers) in the entire world within minutes, many times over. Should there ever be a nuclear war between two countries, a situation that looms somewhere every year, populations on continents far away are likely to be impacted, even threatened. War is far more likely than some giant asteroid or plague to kill billions of people.

War has existed since time immemorial. It is possible that it preceded the emergence of our species among hominids. Long before the state was invented, organized and armed aggression was practiced, almost always for plunder. Some of the oldest permanent human settlements show evidence of defensive fortifications - walls - to repel invaders. If terrorists are stateless armed combatants - a definition which states known to project acts of terror are known to favor - then by that definition the world's earliest warriors were terrorists for they surely were without a state.

Long ago, before the European, African, and Asian diasporas, some North American Indians recognized the danger war posed to humankind.

The Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois, or Six Nations Indians) have a tradition which they call the Great Law. It is many things, but its origin story explains that it was born as an effort to end warfare. A prophet known as the Peacemaker sought out some of the fiercest warriors and killers of his day with a proposition. If everyone makes war upon everyone else all the time there can be but one outcome: extinction of human beings. He proposed, as a first principle, that thinking should replace violence, and urged the creation of a council dedicated to peace.

That council would meet under a great symbolic pine tree and it would be protected by the long leaves of that tree. That pine tree, known as the Tree of Peace, was a symbol for a truce. The ancient Haudenosaunee were not idealists, they were pragmatists. Peace was not to be simply the absence of war but a continuing dialogue between peoples who had settled their differences with violence but would now enter into a truce and a dialogue. Within that dialogue, and under the protection of that truce, the Great Tree would grow into a set of standards which could be called the first draft of international law. It came to be called, in fact, the Great Law. The first principle of the Great Law was that people who were on route to the meeting of the Grand Council which conducted the dialogues of the truce were to be guaranteed safe passage.

It is said among some today that great nation states do not negotiate with terrorists. As intriguing as this idea is, it also interferes with the possibility of creating a meaningful truce because the people who are the problem, the warriors, cannot be part of the process. If the "terrorists" are to be attacked at every opportunity, there can never be any dialogue and thinking cannot replace violence. The rules of the Great Peace began with a guarantee of safe conduct of all of the combatants or their representatives to the Council Fire (it was at Onondaga, N.Y.) and back home again. The most important thing in the negotiations which followed is that the groups engaged in violence learn to trust one another. Thus there was a second rule: the people conducting the negotiations were honor bound to be truthful. A people who think it is in their own self-interest to lie are a people who have no honor. It is impossible to make peace with them because they cannot be trusted, and a truce requires trust.

The kind of international law that existed in the northeast woodlands centuries ago was unenforceable. Only a healthy respect for the principle of law could make it work. Therefore elaborate ceremonies were conducted to help underscore the gravity and importance of the work being done. Orators who could calm passions and express pathways to understanding were prized and honored. Sometimes violence erupted, and sometimes it intensified into blood feuds and warfare, and sometimes individuals and groups, including Haudenosaunee individuals and groups, failed to act honorably. But there was always available the Council Fire people who understood that there can never be an effective truce unless there is conversation, negotiation, and dialogue. And they also understood how much courage it takes to live by such convictions.

The modern world has the capacity to drop a cruise missile within a few yards of its intended target from hundreds of miles away, but there is little energized conversation about a pragmatic way to seek peace. The Haudenosaunee were conscious of a great truth of our species: such a peace is impossible without solid respect for international law. To stop terrorism, states need to stop undertaking terrorist acts as their primary strategy. The idea that might makes right is simply unworkable if the goal is to make the world safe for future generations.

For a while, following World War II, most of the largest and most powerful countries of the world tried to move in that direction. The idea that the world does not need international law designed to promote dialogue and a hoped-for permanent truce also abandons the idea of replacing violence with thinking. Should this prevail, it will be absolute proof that our species' claims to superior intelligence over the birds and the animals lacks substantive evidence. No other species assembles armies and tries to kill itself off. Except maybe ants.

John C. Mohawk, Ph.D., columnist for Indian Country Today, is an author and professor in the Center for the Americas at the State University of New York at Buffalo.