Rejecting “Us versus Them” in the Aftermath of Paris

The day after the attacks on Paris, I had a spaghetti dinner in Prenzlauerberg (a neighborhood in the former East Berlin) with a German man I am just getting to know. We talked about our concerns that these deaths would lead to more escalation in political violence, especially actions by the U.S. and member states of the EU that could lead to more deaths.

But we are an unusual pair of people to be having this conversation. He is a former member of the Red Army Faction (RAF), and I am an American whose only brother was killed by the Red Army Faction in 1985 as part of an attack on the US airbase on Rhein-Main (my dinner partner was already serving time in prison for other deaths at the time).

For the two of us, the pain of families in Paris, Beirut, Syria, and many other places in the world torn by political violence is not abstract. Exactly 30 years ago I was a high school student stumbling through my days, a few months into my new life without my dependable, funny older brother. The guy who made everything better was gone, never to come back. I was soon to be turning 16, approaching the first birthday in my life without my brother.

I hated the people who had taken him from my family, and wanted to know nothing about them or their stupid cause. I knew it would always be like this. I wished every one of them dead.  I assured myself that “they” were nothing like “us,” possibly because they were German. This was, after all, during the Cold War. Germans obviously were nothing like “us” in the United States.

But I had no idea how my life and views would change and how the world would change. The conflict that stole my brother is now mostly forgotten outside Germany. Instead, now I feel an acute despair that there are still new victims of lethal political violence being created in new unrelated conflicts with the same “them and us” refrain. Thousands of new families have begun a similarly wrenching journey this year due to violent acts across the world, including Kenya, Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan the U.S. and France.

Some of these violent events, like the deaths in Paris, attract global attention. But many of these events gather less attention in the US and EU, because the victims seem less like “us” and more like “them.”

But when “we” have been attacked, and when there is the public outrage, when there is the concern, people want something to do, not just say. We all crave the one thing that will mean that “this never happens to us again.” And inevitably, that means we draw up a list of which of “them” must be captured or killed so that we can all finally “be safe.”

This approach — let’s find the enemy and kill them before they can kill us, sounds great to many people. Except that it is a lie. It is the same lie that perpetuates itself with each act of political violence. We cannot kill our way to a more stable and peaceful world.

My new German friend and I are possibly less cynical than most because we have both changed. Both of us used to be much more committed to violence if it achieved the proper end—the destruction of some particular person or group that was going to finally make the world safe. And both of us, through different paths, came to realize the futility of such an approach.

What led to such changes for me? I realized that the rhetoric I believed about war was only what I had been told to promote a false sense of security. Then I encountered someone who had the same “us versus them” attitude, but just with different people in the roles! He explained to me how my brother’s death was justified because he was one of “them” instead of “us.” I was incensed, then ashamed when I eventually realized that I had been handed a mirror.

It’s still a constant struggle to not to grasp at easy answers that rely on a dehumanized “them.” In the current state of affairs in our country, that means actively resisting the drumbeat of rhetoric that Muslims are “just not like us,” and “this conflict is totally different.” Yes, the specifics of history and circumstance are different, but the familiar “them and us” lens is as central as ever.

Then there is also the cynicism of people who say “this conflict is never going to change” when in fact, probably the only thing we can say for sure is that it will change, we just can’t say how.

But recently I sat in a restaurant in the former East Berlin, talking to a man who I once would’ve regarded as someone I had no choice but to hate for the rest of my life. Now instead, I genuinely wanted to understand his experience and to see what we can do together for a world without war. Right now in the U.S. that means actions like:

  1. Taking a stand against anti-Muslim rhetoric in our country (Bend the Arc)
  2. Supporting all refugees fleeing political violence  (UNHRC)
  3. Calling for active but non-military responses to this global struggle (AFSC)

I have vastly outlived my brother, and sometimes I wish he could see this world, unrecognizable in so many ways from the years of the Cold War that we grew up in. We are making war in horrible new ways, and also building connection in dazzling new ways. The world is, as ever, simultaneously beautiful and dreadful.

For me now, with the longer life I have been given, I see that our task is to learn how to transform conflict, remove the false lens of “us versus them” and build a future where we resolve our political differences without killing each other.

My brother was Edward Pimental, killed by the RAF on August 8, 1985, when he was 20 years old, serving with the US Army in Germany. The RAF used his military ID to plant a bomb on the US Airbase at Rhein-Main, killing two other Americans.

2 Replies to “Rejecting “Us versus Them” in the Aftermath of Paris”

  1. Thank you Kathleen for writing about this experience that brought you and your unlikely dinner companion together. You have so much courage and passion to seek truth and healing and to share your experience of the process. I feel strongly in my heart and in my thoughts that the way out of violence is through building community-making sure families have food for our children, meaningful work to occupy our minds, and shared education to push the boundaries of knowledge. I know that responding to violence with more violence is like putting gasoline on fire. Like you, I’m seeking the baking soda solution that not only puts out the flames, but causes the bread to rise. Much love. Beth

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