Lena Drummer | PhD Candidate, University of Innsbruck
In this post, I describe a number of reactions to the terror attack in Vienna that took place on November 2, 2020, and problematize their impact on social change from the perspective of conflict transformation theory. By doing so, I will outline the qualitative differences between conflict resolution, conflict management, and conflict transformation, arguing for a paradigm shift from exclusive to inclusive approaches to conflict.
The Episode: A Terror Attack in the Heart of Vienna
On the evening of November 2, 2020, a young, radicalized man sympathizing with ISIS, terrorized a countless number of people at Vienna’s nightlife area and beyond. He shot dead four people and injured twenty-two. Symbolically, I interpret this violation as an attack on all people who enjoy a liberal life model and on Austria’s modern nation state, which, according to ISIS, both are major threats to Islam (Lohlker 2016).
The reactions to this terror attack varied, but we can nevertheless notice a certain trend: The perception that Islamist terror attacks are phenomena that intrude from somewhere external, and that they need to be contained.
Pacifying the Situation
The Austrian government responded based on modern concepts of peace, which overemphasize security aspects. To pacify the situation, the perpetrator was killed by police nine minutes after he opened fire; at least fourteen of his acquaintances were arrested in the following days; a committee to analyze whether there had been mistakes on governmental levels has been implemented and questions of how to improve institutional and communication structures to prevent another brutal attack are being debated; as the attacker had a bi-national Austrian-North-Macedonian background, the prohibition of dual citizenship has once more become a subject of debate – proposing a correlation between the willingness of brutally attacking civilians and (foreign) nationalities.
The rhetoric of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz only strengthens such ideas. In his speech in response to the attack, he subtly draws a line between Austria as a “safe land” and the “world that is anything but safe.” He further says, that “our enemy” is “Islamist Extremism” and not “all members of a religious group”, or “all people, coming from a specific country.” If there hadn’t been this word “all” one could believe his ambition to unify the Austrian population. However, this little word implies that we must still be careful, as some of the people he describes are or might be dangerous. Even though he emphasizes that this would not be a battle between “Christians and Muslims”, “Austrians and Migrants”, his speech leaves an uncomfortably destructive echo on the relation between the members of those groups, which have been categorized by Kurz.
Such responses and debates not only lead to fast conclusions about right policies but also neglect the necessity to inquire systematically into the relational foundations of terrorizing violence. This constitutes a fundamental problem in many contemporary approaches to addressing conflicts.
Approaches to Conflict in Conflict Resolution and Management Theory
The implementation of the above-mentioned points and the discussion of the questions raised address only the surface of the problem. This makes sense in the logic of conflict resolution and management, as prescriptive approaches to conflict. They seek to end or prevent a situation that is not desired. Lederach (2014) points out that both concepts “attempt to get rid of conflict when people were raising important and legitimate issues” for real change. Such approaches solve the episode, which however, is only a visible expression of much deeper entanglements of conflictive relations. In this logic, whatever nourishes such violent escalation remains unaddressed and enmeshes the problem even further.
Eliminating the killer, having better control through more solid structures, and tightening the legal framework as a measurement of crime prevention, while the socio-structural and culturally violent circumstances remain the same, does not automatically mean that this will contain such radicalization. Quite the contrary, studies indicate that the containing and excluding measures provoke an increase in the number of those radicalized. Hence, we must understand that terror has not arrived here, as some people say. It has been nourished here.
However, instead of allowing the broadening of perspectives towards underlying dynamics to this intolerable, hideous attack, the rhetoric of President Alexander Van der Bellen draws a morally rejecting narration. In his statement right after the attack, Van der Bellen reduces the motivation of the perpetrator to nothing further than “hate” that shall “not fall onto fertile ground.” Rather than acknowledging that hate – if that was the motivation in the first place – had developed on Austrian soil, he generally rejects hate and highlights the values of “tolerance, respect, democracy, freedom and love.” If hate really was the emotionally intrinsic motivation for committing such a crime, I’d suggest to reflect this intra-perspective to the outer perspective and to question if the benefits of tolerance, respect, democracy and love are available to everyone living in Austria, a country that is characterized by diverse societal contexts.
Calls for exclusion apparently find broad resonance in society: “Schleich di, Du Oaschloch!” (English: “Piss of, asshole!”), a response to the attacker, became viral on social media. Indeed, it brought some lightness into the sad and heavy-felt situation and summarizes the debates about the hardly comprehensible incident in simple obscene language. However, this statement does not only reject the behavior and its deeper rooted ideological thought, but more so the person itself.
From my understanding, the way of dealing with such conflict episodes is part of the problem. Certainly, radicalization and its atrocious violent expressions should never be tolerated. Nonetheless, if we really want to change something about it, we must understand more about the relational aspects that nourish radicalized worldviews and the violent escalation of conflicting dynamics.
Looking Beyond the Visible: Conflict Transformation
In the obituary to her sister, one of the four victims shot dead, Irmgard P. remarks that her sister would have rejected aggressive responses to forms of aggression as she stood for inclusive approaches. By suggesting to rather say: “Not like this!”, and to offer support, she indicates that the violation can also be seen as a call for help with a much bigger problem.
In conflict transformation theory, the violent expression of conflict (the episode) echoes dysfunctional relationships on underlying inter- and intrapersonal layers. This deeper-rooted web of relational patterns is called the epicenter. If conflicts escalate, this is often the tip of the iceberg, a history of lived experiences from which several episodes and issues have emerged. Wolfgang Dietrich (2012) argues that if they remain unseen, those dysfunctional relationships can be expressed in such a way, that the original issue may no longer be recognizable.
Therefore, it becomes inevitable when we aim at understanding conflicts more comprehensively and developing strategies for their transformation, to focus not only on the episode but more carefully on the epicenter of conflict. From a conflict transformation perspective, the main sources for change are the participants to the conflict themselves, which includes radicalized people. Excluding them from the approach to conflict will always cause a blind spot where we actually most urgently require answers.