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Terror and Turmoil -- We Have Been Here Before

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Too often these days, news headlines can make us shudder in despair -- how do we make sense of the televised beheadings of innocent workers, suicide bombers who target schoolchildren, and the indiscriminate kidnapping and mass killings of women and children? No matter whether we adhere to so-called Western or Eastern values, the atrocities of extremist groups and the complicity and participation by some governments are truly incomprehensible.

Yet, we look to our leaders, and even ourselves, for some sort of response. We seek explanations that can help us develop strategies to combat and bring an end to these horrors. We want a reason to hope. We want to believe we are secure.

In the past, war was largely formally waged by nations, not by non-state actors as today. Combat was even governed by a set of protocols and precedents, although these rules of engagement were frequently ignored. Nevertheless, there was a common understanding about what justified a country taking up arms and how fighting should be conducted once hostilities began. The Geneva Conventions have even been called the civilizing of war, because they placed limits on what could be done, even in war.

Today, none of those historical precedents apply. How do we categorize the attacks on cities and abduction of girls in Nigeria, the cowardly execution of an unarmed soldier at Ottawa's War Memorial or a cold-blooded attack on schoolchildren in Pakistan? Are they examples of war, terrorism, simple criminality, or social or religious upheaval? Are these one-off atrocities, local breakdown or part of a larger mission?

When world leaders marched in Paris in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, I wanted to believe they were taking a stand in opposition to violence against the innocent and vulnerable everywhere. However, I wonder why we didn't see similar reaction when we saw acts of brutality in other places -- like the killing of 132 schoolchildren by gunmen in Peshawar, the car bomb that killed dozens in Yadouda, or the more than 200 young girls that were kidnapped in Chibok.

A humanitarian emergency's origins do not matter to development agencies like ours. We provide assistance to the injured, violated, and displaced, regardless of the underlying reasons. Whether it is a force of nature, such as an earthquake, or a disaster caused by conflict and political upheaval, such as the multi-party civil war in Syria, we help traumatized survivors and refugees who desperately need food, shelter, healthcare, education, and safety.

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Due to conflict inside parts of South Sudan, more than 1.4 million people have been displaced from their homes, according to the UN Refugee Agency, while thousands of others have fled to neighbouring countries. Photo: Plan / Adrianne Ohanesian

However, I worry that if this is all we can do, we are in danger of becoming a mere band-aid solution. Until the root causes of these human calamaties are excised, there will be no progress in establishing the economic and social stability required to build a better and stable future. In the end, we development agencies aspire to be builders, not re-builders.

In today's wars -- no less destructive than others in history because they are undeclared -- how do we bring the fighting parties to the table? None of the usual diplomatic and military carrots and sticks are working. So what to do?

Leaders faced such questions during the two world wars of the last century. They, too, were prone to despair. More recently, and perhaps more relevant, terrorists operated freely for more than a decade across Western Europe. Revolutionary groups such as Germany's Baader-Meinhof Gang, Italy's Red Brigades and the Basque separatist ETA, along with the IRA, kidnapped and assassinated leading industrialists and politicians, and set bombs that killed innocent citizens.

Today, these organizations are either moribund or are mostly committed to peaceful resolution of conflict. The point is that history demonstrates that what seems intractable today can be, remarkably, soluble tomorrow.

We do not have solutions today, but emerging leaders willing to try different approaches, and public intolerance of any more human carnage can all coalesce as it did in Western Europe 30 years ago. Leadership is a combination of courage, audacity, tenacity, and acknowledgement that, at certain times, we don't have all the answers...at least not yet.