The storming of the US Capitol on January 6 revealed a country more deeply and dangerously divided than many understood. Thousands of the most ardent, radical, and violent supporters of Donald Trump attacked the seat of American democracy and sought to overthrow the results of the presidential election. These shocking acts of violence and insurrection, stoked by the commander in chief and supported by a large number of Republicans, would leave five Americans dead in its wake.
During his inaugural address, President Biden said that “together we shall write an American story . . . of unity, not division.” As he seeks to fulfill his pledge to unify the country and heal the divides that threaten our union — and the very lives of our people — Biden needs to heed a powerful lesson from conflicts over the past few decades: No country can successfully heal from deep division without understanding and acknowledging the history that led to the conflict in the first place.
Northern Ireland offers a powerful and troubling example. On the day that the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, I spoke with Roelf Meyer, a former South African minister of defense. I had invited him to Northern Ireland four years earlier as part of peacebuilding efforts in the region, and wanted to thank him for sharing his experience with leaders across the political spectrum. Meyer had been the chief negotiator for the government of F.W. de Klerk, then the president of South Africa, in the talks to end apartheid. Meyer sat across the negotiating table from Cyril Ramaphosa, who is now president of South Africa and was then lead negotiator of the African National Congress. Meyer and Ramaphosa worked with other South Africans, including Nelson Mandela, to encourage peace in Northern Ireland and used the example of their friendship, despite their vast political differences, to show that peace and reconciliation with one’s bitter enemies was possible.
Meyer and Ramaphosa did not fully share my enthusiasm for the Good Friday Agreement. They were both deeply concerned about what they had witnessed on television coming from Northern Ireland. After the signing ceremony, leaders of the opposing political parties representing the Catholic and Protestant communities separately went before the media offering completely different, self-serving interpretations of the agreement. Many Catholics believed their community had suffered from generations of systemic abuse and discrimination by the British; many Protestants viewed the conflict as a wave of criminal activity by militant Catholics who sought to impose their will through violence. It was clear that neither the agreement — nor the negotiations leading up to it — did anything meaningful to change those views.
The failure of the Northern Ireland leaders to examine their own beliefs, or to acknowledge the validity of the other side’s interpretation of history that brought them into conflict, made it impossible to envision a different society beyond the absence of violence.
My decades of experience working in conflict resolution have taught me that for peace to be sustained, it requires a shared vision of the future that’s anchored in a shared understanding of the past. This does not mean, however, that all narratives of loss and suffering are equal. To understand is not to agree, but to recognize that conflict derives from exclusion and deepens injustice. Truly accepting that reality is essential. Otherwise, peace is fragile, calls to reconcile ring hollow, and the tensions that gave rise to the conflict only reemerge. The United States is facing such a moment.
We as a nation must confront our history and face some painful truths if we are to develop the political will to forge a truly representative democracy. We have no other choice. We have to acknowledge that systemic racism and oppression are real and damaging. We have to recognize the profound risk of white supremacy and that many Americans are willing to diminish our democracy through falsehoods and even violence to protect their status, which they perceive to be under threat in an increasingly diverse nation. We have to recognize that division in America is increasingly defined by an “us” versus “them” mind-set that leads Americans to view partisans across the divides as profound threats to their identity and core values.
But we also have to do what the leaders in Northern Ireland failed to do: find a way to confront our true history as a nation as the basis for envisioning a more just society. Until we do this, calls for unity and reconciliation will be nothing more than calls to skip over our present reality, a reality shaped by a history that is contested and one that is driving us further apart as a nation.
Tim Phillips, founder and CEO of the Boston-based peacebuilding organization Beyond Conflict, has over 30 years of experience in conflict resolution in more than 70 countries, including South Africa, Northern Ireland, and El Salvador. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.