What the US should know about violence: Conflict can become an institution

What the US should know about violence: Conflict can become an institution
© Julia Nikhinson

What can the 25-year civil war in the small island nation of Sri Lanka teach the United States at this time? It may offer relevant and disturbing lessons as we face domestic terror driven by grievance, misinformation and the politics of division, race and ethnicity.  

The Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol was deeply disturbing. However, we must look beyond the horror of the event to understand what is behind the conflict and address the risk that domestic conflict in our country is morphing into an institution capable of sustaining and creating a spiral of violence. 

Conflict begins with grievance and victimization, real and perceived. Grievances gain momentum when nurtured and propagated by politicized media and leadership. Soon, these deep-seated grievances and the demonization of “the other side” become a foundation for the institutions of conflict and give all other supporting actions legitimacy.


In Sri Lanka, since independence in 1948, the minority Tamil population experienced policies of the Singhalese majority government that constrained their economic and social opportunities and denied them their rights. They felt that political avenues became closed to them. Ultimately, some members of that group resorted to violence that originated from racial/ethnic hostility and was fanned by irresponsible leaders into terrorism and repression.  

Similarly, the mob that stormed the Capitol viewed their actions as legitimate, justified and even righteous, based on their perceptions of grievance, and there are now calls to investigate two senators whose actions allegedly “lent legitimacy to the mob’s cause and made future violence more likely.”  

Unaddressed grievances are followed by mobilization and organization. Groups with like perceptions of injustice and victimization join forces. Revenue flows and power grows.

In Sri Lanka, the war militarized the country’s economy and the Tamil Tigers, a guerrilla organization, controlled a third of the country’s territory, a massive army and instruments of civil authority, as well as large financial reserves. The country became paralyzed by the impacts of the conflict. 

In the U.S. there are at least 200 active militia groups with more than 6,000 active members. The attack on the Capitol seems to have been perpetrated by a coalition of far-right groups and white nationalists, supported by thousands of donors and allies. The misperception held by many followers that the attack was, somehow, a rousing success could inspire more recruits and more dollars, potentially escalating the cycle of violence. 


It has been heartening to see U.S. law enforcement act quickly to track down and arrest the perpetrators of violence at our Capitol. It is also encouraging to learn that President BidenJoe BidenSuspect in FedEx shooting used two assault rifles he bought legally: police US, China say they are 'committed' to cooperating on climate change DC goes to the dogs — Major and Champ, that is MORE has ordered our intelligence agencies to conduct a thorough assessment of the threat from domestic terrorism.

However, to devise a truly comprehensive plan to stop the spiral that allows factionalism and violence to become deeply embedded, we should look to Northern Ireland for a different set of lessons. 

Northern Ireland experienced three decades of conflict, from the late 1960s to the late 1990s, that killed more than 3,500 people and pitted Protestant loyalists against Catholic republicans.

During the Clinton administration, former Sen. George Mitchell (D-Maine) was an architect of the peace process that resulted in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. His Mitchell Principles set the ground rules for the agreement and can serve as guiding principles upon which the U.S. might work towards unity in our country. 

First, legal channels must address the criminal elements. Leaders must reject violence, not exploit it, and the law must deal firmly with those who commit criminal acts without making them martyrs and deepening the grievance of the mob. 

Next, the political establishment must provide a trustworthy political process for addressing legitimate grievances — both specific, immediate problems and longer-term, deeply-embedded discrimination, prejudice and attitudes. The political process must be demonstrably more effective than violence. 

Through it all, we will need to be patient. This is a long-term process that requires steady attention, disciplined messaging and tangible progress. In Northern Ireland, the peace process went on for more than a decade, yet political parties of vastly different views work side by side in government today. 

Above all, we must be transparent about our uncomfortable truths, biases, past wrongs and current divisions, to get to the true nature and extent of the problem and to develop common solutions. What are the grievances of the disaffected, their leaders and organizations? Is it the underlying economic insecurity faced by the working class; is it the loss of power and influence whites perceive; is it broader alienation from the promise of our country? 

Hopefully, we in the U.S. can learn from the experiences of countries around the world in confronting disaffected groups, drawing insights from the successful examples of Northern Ireland or the more troubling ones of Sri Lanka.

The only way to unite our country is to address and possibly redress grievances and to stop the institutionalization of conflict. Because, as we witnessed in Sri Lanka, when grievances become the edifice upon which a country functions, conflict is here to stay.

Shaun Donnelly lived in Sri Lanka from 1997 to 2000. He retired from the U.S. Foreign Service in 2008 after a 36-year career. Among other roles, he served as U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka and Maldives and deputy ambassador in Tunisia and Mali.

Steve Hollingworth lived and worked in Sri Lanka from 1998-2002. He is president and CEO of Grameen Foundation, and previously was chief operating officer for CARE International.