When this photo of Martin Richard, the 8-year-old boy who was killed in the Boston Marathon bombings on April 15, was posted on Facebook, it quickly went viral. People left tributes outside the family’s home. Somebody wrote “peace” in chalk on the family doorstep. And there was a flurry of soul-searching and debate across the globe: 

How could such innocence be struck down by such terrible, seemingly random violence?

What defense is there for the peaceful against extremism and hatred?

What would Martin’s killers have made of his message?

Underneath all the bewilderment, anger and hurt, there’s a more important, more strategic question to be answered — how can we, as Martin implored, build a world where people don’t hurt people? A place where peace is an achievable reality?

Fortunately, there are countless people around the world working to answer that question.

Many of them are children.

Countering radicalization

Gulalai Ismail began her journey as a peace builder at just 16 years of age in her native province of province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan. Having met a woman whose 12-year-old son had been recruited as a suicide bomber, Gulalai started working with people her own age to counter the forces of extremism and radicalization. She explains more on the website Peace Direct, an international nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting grassroots peace builders in conflict regions.

“We identify young people in the community who might be vulnerable to militants, and we discuss the causes and consequences of conflict, and the history of Talibanisation. We talk about tolerance for people of other faiths.”

From those beginnings Gulalai, now 23, has built a network of more than 900 youth volunteers and activists. Interestingly in a global culture that sees men as the primary decision makers when it comes to war and peace, Gulalai’s primary focus is on women.

Just as development charities have come to understand the economic potential for empowering girls, in peace building it is often the women who hold leverage to create real change, says Gulalai.

“Women are not only victims of conflict, they are drivers of peace. Women’s voices must be heard if peace is to last.”

Peace Direct website

Photo: Peace Direct

Defining peace

Most of us don’t live our daily lives in a war zone. Yet, understandably, our culture has a better understanding of war than it does peace. We might simplify it. We might sugar coat it. We might ignore it. But in the broadest of strokes, we know what war is.

War is painfully tangible. There are rockets; there are bombs; there’s rubble; there’s noise; and there are bodies. Lots of bodies.

And then there are those who are left behind.

Ask someone to define peace, however, and it gets a little difficult. 

We tend to think of peace as either an absence of war or, alternatively, as a utopia that seems impossible to achieve. Yet those who spend their time working for peace see something more complex.

Johan Galtung, a Norwegian sociologist and principal founder of the discipline of peace and conflict studies, has proposed a framework of negative and positive peace — with negative peace being simply an absence of direct violence. Positive peace, on the other hand, also means the absence of structural violence (indirect violence like famine, which Galtung argues is caused by injustice) and cultural violence (indirect violence caused by cultural inequalities) too.

In the conclusion to his book, "Peace By Peaceful Means," Galtung explains how this framework might shape our understanding of peace building:

"… cultural peace engenders structural peace, with symbiotic, equitable relations among diverse partners and direct peace with acts of cooperation, friendliness and love. It could be a virtuous, rather than vicious, triangle, also self reinforcing. This virtuous triangle would be obtained by working on all three corners at the same time, not assuming that basic changes in one will automatically lead to changes in the other two."

Peace starts where you are

By framing peace as being more than an absence of war, many peace-building groups have come to see connections with a much broader set of issues including gender equality, youth empowerment, economic and environmental justice, interculturality and more.

In Newham, a borough of London that has suffered from gang-related violence and inter-ethnic tensions, a Peace Direct initiative called Truce 2020 trains inner city youths in conflict resolution and mediation skills.

The result, says participant Isha Khan, is not just better race relations or fewer gang fights, but a realization of the true potential of those who take part:

“Together we have encouraged each other to fulfill our life ambitions and have watched each other develop, grow and blossom as young people.”

True to a more holistic understanding of peace and peace building, Truce 2020 also encourages youths to understand the conflicts they are actors within the broader context of global tensions. Each year, Truce 2020 participants receive a visit from a peace builder in an international conflict zone — learning how grassroots peace is being worked on in every corner of the world. So far, Truce 2020 has worked with peace builders from Sri Lanka, Mozambique, Kashmir DR Congo and Burundi.

Understanding youth violence through supporting youth peace

With Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev still in hospital, and communicating in writing due to a gunshot wound to the throat, much of the coming discourse over the events of April 15 will inevitably focus on what he and his brother did, and what the consequences should be. Should he be tried as an enemy combatant? Will he face the death penalty?

The fury in these questions is palpable.

Yet it’s important to also take a step back and ask other questions as well. Why did Tsarnaev and his brother become radicalized? How? And what interventions could have taken place to guide them on a different path?

As countless column inches get written, seeking to understand youths who turned to violence, we may in fact gain a better understanding of those youths if we listen to and support their contemporaries who have decided to build peace.

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