The shocking story out of Phoenix this week about a shooting that took place after a mediation session, has understandably made mediators a bit jumpy. The case was the kind of ordinary contract dispute mediators see every day, between a furniture mover/refurbisher and a dissatisfied customer. The amount in dispute might have been less than $20,000. Reports are that the furniture guy, representing himself, attended the
mediation for an hour, and then said he had to get something from his
car. What he got was his gun, and then he lay in wait outside the building for
the opposing party and his counsel to come out whereupon he shot them both.
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People naturally wonder. Could this incident have been prevented? Do mediators and participants need to take more precautions to protect themselves? Is mediation dangerous? We deal with angry and emotional people all the time in mediation, and sometimes we stir those emotions up. Should we be doing something differently to prevent violence? I hesitate to jump to the conclusion that mediators need to provide better security. First of all, it doesn’t appear that better security would have prevented an incident like this one. This guy was waiting outdoors in the parking lot. Metal detectors and even security guards probably wouldn’t have stopped him.
The thing that is more likely to prevent violent incidents like this one is mediation itself: The whole purpose of mediation is to teach
people how to resolve their conflicts without violence, and even without litigation (a form of non-physical violence) Mediators should recognize, however, that we’re not going to be successful in creating peace in every case, and that we do this kind of work at some personal risk, and at some risk to the parties to the mediation. That’s what peacemakers are supposed to do.
The U.S. has thousands of troops in Korea. Why are they there? We don’t have enough forces to prevent the North Koreans from attacking. But we do have enough to make sure that if North Korea does attack, some Americans are going to get killed, and that is going to insure that our country will defend South Korea. And that is what deters the North Koreans from attacking. That’s not a perfect analogy to what mediators do, but it is an example of how part of the job of peacekeepers is to make themselves and others vulnerable for the purpose of making peace.
I’ll probably keep a more careful watch on mediation participants after this incident, but I’m also inclined to be somewhat fatalistic about the fairly small dangers associated with this kind of work. Every day, fire fighters assume the risks associated with the occasional fire getting out of control as the price of keeping us safe from fires. Mediators should be able to assume the risks, and must ask participants to put themselves at risk, of an occasional conflict getting out of control as the price of helping us resolve a lot of conflict.