The Alchemy of Violence

As Slobodan Milosevic awaits his war crimes trial in the Hague, it may be salutary to ask why is it that categorical violence – genocide, say, or ethnic cleansing of the type seen in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo – is recurred so often in our “civilized” century? The question seems unanswerable.

Some people seek explanations in biology: because young men often perpetrate violence, hormones are held as the cause. But it is hard to believe that it all comes down to testosterone. Others see sociobiological explanations: people are aggressive with outsiders and bond with insiders. Supposedly, this had an evolutionary pay-off. Such reasoning, however, makes “meaning” irrelevant.

Yet metaphysical meaning appears axiomatic to categorical violence. Because we see ourselves as imperfect, below what God wants, we sacrifice the bad in us, or sacrifice things we treasure. Or we see destruction as divine (as with Kali-Shiva), identify with it, and so renounce what is destroyed, purifying while bringing meaning to destruction.

We also invoke violence in ways that induce a sense of control, as with the warrior ethic, where the possibility of violent death is embraced. Think of regiments named after the death’s head, say the Prussian Army’s “Totenkopf” battalion. Terror becomes exhilarating; we’re on a high. Here is transcendence.

These responses can also be combined. We submit to the god to whom blood is offered, but the sacrificers are also agents of violence; they are, they do not merely submit, wading in blood with sacred intent. Because it combines the two strategies, nothing is more satiating than a sacred massacre. René Girard explored this terrain, where religion and violence meet, in a series of path-breaking works. Girard sees sacred violence occurring when people seek to renew their unity: attacking a victim heals internal rivalries threatening to tear a community apart.

Girard suggests that people restore unity out of an “everyone-minus-one” urge, that “minus one” being the victim. This may or may not be the same as creating a scapegoat, which spawns a feeling of catharsis, of evil expelled. The discharged is portrayed as evil incarnate. Scape-goating, too, strengthens unity, but against another danger: the sense that the binding social order is corrupted, or breaking down.

Scapegoats and outsiders are created because we define ourselves in terms of our beliefs, ideal order, or way of life and so must place evil outside ourselves. Seeing oneself as evil, or in moral chaos, is too disabling, paralyzing. We can’t admit it. So we project the evil outside, onto some agents of "pollution".

To see evil or disorder as external, naturally, requires a contrast. Historically, contrast was often provided by “barbarians,” “savages,” distant peoples mostly beyond contact. The contrast defined evil as external – we're not barbarians. Without contact, this was relatively harmless, although it did license cruelty when contact occurred. Think of the Conquest of Mexico, the slave trade: each released the joys of aggression.

But the most terrible violence can arise when the Outsiders are seen as polluting from within, and thus in urgent need of being purged or expelled. We see this in the terrible history of European anti-Semitism. In some societies, the rise of modernity even exacerbated this. Jewish emancipation was seen by some as allowing the “enemy” to infiltrate. This sense culminated in Naziism, which fused a warrior ethic with the mythology of expelling evil: holy rage and sacred massacre simultaneously.

Perversely, our modern, rational world can inflame this process. Although little belief exists nowadays in the Wrath of God, even among believers, enemies can be eliminated as a democratic duty. Republics and democracies, indeed, generated a new agency of violence: the people or nation. A people can forge its democratic identity in Revolution, purging internal enemies – aristocrats, kulaks – and making war against aggressive external "reaction".

Of course, many democratic states have avoided this legacy of Revolution, but another source arises, from the very allegiance to a national identity, which is a cornerstone of most democratic polities today. “Others” can often come to be seen as threats to this identity. For if you include a minority within our “people,” they may vote to change our identity; exclude them, however, and they are denied citizenship, a key right of modernity. Either way, they may want to dismember our territory. So: assimilate or be cleansed! Thus the 20th Century, the age of democracy, became the heyday of ethnic cleansing. Whoever violates our moral order becomes a renegade, deserving of what they get.

Take India’s Muslims. In the eyes of the ruling BJP: mosques can be leveled because their construction hundreds of years ago was a fruit of aggression. Among less sophisticated members of the Party the discourse is crudely blunt: Muslims don’t belong here; send them to Pakistan.

Note that terrible alchemy. Merely by existing a minority threatens identity. Add believable atrocity stories and mass violence is never far off, for there are always young men ready to act. Atrocities are committed. One group cleanses village A; a counter-group cleanses village B. Revenge, tit-for-tat, trust is destroyed even among people who lived together and intermarried over generations. It all spirals downward.

Of course, elites manipulate these dark forces, as in Bosnia in the 1990s and in Punjab in1947. Recent history in Punjab, where killing between Sikhs and Hindus has subsided, shows that this terrible dialectic is not irresistible. Sometimes the fabric of cross-community relations can defy attempts to destroy it by massacre.

One more source of categorical violence must also be mentioned. Today, we rescue and recognize victims and punish perpetrators and victimizers. Concern for victims is, for Girard, the religion of the modern world. It is a force for battling injustice, but it, too, draws lines and denounces enemies. For if I am a victim someone must be the victimizer. Claiming victim-hood asserts purity. Our cause is good, so we can inflict righteous violence. We have a right to do terrible things, a right others don’t possess. Here is the logic of Terrorism: because I suffer at the hands of others, I am justified in wreaking mayhem.

Does knowing all this tell us how to lessen or eliminate categorical violence? Kant argued that ordered, democratic societies achieve this goal because, by their nature, they are less violent. They don’t war with each other, and presumably don’t suffer civil wars. There is truth here, yet when the crusading spirit appears in democratic dress, no chivalry exists toward enemies, as in the days of Saladin and Richard Coeur de Lion. There is only a grim, relentless struggle against evil.

Yet efforts can be made to renounce the rights conferred by suffering, and so stop violence before it seeks righteous retribution. We have a living example of what is needed in Nelson Mandela, who renounced vengeance in favor of a conditional amnesty. Usually, amnesties of the type offered in South Africa are flawed because they suppress truth or at least a consciousness of wrongs, which then fester. Mandela’s “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” sought to bring terrible deeds to light but not necessarily for retribution. The deeds exposed in public confessions (for which, if truthful, you received an amnesty) were not only those of the former rulers. Here was true co-responsibility.

No-one knows if this will ultimately work. Mandela’s stance ignores the hunger for revenge, as well as self-righteousness. But without Mandela’s extraordinary renunciation of the rights of victim-hood after his release from prison, a new South Africa might never have begun to emerge.

Poland comes to mind here, too, with Adam Michnik’s advice to forego retribution so as to build a new society. The Dalai Lama’s response to Chinese oppression in Tibet offers another example. Moves of this kind clearly derive from religious tradition, although not necessarily from personal faith. Whatever the motivation, their power lies not in suppressing the madness of violent categorization, but in transfiguring it in the name of a new kind of common world.