Violence, and Other Love Affairs

Two days after the Islamic State attacks on Paris, 12 French aircraft carriers, including 10 fighter jets, carried out “massive airstrikes” on two jihadi sites in the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

This attack was in keeping with French President Francoise Hollande’s statements that France would lead a “pitiless war” against the perpetrators of the Paris attacks. They were also backed up by comments from French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius who remarked that France now had the “legitimacy” to take action.

These retaliations made by Western governments are part of the War on Terror that began in the mountains of Afghanistan 14 years ago after the Sept. 11 attacks. They’ve since expanded into Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. In that space of time, it has been reported that 1.3 million people have died as a result, including 58,000 Americans. This figure is actually said to be a low estimate, with additional reports claiming that it could be closer to 2 million or even as high as 4 million.

Ironically, the War on Terror is predominantly reported to have increased the frequency of terror attacks, rather than quell them. It has resulted in millions of deaths, increased radicalization, the rise of extremist groups and the furtherdestabilization of Middle Eastern regions.

Perhaps the most intuitive explanation for this increase in terror is mathematical. It’s as if 1 terror + 1 terror = 2 terrors. But of course, terror, in this case, needs to be defined. Is terror just another word for violence? Is it something different? Do we terrorize, or is it just other people who terrorize us?


Terror normally implies intense fear, originating from the French terrorisme. The act of causing terror is what we understand as terrorism, and according to most international legal documents, terrorism is defined as the use of violence for political goals. However, there is no universal consensus on a strict definition of the word. There was an 8-year attempt in the United Nations, for example, to agree on a strict legal definition of terrorism that was eventually abandoned, predominantly due to UN officials’ inability to come up with a definition that didn’t label themselves or predominant Western leaders as terrorists.

Further, the most commonly used definitions of terrorism reveals another interesting dilemma: terrorism is essentially defined as violence. Although terrorism is understood in these definitions as the use of violence, what is focused on is not the violence itself, but rather the cause and context of violence. What makes something a terrorist act, therefore, is who is doing the violence and the cause it is directed toward.

But this does beg the question: isn’t the focus of this definition absolutely – and almost comically – subjective? According to this understanding, not all violence is bad, but only particular kinds of violence, done by particular kinds of people. “Other violence,” is presumably “not as bad,” and could possibly even be seen as “good”, or “legitimate”. Similar examples of political arbitrariness with regard to definitions are not uncommon. The Clinton Administration, for example, instructed leaders not to call the 1994 Rwandan Genocide a “genocide,” as this would potentially stir up moral sentiments among the public and lead to public pressure to get involved. Further, under the 1948 Genocide Convention, signatories, who included the U.S. and virtually every other nation in the Global North by 1990, are supposed to intervene in conflicts deemed genocides.

The Rwandan Genocide, in which 500,000 to 1,000,000 Rwandans were killed, including 70 percent of the Tutsi population, was – by all definitions – an act of genocide, where one ethnic group targeted, and annihilated, another particular ethnic group. Hesitation on the part of the Clinton Administration to call it what it was underscored political motives, while also demonstrating the power of language to maintain complicity and prevent social insurgency.


In our current situation, one reason for the focus on terrorism, and not violence in general, may be attempts to de-incriminate those who are involved while maintaining the social function of particular types of violence. Another may be that we don’t really think that violence in general is all that bad. In fact, we just might like it.

In everyday life, violence forms the driving plot for our movies, books and TV shows. We embody and glorify violent behavior in video games. We consume it constantly by a war-obsessed media who knows all too well that violence sells. “I guess I was part of the group-thing,” Bob Woodward lamented some years into the Iraq war, after the Washington Post examined its dramatized coverage of the war and its failure to take an at least partially critical stance on the initial events and reactions.

In many arenas of American life, violence is considered far less scandalous than sex, as reflected in a 2011 Supreme Court decision to reject a ban on the sale of violent video games to minors. In reaction to the decision, dissenting justice Stephen Breyer remarked:

“[W]hat sense does it make to forbid selling to a13-year-old boy a magazine with an image of nude woman, while protecting a sale to that 13-year-old of an interactive video game in which he actively, but virtually, binds and gags the woman, then tortures and kills her? What kind of first amendment would permit the government to protect children by restricting sales of that extremely violent video game only when the woman – bound, gagged, tortured and killed – is also topless?”

In relation to popular entertainment, Justice Samuel Alito further wrote, “for better or worse, our society has long regarded many depictions of killing and maiming as suitable features of popular entertainment.”

Guns – weapons of inherent violence – are symbols of American identity, associated with freedom and self-empowerment. Violence is celebrated (sometimes in a party-like manner) when we kill our enemies. We like it when our politicians are aggressive, and when their rhetoric reflects that. For all intents and purposes, violence is not something shunned in our society, but something embraced and often, glorified.

What we don’t like, though, is when that same violence is used against us, in a manner that we do not choose. This is what Robert Koehler referred to in a 2012 Huffington post article when he differentiated between “good’ and “bad” violence. According to Koehler, “we don’t normally address the issues [of violence in general] systematically because of our social investment in good violence.”

Good violence, in this case, is the kind of violence that we approve of, that doesn’t affect us and that allows us victory over our opponents. Whereas bad violence is the kind of violence of which we have to reap the consequences.

Of course, many people don’t necessarily believe in the good violence vs. bad violence distinction. They argue that all violence is bad, but that sometimes it is a necessary evil to wipe out something worse. This is the kind of utilitarian thinking that ostensibly formed the ideology behind the Vietnam War, the Iraq invasions and the present continuation of the War on Terror.

However, there are dubious assumptions made in this position. Namely, that the use of violence is an effective method to eliminate larger amounts of violence.

In a 1967 debate titled “The Legitimacy of Violence as a Political Act,” in which Noam Chomsky, Hannah Arendt and Susan Sontag were among the participants, Chomsky made a case against this assumption. Though he argues there are reasons to adopt a pro-militant position, there are, more often than not, disproportionate grounds to reject it. He argues that the use of violence predominantly leads to increased radicalization and insulation of dissenting groups, a lowering of dignity with regard to the populations affected and immense harm to both the perpetrators and victims.

Citing detailed studies of the Vietnam War, Chomsky claims that the basis for the success of the Viet Cong was not in the terror and violence perpetrated. Rather, it was in the organizational structures they developed, which “drew people in to beneficial organizations, organizations that they entered out of self-interest, that they to a large extent controlled, that began to interlace and cover the entire countryside.” Further, he points out that the utilization of violence in China was much less than in the Soviet Union, and China had much greater success in achieving a fair society. Another example mentioned in the debate is the anarchist victory in Spain in 1936, where their success is largely attributed to successful mass organization, as opposed to the use of violent measures.

Perhaps most poignantly, he argues that regardless of victory or loss, there will inevitably be problems in creating a just and peaceful society through unjust and violent means. Chomsky says “a new society rises out of the actions that are taken to form it, and the institutions and the ideology it develops are not independent of those actions. In fact, they’re heavily colored by them . . . shaped by them in many ways.”


Citing a distinction between what he deems “justified” and “legitimate” violence, he argues that justified violence forms the majority of the violence we see states and groups partake in today: it is violence that is retaliatory, provoked, often done in reflex and completed for the sake of victory. But, he argues, just because an action is justified does not mean that action is legitimate. Legitimate actions, according to Chomsky, are those that take into account the full consequences for all people concerned. Are the proposed actions compatible with the ends? How will it impact those affected? What are the long-term consequences? To this end, he argues that real legitimate violence rarely exists, and more often than not, adopting ideas and perspectives of legitimacy allows us to “raise ourselves to such a cultural and moral level, both as individuals and as a community, that we would be able to control this [violent] reflex.”

These sentiments are not new, and Chomsky was not the first nor will he be the last to utter them. They continue to echo in academia today. They are apparent in historical sources. They’re commonly put forth by social groups worldwide. But the question remains: if violence isn’t necessarily the best or most effective way to respond to violence and establish peaceful societies, why does it continue to be our first response?

Perhaps the problem lies in our love affair with violence. As long as violence in general is so thoroughly accepted and adored, we will continue to live in a violent society, where the distinction between “good” and “bad” violence remains entirely subjective and the shifting, arbitrary boundaries between the two invariably affect the most innocent among us.


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