Senseless violence

One of the problems with any reflection on absurd forms of violence in society is that these thoughts can never be, from a scientific point of view, truly interesting and technical. Before we know it, moral and political considerations and emotions sneak in and objective thought will be overruled by, for example, the indignation over the nature and amount of that violence. For if you start to think about violence, you will soon feel highly involved and at the same time completely powerless. Even if we should be inclined to choose violence in certain cases, when it comes from ourselves, when it is not the raw violence of nature and looks like reasonable action, it always turns out to be bigger and stronger in its consequences and its emotional implications than the one who unleashes violence or approves of it. Merely by thinking about it it is taken out of our own hands.

No matter what we think or how passionately we want to denounce violence as vulgar, immoral or inefficient, it will still occur time after time and we are never neutral bystanders, like when observing the behavior of chickens on a lawn or dogs in the street. Our words are filled with emotions and prejudices. Therefore, I want to restrict my reflection on to a couple of words, with which we appear to try and make sense of an occurrence on which we apparently, despite all of our pretenses, have as little influence as on the weather, but which fascinates us, either annoyingly or amusingly, in a much higher degree.

The quite recent combination of words “senseless violence” mostly seems to relate to something that we, if it did not sound as cynical, could call recreational violence, which appears predominately around soccer-fields, in amusement halls and in so-called action movies, hence on the fringes of social life. But how large, how infectious and how determining of our culture is the contribution of this type of violence as a spectacle in television shows and other forms of relaxation on which we spend a large part of our free time?

The combination of words “senseless violence” seems to have been specifically invented to qualify this pointless violence as a derailment or at least a singular occurrence, in order to not too suddenly and quite radically, exclude the possibility of a human violence that might be called “sensible”. That not senseless, but efficiently and prudently used violence would be in our control from beginning to end, and a predictable and positive outcome could be expected: order, security, and peace. This idea must be very old, for also in their etymology words like the German Gewalt and the Dutch geweld point towards a notion of power, as violence has evolved from the Latin vis which means strength or power. And if there is anything interesting to be found in reflecting upon violence, it could be the discovery that the Latin violentia must not without bitter irony be shaped after the analogy of vinolentia, which means inebriation.

In a similar way the notion of war crime can be used for all sorts of illegal actions being performed during the -incidentally regarded as tidy- business which we cal war. Such a cruel massacre, it seems to be the understanding then, is a clear and straightforward occasion, at least a bitter necessity, something very different than what was called ‘frischer Krieg’ in Germany, as if it concerned a sporting math. But, as the sportsmanlike train of thought seems to go, we will have to adhere to certain rules of the game, as we do in other matches. In the solemn declaration of those rules and the penalty on noncompliance, especially by the loser of the game, there appears to be an attempt to restrain the involuntarily rising thought that being in war itself could be, in increasing amounts, a crime, by no goals justifiable, even if the means achieve their ends.

Seen from this perspective, the expression “senseless violence” has to create a space for the belief that another, perhaps efficient, meaningful and permissible unleashing of violence might be possible – just to avoid the word ‘application’. That would possible come down to involving a superior power, for example the government that according to St Paul (Rom. 13.4) carries the sword for a reason, that can suppress every further escalation of violence as an exercise in power by the lower less responsible regions and that can prevent that by slogans like “soccer is war” a spiral of spectacular, but meaningless recreational violence starts.

I have the inclination – and I will indulge in it for the moment- to regard every form of superiority and power in the first place as the availability of a wider scale of means, technically and intellectually, than those that the lower regions could have at hand. Along with more power, the means not only have to be greater in number, but also more effective, and they have to appear less like the force of an aimless explosion, the raw violence of a hurricane or the unrestrained behavior of a rowdy crowd. A government that does not have these available, is not superior and has no more say than any random club.

We can really only talk about means and the usage thereof if we mean that by linking them, conceiving these means as links in a series of causes and consequences, a pre-descripted end can be truly achieved in a predictable and efficient way and will not just be proclaimed as a noble intention. Conversely, with violence it is always doubtful, whether it is part of the means and can be used, that is, when we think of the word “use” as a technique that we have mastered and under control and of which we can foresee the effects and side-effects with reasonable precision and won’t have to unleash thoughtlessly and as a spectacular expression. And that which is in no way a means, definitively falls outside the category of means and of it under no circumstances can be said that it is the last means. When it is unleashed, we have to regard that as an expression of powerlessness denying its own existence. The result of violence is always characterized by a hail of unintended, incalculable and destructive side-effects sensible, unless of course we read “goal” as something military and war-like, “hit” as the destruction of this goal and “use” as the unleashing of every random force that we do not control. In this way, the guillotine could be regarded as an effective means for relieving headaches, or pulling all teeth as an adequate means against biting one nails.

Seeing a proof of superiority in this seems a bit shortsighted to me: it is rather a manifestation of impotence or inability to link adequate and carefully dosed means. At best we can say that in certain circumstances in a somewhat ritual way we have reserved the authority to exert this impotence or the threat thereof and necessitated ourselves to leave out the, in this context painful, qualification senseless. But the question is wether this is more than a mere verbal and ritual exercise that does not change a thing about the situation itself.

There seem to be at least two reasons why we speak in such hidden terms about all kinds of violence, including that of the government. One is that a start of violence or a display of superiority can cause a shock that may bring people to their senses. If you, for example, want to quiet a boisterous crowd, you sometimes have to quickly produce a higher volume of sound than the bothersome murmur you intend to override. This will increase the total disorder, but still the expectation can be that silence will be its effect. There are reasons to believe in temporary violence and in the logic of something like a warning shot.

A second reason not to radically rule out every form of violence as a means has to lie in the fact that to this form of active performing there seems to be but one alternative, i.e. standing by powerlessly. But that alternative has to be rejected more forcefully according the measure in which the organization that would decline from performing it is ascribed greater power or authority. And at lower levels, where usually hard to accept frustrations and powerlessness rule, the illusion is carefully preserved, one that in fact boils down to a mythical overestimation of power, namely that the authoritative government is never powerless, always has the means and therefore always should be capable of doing something.

And if you are supposed to have all capabilities, you will always be guilty when you stand by powerlessly. In an activist culture, one that for the greater part is a culture of violence disguised as sport, as expression, as display of power or as spectacle rather than a culture of peaceful technique and of adequate and subtle means, standing by powerlessly or even the acceptance of powerlessness is always regarded as reprehensible. In the phraseology of that culture it is always better to do something than to do nothing at all or, in military terms less familiar to me: it is better to miss or even obliterate the goal than not to shoot at all. This will inevitably lead to absurd situations.

When it concerns matters like “peace” and “order” which a powerful government has to uphold, the question is with which degree of violence or the threat thereof can it meet the deep desire for an undisturbed and safe existence. If there is indeed one organization that can uphold peace also as a precondition for some measure of joy of living, it has to be the government. If the government carries its sword for a reason, the meaningless and by ways of ‘frischer Krieg’ and recreationally exercised violence amongst civilians should be the first thing it should fight with all means that deserve this name.

There inevitably is something contradictory in a ‘forced peace’ and an ‘imposed joy’ but the question is whether another form of peace, an ideal of lamb and lion idyllically cohabiting, of the sword being forged into a plough (Jes. II.4.) or of civilians dancing around the tree of liberty, will ever be realizable. Or preferably: that is hardly the question, because the impossible cannot, by definition, be an ideal and thus there are no means to realize this. And after the death of the aggressive ideologies that made the impossible into the ideal, nobody would want to reach such an unworldly goal by means of a bloody revolution. In the second-to-best world, the only one that is within human reach, the lion has to be tamed and the lamb will have to pull itself together from time to time.

The only form of violence that is not only inevitable, but can also serve some purpose, seems to be the threat of it. The superiority of the government is measurable primarily by the extend to which it can suffice with this threat. Its exclusive authority is the linking of means and methods to prevent violence. And in the second place its quality is measurable by the way its rulings connect to a need for self-control or the willingness thereto, that can suppress in an individual existence any explosion of violence or the foolish glorification thereof. I use a word here that might induce resistance. For is “to suppress” not equivalent to “using violence”? But there is nothing unnatural or evil about self-control, and if a culture of self-control means peace within time, it can also not be bad when peace on a larger scale is achieved by the power of others, who are no less wise than those who see their self-control rewarded by that which they desire most: a life in safety, peace, and order.

Even if peace would be no more than the absence of war and violence (but how will we ever know?) and even if it has to be maintained by a power that keeps itself in the background, it would still be preferable as a form of civilization to the outbursts of barbaric violence which we have to witness, happening to our shame, time and time again and on all fronts.


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