It seems like almost every day there is an outbreak of violence somewhere in the world—whether it’s a mass shooting in the U.S., a simmering intifada boiling into war between Israelis and Palestinians, growing civil unrest and clashes between rebels and the Assad government in Syria, or the ISIS attacks in Paris just last week.

How do we even begin to speak about such horrific acts, let alone understand why they occur? How do we describe the indescribable, explain the inexplicable, think the unthinkable? The answer is not self-evident. But before we can prescribe what to do to prevent further violence, we must begin to reflect on these critical questions.

For starters, we must recognize that this is a process. Violence does not speak for itself. The way that people comprehend and talk about catastrophic events is not merely objective in that it describes in a neutral way what happened, who was involved, etc. It is a process that unfolds through a variety of mediums, and flows through a variety of sources, to interpret, re-construct, and re-present the event—in short, to give it meaning.

We must also recognize that this is an immanently political process. By political, I mean a process that separates, divides, and partitions humanity into different groups—self/other, victim/perpetrator, civilized/barbarian, freedom fighter/terrorist. In attempting to explain violence, people necessarily engage in acts of categorization, acts that delimit both the violence and those who commit it from an often unstated “us.” We are defined in relation to these others, these outsiders; yet more often than not, it is the we that goes unquestioned during moments of tragedy.

In the wake of a violent episode, people quickly lose sight of this process. It is easy to forget that in trying to make sense of it all, everyone—from state officials to news reporters to the general public—engages in a political activity to distinguish an “us” from a “them.” These divisions appear ahistorical and are bandied about as if they were natural, when, in fact, they are socially constructed. This is not to say that they can simply be undone, but rather that they are created, solidified, and reinforced through discourse.

While hardly ever subjected to scrutiny, actions to classify violence and, hence, people have devastating consequences—for the way that we understand the issues and for the solutions that we propose. And so, it is imperative in these times to remain self-reflective. Now more than ever, we must be vigilant about the language we use. For the language we use does more than just describe—it actively produces identities; and it is these very political separations that perpetuate violence.

Oftentimes, when people cannot readily understand violence, they label it as something that is other, something that exists outside their frame of what is intelligible. At the same time, they locate those who perform these acts as outside the boundaries of their political community. These discourses at once reinforce distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate forms of violence, and produce agents who may legitimately act violently and those who may not.

Take, for example, gun violence in the U.S., which is often considered senseless. Whenever we come across such a loaded term, we should immediately raise questions about its underlying meaning. In insisting that gun violence is senseless, many officials, pundits, and segments of the American public categorize the type of violence and the people who commit these acts as irrational, or, worse, mentally ill.

This labelling is problematic for three main reasons. First, the assumed link between mental illness and violence is untrue; it propagates a myth and politicizes the mentally disabled as security threats, even though the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent. Second and by extension, discourse on senseless gun violence closes off discussion about what policies, if any, should be implemented. If attacks are ostensibly committed by those who are thought to be “crazy,” then there is no discernible pattern between cases of gun violence and thus no way to prevent them. Third, saying that gun violence is senseless implies its opposite—that there is, indeed, sensible violence. But the line between sensible and senseless violence is never made explicit.

The effects of this process can be seen even more starkly in the issue of terrorist attacks. As with gun violence, the category of terrorism conceals an underlying division between sensible and senseless violence. When we look closely, we see that violence committed by the state is legitimate, because it is widely recognized that the state possesses a monopoly on the use of physical force within a territory. Violence perpetrated by non-state actors, as a result, is illegitimate. What is more, violence against the state and its subjects is terrorism, because it is both illegitimate and senseless.

But in making these sharp distinctions, we avoid a more serious analysis about why some people participate in such attacks. Nowadays, we typically hear explanations about how normal individuals are turned into terrorists. The general narrative is that these people were inculcated with a radical interpretation of Islam, and that this religious ideology drives them to extremism. In this storyline, ideology takes the form of false consciousness—a belief system held only by irrational people.

Ideology, however, is much more than that: it is a culturally shared historical memory, it is an identity claim, and it is an ethical framework for action. In this, we all share something fundamental. People may have competing belief systems, but we are all beholden to ideology, we are all subject to particular ways of life, religious traditions, and moral and normative convictions. Rather than insisting that one is superior to another, we should engage in a dialogue about how these differences arise and how we can co-exist without resorting to violence.

All of this is to say that in categorizing violence and those who carry it out as other, we are inhibited from asking deeper questions about ourselves. Do we not all participate in a process to exclude some people, some ideas, some values from our community? Are we not all complicit in creating and reproducing differences as conflictual, irreconcilable? Do we not all draw a line between inside and outside, and do we not all enforce these boundaries?

More than that, we avoid thoughtful reflection about violence itself. Sometimes violence is considered retaliatory, sometimes provocative; sometimes it is seen as legitimate, sometimes illegitimate. But at its core, every act of community-building is at the same time an act of exclusion, and every community engages in heinous acts of violence to secure their right to persist in the face of otherness. If we continue to take these divisions as necessary—even natural—then we will never truly understand those who we place on the outside; indeed, we will never truly understand ourselves.

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

About The Author

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Ph.D. Candidate

Tyler is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Southern California. He is currently working on a dissertation project related to the historical dimensions of emergency powers in the U.S., particularly during the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration (1933-1945).