Our attitude to violence

The bad guys are always the others

Our standards for gauging violence have become apolitical, causing us to be horrified only by the deeds of individuals. Critical thinking is no longer possible. An essay by Charlotte Wiedemann

When a young man in Japan recently killed nineteen people in a home for the disabled, it inevitably summoned thoughts of "lives not worth living". As his motive, the perpetrator said he felt it would be better if people with disabilities would just disappear. Back when this attitude was applied to a large number of people, leading to systematic murder, it was called euthanasia.

Our dismay at the deed of the Japanese man is still fresh in our minds, while hardly anyone talks anymore about the horrors of euthanasia. This seems to be happening more and more these days: violence is perceived as something new to the world and we contemplate it with shock and fascination, as if it were something strange and unprecedented. An intruder.

Our whole idea of what violence really is – illegitimate, life-crushing violence – clings more and more to the spectacular acts of individual bad guys or gangs. Its counterpart is state-sanctioned violence. This type persecutes and kills legitimately, at least on our side of the world, in Germany, in Western Europe.

The boundary between bad and good violence may be somewhat porous elsewhere in the world, in the USA for instance, but we do not dare to call it into question. The German MP Renate Kunast was duly informed that she had no right to doubt the need for shooting to kill.

The indifference of the European public to the barbarism in Aleppo can be attributed at least in part to the presumption that Bashar al-Assad still preserves a shred of legitimacy for his state-perpetrated violence. Is it not directed against the chaos that would be far worse?

Gesture of legitimacy

From the European perspective, the people who are losing their lives in the Mediterranean due to European border policy are apparently unworthy of living. Does that sound too harsh? Europe is after all killing them with the violence of its border regime – that is, with legitimate, good violence.

Refugees on the Mediterranean (photo: Reuters/Marina Militare)
From the European perspective, the people who are losing their lives in the Mediterranean due to European border policy are apparently unworthy of living. Does that sound too harsh? Europe is after all killing them with the violence of its border regime – that is, with legitimate, good violence

But the human traffickers belong on the side of illegitimate, evil violence. Out of pure greed, they even shoot refugees who do not follow their orders. This appals us. And what goes on among the refugees on the boats is just as bad as the border regime, a friend recently told me.

A fatal confusion of cause and effect. It rarely happens on a cruise ship that someone throws a fellow-passenger's baby overboard because he can no longer stand its wailing.

Given our indifference to the sanctioned killing going on in the Mediterranean, we have to ask ourselves a different question: what if this is not yet the great migration of the poor? And it isn't. The public has been talked into an eschatological mood: as if now everything were at stake; as if decisions about last resorts must now be made, at a turning point in history. What kind of violence would our society resort to in a gesture of legitimacy were the great migration of the disadvantaged really to begin?

The violence that is already today arising in our midst evokes very little outrage. Hundreds of attacks on asylum shelters, more than a thousand in the past year alone: they all fade into the shadows just beyond our attention span, as though they lacked any colour. Quite different are the reactions to the spectacular acts of individuals who have nothing to do with us, because the perpetrators are migrants, terrorists, religious zealots – or, if they are dangerously similar to us, they must be sick. The bad guys are somehow always the others.

We push the violence away from us. We, the civilised inhabitants of civilised Europe, we appreciate and respect life. We have wiped our mirrors clean; there are no dark spots anymore and no past.

"When I search for humanity in the technique and the style of Europe, I see only a succession of negations of humanity and an avalanche of murders," wrote Frantz Fanon in 1966. I do not regard terrorism as anti-colonial backlash. But sometimes I think: we are now being served, in small packages, the violence we have sown all over the world for centuries.

Arson attack in Vorra near Nuremberg on 12.12.2014. Three buildings earmarked as asylum shelters were set alight. ″No asylum seekers in Vorra″ (photo: picture-alliance/dps/ToMa)
"The violence that is already today arising in our midst evokes very little outrage. Hundreds of attacks on asylum shelters, more than a thousand in the past year alone: they all fade into the shadows just beyond our attention span," writes Charlotte Wiedemann

Fundamental powerlessness

The Caucasian majority society that has long benefited from the violence it perpetrated on other continents is now learning what it's like to shiver in fear. This has been "a bloody summer", writes "Der Spiegel". What would the people of Aleppo give to enjoy such a summer. What would people in many countries around the world give for a summer like this one. We are perhaps getting an inkling these days of what menace and impotence feel like – a feeling that millions of people outside Europe have to live with day after day.

We have forgotten how to recognise structural violence, the brutal violence of poverty that condemns a Malian woman to die in childbirth due to a slight complication. When we speak of "mindless violence", we mean the violence of an offender who wildly strikes out, taking the lives of innocent victims. The Malian woman who dies in childbirth in the 21st century is struck down by the mindless power of unjust conditions, whose violence we no longer care to call by name.

But system-critical thinking is not possible without a political opinion on what violence is – and what it spawns. Fifteen years after 9/11, we hardly have any standards anymore for violence that might be described as resistance.

Occasionally, violence from our past creeps back into the light. Herero/Nama, a small genocide. Or recent investigations of a few elderly people who were once in charge at the Stutthof concentration camp near Danzig. A total of 26 deportation trains arrived there between late June and mid-October 1944; all of the passengers, most of them Jewish, were quickly dispatched by a shot in the neck or gas. A bloodlust to which nothing in our present day can compare.

Maybe we should think back just once to the summer of Stutthof when an Afghan boy raises an axe or a driver goes amok on a promenade in Nice.

Charlotte Wiedemann

© Qantara.de 2016

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

More on this topic
In submitting this comment, the reader accepts the following terms and conditions: Qantara.de reserves the right to edit or delete comments or not to publish them. This applies in particular to defamatory, racist, personal, or irrelevant comments or comments written in dialects or languages other than English. Comments submitted by readers using fantasy names or intentionally false names will not be published. Qantara.de will not provide information on the telephone. Readers' comments can be found by Google and other search engines.
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.