The dreadful events in Norway are yet another graphic illustration of the centrality of violence to modern life.
Following is an essay I wrote arguing that there is something qualitatively worse about violence than other existential threats…
Violence: “The intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.”
The World Health Organization’s World Report on Violence and Health estimates that over a million people lose their lives to violence and millions more are injured and maimed every year. The report states that violence is “among the leading causes of death among people aged 15-44 years worldwide, accounting for 14% of deaths among males and 7% of deaths among females.”
What is infinitely disturbing is the myriad forms this violence takes and how deeply pervasive and borderless it is. Across the globe and across the centuries, humans have committed the most barbaric acts, limited only by their imaginations, and the march of civilization has done little to change the grim reality that on any given day, in every corner of our planet, gruesome and ungodly things are done to women, children and men.
In Beirut during the 70s and early 80s, I witnessed terrible acts of violence, car bombs at supermarkets and missile strikes on residential neighborhoods, bloody bodies and corpses in the street, the carnage of urban warfare. I saw the darker aspects of human nature, the willingness of people to brutalize one another. After four decades on this planet, I still cannot fathom how a man can rape a baby, how people can gas, hack, strangle, shoot, smother, burn, and torture their fellow humans. Rather than become dulled and inured, I am ever more appalled and horrified by violence.
If you can stomach it, watch this CNN report on gang-raping little girls in Darfur:
Can we even imagine the anguish felt by these young victims and their families? Can words and images conjure their actual suffering and fear?
Preventing violence should be one of our highest priorities, if not the highest. Although the relative scale is disproportionate (vastly more people are at risk from hunger and disease) violence touches virtually everyone, directly or indirectly. Is there a single person reading this who hasn’t been affected by it in some way or who isn’t concerned about being harmed or having their loved ones harmed? In many ways, violence – the fear of it, the reality of it, its history, and its many representations/permutations in art, film, music and modern culture – defines our 21st century life.
There is something qualitatively different, something worse, about violence than other existential threats. It may be impossible to distinguish between the mortal terror of being trapped under a building in an earthquake and being trapped under a building after a car bomb, between the agony of death from cancer and being beaten to death. But I believe there is a difference. We all die in some manner or another, but an act of human will, of intentionality, a choice by one person to harm another, is not the same as an act or accident of nature or a cruel vagary of fate.
Saying that violence is a more pressing problem than hunger or disease opens up a host of counter-arguments. One could argue that starvation and (some) diseases are preventable and thus an indirect act of will by those who do nothing – or don’t do enough – to help prevent them. It’s true that omission can be considered equally reprehensible as commission, though the immediacy, intentionality, and physicality of a violent act sets it apart, precisely because free will is involved, because it is a choice in the moment, because it is avoidable by virtue of being the will of a person.
It’s also possible to argue that some forms of violence are unavoidable (or even necessary), that sometimes violence is not the result of free will, that perhaps it’s less painful to die of a gunshot to the head than from a long and agonizing illness, and so on. All these points are debatable. Life itself is continuous moral triage; we face multiple dilemmas and multiple crises, multiple lesser-of-evil options. And with any ethical issue, slippery slopes and gray zones are the rule not the exception. Philosophers get tangled in the endless and eternal questions of the fungibility (or lack thereof) of lives, whether killing is morally worse than letting die, of whether it’s worth taking one life to save a million.
But take it out of the realm of thought experiments and tell me if anything you’ve heard is worse than this:
Last week, 13-year old Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow was stoned to death in Somalia by insurgents because she was raped. Reports indicate that she was raped by three men while traveling by foot to visit her grandmother … When she went to the authorities to report the crime, they accused her of adultery and sentenced her to death. Aisha was forced into a hole in a stadium of 1,000 onlookers as 50 men buried her up to the neck and cast stones at her until she died. A witness who spoke to the BBC’s Today programme said she had been crying and had to be forced into a hole before the stoning, reported to have taken place in a football stadium. … She said: ‘I’m not going, I’m not going. Don’t kill me, don’t kill me.’ “A few minutes later more than 50 men tried to stone her.” The witness said people crowding round to see the execution said it was “awful”.
Jessica Marie Lunsford was a nine-year-old girl who was abducted from her home in Homosassa, Florida in the early morning of February 24, 2005. … Couey entered Lunsford’s house through an unlocked door at about three o’clock in the morning, awakened Lunsford, told her “Don’t yell or nothing,” and told her to follow him out of the house. He admitted in a videotaped and recorded deposition to raping Lunsford in his bedroom. Lunsford was kept in Couey’s bed that evening, where he raped her again in the morning. Couey put her in his closet and ordered her to remain there, which she did as he reported for work at “Billy’s Truck Lot”. Three days after he abducted her, Couey tricked Jessica into getting into two garbage bags by saying he was going to ‘take her home’. He instead buried her alive as he decided he could do nothing else with the girl. He said he ‘Didn’t want people seeing him and Lunsford across the street.’ On March 19, 2005, police found Lunsford’s body at a residence located on West Sparrow Court, buried in a hole approximately 2 1/2′ deep and 2′ circular, covered with leaves. The body was removed from the ground and transported to the coroner’s office. Her body had undergone “moderate” to “severe” decomposition and according to the publicly released autopsy reports was skeletonized on 2 fingers that Lunsford had poked through the bags before suffocating to death.
The point is that no fate seems more ghastly or any act more abhorrent than the kind of evil deeds described above. That it occurs every day, every hour, across the planet is horrific beyond words.
Nature may be red in tooth and claw, but the defining characteristic of our species is the capacity to resist our impulses (described at the neurological level in the fascinating work of Benjamin Libet, where the impulse to act takes place in our brain before we are aware of it, but there is a brief instant where we can resist that impulse).
I believe that the decision by an individual or group of individuals to destroy or inflict damage on others, to rob them of their freedom, to strip them of their dignity, to dehumanize them, is fundamentally worse than any other mortal threat we face. Violence is an affront to our souls, a stain on our humanity.