Violence is always unsettling and with global communications we can be unsettled by the constant replay of images of violence that probably have nothing to do with any threat we actually face.
The U.S. was in the midst of its domestic struggle over gun violence and still in the difficult aftermath of the Newton school massacre when the two homemade bombs went off at the Boston Marathon. Twenty children and six adults died at Newton; so far one child and two adults have died from the Boston bombing and a week later three more remain critical. But probably many more were traumatized by the Boston bombings.
The extent of coverage of these indiscriminant killings initially seems to be about the horrendous carnage. And once covered it gets personalized. We are all deeply empathetic for the smiling eight year old boy, Martin Richards, who died near his mother and sister, both suffering serious wounds, while waiting for dad to come across the finish line; a family maimed and traumatized by another’s senseless violence, the motive for which is still unclear.
There were sympathetic messages from Kabul where families constantly endure such devastating violence from roadside bombs or perhaps NATO bombs gone astray. Shouldn’t our hearts go out to everyone suffering from the violence being waged against civilians, no matter the source?
How we feel about the victims is shaped by the nature of the coverage and our perceptions. How many Americans or Canadians follow international news closely enough to know that while there was 24/7 micro-coverage in Boston, fifteen died from a bomb blast in Damascus, sixteen in Pakistan and another thirty-three from bombs in Kirkuk and Baghdad. And if we did know, how many would care with the same intensity that we had for the victims in Boston?
Harm to people whom we identity as being in our community seems to easily take priority over harm to others seen to be outside the fold. Violent acts that affect nationals, families, friends or comrades are a direct affront to our security and identity; they outrage us. But aren’t we all human enough that we can now imagine a similar selective process occurring among others with whom we don’t so readily identity, who also suffer such indiscriminant violence?
The perpetual coverage of violent events is presented as concern for those harmed. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that this reflects the same value for all human life. To its credit the BBC had a discussion on a recent news program about the criticism it received from international viewers concerning its extensive coverage of Boston while much more devastating public killings occurred elsewhere. In the crunch the justification was both pragmatic and political. With all the cameras and press gathered for the Boston marathon it was much simpler to cover the event. But the BBC news editor admitted that all the images and memories of 9/11 were also a backdrop to Boston. The 100,000 civilians killed in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, for which there is no single set of pictures or collective memory, were not an adequate backdrop to the bombing of Iraqi civilians which occurred at pretty much the same time.
As we learn more about those killed or hurt, our hearts will go out even further; this reflects our humanity. The eight year old boy killed in Boston has already taken on added significance. It’s not quite like the Pakistani girl who was targeted and nearly killed for her activism around girls’ access to education, or those opposing violent rapes of young girls in India. But it’s still very poignant, poignant enough for President Obama, at Boston’s multi-faith ceremony, to refer to the fact that this boy recently made a poster saying “No More Hurting People – Peace”. This gesture was made in memory of the murdered Newton students and this boy’s legacy now connects the two events. In the day after three people died in the Boston bombing, another 80 Americans died of gunshot wounds. Since Newton there have been 2,500 American gun-deaths, approaching the casualties of 9/11. Are all victims “created equally” or do we prefer the spectacular when it comes to violence, too?
With the U.S. so immersed in its own gun violence, the Boston bombings just added to the collective shock. Some probably prayed for foreign perpetrators, fearing that another true blue American “terrorist” like Timothy McVeigh of the Oklahoma bombings would just compound America’s confused relationship with violence. Blaming others and externalizing the causes of violence is always a temptation, no matter who we are. As it turns out Americans now have to figure out how and why the Tsarnaev brothers, new American youth with backgrounds in war-torn Chechnya, turned to such violence. If there wasn’t any international conspiracy, a whole new set of questions arises.
Make Violence History
Isn’t it long past the time we made violence the enemy? As long as we consider violence a justified response to perceived injustice or to another’s violence, violence itself is reaffirmed. If we look for roots causes we’ll inevitably find violence itself. In our shrinking world it’s getting harder to justify our violence and its collateral damage on innocents abroad, while remaining so righteously angry when violence happens to us. As long as we maintain the “us and them” mentality we continue to play a small part in rationalizing violence.
After all, human morality can evolve too; it’s not only healthcare, education and communications where this happens. So isn’t it time to challenge the double standard, that our violence is justified, theirs is not. And shouldn’t we all try to dispel the myth that there is an “our and theirs”?
When I taught a university course on violence the best textbook I could find was James Gilligan’s Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic. (You can upload his Oct. 20, 2010 talk on You Tube.) I’d now also seriously consider The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class by Guy Standing, which chronicles how globalization is marginalizing a whole generation of youth worldwide. While massive marginalization doesn’t justify violence, it certainly raises the odds. And much marginalization involves social and economic violence.
We know from research that violence everywhere stems from similar social-emotional processes. The humiliation of individuals or groups can lead to reactive violence. Sometimes this is directed towards self, as happened with recent suicides after sexual assaults and bullying. Often it ends up hurting both self and other as in murder-suicides, an extreme version version of which is suicide bombers, where self has already been abandoned.
The experience of shaming, victimization and injustice can lead to righteous anger, even rage. All violence is perpetrated with an end-justifies-means mentality, whether undertaken by those seen as an external threat or those fighting this. The innocent people being continually killed by U.S. drone bombings abroad are no less dead or traumatized than were those killed in Boston or Newtown. They just didn’t get the coverage; they have no faces, no stories.
If we are to move towards a sustainable world we’ll have to rethink “violence” and question our conditioning to jump to conclusions in the aftermath of the shock of such violent displays. Doug Saunder’s piece in the April 20, 2013 Globe and Mail is a measured revisiting of the stereotypes about terrorism that we have all somewhat embraced.
Rather than seeing each inane act as reason to further clamp down or fight back, we need to heed the wisdom of eight year old Martin: “No More Hurting People – Peace”. We are going to have to learn to ask new questions, such as “what are the conditions needed to continually move us towards non-violence”? This will create a more humane path.
Jim Harding PhD Retired Professor of Environmental and Justice Studies www.crowsnestecology.wordpress.com
R-Town # April 26, 2013