Violence and Agency

Caleb McDaniel makes some important observations here and at his own blog, and I’ve been thinking a lot about how to respond.

These are certainly not the kinds of discussions I had in mind when I asked that we put aside the little extremist hobgoblins for just a bit. Mostly I’d just rather we all stay clear of the kind of whiny and banal partisanship where the challenge of terrorism is just more fuel for the spin-meisters, more occasion for subpar blogger imitations of the punditocracy.

Caleb’s thoughts are quite the opposite, deep and challenging.

To begin, I simply disagree with his elevation of peace as a social aspiration equivalent to justice or freedom, or the proposition that peace is the necessary precondition of either justice or freedom.

It may be true that civility is intrinsically a peaceful state, that to practice it constrains us from not just physical violence but even from totalizing verbal or cultural aggression against an opponent. The ideal democratic civil society is a game, which for me is anything but a trivializing or dismissive metaphor. This is a utilitarian claim that political conflict produces the most generative results for the whole of a society within constraints or rules. A game is a topography of conflict, a map. You can’t go off the edge of the map: there you will find monsters, or the edge of the world.

To play a game, both parties consent to play by the rules. Yes, sometimes one party cheats, but there is a big difference between the kind of cheating that preserves the game’s essential terms and the kind of systematic contempt for the game that ultimately destroys it–or the spoiler who throws the board across the room when they’re going to lose. If one party sits down at the table to play, and obeys the rules, and the other person won’t even acknowledge the game at all, then there are no constraints on either player. There is no game.

A democratic civil society cannot incorporate someone who will not even acknowledge its existence. Some acts of refusal can simply be ignored: they do not challenge or contest civility, merely stand apart from it. A game is not threatened by someone who will not play but does not contend. Some acts of refusal cannot be ignored. You cannot have peace with those who will not make peace. You cannot make peace if the price of peace is to give up the purpose of peace. You cannot make peace if it means an end to justice or freedom.

What would we offer to al-Qaeda? Would we treat with them as if they had already established their sovereignty over various Islamic nations or societies, as if they had a right to decide what should or should not happen in those places? How different would that be from supporting the autocrats that we already support? Al-Qaeda or various groups like it have no more right to demand a particular relation between all people living in particular places and the rest of global society than any other group or interest. Would we offer them a constraint on our own cultural and social exports, a sovereignty over what is seen and known and consumed in some particular place or location in the world? What business do we have doing that? Anything that we can offer in a peace involves the same exercises of imperial will and domination that the critics of the West so vehemently object to, the same intermingled sovereignties.

Unless peace in this context only means foreswearing violence as a response to violence, rather than the achievement of settlement or agreement between antagonists. I don’t see why one should categorically do so. My aspiration would be that someday, al-Qaeda and all the men and women who support it or movements like it should simply cease to exist, that there would be no such thing, that as a movement or worldview or set of practices it would be historical and strange to the world of the present. I don’t have the same aspiration for myself or my society or the institutions I inhabit. So there’s an asymmetry here that can’t be waved away by saying there is no “us” and “them”. There is.

I recognize that military violence is not the main method that will accomplish that purpose. The main method, as far as I can tell, is time coupled with an unswerving dedication to our core values and the enrichment (in many senses) of the world as a whole. However, it would advance the march towards that future day if we catch, try and imprison terrorists whom we can prove by our rules and our terms were conspiring to attack. It would help to successfully defuse their bombs or prevent their assaults with sensible security measures. It would advance the march towards that future if we happened to find out where Osama bin Laden and some of his chief leaders are gathered and kill them. It did advance the march towards that future to destroy the bases of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and remove a state leadership that openly encouraged non-state organizations to train on its territory for attacks on the civilian populations of other nations. The point is not to forswear violence, but to recognize its necessarily limited role in a conflict that is much more about ideas, about individual and social aspiration, about the achievement and desirability of freedom. Am I here saying that there is no right of secession from global modernity, that it is legitimate under some circumstances to violently compel secessionists to remain? Yes. That was Lincoln’s choice, and I think it was right then as it is now, as long as one understands its limits and its dangers.

The defense of freedom and the aspiration for justice requires the possibility of violence, at least as long as you understand both freedom and justice to be things which are only meaningful on this earth, in this life, to us as living human beings. Putting peace in the same exalted place requires giving up much of what we now understand as a necessity for justice in the here and now. That move is not a targeted critique of the specific policies of the Bush Administration. It’s uncontainable: it quickly swallows all uses of the military, all operations of the police, all acts of incarceration, all civil settlements in which the state enforces a punitive or nonconsensual judgement against one party.

Caleb observes that seeing the London or Madrid bombers or the 9/11 pilots as attacking not just innocent individuals but freedom itself forecloses any understanding of the terrorists’ real motivations, their actual consciousness. I don’t think so. Both in purely empirical terms and in moral argument, we can recognize a difference between intent and result, consciousness of agency and expression of agency–and recognize that the two things affect each other. It may be that the London bombers had a deeply rooted and situated social and cultural understanding of their actions which has nothing to do with the relative superficiality of my claim that they attacked “freedom” itself. We should be interested in how they understand themselves, in seeing the world as they see it. Both to understand the causality of terrorism and to understand what might motivate its practicioners to play the game of modernity by the rules. (It’s obvious that mere wealth or incorporation within cosmopolitan culture is not sufficient, given that the 9/11 hijackers were anything but marginalized or abject in their social background.) But the consequence of their actions is a non-consensual, non-democratic constraint on the freedom of individuals to do what they like, a deprivation of their rights. Moreover, because I don’t think most of the terrorists in this case are idiots, and because they know very well what the perceived consequences of their actions are, I assume there’s something of a feedback loop here. Whatever motivations they begin with, their motivations in the end are necessarily transformed by a consciousness of their effects on the practice and possibility of freedom–and an increasingly depraved and perverse indifference to the humanity of their victims, an intentional sociopathy. Whomever did this, they’ve been living in London for some time, breathing its air, seeing its people. Whatever the first steps they took on the path to setting those bombs, the path ends at war with freedom itself, in consciousness of innocence of their victims.

This answers Caleb when he asks why we don’t treat terrorist attacks in the same way we treat natural disasters. This is where the count of casualties is somewhat misleading, only the surface of things. It’s true we don’t think very clearly at times about the comparative scale of suffering in relation to the efforts we expend to prevent suffering. 50 people dead to terrorists in one sense doesn’t compare well to hundreds of thousands dead to a tsunami, and you might legitimately wonder why the governments of the world are so cheap as to drag their heels about spending money on tsunami warning systems but will expend considerable effort to respond to a single terrorist assault. But the difference in the end is not numbers: it is agency. We understand, and should believe, that death and suffering that comes from the direct, intentional, deliberate agency of human individuals is categorically different from either natural disaster, the abstract consequences of collective human action, or the accidental and unintended consequences of individual action. It’s why we are often legitimately transfixed by sensational criminal trials because we believe, and I think should continue to believe in defiance of bad evolutionary psychology or lazy genetic determinism, that when someone is murdered, some individual deliberately committed murder. You can have a subtle and complicated view of causality, but at the end of the day, an act of murder is a final, fixed and elemental consequence of the intentional agency of a human being.

The one thing that gets me most riled up in some kinds of conversations is the implication that somehow understanding the cultural, social or historical habitus of a terrorist mediates the finality of their agency, that this understanding is an alibi. This is where the critique of the “root causes” crowd has some meaningful teeth to it, largely because (in my judgement), that demand is conventionally applied so unevenly. If we have to understand the habitus of an Islamic terrorist and that understanding leavens or softens our judgement of their contingent responsibility for what they do, if we understand them as a product of and expression of an underlying condition and less an individual agent who chooses freely to murder, then why don’t we have to apply the same understanding to George Bush, Bush’s government officials, compradorial elites in the Arab world, or any other group or individual we might wish to criticize? I’m not saying that this is what Caleb claims, but I would say that this is the danger that lurks further down the road of his argument. If we explain the bombing of London in terms of habitus, as the product or expression of a social and historical condition that precedes and lies outside of the individual agency of the bombers, then we have to understand the American attack on Iraq in the same terms, to apply our ethnographic gaze evenly. There are very few people I can think of that do that. If you don’t, you’re just as horribly ethnocentric as the most overt bigot: your own people are individual agents responsible for their individual actions, while “they” are explained by externalities and root causes.

Or, as Caleb does, you cannot say let us reject “us” and “them” and then try to view the violence of the terrorists as symmetrical to violence used against terrorism. This too is a flattening effect. If the individuals who commit terrorist actions are exactly like us in their motivations, their understanding of violence, their deployment of instrumental reason–if they are playing the game as we play it–then why do they bomb or kill? You’re either going to end up explaining their actions in terms of prior causes external to them (and probably not do the same for the “us” that you want to forswear violence) or you’re going to end up arguing that violence is irrational for all sides, that no one is doing what is in their best interest, everyone commits barbarities while no one is a barbarian. You’re going to end up with an account of violence which has no agency to it whatsoever, as I think Caleb does. Nobody does violence; violence just is. I’m not responsible for violence; neither are the terrorists. Which is a perspective which at the least requires an explanation: if violence is purely non-productive, never in the interests of those who use it, why does it exist at all?

It also requires viewing violence in historical time from some Olympian remove that allows one to ignore its uneven effects on causality and change. As a technology of modern power, violence has done all sorts of things. Whatever else it is, it is not mere or simple futility or destruction. Name me a thing you like about the contemporary world and I’ll wager that violence–state violence, collective violence, individual violence–played a generative role in producing it.

Certainly freedom and justice. Even, and perhaps especially, peace.

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2 Responses to Violence and Agency

  1. “We understand, and should believe, that death and suffering that comes from the direct, intentional, deliberate agency of human individuals is categorically different from either natural disaster, the abstract consequences of collective human action, or the accidental and unintended consequences of individual action.”

    So eloquent, and so right. This is the finest bit of writing I’ve read on the larger meaning of our predicament in quite a long time. Thank you, Tim.

  2. savitri says:

    This is so wonderful – thoughtful, moving, and brilliantly insightful.

    You are always amazing to read. I want to thank you for the help you have given me in shaping my thoughts and understanding. I have been reading your blog almost since its inception, and it has imparted so much to me.

    I am so grateful that you take the time to write here. Thank you.

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