Notes on violence
Instinct and moral constructs: Azmi Bishara examines definitions of terror
The urge towards violence is an instinct human beings inherited from the animal kingdom. Proponents of totalitarian ideologies that tolerate or even encourage violence as a legitimate means towards an end take refuge in this legacy from the stuggle to survive. They are the self- appointed defenders of nature against an artificial and distorted society. But the premises of their self-serving, fascist theories are simply false. The advancement of a civilisation is gauged by the degree to which it has distanced itself from the world of natural violence and its capacity to regulate this instinct non-coercively. One test of a society's strength resides in the extent to which violence is needed in order that laws be imposed, and political systems can be measured according to the extent to which they require violence to reproduce themselves. In short, the less need a society has for violence to regulate itself the higher it is on the scale of civilisation. From this standpoint, right and violence belong to two entirely different worlds.
The suppression of instinctual violence is a prerequisite for any society to treat violence as a moral value and, hence, its ability to create legitimate outlets or channels for violence and to condemn as evil all forms of violence that occur outside of these channels. Protecting society and its organised structures then becomes a good while any assault on this entity becomes an evil, a crime society must deter through organised violence which it terms punishment or retribution. Another type of violence is that which emanates from the intrinsic psychological warps within a civilisation. Once regarded as hostile and antithetical to the social fabric of society, such violence was eventually morally neutralised: "deviant", "perverse" and "pathological" became terms with which society labelled its hidden fears and aversions, perhaps because it reminded them of the costs of civilisation.
Violence is morally neutral in the world of instinct. In human society, however, violence is neither a mere instinct nor the manifestation of an instinct, even if it draws on the instinctual. It is impossible to regard violence that has not been redefined as pathological as morally neutral.
The state monopolises organised violence. The concept of a state monopoly on the exercise of violence began to evolve in the Middle Ages in tandem with the transition from absolute monarchy to modern political systems. Organised political violence outside the framework of the state is antithetical to the state and therefore regarded -- by the state -- as the most dangerous form of violence. Random violence perpetrated by individuals -- crime -- and violence between states -- war -- are regarded as less threatening to the foundations of a state than organised political violence. This is why the state finds terrorism more reprehensible than war.
The state exercises violence through police and the penal system in maintaining internal order and through its armed forces when confronting external threats. On the premise that all out warfare is man's natural state and that this is the most violent state of all, it is almost universally taken for granted that the monopoly over the recourse to violence is a fundamental attribute of the state. Even pacifists who oppose war and violent protest generally accept the mundane day- to-day institutionalised violence exercised by the state, which is to say the violence perpetrated on the basis of a comprehensive social compact and in the name of the public will.
It is meaningless to take an ideological stand against violence and for life because the juxtaposition is invalid: violence is a part of life. Taking an ideological stand against violence and for social peace, or peace between societies, is another matter and one that begs many questions over the conditions necessary to secure social or inter-societal peace. This cannot be reduced to the absence of violence, which is essentially synonymous with peace and not a condition for its being obtained. Equality, freedom and civil rights -- these are conditions, and it is over these that positions vary and, accordingly, over violence and the ends it is meant to serve.
Is it possible to take a position on violence as a means towards an end, regardless of the nature of that end?
We do, though we differ over whether a state has the right to use violence against another society even if it does so in the name of its own society. We differ over whether a state has the right to occupy another people and whether individuals in an occupied society have the right to resist occupation through recourse to violence.
From the standpoint of a resistance movement foreign occupation is an illegal and illegitimate form of systematic violence and recourse to violence against the occupation, whether organised or not, is legitimate and legal in principle.
Here the terms legitimate and legal do not imply good. They merely describe a possible political reaction to an illegal political action. Herein resides one of the most dangerous aspects of occupation, which is that it sanctions a reversion to instinct, in the form of a collective defence of self and territory.
Clearly one can conceive of violence against an occupation as unprofitable or counterproductive. But is it possible to conceive of an illegitimate form of violence against occupation? The evolution of civilisation and social organisation that checks and regulates the lust for revenge and other such instincts compel one to answer in the affirmative. A foreign occupation is an instance of the aggression of a state against civilians of another country. Resisting this aggression may justify violence targeting the occupying power but not civilians, even if they are members of the occupying power. This principle holds true even when we extend the definition of the occupying power to comprise its government, institutions of state and other official paraphernalia.
Even in the animal kingdom violence entails an element of terrorism, at least in the sense of intimidation. However, as a concept that developed alongside European modernism, terrorism has come to mean the use of systematic violence against a political adversary. To the Bolsheviks and Jacobites, state terrorism could even have a positive connotation and they were perfectly prepared to use the term to describe their own policies if necessary. It is relatively recently that the term acquired a distinctly negative value and was used by the state to refer to violence directed against the system from within and against the state, and even its colonies, from abroad. That this usage was one-sided meant that there could be no consensus over its definition. Freedom fighters were almost invariably labelled as terrorists and have even boasted of being branded as such. It gave them a clear ideological stamp.
According to the new American rendering of the term, terrorism is any attempt to use violence against the US and its citizens, and its allies and their citizens, anywhere in the world, for political ends. Although this definition is no more capable of securing a consensus than its predecessor, people are loath to have the term associated with them in any way.
Terrorism has become a word that people apply almost willy-nilly to others as part of what appears to be an ambitious and almost desperate drive to reach a universal consensus over illegitimate political violence. On the surface the aim may appear humanitarian in that it seeks to establish a common denominator within the state and among different societies, but it has also become a casus belli.
Any universally acceptable notion of terrorism as an illegitimate form of political violence must presume: that systematic violence directed against civilians in order to attain a political objective is illegitimate; that systematic violence by the state against civilians in order to attain a political objective is illegitimate and that an extreme form of state terrorism is the systematic, routine violence used by an occupying power in order to prolong its occupation. It must also presume that resistance against occupation is legitimate, because occupation exists to terrorise, but that targeting civilians even within the framework of resistance is illegitimate. Terrorism is not the only form of illegal and immoral violence; some methods used by the resistance may be equally abhorrent, immoral and unjustifiable.