The social pathology of vengeance

Print edition : September 29, 2001

If the terrorist attacks in the U.S. have been marked by fearsome cruelty, are not the seemingly impending responses to them even more aggressive and truculent?

THE shocking and grisly effects of the terrorist attacks in the United States have been dealt with extensively in media reportage and commentary. And there has been no shortage of reflections on either side of the spectrum - from the hawkish responses which have portrayed this as a civilisational war between "good" and "evil", to a more reflective consideration of the broader causes, and other conditions of terror, that have led to this degree of antagonism and desperation on the part of even a small group of terrorists.

But while the acts themselves were of course appalling beyond belief in their senseless destruction of innocents, the reaction to them by the representatives of the "international community" of world leaders has been almost equally alarming. The ignorance or cynicism that has given these tragic deaths a more privileged position vis-a-vis those of innocent children in Iraq or the thousands dead in West Asia or the victims of terror in Kashmir or East Timor over the past few years, is obviously not the worst feature of the reaction.

What is most alarming about the reaction is that, across the world it has been assumed that the response of the U.S. government must necessarily be one of brute force through military might, directed at countries and their (mostly innocent) populations rather than only at individual terrorists. And such a response has been seen as not only correct, but one which must be actively supported by all other governments.

Perhaps it was only to be expected that the Bush administration, and the U.S. President himself, would react with the very strong language that has already been used (although the relative restraint, at the time of writing, with regard to the actual use of force is a cause for some relief). Of course, the immediate identification of Osama bin Laden as the prime suspect may appear a bit too pat. Similarly, George Bush's Wild West-type statements about wanting him "dead or alive" without needing to display any proof or showing any regard for due process are obviously problematic in terms of the long term implications for international law.

But the real difficulties come in the declared language of war that has been used extensively both by the right wing and by the U.S. administration, and which has been given political support by organisations such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. And in all this, both the usual allies (such as Tony Blair) and the wannabes (such as the Indian Prime Minister) have been enthusiastic in their support for such a war, in terms of offering air space and airbases and other forms of assistance.

A war against terrorism in general, which clearly needs to be fought and won, is nothing like a conventional war, in that it cannot pit one country against another and must be directed against terrorist activity in all countries. And while it is true that terrorist activity may in some cases reflect genuine social movements (even progressive ones) and justified popular grievance, most terrorism today is the handiwork of a small minority of people within countries, whose populations do not support or benefit from such extremism. Indeed, the ordinary people by and large take the brunt of both terrorist activities and counter-terrorist responses by states.

Meanwhile, support for terrorist activities comes from all sorts of quarters, including most famously from the multitudinous covert activities of the Central Intelligence Agency, which was of course the early sponsor of Osama bin Laden himself, among others. The U.S. government has been extremely cynical in its attitude to those using violence against innocent civilians as a matter of tactics, whom they have called insurgents or progressive dissidents when they have served its own geopolitical agenda, and terrorists when they have not. And the complex web of financial support for terrorist activities comes from a sordid combination of drugs trade, arms deals and other nefarious activities in which the governments of all the major developed countries have been directly or indirectly complicit at some time or another.

This is why a war against terrorism must imply a deeper examination of a whole range of policies of many governments, which directly or indirectly create the conditions of resentment and lack of democratic voice that breed violent response, and also contribute to the financial strength of particular terrorist groups. It is by definition, therefore, a war that cannot be directed against a country or even a particular government alone, since the networks that breed it are wider and deeper.

A poster in Manhattan. Washington's Wild West-style statements about wanting bin Laden dead or alive could be problematic in terms of long-term implications for international law.-DAIV GOCHFELD/AP

So the idiom of conventional war is all wrong in this case. Where could a conventional war on these grounds be fought? Against whom? With what specific aims? What would constitute "winning" in such a war? No one could seriously argue that outcomes as extreme as the decimation of the Taliban regime or (the continuing secret desire of some Americans) the final destruction of Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq, would lead to an elimination or even reduction of terrorist activity worldwide. Indeed, it could even lead to increased such activity. Even the destruction of particular camps (easy enough for a state military that helped set up many of them in the first place) will not mean success, given the information that such camps are already spreading across the world in places as far-flung as Paraguay and Mozambique.

Nevertheless, both the rhetoric and the build-up by the U.S. government in the present case are those of the conventional war, in terms of identifying a particular regime (the Taliban of Afghanistan, and possibly also Iraq once again) as the enemy, and moving various instruments of military might into geographical proximity with that enemy. At the time of writing, there have been no concrete military strikes, but seemingly they are widely expected, even anticipated. And the inevitable civilian suffering and the casualties that will occur are already being brushed aside as collateral damage.

Why this need, this huge demand, for the conventional display of military force and possibly its use, in a situation in which it is so patently inappropriate and even contra-indicated? The answer probably comes from a deep-seated social need for vengeance and retribution that is simultaneously illogical and accepted as inevitable. Thus it is that aggressive displays of force by the U.S. regime against others have usually found enthusiastic acceptance among the American people as a whole. Even the U.S. bombing of a pharmaceuticals factory in Sudan on the (mistaken) grounds that it was producing chemical weapons had substantial popular support within the U.S. And when President Bill Clinton cynically ordered the further bombing of Iraq in order to divert public attention from his affair with Monica Lewinsky, adding to the huge numbers of innocent Iraqis already killed by the negative effects of sanctions, he found that his poll ratings went up sharply.

Of course the desire for vengeance is not one confined to U.S. society. And Americans are not doing anything unusual in seeking to apportion blame to communities and social groups rather than to individuals, as those Indians who have lived through the riots in Delhi against Sikhs after Indira Gandhi's assassination will remember. But what is perhaps remarkable in the U.S. is the degree to which repressive and violent military methods used by its government against citizens and residents of other countries are taken for granted, even welcomed, by its own citizens.

There are many reasons for this. It clearly has little to do with the actual effectiveness of retribution along these lines, since the previous experiences of the U.S. and the Soviet Union, as well as the current experience of Israel, show how such aggressive responses only lead to a spiral of violence. The desire for vengeance is often an expression of deep social insecurity, a form of cracking under pressure.

Theorists of social ethology in animals have argued that intra-species competition, which typically occurs when members of a natural species have mastered other hostile powers in their environment, can have potentially destructive effects. In such cases, aggressive behaviour turned towards others perceived as even slightly different can become exaggerated to the point of being not just inexpedient but grotesque. This is more likely to occur when the immediate environment is more apparently controlled, and when any loss of control is therefore even more threatening. It is not entirely far-fetched to apply this kind of explanation both to the fearsome cruelty of the terrorist attacks, and to the more aggressive and truculent responses.

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