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Varieties of basic response to massacre

Gruesome but Necessary: Global governance in the 21st Century? (Part #2)

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In considering the following responses it is appropriate to note that, for those focused primarily on one, any argument for recognizing another tends itself to be held to be highly problematic. This is in accordance with a wider tendency evident in politics where any openness to consideration of a different perspective amongst adherents of one party is immediately held to be evidence of suspicious covert allegiances to another -- being "soft on communism", a "fellow traveller", etc. It is a wonder that those who study the views of "others" are not automatically condemned for upholding their worldviews.

The responses to incidents of violence can be tentatively clustered as follows.

Focus on the individual responsible: The individual may be categorized as:

  • Inherently evil: This is necessarily a very common response, typically upheld and promoted by those of religious persuasion. It is however problematic in that "evil" is variously understood and dismissed, even though it is assumed to invite consensus as being commonly recognizable -- despite inadequacies of interfaith dialogue. It is noteworthy that the adherents of any other religion are readily held to be in some way implicated in "evil". Religions have proven incapable of overcoming this tendency. One difficulty with "evil" as a description is that it is frequently used in faith-based governance as a description both of those of a different political persuasion and those of cultures adhering to other religions. The others riposte in kind. Despite its elusive and controversial nature, "evil" has been given an unusual legitimation in Norway:

  • Fundamentally deranged: Irrespective of any categorization as "evil" (and even to avoid that language), the irrational actions of the perpetrator may readily be seen as due to possible severe derangement of some kind (as discussed below) -- as with the case of a sociopath or psychopath. The legal defence of the actions of Breivik are now expected to rely on a plea of insanity. He has been widely privileged as "insane" prior to the scheduled psychiatric testing. It has been claimed that some of the instances cited below are indicative of equivalent "insanity". It is a descriptor typically used of "successful" dictators -- going back to Caligula and Nero.

    As author of What is Madness? (2011), Darian Leader points out that the relationship between madness and responsibility is complex (Anders Behring Breivik and the logic of madness, The Guardian, 29 July 2011). He notes: The paranoiac has located a fault or malignancy in the world, he has named it, and has a message to deliver about it. For Breivik, the conviction is that Europe is rotten, that the name of this rottenness is Islam and that it is his mission to expose and excise it.

  • Obviously criminal: The nature of the actions necessarily evokes a judicial response in framing them as illegal and therefore necessarily to be handled within the framework of the law.

  • Ideologically or otherwise misguided: Here the focus is on the abnormal and extremist worldview which engendered such acts -- a worldview which may be readily considered fundamentally unacceptable in its own right. Again there is a difficulty with achieving any degree of consensus on the nature of "extremism" -- when many with acceptable worldviews are so framed from other perspectives (Norms in the Global Struggle against Extremism: "rooting for" normalization vs. "rooting out" extremism? 2005).

    The challenge is all the greater with the proposed focus by the UK Prime Minister on "non-violent extremism" (Mehdi Hasan, So, prime minister, are we to call you an extremist now? The Guardian, Thursday 9 June 2011; Unmesh Desai, No, you cannot treat violent and non-violent extremism separately, The Guardian, 14 June 2011). A particular difficulty, given the language of political discourse, is distinguishing one party from another in their respective complicity in "non-violent extremism". For a political party, any perspective other than its own is necessarily abnormal and therefore extremist in some respects.

  • Mistaken activism in fulfillment of a socio-political agenda: Here the focus is on the totally unacceptable tactical and strategic means used irresponsibly to articulate and promote a (minority) concern. Again incidents cited below have been considered to be fundamentally mistaken -- especially given the loss of lives they have occasioned.

Use of any combination of these categories offers a means of providing a conceptual "box" to achieve a degree of closure -- precluding the necessity for any fundamental questioning. All that then remains is to ensure that the "contents" of the box are disposed of and the probability of any recurrence is severely reduced (if not eliminated). It is only in the latter sense that any learning is to be derived from the incident. In contrast to the following, this mode is characterized by highly focused antipathy.

Focus on social impact and community reaction: Attention, notably as articulated by the media, may focus primarily on those affected:

  • Wounded and traumatized: Especially their pain, despair and appreciation of heroic assistance in the face of evident tragedy to which they were directly exposed
  • Relatives and friends: Especially the effect on those who have lost loved ones in a situation beyond their control or comprehension
  • Wider community expressing solidarity: Especially in the concern to avoid succumbing to patterns of behaviour which undermine their basic values

This is necessarily a mode through which others associate strongly -- typically vicariously -- through sympathy and empathy with those affected through their time of grief. This ready response raises concerns at personal and collective inability to respond to the many suffering daily "elsewhere" from similar violence -- most notably the millions raped and killed in the Eastern Congo over the past decade (Frank Humphreys, Sensationalism or silence in the Congo: rape, death and the media,, 26 May 2011).

Focus on inhibiting such behaviour in future: This characterizes the formal societal response to such incidents in general, rather than the particular event:

  • Formal inquiry: In support of the following measures, efforts may be made to investigate the incident as a source of learnings with respect to the inadequacies of various services (police, ambulance, etc).
  • Legislative measures: Notably with respect to firearms, explosives, censorship of hate-related communications, prohibition of extremist groups
  • Security measures: Notably including surveillance of internet communications, of purchases of dual-use products, and of bodies and people deemed a potential security risk
  • Educational campaigns: Notably in schools and through the media
  • Deployment of agents: Notably social workers and others to detect and counteract emergent behaviour deemed susceptible to engender violence

The track record of such measures with respect to past incidents around the world suggests that these measures are difficult to deploy effectively. Typically they result in repressive measures, reducing the quality of life of others, whilst failing to prevent new incidents from emerging on occasion, Such measures also provide an unfortunate opportunity for those who welcome a repressive society as a means of advancing their agenda.

Focus on socio-political context engendering such behaviour: This endeavours to elicit insights from the incident as a means of enabling institutional and community learning to preempt such behaviour:

  • Identification of psychosocial conditions engendering such behaviour
  • Identification of (minority) views effectively ignored in engendering a context evoking such behaviour

Given assumptions regarding the perpetrator of a repugnant act as an "other" of the most alienating kind, some insights are to be gained by using the perpetrator as a form of "mirror", as argued in another highly publicized case (Looking in the Mirror -- at Josef Fritzl? Global conditions on reflection, 2009). The question is how the traumatic individual situations of all involved might be related to the trauma currently experienced by people everywhere (Implication of Personal Despair in Planetary Despair, 2010).

As an essentially research-oriented focus, there is a disconnect between the insights garnered and the capacity to implement effective responses to constrain such developments in the future. Ironically, as with Breivik, it is likely to be difficult for those so engaged to "make a point" and to be heard. The approach is readily framed as insensitively abstract and an "honourable" means of avoiding action. One consequence may however be the promotion of more sensitive responses to potential perpetrators and their concerns. This can be readily and cynically exploited and can be framed as creating vulnerabilities to the emergence of such incidents in a society already challenged by tensions it is unable to handle with much skill.

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