Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Review of 'Extremely Violent Societies

by Charles Sarvan, The Sunday Leader, Colombo, July 31, 2011

The victims having been made non-human, beasts and devils, the slaughter is pitiless, and indiscriminate: the poor, children, women and, though they are not a threat to anyone, the old and feeble,. The nature of the killing indicates extreme hatred: hacked to death, “drowned or burned or buried” while still alive  (p. 34).  In ‘The Bacchae’ by Euripides, once the madness, the frenzy, the “possession” by a destructive spirit is over, there is grief and remorse, but not in those who carry out mass slaughter. The perpetrators - government and the people - have no sense of shame, suffer no ill-effect because of memory and conscience (19). On the contrary, there is satisfaction and a sense of moral superiority.

Christian Gerlach, ‘Extremely Violent Societies’, Cambridge University, 2010.

“I have supped full with horrors” (‘Macbeth’)

Violence, to varying degree, is a fact and feature of human existence. Here, Christian Gerlach, Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Bern, investigates extremely violent societies (EVS), those with unusually high levels of violence (including forced removal, the appropriation of land, the inflicting of hunger, etc) and brutality, particularly against non-combatants and civilians. Violence is endemic in certain societies, with the people more volatile, more prone and ready to resort to mass violence than others. The book is built on detailed case studies: Indonesia, 1965-66; the Armenian massacre, 1915-23; Bangladesh, 1971-77 and the “German occupation and Greek society in crisis”. (Last year, Professor Gerlach taught a course on the end-phase of the war in Sri Lanka: personal communication.)

Governments have killed thousands more than militant groups but it is mass participation which gives the kind of violence here examined its “ghastly pace and thrust”. The people did not wait for government sanction to carry out brutal attacks but saw themselves as acting to save the nation. It was a duty, noble and laudable. The victims having been made non-human, beasts and devils, the slaughter is pitiless, and indiscriminate: the poor, children, women and, though they are not a threat to anyone, the old and feeble,. The nature of the killing indicates extreme hatred: hacked to death, “drowned or burned or buried” while still alive  (p. 34).  In ‘The Bacchae’ by Euripides, once the madness, the frenzy, the “possession” by a destructive spirit is over, there is grief and remorse, but not in those who carry out mass slaughter. The perpetrators - government and the people - have no sense of shame, suffer no ill-effect because of memory and conscience (19). On the contrary, there is satisfaction and a sense of moral superiority. I am reminded of General Ratko Mladic, in the course of his on-going trial at the Hague, mocking the relations of his alleged victims who were in court, some of whom had lost husband and sons, father and brothers – if not the entire family and whose lives have been destroyed.

Irrationality is a characteristic of EVSs. In Indonesia, during the pogrom against the Left, most of the attackers had only vague ideas about Communist doctrine and aims. Communists were believed to be against Islam – even though many were “pious” (45). Nor was there any “hard evidence” that Communists mocked religion and religious observances. The horrific, merciless, violence unleashed on them was based on “vague suspicion and general assumptions”. Amorphous fears and suspicions - some created by unverified incident, anecdote or hearsay - are potent.  They are nowhere specific but present everywhere and, therefore, taken to be true. Communists in Indonesia were seen as Chinese agents, even though Chinese arms shipments had been delivered to the army! Deep-seated, historical, fears are immune to evidence and fact – as Sri Lankans, vis-a-vis India, well know. Victims of such mass government-supported violence, particularly those with a simple background, are surprised and shocked, uncomprehending and bewildered, at “the cruellest violence” (269) unleashed against them.

EVS tend to be those that emerged from foreign, imperial, rule. They are also likely to be non-industrialized. (The two go together, the aim of imperialism being exploitation through the appropriation of minerals, labour and land - for example, plantations – and the export of industrial goods produced in the imperial country.) After independence, EVS are not immune to foreign influence. For example, the US and other Western nations supported the elimination of Communists in Indonesia. The sale of weapons, trade benefits and long-term national interest make even those countries one would expect to sympathise and protest, remain silent or, worse, to collude. Cynically, moral concern is expressed after the event: “realpolitik

Gerlach stresses the multi-causal nature, particularly the economic motive, of extreme, state-and-people violence. With the withdrawal of the imperial power, social tensions arise which, in turn, lead to militancy. The government, rather than addressing root causes, opts for harsh repression. In turn, this metamorphoses a society in crisis into one of extreme violence. (The state may welcome the “crisis”, seeing it as an opportunity and excuse for extirpating the “problem” once and for all.) One of the major causes leading to conflict is the thrust for domination, what Gerlach terms elite formation: poverty by itself is not an adequate cause.

Envy and resentment at the alleged disproportionate success of the minority fuel violence. The latter are blamed for their success which, it is argued, arose from unfair circumstance. This was a factor in the Armenian massacre, though they formed only about 9% of the population. Among other measures, Armenian-owned land was taken over and given to Turks as part of a “Turkification” policy. (Unable to defend themselves, appeals were made to the international community, but this led to them being branded as traitors disloyal to the nation.) Following the pogrom, businesses, land and houses were taken over, as were jobs in administration and places at university and schools. In Pakistan, the East was left with the feeling that independence only meant that West Pakistan had replaced imperial Britain. Violence is the means for new groups to ascend into dominant position, elite status, at the cost of the Other (267). Of course, the new order is asserted to be a restoration of the once-existing, the traditional and, therefore, the authentic. These events are “from above” as well as “from below” (283):  peasants, workers and the poor join in order to carry off goods they can get their hands on, secure a small bit of land or the occupancy of a hut. They are active and complicit, and not passive puppets manipulated by the state.

The armed forces are involved because of their “economic interests and their building of a web of power and corruption, spurred by martial law powers” (55). This, it must be noted, applies not only to EVS. The armed forces of Egypt “account for a quarter of Egyptian government expenditure”. They run factories and businesses, shops and farms: ‘The Guardian’, London, 23 July 2011, p. 26. The state and other power- groups turn a blind eye to military involvement in the economic sphere. Going further, they collaborate since the support of the military is essential for their own survival.

A consequence of extreme violence is rampant corruption, particularly in areas over which power has been gained. Government authority is made use of, laws manipulated and, where these do not serve, blatant force. As Gerlach notes, state and society cannot be separated, and a corrupt regime inevitably means a corrupt society.

In private life, religion may exercise a restraining, beneficial, role but in EVS, it can have the opposite effect. Religion is used (misused) to justify irreligious acts. Indeed, perpetrators of violence claim they are acting on behalf, and in the furthering, of their religion, irrespective of its actual teaching. A “Hadith” of the Prophet Mohammed is, “You will not enter Paradise until you believe. And you will not believe until you love one another” but in Indonesia, killers were incited and blessed by religious leaders (45).  Sadly, religion has played a pernicious, role in mass killing and cruelty – irrespective of time, place and religion. As I have written elsewhere, in such contexts and situations, religion does not influence state and public conduct. On the contrary, government and people interpret and express religion to justify their (inhumane, irreligious) conduct.

Reading works such as EVS one wonders about the assertion at the end of ‘The Plague’ (Camus) that there is more in humankind to admire than to deprecate. One of the grounds for admiration is the effort made to investigate and understand: EVS is a contribution to that struggle. Given the importance of the subject, the book needs – indeed, demands – to be read though, no doubt, each reader will make her or his modifications and additions.

Charles Sarvan, Ph D London                                                                             (Retired professor of English Literature)