Violence as Exception

Why are NGO's and international communities so bad at preventing violence? Many find the work emergency aid after violence breaks out to be critical, but we all know the cure is nowhere as valuable as the prevention. Yet the track record for the UN institutions and international non-government organizations is appaling. Refugees are not protected, minorities are not protected, even whole states under peacekeeping are not protected. Why is that so? The answer lies in how these institutions are built: they continue to percieve violence in a rigid, legalistic manner, with special ideas of a "start" and "end" to violence.

Modern societies have carved out zones of violence, which are distinctly occupied by a raft of actors1, with the enduring notion that the state holds a monopoly on legitimate violence2. Clausewitz talks about trinitiarian war3–the unity of government, people, and the army as a cohesive whole. Exported over the world after reaching its zenith in the early 20th century, we continue to largely see war through these lens4. War, or more precisely, the outbreak of coordinated violence on a state level, is seen as an exceptional state, it is an outlier that interrupts times of "peace".

This model largely resonates with the public, although the last two decades has taught Western public that war need not mobilize large swaths of the society nor have a defined "start" and "end". Kaplan in 1994 wrote "The Coming Anarchy", which claimed that the next generation of war would be fought over resources, while the Cold War was fought over ideology. In 2016, he followed up with another essay entitled "Why So Much Anarchy?", stating that he got a few things right about Islam and talking about how his predictions of racial violence in the US did not come to pass. Given current circumstances, he may have called that goal a little too early.

James Gilligan wrote a book called "Shame, The Emotions and Morality of Violence", describing his observations to the motivations of prison inmates. Gilligan, a prison psychologist, makes a few notes about the American prison system, such as the cycle of punishment and harsh behaviors leading to harsher punishment, and compares violence to an "epidemic", a disease afflicting society, but lying beneath the surface. This isn't just a metaphor either: Bonnasse-Gahot et al found that the spread of the French riots in 2005 could be accounted for using an epidemic spread model, that is, the spread of riots from Parisian suburbs and to all of France spread much like a virus5.

What does this mean? Gilligan states6:

It is difficult for many of us to abandon our moral and legal way of thinking about violence, to abandon our habit of assuming that the most important question worth asking about violence is whether or not it was justified- in other words, whether the "cause" was of sufficient magnitude to excuse, or at least mitigate, the person's moral/legal guilt.

The legal way of thinking about violence is clear. Clausewitz's trinitiarian war requires a firm "beginning" and "end" of hostilities, such as a declaration of war or attack, ended through a peace treaty or defeat of one of the actors. This classification continues to weigh our thinking, it presumes violence is a distinctive state that populations "enter" and "exit": states "enter" war, and states "exit" war. Regardless of one's opinions on neoliberalism and globalization, the irrefutable fact is that the world has drawn closer together. Now we have a paradox: how do states "enter" and "exit" wars with states, when all is enmeshed on the global scale of capital?

In 2003, Stephen Ellis suggested a new framework of analysis for violence7: that we bring in historical context for each act of violence. This seems banal at first, of course analysis of violence should include the historical context. But we must dig deeper than that. Our current perceptions of violence are legalistic, but violence is nebulous and the law does not operate on nebulous objects. For laws to work, they must hold the object to be fixed: in order for reach a judgment about an action, we need to find similar actions that occurred previously. The iron hand of precedence reigns in legal systems because that is the only way they can conceivably function.

Violence, war, genocide, and all of the ills are amorphous, even the barest facts of violence are disputed among actors. Yet, our notions of trinitiarian war and legal conceptions continue to lag behind the ever-changing forms of violence. Ellis, in suggesting we account for the historical context that lead to acts of violence, echoes Gilligan, they both ask us to abandon traditional conceptions of violence. Violence is no longer demarcated by a distinct "start" and "end" for the Western world; for the lucky, violence exists as background radiation, one is barely aware of it outside of newspapers, for the unlucky, violence is more apparent and enduring.



You could argue every single three letter agency has carved out a different zone of "legal" violence.


Weber and friends describe this.


Clauswitz, "On War"


Ellis, Stephen. “Violence and History: A Response to Thandika Mkandawire.” The Journal of Modern African Studies 41, no. 3 (September 2003): 457–75.


Bonnasse-Gahot, Laurent, Henri Berestycki, Marie-Aude Depuiset, Mirta B. Gordon, Sebastian Roché, Nancy Rodriguez, and Jean-Pierre Nadal. “Epidemiological Modeling of the 2005 French Riots: A Spreading Wave and the Role of Contagion.” Scientific Reports 8, no. 1 (December 2018): 107.


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Ellis, Stephen. “Violence and History: A Response to Thandika Mkandawire.” The Journal of Modern African Studies 41, no. 3 (September 2003): 457–75. [

Posted: 2020-07-25
Filed Under: Research