For what?

Dear Bloggers,

Today I will write about so called senseless violence, it is one of the items that kept my family busy after the horrible news from Norway on 22th of July. We wandered what happens to person that can get so violent without any regrets killing a large amount of people. The attacks on the Twin Towers in New York came out of nothing and without any pre warnings. Several years ago Meindert Tjoelker was kicked to death by a group of drunk guys only because he was telling them that heir behavior was inappropriate. There might be more cases but for me these are stuck in my memories as matters of senseless violence.

One of the problems with any reflection on absurd forms of violence in society is that these thoughts can never be, from a scientific point of view, truly interesting and technical. Before we know it, moral and political considerations and emotions sneak in and objective thought will be overruled by, for example, the indignation over the nature and amount of that violence. For if you start to think about violence, you will soon feel highly involved and at the same time completely powerless. Even if we should be inclined to choose violence in certain cases, when it comes from ourselves, when it is not the raw violence of nature and looks like reasonable action, it always turns out to be bigger and stronger in its consequences and its emotional implications than the one who unleashes violence or approves of it. Merely by thinking about it it is taken out of our own hands.

No matter what we think or how passionately we want to denounce violence as vulgar, immoral or inefficient, it will still occur time after time and we are never neutral bystanders, like when observing the behavior of chickens on a lawn or dogs in the street. Our words are filled with emotions and prejudices. Therefore, I want to restrict my reflection on to a couple of words, with which we appear to try and make sense of an occurrence on which we apparently, despite all of our pretenses, have as little influence as on the weather, but which fascinates us, either annoyingly or amusingly, in a much higher degree.

The quite recent combination of words “senseless violence” mostly seems to relate to something that we, if it did not sound as cynical, could call recreational violence, eventhough it happens in small groups that will kill an innocent guy by kicking him to death as he would try to stop them from demolishing a bicycle, or a large group called supporters which appears predominately around soccer-fields, in amusement halls with violent war games and in so-called action movies, hence on the fringes of social life. But how large, how infectious and how determining of our culture is the contribution of this type of violence as a spectacle in television shows and other forms of relaxation on which we spend a large part of our free time? (My wife is a big fan of these what I call “Murder and manslaughter tv series”.) Do I have an excorsist in the house?

The combination of words “senseless violence” seems to have been specifically invented to qualify this pointless violence as a derailment or at least a singular occurrence, in order to not too suddenly and quite radically, exclude the possibility of a human violence that might be called “sensible”. That not senseless, but efficiently and prudently used violence would be in our control from beginning to end, and a predictable and positive outcome could be expected: order, security, and peace.

Seen from this perspective, the expression “senseless violence” has to create a space for the belief that another, perhaps efficient, meaningful and permissible unleashing of violence might be possible. Taking the soccer game as an example again. There are complaints that some parents being so fanatic that they scare their own children as their fanatism will end up into an escalation of violence as an exercise in power by the lower less responsible persons and that can prevent that by slogans like “soccer is war” a spiral of spectacular, but meaningless recreational violence will start.

Along with more power, the means not only have to be greater in number, but also more effective, and they have to appear less like the force of an aimless explosion, the raw violence of a hurricane or the unrestrained behavior of a rowdy crowd. A government that does not have these available, is not superior and has no more say than any random club.

The result of violence is always characterized by a hail of unintended, incalculable and destructive side-effects sensible, unless of course we read the word “goal” as something military and war-like, “hit” as the destruction of this goal and “use” as the unleashing of every random force that we do not control. In this way, the guillotine could be regarded as an effective mean for relieving headaches, or pulling all teeth as an adequate means against biting nails. (there is a dark sense of humor needed here.)

Seeing a proof of superiority in this seems a bit shortsighted to me: it is rather a manifestation of impotence or inability to link adequate and carefully dosed means. At best we can say that in certain circumstances in a somewhat ritual way we have reserved the authority to exert this impotence or the threat thereof and necessitated ourselves to leave out the, in this context painful, qualification senseless. But the question is wether this is more than a mere verbal and ritual exercise that does not change a thing about the situation itself.

There seem to be at least two reasons why we speak in such hidden terms about all kinds of violence, including that of the government. One is that a start of violence or a display of superiority can cause a shock that may bring people to their senses. (Just think about what happened in Oslo and on Utoya or less recent the 9-11 attacks.)

If you, for example, want to quiet a boisterous crowd, you sometimes have to quickly produce a higher volume of sound than the bothersome murmur you intend to override. This will increase the total disorder, but still the expectation can be that silence will be its effect. There are reasons to believe in temporary violence and in the logic of something like a warning shot.

A second reason not to radically rule out every form of violence as a means has to lie in the fact that to this form of active performing there seems to be but one alternative, i.e. standing by powerlessly. But that alternative has to be rejected more forcefully according the measure in which the organization that would decline from performing it is ascribed greater power or authority.

And if you are supposed to have all capabilities, you will always be guilty when you stand by powerlessly. In an activist culture, one that for the greater part is a culture of violence disguised as sport, as expression, as display of power or as spectacle rather than a culture of peaceful technique and of adequate and subtle means, standing by powerlessly or even the acceptance of powerlessness is always regarded as reprehensible. In the phraseology of that culture it is always better to do something than to do nothing at all or, in military terms less familiar to me: it is better to miss or even obliterate the goal than not to shoot at all. This will inevitably lead to absurd situations.

Even if peace would be no more than the absence of war and violence (but how will we ever know?) and even if it has to be maintained by a power that keeps itself in the background, it would still be preferable as a form of civilization to the outbursts of barbaric violence which we have to witness, happening to our shame, time and time again and on all fronts.

I wish that there would be no more victims of senseless violence but this probably an impossible dream.

The Old Sailor,


  1. Goedenavond Old Sailor,

    ik had met dit log wat meer moeite met lezen dan anders omdat mijn engels niet zo goed is,

    Ik zou ook heel graag willen dat er geen slachtoffers meer zijn van zinloos geweld,
    maar dat zal idd wel een droom blijven :(
    wat er nu in Engeland aan de gang is, is toch ook verschrikkelijk, en waarom,

    als nog een fijn weekend gewenst,
    yours sincerely que.


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