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Victims and Witnesses of Violence: The Relationship. Research Paper

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Updated: Sep 26th, 2021


Violence and terror in the world dates back to pre-historic era. Though much of the pre-historic violence erupted basically out of competition for scarce food resources, modern day violence has its roots in diverse causes. Various challenges continue to affect mankind, presenting avenues for violent behaviour. Tribes have been rising up against tribes and countries against countries. The Gulf war, which brought many fatalities, is still fresh in our minds. Most recently, the Russians were squaring it out with their Georgian neighbours, a war that brought many fatalities on both sides.

Violence, which is a key ingredient in all the atrocities and wars, is both a source of existential threat as well as a form of political communication. Victims’ of contemporary warfare are often left horrified and traumatised. The perpetrators of these wars either derive shame, respect or authority from them (Durque, Klevens, and Ramirez, 2003). There exist very many situations in the world today where violence continues to be meted on innocent people. The Darfur situation in Africa is a classical example of how violence can be used as a source of existential threat and also for political communication. The September eleventh bombing of the World Trade Centre in US, the Congo, Somali as well as Israel-Palestine conflicts are other examples. In trying to understand the causes of violence in the world and how it continue to impact on victims as well as witnesses, various theories, concepts and topics have been advanced by Sociologists and Anthropologists. Below I attempt to discuss a few in relation to violence victims.

Politics of Atrocity

Individuals, tribes, and countries continue to rub each other the wrong way while competing for scarce resources. Goals are set and often achieved without much regard to innocent people. In Politics of Atrocity and Reconciliation, Michael Humphrey (2002) argue that, violence is mostly used in contemporary states to unmake the social world and its product, which is suffering, is used to try and remake the social world. In Iraq for example, deposed former president Saddam Hussein unmade the world for his subjects through deadly public executions, torture, ethnic cleansing, and conventional warfare.

Torture and intimidation was used by Saddam Hussein as a form of political communication that, he was the supreme ruler over Iraq and no one could ever challenge the decisions he made – either good or bad. Violence was used as a strategy of intervention in the relationship between state and citizens between feeling and meaning through the infliction of pain (Scarry, 1995). The victims are subdued to act in line with the nation through a continued and sustained effort of subjecting them to direct pain, torture and maiming, and also to painful situations such as wars and genocide. When sources of pain are removed, people will be afraid to question the status quo because they fear to be subjected to the painful situations again. They are then available for politicisation and symbolisation (Scarry, 1995). The argument here is that suffering is the interface between war and peace.

Torture and pain are different. Torture includes explicit acts of inflicting pain. It often demonstrates and magnifies the felt experience of pain. It is commonly used in committing atrocities to instil fear to victims and produce pain within the victims. Atrocities bestow visibility on the arrangement and extent of what is typically viewed as personal and incommunicable, restricted within the confines of the sufferers bodies (Scarry, 1995).

The resultant suffering makes the victims to comply with whatever conditions that are wanted of them. Afterwards, the state agencies remake the world through testimonies and calling torture victims and witnesses to testify in truth commissions and trials (Humphrey, 2002). This was what happened in Kenya after the hotly contested 2007 presidential elections. The government tortured its citizens through state operatives to achieve its objectives only for it to form truth commissions to inquire about what went wrong during elections.

Horror, Abjection and Terror

Violence is always subjected to victims as a threat to the extinction of the self. In political scenes, terrifying situations are sometimes used by government operatives to subdue citizens into compliance. Terror is therefore seen as a political tool which deals with particular characteristics of our individual existential reality and our capability to be social beings (Humphrey, 2002). Humans do realize their mortality and, their inner world of feelings has outer expressions. Everybody is in agreement that pain is almost difficult to articulate in words. Violence, often subjected to victims in frightening and terrifying experiences has been a source of existential threat and a form of political communication. Nobody would want to die as we all value our lives. But when we are faced with the threat of death, we often get subdued and give in to the demands of our captors. This has been successfully used by Iraq militiamen on Westerners in Iraq. The militants have continued to cause great psychological fear on the citizens and foreigners alike by conducting series of bombings and beheadings.

In her book, Powers of Horror: An essay on Abjection, Julia Kristeva argued that there looms, within abjection, one of those brutal, shadowy insurgencies in an individual often focussed against a threat that seems to originate from an excessive outside or inside, and that has been ejected beyond the scope of the likely, the reasonable and the thinkable. This is referred as the space of terror. In other words, human beings carries in themselves some form of great fear that can arise from the surrounding environment and that can greatly harm them. The source of the fear they hold cannot be rationalized. But politicians have used this theory to make citizens toe their line by instilling fear of the unknown. This theory has identified the nature of vulnerability of individuals to harm in socio-cultural and psychological senses. The experiences of bombings and strong stench of decaying bodies during the gulf war made the citizens of Iraq suddenly realize about how mortal they were and thus were subdued much more easily by the political leadership. The realization is often horrifying, terrifying and brings abjection.

Torture and truth

One can never forget to note that civilizations around the world have often resulted to torture as a strategy to get hold of power. Victims of violence often undergo inhuman torture to subdue them to compliance. Some forms of torture are so inhuman such that they de-motivate the victims, almost permanently. In Kenya for example, activists who fought for the second liberation of the country had their finger nails plucked out using pliers. They were subjected to intense interrogations while completely naked and often hanged upside-down from the walls. Torture is thus used to kill the spirit of the victims and to silence their self.

In his book, Discipline and Culture, Michael Foucault (1977) comes up with the triadic structure of torture and the centrality of the confessional mode in its logic of truth. In many instances, tortures are carried out in an attempt to extract the “truth” from victims. Foucault is of the view that justice is about punishment. He argues that, pain is a source of truth and people always reveal their deepest secrets when subjected to considerable pain. He notes that, while torture is dehumanizing politically, it is an apparatus for selection and exclusion. It creates another social grouping by putting people past the guard of law.

Torture revolves around the constant and concurrent occurrence of three phenomena which occur in the following steps. First of all, intensifying pain is inflicted on an individual. Secondly, the intense pain inflicted becomes even more intense in that it is made visible to other individuals apart from the victim. Third, the intense pain is not looked at as pain by those inflicting but as a sign of power (Scarry, 1995). This is what happened to the Kenyan democracy crusaders. They were beaten to their deaths in the hope of extracting truth from them. The victims were viewed as betrayers of the previous KANU government. This brought about the culture of terror which was entrenched in the government. The results are there for every one to see. Many people were incapacitated and families traumatised. To date, the Moi philosophy which the previous government championed has remained problematic even to the social institutions that continue to hold the Kenyan people together. It has been argued in the media that the culture of terror witnessed in the Moi regime was responsible for the post-election violence that erupted in many parts of the country. As Faucault suggests, experiences of torture are socially quarantined by their medicalisation as traumatic conditions. Trauma is often a medical condition, which is treatable by conventional ways. In Kenya, many post-election victims were traumatised by the terror unleashed to them and had to seek medical interventions including counselling.

War and truth

War is quite different from torture in that it arises when the perpetrator is external and occupies a separate geographical space, commonly referred to as a ‘separate space.’ When nations or tribes go into war, the urge to wipe out entire opponent populations and their civilisation is not viewed as a self destructive idea. According to Scarry (1995), torture typically happens when the opponent is from within and where total annihilation of a race and its civilisation is viewed as self destructive. Wars often bring spatial violence as civilisations are destroyed. This happened in Kenya early this year when tribes rose against each other due to the hotly contested presidential election. Victims lost their loved ones and their belongings. Property was looted and destroyed. Bands of hooligans put their lives on the line of fire and got killed for “patriotic purposes.” In war, people consent to have them killed and to kill others for nationalistic purposes (Scarry, 1995). Figures of casualties are used to signify the level of commitment, sacrifice, and loyalty that individuals have for their nation or tribe. In the American-Vietnam war, many Vietnamese soldiers died in the line of duty. But this was carried with high esteem by the citizens of that country.

In modern times, conventional warfare is continually distancing horror from the art of killing (Fussell, 1975). Technological advancements has made it possible for high-tech killing weapons to be developed thus making the act of killing more anonymous and the destruction caused by these weapons more detached and imaginary. These developments conceal the effects that these weapons have on individuals. Apart from the genocide which happens mostly in Africa, the public hardly ever witness wars, either in the form of personal experiences or television footages of the war zone. It’s very rare for the public to have first hand combat experience (Fussell 1975). While in their weekly media briefings, the US military in Iraq rarely mentions the casualties. In Kenya, the number of those who died in the war that erupted during the post election violence remains a State secret. But despite concerted efforts to conceal the number of fatalities and the horror that was meted to innocent citizens, who their only mistake was to exercise their democratic rights by voting, the legacies of the mayhem still linger among Kenyans. These horrifying legacies turned out to be chief political issues in the rebuilding of the association involving war experiences of the victims of post-election violence and the meaning of past violence.

Works cited

Dorque, LF, Klevens, J, and Ramirez, C. . Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 57 (2003) 355 -60. 2008. Web.

Foucault, Michael. Discipline and Punishment, NY: Pantheon Books, 1977.

Fussell, Paul. ‘The Troglodyte World’, The Great War and Modern Memory, London: Oxford UP, 1975.

Humphrey, Michael. The Politics of Atrocity and Reconciliation from Terror to Trauma. Routledge, UK, 2002. Web.

Julia Kristeva, “Approaching Abjection.” 2008. Web.

Macek, Ivana. War Within; Everyday Life in Sarajevo under Seige. Uppsala: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, 2000.

Scarry, Ellaine. The Body in Pain. Oxford University Press, US, 1995. 2008. Web.

Taussig, Michael. Terror as Usual: ‘Walter Benjamin’s theory of History as State of Siege’ in The Nervous System. London: Routledge, 1992.

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