The Problem With Violence

The problem with violence is not just the blood spilled, but the ensuing endless cycle of violence that will follow. The cycle is fueled by the conviction of possessing the truth, especially the defining of who is the real victim and how it all started. Violence erupts where the expression of frustration fails, the frustration of being mistaken for who we really are in our own internal gaze. We get aggressive when we want to make a point about our disappointment in the unrecognizing Other who turned us into an object and treated us as if we were an object. We get violent when we feel we will never be able to make a point, and we wish to destroy the objectifying other and start all over again, because we don’t know anymore how to bring the other to see our point of view, and grant us what we want and believe religiously to be ours. In order to be violent, we must turn our fellow human into an Other. That Evil Other needs to be tamed, because we feel EN-OTHERED by it. The sense of helplessness ensues a moment before the strike.


We wake up the morning after, if we do, devastated by the depth of destruction that missed us this time. We feel terrorized, unseen, not considered by the other, and despairing. Can’t the other see us as refined, well credentialed, and capable of love, as we can see them? Or do we? Somehow the other is portrayed as less-than-human, and we feel that “it” must either be “civilized” or destroyed. “It” needs to be destroyed because of our fear that the other is incapable of compassion, and therefore will try to destroy us, if we don’t stop “it” ahead of time. We have to turn the uncompassionate Other into Us or get rid of it, by that losing our own compassion, and inviting justification of the next violent attempt at destruction of evil “Us.”

I remember the level of confusion I felt when I was assigned a job in a high security prison during my graduate training in Israel. This particular prison resided in an old tobacco storage facility designed to keep the goods in the dark and well moist. It was not appropriate for human living, but humans lived there and suffered the consequences day and night. The prisoner population was mostly criminal with a few political prisoners/terrorists. When we toured the different parts of the jail, I remember the sense of decency that I felt stepping into the “terrorists” cell. It was the calmest, most comfortable place to be in the entire jail. It lacked the insanity and unpredictability that characterized the rest of the prison. I remember thinking to myself that if I ever end-up lost in a prison I would much rather be stuck in the “terrorists’” cell, than in any other.

I became aware of how one is turned violent. The moment we lose sight of the complexity of the human condition, and let fear determine our actions, we necessarily wrong the other. By seeing “it” as all dangerous or bad, we leave the other no option to be anything but shocked and hopeless at our misperception of their (complete) truth, and wishing to start all over again without the “blind” enemy.

Violence is not part of a process, but the moment after the process has stopped. It is the moment where decay begins, where there is discontinuity of what is known to be our understanding of our life, its meaning, and the way things operate. The truth, the way we know it, ceased to exist, even if we have vivid memories of it.

Think about a parent discovering a young toddler’s creative art skills freshly painted onto the living room wall. Being caught by surprise, the parent must pause for a brief moment to assess the situation, the mess, the cost of repair, the worry about the child’s future, and her chance to enter an Ivy League college given her current moral judgment and so on. The child’s sensing her parents’ lack of enthusiasm may get her a bit anxious, confused and disappointed. She wanted her parents to be proud of her. Why aren’t they speaking to her? Why are their faces blank? The child may feel alone and start laughing, crying, or hitting the parents in order to resurrect them to a known, reliable state. The parents may get more disturbed and react by reprimanding the child. Now while some of us may venture into the pleasures of the child’s creativity and inference abilities, and helping the child understand that fresco is better left to Italian churches, others may feel such a level of anxiety about the altered décor, that a schism may ensue between the parent and the child, enough to turn the creative child into a bad child, and the good parent into a dangerous animal. Now who is the terrorist? The child? The parent? Who is practicing paganism? The unruly child who went into a trance of her own world or the parent who is infused with fear and rage not just about the moment, but also about the lost perfect moment and all the potential future destroyed moments?

What happens when the parties involved are not a parent and a child, but a shopkeeper and a hungry teenager who was caught stealing? What if the child is an eighteen-year-old male, wears a uniform, and just obeys orders? What if the Muslim who wishes to paint on the world canvas feels infantilized or marginalized, by those who know better how the Muslim should paint? What if he becomes even more creative and the self-defined parent feels entitled to destroy the Golem who took over his creator? Who has the right to determine the truth? What is the right level of fear to justify a violent action? Is it only a matter of power? Is it only about blood? Is it only about morals?

The child operated from a pre-rational moral ethical stance, in which a judgment is made anew based on the circumstances, and the wish to live life fully and freely, without taking the Other and its values into account. Not necessarily with a wish to harm, but without considering the Other or the consequences to the Other while pursing that internal freedom. The Other may feel violated because of one’s adherence to its moral values, that is, determined to see the Other’s manifested way of life as malicious, inconsiderate, immoral, and dangerous. Both feel the inability to penetrate the Other with their own sensibility.

That is probably what led the first biblical suicide bomber, Samson, to say, “let me die with the Philistines.” In the Hebrew translation he is quoted as saying, “let my soul die with the Philistines.” Violence kills the soul, not only the body of the suicide bomber, as he attempts to destroy the soul of the Other who de-legitimizes his way of being for more or less justifiable anxieties. A study quoted in the London newspaper, The Guardian, claimed that Samson suffered from Antisocial Personality Disorder. We can muse about the question of which “social” we are referring to, since the action that is taken by him against the Other is similar to actions the Other has taken against him. But it’s his actions we don’t like and suffer their consequences, and while marginalizing him we accept our heroic military action against the evil terrorist who “understands only one language.” Do we understand any other language? This kind of marginalization may in fact lead to a sense of not belonging, and therefore to giving up any other form of negotiation but suicidal attacks in the form of “let my soul die with the Philistines.”


In Rumi’s poem Dervish at the Door, a dervish knocks on the door of a house asking for a piece of bread and is refused. He tries for other basics just to be turned down time and again. When the poor man realizes that none of his appeals for generosity will be granted, he storms into the house, lifts his robe and squats, preparing to defecate. As the startled owner of the house contests this trespassing and violation, the visitor comments:

“Quiet, you sad man. A deserted place is a fine spot to relieve oneself, and since there’s no living thing here, or means of living, it needs fertilizing.”

The dervish began his own list of questions and answers.

“What kind of bird are you? Not a falcon, trained for the royal hand. Not a peacock, painted with everyone’s eyes. Not a parrot, that talks for sugar cubes. Not a nightingale, that sings like someone in love.

Not a hoopoe bringing messages to Solomon, or a stork that builds a Cliffside.

What exactly do you do? You are no known species.

You haggle and make jokes to keep what you own for yourself.

You have forgotten the One who doesn’t care about ownership, and who doesn’t try to turn a profit from every human exchange.”

When we refuse to see the Other and their needs except for what they are to us and how useful they are to us, we leave the Other no choice but to create freedom for themselves, oftentimes by ceasing to see us and our needs. The moment of freedom when nothing is left to be lost precipitates violence. Often, we are only capable of seeing the last violent action taken against us and what is dear to us. Tracking linearly back seems to be what we are often willing to explore, feeling justified “retaliating” rather than being the first to see the other as subject even in the worst moments. Insisting that we cannot live with such suffering without responding an eye for an eye ensures the spiral of continued violence.

Disillusionment may be as important as working toward plausible ways to slow down the rate of the eruption of violence. What we may need is not just to point a finger at a terrorist, but perhaps for evolution to develop a third eye on the tip of the pointing finger, so when we point it we can also see the world around us for what it is rather than what we want it to be or what we are afraid it will become.

Hemda Arad is a psychoanalyst in private practice in Seattle. This article originally appeared in the April 2002 Northwest Alliance for Psychoanalytic Study Newsletter.

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