The Surprising History of Terrifying Violence

Curator's Note

Too often we focus on what is new about ISIS – its sophisticated use of social media to spread terror, mediated recruiting tactics, or its distributed organizational structure. However, videos like this, discussing the meaning of terrorism, and its significance to the day-to-day livelihood of so many, rarely make their way into mainstream coverage of global affairs.

As a result, far too many pundits in the media and politics equate terrorism with Islam, suggesting that the success of the Islamic State and the threat it poses is fundamentally about extremist, religiously driven ideology. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The success of revolutionary movements is veritably about tapping into populist sentiment in pursuit of just and legitimate governance. ISIS has been able to maintain authority over parts of Iraq and Syria largely because significant portions of the citizenry did not consider their respective government as legitimate, just, or effective. Of course, ISIS’s access to billions in cash, swaths of oil fields and advanced weaponry – all typically characteristic of a nation-state – certainly help as well.

Resorting to grotesque displays of public violence as a means of routing real or perceived injustice is nothing new. These public spectacles are designed, not simply to punish those seen as culpable for wrongdoing, but to communicate evocatively with a broader audience. The French Revolution, for example, began with the torture and beheading—in public, outside of the Hotel de Ville, for all to see—of Bernard-René de Launay, the Governor of the Bastille. Afterwards, de Launay’s sawed off head was fixed to a pike and paraded around Paris. Rather than sparking disgust and outrage, this extremism inspired Parisians to rise up against the French Monarchy, sparking waves of participatory politics (and nationalism) throughout Europe.

The American Revolution, too, was driven by a commanding use of terrifying force. According to Arthur M. Schlesinger, “Mass violence played a dominant role at every significant turning point of the events leading up to the War for Independence. Mobs terrified the stamp agents into resigning and forced a repeal of the tax.” After the Revolution had begun, “civilian mobs behind the lines systematically intimidated Tory opponents, paralyzing their efforts or driving them into exile.” In short, the use of chilling and intimidating force was justified by a vision for democratic and economic justice.

Using extreme violence in pursuit of an ethical order isn’t just the prerogative of revolutionary and extremist groups. It is also integral to how governments seek legitimation and authority, or exert state sovereignty. It is precisely for this reason Max Weber suggested that states are defined by their claim to a monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory. Saudi Arabia, for example, plans to execute political activist Ali Mohammed al-Nimr for allegedly participating in anti-government protests. Al-Nimr, who was 17 at the time of his arrest, will be beheaded and mounted on a crucifix for public viewing. Sound familiar?

To be clear, not all uses of violence are equally evil, and by no means am I equating ISIS with the American Revolution. Crucial to understanding this distinction is to move past a near obsessive focus on the violence itself, focusing instead on the justifications for violence, and addressing their legitimacy. Sensationalizing the Islamic State’s use of extreme force may mobilize Western polities, but it does little to challenge its legitimacy where it matters most: in Syria, Iraq and the rest of the region. As a young women in this video so eloquently states, when “the human mind and soul are not taken care of…this is when we start to hate.” Learning from the mistakes of the British Tories and the French Monarchs, violently confronting revolutionary movements without addressing the underlying factors driving their support – weak or corrupt governance – is unlikely to prevail.

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