Political Violence in Analytical Perspective

  • David E. Apter


To speak of “contemplating” violence is perhaps a contradiction in terms. Too shocking, too saddening, too infuriating and often too pious or passionate, it is, even under the best of circumstances, a phenomenon difficult to approach neutrally. Political violence conjures up the massacres of the innocents in Rwanda, Southern Sudan, East Timor, the drizzly parade of funerals in Northern Ireland, the tortures and trials of captives on public display by terrorists, the violation and mutilation of women in Bosnia. Even where the intents are heroic, as in the case of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, or in the context of such successful struggles for freedom as in South Africa, the attending loss of property and blood leaves behind the unfinished business of retrievable anger. The more so because not even the most successful movements realize their aims quite on their own terms. Among its most negative effects is the reinforcement of prejudiced boundaries. For political violence not only divides people, it polarizes them around affiliations of race, ethnicity, religion, language, class. It turns boundaries in the mind into terrains and jurisdictions on the ground. As an editorial in the New York Times put it: “In no previous age have people shown so great an aptitude and appetite for killing millions of other people for reasons of race, religion or class.”1 Those who are not victims become voyeurs. Even the best-intentioned movement suffers the effects of Foucault’s paradox, i.e. the hegemonic consequences of the liberating project. Perhaps worst of all, where it becomes self-sustaining and of long duration, people accept it, live with it, and survive in a world gone dull, nasty, brutish and short.


Social Movement Political Violence French Revolution Analytical Perspective Violent Event 
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© United Nations Research Institute for Social Development 1997

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  • David E. Apter

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