Suicide bombings have been studied recently as a paradigm for political violence. Scott Atran, in particular, has studied
how specific acts of terrorism are hatched and undertaken. However, suicide bombings are a poor model for theorizing
more broadly about collective forms of—societal—violence.
Indeed, there is a serious methodological issue. While it may be interesting and useful to uncover the circumstances
and motives that lead individuals to engage in violent political acts, this is not the central issue.
Political violence occurs when members of a society are
authorized to perform acts of violence. Authorization takes the form of an idea or dictate put forth
by a sovereign. Often, men are
compelled to perform acts of violence.
When the First World War began,
2,466,719 men joined the British army voluntarily between August 1914 and December 1915. It might be
interesting to analyze why certain individuals volunteered, and others did not. But the big question is why
society issued this call-to-arms, and why vast numbers of men responded to the call.
Civilizational violence differs radically from the violence that (may have) occurred in pre-history among small
groups of homo-sapiens. Atran says that our willingness to shed blood—including the sacrifice of one’s own
is “not merely for family and tribe,” but for some “greater cause.” More than two millennia ago, Atran observes,
“large scale civilizations arose under the watchful gaze of powerful divinities.” One may call these divinities
gods or kings—often the two were equated—but in any case, men were compelled to perform violent acts in the
name of these divinities.
Men submitted to kings claiming divinity and were “mercilessly punished” (Atran) if they did not act according
to the will of the sovereign—and the society he embodied. Warfare often was undertaken as a form of competition—to
prove which god was supreme.
Atran observes that humans define the groups to which they belong in abstract terms. They strive for intellectual
and emotional bonding with “anonymous others”—and make their greatest exertions in killing and dying— “not
to preserve their own lives or defend families and friend,” but for the sake of an idea…a “transcendent moral
conception.” I’ve often used the term “fungible” to refer to the fact that transcendent objects in the name
of which human beings die and kill—may be interchangeable. Call it “god,” Atran says, or “whatever secular
ideology one prefers,” including any of the “great salvational ‘isms’— colonialism, socialism,
anarchism, communism, fascism and liberalism.”
Humans make their greatest commitments and exertions, Atran says, for ill or good, for the sake of ideas that
“give a sense of significance” in an inherently chaotic universe. Where “humans alone recognize that death
is unavoidable,” there is an “overwhelming psychological impetus to overcome this tragedy.”
Atran observes that in our “preferred world of liberal democracy and tolerance of diversity,” violence—especially
extreme forms of mass bloodshed—are generally considered “pathological” or “evil expressions of human nature
gone awry.” However, across human history and cultures, “violence is universally claimed by the perpetrators
to be a “sublime matter of moral virtue.” After all, Atran says, without a claim to virtue, “it is very difficult
to endeavor to kill large numbers of people innocent of direct harm to others.”
My research for the past thirty years bears out Atran’s hypothesis: political violence is often carried out
as a “sublime matter of moral virtue.” The springs of popular government, Robespierre declared, are “at once
virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is powerless.” Virtue
and terror: violence carried out with a sense of moral righteousness.
Violent actions are carried out by individuals within a society when this violence is framed as necessary and
virtuous political acts: the Civil War was fought by Lincoln in order to
“preserve the union;” Woodrow Wilson brought the United States into the First World War in order to “make
the world safe for democracy;” Lenin and Stalin
committed mass murder in the name of the Soviet people and the communist revolution; and the SS-man vowed
“obedience unto death” for the sake of Hitler and Germany.
Violent political acts are undertaken by societies in the name of a sacred object. The sacred object is a transcendent
idea or ideal or entity that holds the group together. Acts of political violence are undertaken as forms
anything and everything for the sake of the sacred object.
Hitler declared, “We may be inhumane, but if we rescue Germany, we have performed the greatest deed in the
world.” Think about any political or historical situation with which you are familiar—characterized by extreme
forms of violence or self-sacrifice—and apply Hitler’s formula: “We may be inhumane, but if we rescue _______,
we have performed the greatest deed in the world.”
Is your case study consistent with Hitler’s formula?