Violence, punishment, healing

I’m just back from a 3.5-mile run in 32-degree (F) weather. The air was crisp and lovely but the sun too low for my comfort and the footing often icy. But I still got a good buzz out of the run.
I was thinking through some sad things that have been happening. I have a good friend in a distant state who’s had some really scary-sounding brain surgery today… There is still no word since last Thursday about the fate of the CPT-ers in Iraq… Yesterday, the son of my long-time friend and colleague Ghassan Tueni was killed in a hideous car-bomb in Beirut. His son, Gibran Tueni, left a wife and four daughters. How ghastly for Ghassan and for everyone else involved… Last night, late at night, the State of California deliberately killed a person, Tookie Williams, who in recent years has been a great force for good in the world… And the fighting goes on and on in Iraq, even though the voting has already started in the current election.
There is so much violence in the world. Much of it is carried out with a strong motivation of “punishing” the targeted party… and is based on the perpetrators’ strong conviction that they are right.. (I remember a great quote from Ian Buruma in one of his books of essays. He had grown up in Netherlands after World War 2… In the essay he was reflecting on that, and on the view he imbibed as a child there about his people’s German neighbors. “They were bad,” he wrote. “Therefore, we were good.” Think about that “therefore.”)
But what, really are the goals of punishment? They can be thought of as many, including but not limited to these:

    — to “re-educate” a former wrongdoer,
    — to underscore the importance of society’s laws and norms,
    — as a pure power play: to try to demonstrate that “our side” is strong, and “their side” is weak,
    — to give satisfaction to the desires of former victims (some of which may be legitimate; but some may not be).

Of all those motivations, I think only the “power play” one is a constant.
I’ve written quite a bit about how I think that, in the aftermath of wrongdoing, thinking about mending/healing/reparating the torn fabric of society is much more important that trying to “settle scores”, to “get even”, or to do any of the other things that punishment is classically supposed to do.
Anyway, it feels like a day for some reflection here.

9 thoughts on “Violence, punishment, healing”

  1. Healing should be the obvious focus in Iraq, but I don’t think Americans are good at healing. We’re better at solving, at settling, at winning, at dealing. I have no idea whether Iraqis are good at healing… current news from Iraq is not encouraging, but there is of course, so much noise in the reporting that it’s hard to know what’s what. Are there any Iraqi voices in support of healing in Iraq? Does the concept of healing hold any water in that desert?

  2. Helena,‎
    thinking about mending/healing/reparating the torn fabric of society,
    This the game that US doing in Iraq for three years now, the problem US facing is ‎Iraqi society had very deep history dealing with invaders whom each of them tried to ‎made his fabric of society in Iraq all of them failed…‎
    So I think in the end of the day Iraq will stay in hands of Iraqis the oil Wells will be ‎there on the land of Iraq the only change the invaders will leave with shame and with ‎loss don’t expected before entering Iraq.‎
    Please just read the history of the land of tow revers, the land of Prophases its God ‎welling and blessing for this land and for those on that land…..‎

  3. JWN peace mavens, I am in the 2005 Top 100 of the Johannesburg “Star”! I am number 10 in the “Letters” section with a peace letter!
    Note that the DA (Democratic Alliance)is the Thatcherite opposition party and the SACP is that South African Communist Party.
    Apart from these local details I think this letter is relevant to this thread on violence, punishment and healing, as well.
    Here it is:
    Zimbabwe needs what South Africa needs – namely peace and the rule of law under democracy along with steady development.
    The Democratic Alliance deputy spokesperson, Motlatjo Thetjeng, MP (Letters, August 22) wrote that I am a “functionary” (actually a voluntary office-bearer at branch level) in the SACP.
    This is true, but it should not prevent us from agreeing about Zimbabwe.
    All South Africans can and should unite on this question, including the DA and the SACP.
    The problem with the DA is their fixation with “opposition”. They continue to try to use the Zimbabwe issue as a stick with which to beat the South African government.
    To do so, and in the absence of any fundamental disagreement, they must create an artificial and dangerous divide between themselves and the government (as well as those allied to the government, like the SACP) on Zimbabwe.
    Mr Thetjeng does this in his letter when he writes: “Once again the South African government preferred to temporise with tyranny rather than listen to the voice of reason.”
    His implication is that talks between our countries should cease and that force should be applied by South Africa against Zimbabwe, or, in other words, that war is the preferred DA solution.
    If he did not mean this, then I would be happy if he would kindly say what he did mean.
    I would also be happy if Mr Thetjeng or any other DA spokesperson would deny that their counsel was for war against Zimbabwe.
    In that case, we would all have a basis for common cause over Zimbabwe.
    Peace must be the first and the last consideration.
    So long as we agree about that, we can stand confidently together as South Africans advocating the rule of law under democracy and a steady path of material development – in Zimbabwe and in all African countries.

  4. And another thing – a much bigger thing. An international conference of peace activists in London with 1,500 delegates from around the world decided on a big weekend of action on the 3rd anniversary of the US/British attack on Iraq. This will be on 18th and 19th March, 2006.
    We have a clear three months to organise something huge.
    My individual proposal is that we should have “die-ins” in every city and town around the world, supplemented by dummy casualties placed at road junctions, in trees, in parks and squares and so on.
    The idea would be to show, for one shocking weekend, what war is like when it comes to your neighbourhood. What it is like to have 30,000 civilian dead and the corresponding number of wounded, for example. What it is like when the casualties are small, or wear skirts, for example.
    Other actions could highlight the thing in other ways. People could leaflet at fuel stations to remind people that war means no fuel for days and weeks at a time. Or you could sell bottled water to raise funds and remind people what it is like when the attackers target the infrastructure. Or you could sell toilet rolls and toy spades with the same message. People should know that war is disgusting.
    You could stand outside the hospital and the school and remind people how many of these have been destroyed in Iraq.
    What do you all think? I hope you don’t mind my asking this question here, in this way, Helena. But really, it’s enough already, isn’t it? It’s time to take this thing to every front door.

  5. Dominic,
    I was very active in the anti-war movement here in the U.S. from the time of Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech through the first few months of the war / occupation (until personal issues took over my time).
    Having said that, at least here in the U.S., I think what we ended up accomplishing by street-level work was less didactic than it was good for (1) public exposure of the issue in the media, and (2) organizing people who already agreed with us.
    We also had endless debates about what would “really” work, and I ended up concluding that it takes a variety of methods from across the political spectrum of those in your coalition.
    Which all boils down to this: whatever you organize will have some sort of useful impact. The question is what you seek to achieve from a given action. And I don’t believe you will be able to shock anyone into a sudden sense of empathy that they haven’t yet been able to approximate. I guess that’s a bit of cynicism I picked up from my experience.
    Nonetheless, good luck with whatever you end up deciding to do.

  6. IMO, the notion of “violence” is too general to be of any particular value, it all depends on concrete cultural historical context.
    In arts, activities by Achilles, Oedipus’ self-blinding, Medea’s killing of her children, beatings ion comedies by Plautus, killings by Lancelot, rape of Lavinia, killing of Desdemona, slave revolt in Benito Cereno – have very little in common.
    Then there are all kinds of dude killing in video games.
    In the Bible, events in Sodom and Gomorra are highly different from Egyptian plagues and Christ’s suffering.
    The nature of domestic violence in California, in China, in Ethiopia, in Egypt is also completely different.
    We also have criminal, guerilla, military, and revolutionary violence – all completely different things.

  7. Erm, vivion, it’s not about me! This conference in London was a big affair.
    As the report says, “Among the prominent US delegates were Cindy Sheehan of Gold Star Families for Peace, Judith le Blanc from United for Peace and Justice, Medea Benjamin from Code Pink and Justice and Phyllis Bennis of Institute for Policy Studies.” So this is a US thing as much as anything else.
    See the report at .
    If you scroll to the end you get the two conference resolutions. One is a statement of principle and action, and especially the decision for action on the 18th and 19th of March.
    The other one says “We urge the release of the four Christian peace campaigners, Norman Kember, Tom Fox, James Loney and Harmeet Singh Sooden, and we ask those holding them to return them to their families unharmed. (and all other hostages)”
    So to you and to Henry James I would say, this is not a time to generalise, this is a time for action. What is action? Even writing on a blog is action in my book, so long as it is positive.

  8. Helena, You look at punishment from an objective angle only. Subjectively, punishment is for a wrong done, for guilt and, in a theological understanding, for sin. It is the subjective sense of our actions that is contually being eroded by the life-form we live in, the socio-cultural matrix that we make and that makes us.
    It leads us to believe that all things are visited upon us but in reality we often make our reality. Punishment comes in many forms, and in this world we believe that it is always outside us, never inside. And our reality is often, if not mostly, performed and done in fear–fear of others, fear of nature’s exigencies, but even moreso fear of ourselves.
    With this machine that is the state, we want to put public life on automatic. That is, let’s start the machine, let it make the decisions and if we grease it right and follow the specs then we can get time off to be private, to be ourselves which are not public.
    But life will not let it be. We won’t let ourselves be. For as much as we want to get away from the world it keeps jamming up the machine. Not only that, but being private cuts us off from being with others–those who make things jam up.
    So we are never who we are. And because we’re never who we are, we feel guilt. With guilt goes the need for punishment. Yes, need. It is, as Simone Weil said so long ago, a spiritual need. But who’s to punish and who’s to feel that need anymore if there’ no guilt but only the machine jamming up?

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