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Shots across the ocean: joining the dots of modern violence

Two bouts of gunfire on either side of the Atlantic gave the inspiration to this week’s series of articles. But if the statistics show that war is declining and criminal violence in most regions is flatlining, how should we read the redoubts of extreme insecurity? Are they holdovers from the past, or signs of the future?

Ivan Briscoe
14 October 2011

Tahrir Square was erupting in joy on my computer screen at the very moment I heard the first shot. It seemed more of a shudder than a bullet: perhaps a very large truck was hurtling down the road, or maybe a slab of the new shopping mall being built opposite had crashed to earth. I turned back to the screen. Mubarak was history. There were the crowds in Cairo, hoisted flags. And on the street below, a giant iron sledgehammer was raised high and brought down hard against an anvil again and again: sub-automatic gunfire.

What happened on the afternoon of February 11 on the street next to the Holiday Inn of Guatemala City was a simple and effective hit. The victim was the head of personnel at a naval base on the Pacific; sniffer dogs later found remains of cocaine all over the car, or so one of the mall construction workers told me. The kill required a car, two gunmen on two motorbikes and some inside information. It barely made the evening news.

Back in western Europe, tales from these zones of the map, call them fragile states or troubled neighbourhoods, can seem about as relevant to life as one of Scheherazade’s yarns. They are assumed not to grip onto reality, to find no echo in our routines, to mean nothing beyond the confined stretch of distant, troubled earth on which they happen.

On a brilliantly luminous spring day in Holland, two months later, a 24-year-old man entered a local shopping mall in a peaceful, nondescript town not far from where I live. Tristan Van der Vlis was the only son of doting parents who were so worried by his descent into depression and aimless consumption of video games and smoking of skunk weed that they tried to cheer up him up by buying a black Mercedes.

It was behind the wheel of this Mercedes that Van der Vlis sallied forth on the Saturday in question. He pulled out a semi-automatic Smith & Wesson and a revolver, and proceeded to shoot dead six shoppers.

A wave of insecurity?

Since then, the traffic in signs of atrocities between violent lands and the developed world has accelerated. Guatemala witnessed its first mass decapitation in May, Norway its first post-war massacre in July. There has been mayhem in Yemen, and a peculiar offspring of the old-fashioned riot in Britain, with deadpan teenagers looking for a laugh and some loot.

These scattered events, and the thread which may tentatively link them, have provided the inspiration behind this week’s collection of articles. But it also crucial to emphasize what these pieces are not saying. They do not claim that violence as a whole, considered on a global scale, is greater or more ubiquitous than in the past. Nor do they necessarily claim, with the exception of parts of Latin America, that criminal violence is getting any worse.

Evidence on these fronts is somewhat ambivalent, especially given the patchiness of historical records on violent crime in sub-Saharan Africa. However, statistics on war assembled by institutes such as SIPRI in Sweden, or the University of Maryland’s Peace and Conflict monitor, show that the number of armed conflicts has stabilized at a relatively low total: 15, according to SIPRI. Battle deaths are also at historical lows. There has been no inter-state war anywhere for an extraordinary seven years. Global terrorist activity, for its part, actually peaked in the early 1990s.

A similar story can be told of criminal violence. Even within Latin America, there have been striking improvements. Colombia last year recorded its lowest murder rate for a quarter of a century, although it is worth noting that the figure is still higher than that of cartel-torn Mexico, and does not capture the criminal terror suffered by many rural communities. As regards the developed world, one celebrated article on the history of homicide from the French sociologist Jean-Claude Chesnais plotted a consistent downward trend in murder, with the striking exception of post-World War II United States.

Looking at Britain, Chesnais found that rural Warwick in the thirteenth century had a murder rate roughly similar to that of contemporary El Salvador; by the start of the eighteenth century, this had diminished to the rate of today’s Thailand. Now it is about a third of that rate.

So when we consider the problem of violence, we must be very careful about what we are saying. Extreme caution must also be applied to the magnification of violence by the mass media, and its global transmission. Horror is readily at hand, but this does not mean that it is stalking.

Losing one’s head

However, armed with these provisos and caveats, the articles published here still find scattered evidence of the propagation and intensification of violence. The structural causes of conflict, whether sharp inequalities in sprawling cities, the spread of illicit networks, ethno-political competition or counter-productive foreign interventions, do not seem to be letting up in Karachi, Mogadishu, Freetown or Dushanbe. Closer examination instead shows that violence has embedded itself in these and other areas to become a regular channel for political management, illicit competition, individual aspiration, and even self-expression – as a ready means for all kinds of inter-personal communication.

More anecdotally, public shows of extreme cruelty seem to be increasing. Mexican writer Sergio González Rodríguez has perhaps journeyed further than any other contemporary writer into the unsavoury subject of decapitation. A combination of travelogue and investigation, his book, El hombre sin cabeza (The Headless Man), meditates on the theme of losing one’s head, a fate that his country’s narco conflict has visited on hundreds of victims as if in a cruel Aztec parody. He quotes at length an ‘expert’ on these head-cutters:

“They are primitive people. They lack emotional intelligence, the capacity for abstraction and moral norms… The dramatic side of their lives is combined with the risible: they dress poorly, they go unwashed for long periods of time, they lack urban manners. A weapon in their hands transforms them completely, allowing them to realize their fantasy of domination. They travel from the certainty of their poverty to limitless desire through the route of violence.”

The entrenchment of violence through its multiple instrumental uses – psychological, political and economic - is at the heart of the articles published this week on Sierra Leone and Medellín. Tani Adams’ ethnographic work in Central America plumbs the recesses of social life, picking out the adaptation mechanisms that enable communities which are the victims of criminal violence to assimilate and accept it. Or, as the doorman of the Holiday Inn assured me five minutes after the Guatemala City shootout, and once the emergency vehicles were arriving: “There’s no problem out there. It’s over (Ya pasó).”

These processes are parallel to the global patterns of war: peaceful lands rarely switch to conflict. Instead, war has sedimented into the public life of certain countries. The point is starkly made in the World Bank’s 2011 World Development Report: “every civil war that began since 2003 was a resumption of a previous civil war.”

Western killers

But if violence has become an assimilated part of public life in certain poor or criminalized areas of the planet, can’t the developed west say exactly the opposite? Western societies have been drained of most official or daily use of violence: executions, one of which drew a crowd of 40,000 in London in 1807 according to Chesnais, have been abolished, at least in Europe; children are not supposed to be beaten; animals are protected.

A new book by the cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker goes as far as to argue that peoples in developed countries have achieved a decisive, possibly genetic break with their species’ savage past. On the other hand, if we are to believe Azar Gat, author of War in Human Civilization, it is economic prosperity, rather than democracy or political reform, which has pacified the ‘affluent-liberal’ world. Were the riches to disappear, then the moderate opinions of the western middle class might start to rediscover their sting.

As it is, and until a fresh economic calamity comes along, the violent phenomenon that is most worrying the west is the seemingly random act of killing - the sort carried out by Van der Vlis. It would be convenient to dismiss these as the work of deranged individuals, lost in the by-ways of consumer civilization or Islamist ideology.

However, Peadar Kirby argues in his article that the loners and fundamentalists carrying out these acts can be seen as products of the same global economic processes that have given rise to gangs and organized crime in the developing world. Instead of aberrations, they express the same competitive anxiety as a Mexican head-cutter. More often than not, Jeffrey Murer says, far-right killers also use the same polarizing and segmenting rhetoric as their country’s politicians.

Recurrence and the future 

All our authors have responded fantastically to the challenge: I cannot thank them enough for their time and patience. It would be futile to summarize all of what has been said, or to ride roughshod over many finely delineated countries and cities that have gone to make up the collection..

But by way of a conclusion, I would simply pull out a number of issues that have recurred throughout. The question of exclusion has appeared in many guises, from fortified condominiums to the management of bazaars. There are thick and fine lines of separation. An extreme comes in Martin Rodríguez Pellecer’s article, where the most intransigent members of Guatemala’s economic elite propose to wipe out the criminal class by bombing the city’s periphery. Preserving oases of affluence may require using the threat of impending chaos, as Bruno Cordier shows in the case of Central Asia. Yet exclusion and segregation invariably breed the violence they are supposed to contain, shifting the equilibrium level of a society’s tolerance of force progressively higher.

We have seen the instrumental roles that violence can play along numerous axes of group competition and rivalry. Transformative political ideology as the pure motive behind armed activity is now a rarity. But the principal arenas of violence, whether criminal or ethnic, remain steeped in a scramble for resources by different groups, resentments over inequality and suspicions of the state. Controlling the tap of unrest - that is both turning it off and on - has in turn come to be a political exercise that draws on the complicity of police, criminals and other local bosses. The separation of criminal and political powers in these contexts can be hard to discern, and their relations fraught. Violence can be quelled by a criminal boss, as in Medellín. And it can be cruelly intensified by a political decision to wage a war on crime and assert the authority of the state, as in Calderón’s Mexico.

The difficulties in facing down violence that is embedded, naturalized in social life, linked to political competition and fed by economic distribution are massive. Robert Muggah, Erwin Van Veen and Maria Derks tentatively and cautiously look to a process of community regeneration and careful donor support as means to alleviate the extremes of insecurity. Changes to the war on drugs and the supply of small arms are long overdue, while numerous other policies that may help cultivate more affluent and fairer societies also impinge.

Violence of course will never be eradicated. But nor should eight centuries be allowed to stand between the safety of an English street and that of a suburb of San Salvador.

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