Understanding Violence and Terror

“For, although we merely know, but do not yet understand, what we are fighting against, we know and understand even less what we are fighting for.”
- Hannah Arendt, “Mankind and Terror”

2016 feels like a disastrous year. Each morning and evening brings fresh news of violence: Terrorist attacks, mass shootings, police shooting black men, police being shot at, BREXIT, Trump, Congress staging a sit-in, attempted military coups. With each media push we cringe: What’s happened now? And once we’ve answered that question, we move into a meta-narrative where the conversation has shifted to: “President Obama hangs his head, again.” “We know what everyone is going to say.” “We feel numb.” It seems in this age of technology that the stream of violence and turmoil is never ending. It is what we have come to expect from the daily news. So, how do we understand this violence?

Dawson’s Field, a remote desert airstrip near Zarka, Jordan, which became “Revolutionary Airport” in September of 1970

Acts of violence and terror are nothing new, as Hannah Arendt reminds us. As long as there have been states and revolutionary movements, terrorism and violence have been around. So, how do we think about what is happening today? How do we engage in the work of understanding? On the one hand we have the events of violence and or terror, and on the other we have a political responsibility to understand the world. For Arendt, ‘understanding’ is a conceptual category that inheres reconciliation. It is a way of being toward and within the world. Understanding is an “unending activity” in “constant change and variation.” Understanding, Arendt writes in “Understanding and Politics” is the process by which “we come to terms with and reconcile ourselves to reality, that is, try to be at home in the world.”

The process of understanding, of being at home in the world, is neither easy nor simple. Arendt warns that those who try to “cut short” the process of understanding tend to slip into clichés, or ideologies that try to simplify why such events occur in the first place. Reflecting on the events of this year so far, one is want to say: Everyday something new. 2016 needs a do over. What is happening in the world? All of these sentiments express a temporal frustration at the historical moment we are living in, at the world we were born into. For Arendt, writing in the twentieth century, the rise of totalitarian regimes like the Third Reich was an evil that needed to be understood. She begins The Origins of Totalitarianism with the reflective note that “Under the most diverse conditions and circumstances, we watch the development of the same phenomena . . . ”. Which is to say that we need to adjust our temporal lenses to think about the unrelenting onslaught of violence. The violence we are witnessing today is not new, although the forms of violence may be. There is no litany of facts that can be supplied to help us understand why someone decides to walk into a church and shoot people, or drive a truck through a crowd, or open fire on police officers during a peaceful protest rally.

As we process the daily events of violence, often there is a conflation between violence and terror. In her essay “On Violence” Arendt draws a distinction between forms of violence and terror. Terror, Arendt writes, “is not the same as violence; it is, rather, the form of government that comes into being when violence, having destroyed all power [between people], does not abdicate, but, on the contrary, remains in complete control.” Violence destroys the space between us by collapsing any distinction between public, private, and social along with our ability to communicate and be understood. Only once violence has successfully done this, and when it remains in power, then it assumes a quality of terror. While Arendt’s distinction between terror and violence is fitted to the 20th century, it points us to a useful definition for thinking about terror and violence today.

There is a difference between the acts of wanton violence and acts of terrorism we are witnessing (though acts of violence can be turned into forms of terror). For Arendt violence is anti-political because it acts as a form of brute force. It is instrumental in nature and destroys the bonds between us. Political violence is directed toward certain ends, and so assumes a means-end character. Because of this means-end character, violence can only ever destroy the world between and around us. The essence of totalitarian regimes is terror, and through terror they enact forms of violence that destroy the world we share in common. Part of the work of understanding such brute forms of violence is reaching toward the traditions of political and philosophical thought that allow us to open up space for thinking. Understanding draws us toward the world during times of strife; it allows us to be human when terror and violence want to take that away.

Understanding, Arendt writes, “is the specifically human way of being alive; for every single person needs to be reconciled to a world into which he was born a stranger and in which, to the extent of his distinct uniqueness, he always remains a stranger. Understanding begins with birth and ends with death. To the extent that the rise of totalitarian governments is the central event of our world, to understand totalitarianism is not to condone anything, but to reconcile ourselves to a world in which such things are possible at all.”

Calling all acts of violence “terrorism” is one way we try to make sense of what is happening. But, Arendt reminds us that the event is specific in itself, and can only be understood once it is over. When we try to make sense of something we search for some truth or fact, or truth grounded in fact. We demand answers: Who was it? Did ISIS claim responsibility? Did he have an arrest record? Was there illegal activity? If these questions are answered then we can file away the event into a category that makes sense to us. Isis claimed responsibility. To make sense of something is to try to draw the illogical into a reasonable perspective, to force an individual event into a framework that cannot hold it. To understand, in Arendtian terms, is to reconcile (not accept) what happens as part of the world we inhabit. Understanding itself then becomes a form of holding that allows us to inhabit the space between the present and the future. There, in that space, we do not have the luxury of clichés or the private sentiment of emotional life for release or comfort. Answers refuse to make sense of, because no sense can be made. In the space of understanding we are forced to reckon with what is happening. Making sense of pushes us away from the world, understanding draws us toward it.

Part of the difficulty of understanding is that when we attempt to make sense of events we tend to draw them into comparison with other events. We hear people saying: “Not all cops are killers,” “Not all whites are racists,” “Not all blacks are criminals.” This is a form of empty, sentimental rhetoric that essentializes individual acts and the individual people who commit them. How do we break away from the rhetoric that accompanies violence, and terror? In her work on understanding and totalitarianism Arendt draws us to the idea that acts of terror or totalitarianism on the one hand are nothing new, but on the other are always new. She writes, “The understanding of political and historical matters, since they are so profoundly and fundamentally human, has something in common with the understanding of people: who somebody essentially is, we know only after he is dead . . . Everything we know of totalitarianism demonstrates a horrible originality which no farfetched historical parallels can alleviate.” This quality of newness and originality is one of the hallmarks of totalitarianism. The quality of originality in totalitarian violence inverts Arendt’s conception of building or making the world through speech and action. Originality in terrorism and violence can only ever tear apart the world that we’ve made.

The quality of originality poses a constant threat to daily life and simple acts. Acts of violence and terror can erase the boundaries between public and private life so that there is nowhere safe left to turn. When all are collapsed into one, when everyone becomes subject to violence, when the victims of violence are stripped of their individuality, then there is no space left in the world to think, to act, to be. Privacy is needed for thinking and for understanding. A horrifying effect of contemporary violence, in this age of technology, is the constant news feed that we consume. The media combined with the events of violence break down the boundaries between public and private life, so that simple, day-to-day activities like going to a bar, taking a flight, or seeing a movie mean we are possibly subject to attack — and we are constantly reminded of it. The many individuals who have died as a result of mass shootings or terrorists attacks are not targeted because of who they are; they are usually targeted because they are simply people.

The violence we are witnessing on a daily basis is not new. The never-ending media cycle, the ongoing threats to daily life, are revealing the collapse of our collective world. Arendt notes, “Not only does the actual meaning of every event always transcend any number of past ‘causes’ which we may assign to it (one has only to think of the grotesque disparity between ‘cause’ and ‘effect’ in an event like the First World War), but this past itself comes into being only with the event itself. Only when something irrevocable has happened can we even try to trace its history backward. The event illuminates its own past: it can never be deduced from it.” We can’t think the event while it happens, while it is unfolding. To think, to engage in the work of understanding requires time. And we can never be prepared for the events that unfold in the world around us, but we can try to understand them, and in so doing reconcile ourselves to the world we live in.

Samantha Rose Hill, Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and The Humanities at Bard College. Her research and teaching interests include the Frankfurt School, critical theory, aesthetic theory, and the history of political thought. Hill is currently finishing a manuscript of Hannah Arendt’s poetry, which has been edited and translated into English: Into the Dark: The Collected Poems of Hannah Arendt.

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