Lately I have been working on a paper about the phenomenology of violence, focusing on the present atrocities in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. On the days when I am not trying to grapple with the inconceivable brutality haunting this region of the world, I often sit with people coming to grips with their own personal histories of violence here in the United States.
In this context, when first seeing the headlines announcing the bombings in Boston, I quickly closed my browser — an impulsive defense against the horrific imagery I knew would be forthcoming. I worried where I could put in my heart this senseless tragedy when already feeling overwhelmed by thoughts and images of violence.
Before we knew the identities of the perpetrators, there was debate in the media about whether to call the bombings acts of terrorism when they lacked connections to a political agenda, which supposedly would have given a certain logic to the event. No doubt, the bombers’ intentions included terror. And yet I feel these discussions, although attempts to create meaning of an incomprehensible situation, can also unintentionally obfuscate opportunities to prevent violence in the future as well as heal the wounds that lead to violence.
I am reading Jean Hatzfeld’s The Antelope’s Strategy: Living in Rwanda After the Genocide, which shares interviews with both survivors and perpetrators of the genocide. Reading their remembrances of the killings and how they now manage to live side by side — former predator and former prey, knowing who killed whom, yet avoiding impulsive emotions and words that might incite violence — I think about the stranger within each of us, that split-off part of the self that often holds silenced memories of hurt and betrayal. Such thoughts, of course, can fuel terror if what is imagined lurking in the other is a cold and dangerous heart. And to add fuel to this potential fire, in our globalized world, in which our imaginal landscapes often loom largest, what we perceive through media and hold in our imaginations often feels more real than reality.
In his book, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, Arjun Appadurai explains how violence against one’s neighbor is more likely in our media-saturated world in which we can know the intimate details of a celebrity’s life, yet very little about the next door neighbor. Appaduari argues betrayal may be a natural response when what one imagines about a person or a group of people contradicts actual interactions with those individuals:
“At heart, this sense of betrayal is about mistaken identity in a world where the stakes associated with these identities have become enormously high. The rage that such betrayal seems to inspire can of course be extended to masses of persons who may not have been intimates, and thus it can and does become increasingly mechanical and impersonal, but I would propose that it remains animated by a perceived violation of the sense of knowing who the Other was and of rage about who they really turn out to be. This sense of treachery, of betrayal, and thus of violated trust, rage, and hatred has everything to do with a world in which large-scale identities forcibly enter the local imagination and become dominant voice-overs in the traffic of ordinary life.”
A certain way of thinking and relating to the imaginal contents of our minds underlies the preference for the image over reality. This way of thinking includes a faith in images and other forms of representation, and what we believe they mean, as more powerful than what anyone could ever say about themselves — or even one’s own experiences with another.
In The Antelope’s Strategy, Hatzfeld shared an interview with Joseph-Désiré Bitero, who both planned and led the coordinated killings of Tutsis in the district of Nyamata. For Bitero, the idea of “Tutsis” — itself a categorical image amplified by colonial Belgians in an attempt to mirror Western social hierarchy in the Congo — represented memories and historical accounts of oppression and marginalization:
“We believed that the inkotanyi [the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Army] once installed on the throne, would be especially oppressive — that the Hutus would be pushed back into their fields and robbed of their words. We told ourselves we didn’t want to be demeaned anymore, made to wash the Tutsi minsters’ air-conditioned cars, for example, the way we used to carry the kings in hammocks. I was raised in fear of the return of Tutsi privileges, of obeisance and unpaid forced labor, and then that fear began its bloodthirsty march.”
These fears — and the images, memories, and generalizations that fueled them — erased bonds between neighbors, pastor and clergy, teacher and pupil, doctor and patient, and led to the brutal deaths of nearly a million people and an attempt to exterminate an entire “ethnic group” — itself a much imagined portrayal of these people.
The following is also from The Antelope’s Strategy. Innocent Rwililiza is talking about the crucial issue of who can speak for the dead. His words address the limits of generalizations. Implicitly, he reclaims the uniqueness of every human being denied by acts of genocide and all acts of violence.
“there are facts and feelings we can manage to describe, and others, no; only the dead could report them if they were here, and we must not describe these things in their name. Why? Because they alone here fully experienced the genocide, so to say. It’s not possible to speak in place of the departed, because everyone has a personal way of telling that story. Marie-Louise has her own way, Berthe hers, Jean-Baptist his. The dead have theirs, which would be even more different, since they would be telling their story while holding death by the hand.”
Phrases like racism, sexism, and even terrorism are meant to decry universalizing hatreds and protect victims. Yet they also distance us from our feelings and the particular humanities of the people they describe — the people whose stories and lives are halted by violence. Violence also erases the perpetrators’ humanity the moment they cease to witness the uniqueness of their victims — that moment when they replace the particular person with the universal concept of ‘Other.’
Concepts and ideas can be revolutionary and lead to justice, but they also can dehumanize and lead to crimes against humanity. Of course, concepts, per se, don’t lead to violence. Rather, the opportunities to dissociate from lived experience, which they can create, reside on a dangerous and slippery slope to denying the uniqueness and humanity of another.
We all feel terror in the face of violence. Yet we each have our personal and unique reactions to the tragedies that befall us. We heal by making space for telling these stories, which takes humility, patience, and time. Healing requires staying grounded in our bodies and making space for our hurts. Collectively, healing requires witnessing our own vulnerability and a willingness to share our fears as a conduit to resolution. When we heal together, big concepts are of little importance. They might protect for a while, but eventually we have to put them aside, for they only distance us from ourselves and each other.
Laura K. Kerr, PhD, IMFT is a Mental Health Scholar and Registered Marriage & Family Therapist Intern in the San Francisco Bay Area. For more information, visit her website.