Last week’s terror attacks in Brussels have already engendered questions about the place of revenge and the ways of retaliation. Our century has been characterised as vengeful, and not without reason. We can’t grasp the essence of violence without recognising that revenge and resentment are still capable of causing untold cruelties. There’s no problem more important than the politics of revenge, and there’s no response more important than that characterised by the idea of non-violence.
However, the moment we start questioning the nature of this problem and the response to it, we realise how difficult these are to address. Philosophers, writers and reformers have spent years exploring the true nature of revenge and resentment and whether forgiveness is the right response. Unfortunately, humanity hasn’t given up being vengeful. It’s anything but a new insight to recognise that hatred begets hatred and vengeful action violates our fundamental notions of right and wrong.
Mahatma Gandhi said, “Non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man.” But there are many people who feel it’s futile to talk about non-violence when terrorists can destroy in seconds the lives of others. Violence is often the result of the human passion for retaliation — but also of what Francis Bacon called “wild justice”. If such “wild justice” is taken for granted, as it is in our century, it’s a perfect exchange of evil for evil.
Understanding violence today means not only understanding evil but also shedding light on the dialectic of “victims” and “executioners”. The closer we get to evil in responding to evil, the more the everyday reality of our individual or collective life is that of an executioner. A vengeful victim is an executioner who refuses to understand the other. But a new cycle of violence isn’t necessarily the outcome of past sufferings.
When thinking about an end to violence, it’s not sufficient just to consider the dialectic of victims and executioners. One must also look beyond the ontology of violence, including its collective dimensions, and try to bring life back to a broken polity. It requires great ethical strength and political wisdom to be able to not forget the evil but to forgive the evildoers. But how can an individual or a nation acknowledge the barbarity of an act while calling for a moral transcendence of a tragic event? Here, an end to violence means an end to the spirit of revenge and vengeance.
Unlike what a Donald Trump and his followers might think, there’s no way out of terrorism by responding to it with demonisation and humiliation. Demonisation feeds on fear and hatred. And when demonisation becomes acceptable, it creates a climate conducive to violence. Why do individuals or nations demonise each other? Because they fear each other. As Martin Luther King Jr said: “They fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.” Being born a Muslim doesn’t mean anything as long as one doesn’t embrace the principles of Islam. Yet, in the eyes of many non-Muslims, Muslims are all violent beings. In today’s West, Muslims are checked and double-checked “randomly”. The same “random” principle applies when a young Arab or Iranian by the first name of “Muhammad” is looking for a job.
What’s lost here is the idea of empathy. Empathy is also a way to co-extend the human capacity for criticism of barbarity. The capacity for empathy is what allows the human race to struggle against its capacity for violence. As long as we don’t tame this violence, there will be no moral horizon to share. What will remain are the victims of violence and practitioners of naked violence. We need, therefore, to get out of the zero-sum game of being either victims or executioners.
Hatred and resentment of Muslims will not help us solve the issue of Islamist terrorism. It will add to it. There’s only one way to overcome the “IS syndrome”. That’s with the help of Muslims themselves. But to do that, we need to dissolve our fear of commonsense and be willing to change our perception of Muslims as believers in violence.