Footnoted readings 03 – Violence, theirs and ours

[ by Charles Cameron — on analysis by symmetry, asymmetry, comparison, form ]


Vijay Prashad


Vijay Prashad writes in Jadaliyya under the title Violence: Theirs and Ours and sub-head Binaries:

I have spent decades thinking about the asymmetry of reactions to these sorts of incidents in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. I have written about them, indignation as the mood of these essays. But this is spitting into the wind. It is futile on Facebook, for instance, to make the suggestion that the 2016 Karrada bombings in Baghdad (Iraq), which killed over 300 people, should have driven people to turn their profile pictures into Iraqi flags (as the world had done after the 2015 Paris attacks, when 137 people were killed). “Je Suis Charlie” is easy to write, but not #AmiAvijit. Eyes roll when these gestures are urged, whether through bewilderment at their meaning or exhaustion at their sanctimoniousness. After all, the eye-roll suggests, how could one compare a satirical French magazine with obscure Bangladeshi bloggers who have been hacked to death? It takes an immense act of will to push editors to run stories on tragedies that seem distant even from the places where they occur. All eyes focus on the latest attack in Molenbeek, but few turn with the same intensity to look at the tragedies in Beirut or in Cairo.

Okay, what interests me here is his mode of analysis by form: Prashad pays specific and repeated attention to binaries — symmetries and asymmetries. I think that’s a key move in analytic terms, and you can see it in play, again, in the way he phrases his concluding paragraph:

From Lord Baring’s Violent Shock to George W. Bush’s Shock and Awe: this cannot be terrorism. It is the business of rational states. Terrorism is what the others do. Always.

Violent Shock :: Shock and Awe.


Agree or disagree with Prashad’s analyses as you will, his method is one that I too have been focusing on here at ZP for a while now — that of emphasis on form as a clue to analytic significance.

4 comments on this post.
  1. Graham:

    People identify more with cultures they consider closer to their own, would be one element of truth in this context. And they don’t feel obligated to change that, sympathetic though they might be to those outside that circle. Another would be, people pro-rate and react more to environments in which such acts are rarer.
    Some combination of those reactions seems to be the driver of the distinction in almost any case one might cite. For Americans, Paris has huge cultural resonance [Freedom Fries notwithstanding] that Istanbul does not, let alone Baghdad.

  2. Grurray:

    I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but in America we didn’t start flying the Iraqi flags because their flag contains the text ‘God is Great’ in Arabic, which has been used as a rallying cry for violent terrorist attacks against us. Prashad complains about our assymetry of understanding, but he doesn’t realize his own shortfalls in understanding us. No, Hitler doesn’t define Western culture, and al-Baghdadi doesn’t define Muslim. However, that text is undeniably emblematic of a bitter and futile reality over the past three decades.
    “It would pierce the armor of Western self-regard to admit that its armed forces could—without sentiment of care—bomb mosques and schoolhouses”
    If the enemy kills one of us he wins, and if we kill one civilian we lose. This is an assymetry that’s unprecedented and impossible to resolve. I presume his solution is not to fight at all, but it should be pointed out that the civilian deaths are indeed reported extensively and relentlessly in the West, including by him. Despite that fact, Western self-regard as he sees it must still be intact. Is it because we do fight for it, and, by extension, for him? How would his thoughts be received in West Mosul?

  3. Charles Cameron:


    If the enemy kills one of us he wins, and if we kill one civilian we lose.

    Compare GWB, “we have to be right every time; the terrorists only have to be right once.”

    This is an assymetry that’s unprecedented and impossible to resolve

    Hence, a koan — and precisely the sort of issue we should pursue with contemplation.
    A similar situation, for me at least, arises when a win-win player negotiates with a zero-sum player, as Richard Landes suggests is the case with Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. I hope to write this up shortly, as Richard has pointed me to a couple of relevant game theoretic comments, and at that level of abstraction it may not in fact prove “impossible to resolve”.

  4. Grurray:

    Charles, I hope that you come up with something.
    The impression I get from Prashad is that he isn’t really complaining that there is disregard for the lives of foreign casualties. He’s really upset that there is any regard for the lives of our own people at all since he considers them guilty of war crimes.
    I can agree that it’s easy to ignore the consequences of war when there are ambiguous policies, objectives, and authorizations. That’s why it’s so important to have a formal declaration of war instead of decades long, simmering, open ended actions with wonkish descriptions like ‘degrade and destroy’ that don’t mean anything.
    I like the idea of looking at the Israelis or the Swiss. Everyone has a stake. I don’t see how we’ll ever win again if we don’t have some collective responsibility and shared sacrifice.