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Making (non-) sense of the enemy: The Lari Massacre and the Palestinian Resistance

September 11, 2011

By Fiorenzo Conte

When violent conflicts break out the parts involved tend to describe themselves as victims and therefore justify their violence as a necessary response to the irrationality of the enemy. As some scholars have documented, there are cognitive biases that induce the parties involved in a conflict in making no sense of the ‘other’. People tend to see their own behavior as driven by the situation they are in (i.e. being under attack by other) but see the behavior of the ‘other’ as driven by disposition (being inherently violent or primitive).

A previous post partially discussed how the  response of the British Empire during the Mau Mau war was affected by these cognitive biases. The political and social claims of the Mau Mau fighters were discredited so that only irrationality and intrinsic propensity to violence were left to explain their deeds. Yet, social grievances of the Kukuyu population (for example the quest for land) were at the root of the violence and can help to account for atrocities. Take the example of the Lari massacre, where 120 – the majority of which were women and children – were violently killed by Mau Mau attackers. This episode was used by the British government as evidence of the irrationality of the rebels and to justify a brutal response. However, the violence in Lari was far from being random. All of the victims were the families of leading members of local loyalist community i.e. chiefs, ex-chiefs, headmen or Home Guard. These loyalists were the principal beneficiaries of the evictions which took place in Kiambu District in the 1930s. As whole communities were forced to relocate, the land in the new areas were to be distributed. Such distribution was presided by the community’s chiefs who exploited their position of power to enhance their own interests. By selling the land to the highest bidder, the chiefs ignored their moral obligation to provide land to the muhoi, i.e. those who did not enjoy customary rights to land. The failure to meet their moral obligations to provide for the dependants and to consider the land a property of the community rather than personal were faults who had to be punished in the eyes of the Mau Mau rebels. The denial of inheritance through the slaughter of women and children was the punishment chosen. As this complex deep history was obscured, it was easy for the British to depict such violence as irrational.

Another example is provided by the Palestine-Israel conflict today. As the peace process between the actors is faltering, Israel considers the Palestinians as irrational insofar as they refused what Israel viewed as generous offers given the position of weakness from which Palestinians are entering the negotiations. However, what Israel sees as irrational makes perfect sense from the perspective of the weak party, i.e. Palestinians. This is professor Ramzi Suleiman of the University of Haifa quoted in the LBR:

..it’s not in the weaker party’s interests to accept a low offer. It makes more sense for me to show that I’m not cheap, and that you can’t buy me so easily (..). The weak person has to be steady. If he accepts the unfair situation, it’s like admitting that it’s fair, and the stronger party can take more”.

In other words what appears to Israel as an irrational strategy is in fact a very rational strategy which is called sumud, or “steadfastness” in the Palestinian political culture. And from the perspective of the Palestinians this strategy is a winning one as it is achieving its goal.  In fact, “when you reject an insulting offer your dignity is preserved. If you keep your dignity you can’t be walked on, and your chances of survival are increased.”

In sum, well documented cognitive bias can help to understand why parties involved in a conflict tends to depict themselves as victims. More generally, there is the tendency to label as irrational something that cannot be understood, made sense of. The Lari massacre and the Palestinian strategy of resistance reminds us that concepts of barbarities or irrationality do not help to account for violence. If the facts are analyzed from the perspective of the “other”,  the rationality of the enemy’s deeds becomes clear.

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