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The Normality of Violence

July 8, 2012

The conflict in Syria is not likely to end anytime soon. The failure of Annan’s plan to credibly impose a ceasefire amongst the parties shows just that. Not only that violence might not stop but that it could sporadically escalate: the Houla’s massacre points in that direction. Possibly violence is going to turn in the only mode of interaction between parties. So why does violence persist? Why have countries found themselves trapped in a cycle of violence which is difficult to break? Lebanon has been trapped in a civil war which lasted 15 years: to look into the causes of the protraction of the conflict can offer insight into why conflicts today can last for a while.

Sanitizing Violence: During the civil conflict in Lebanon the different militias and parties increasingly resorted to violence; as this took place the society went through a process of desensitization: violence was transformed in an ordinary vice, it became the norm and in this sense it was normalized. Episodes of ordinary violence and even atrocities were referred as “the events” – violence was in this way sanitized. It was turned into an innocuous mode of interaction; for this reason it persisted. But why did society sanitize violence if the conflict was exacting such a high toll of casualties? By sanitizing violence, the society was able to domesticate it and in a sense to survive its ravages. The exceptional muted into the not exceptional; cruelties turned into not menacing events: as a result ordinary people could cope with it.

Retirritorialization of Identity [1]: during the civil conflict in Lebanon the enemy was defined on the basis of the religious community one belonged to. One was singled on the basis of its own community: neighborhoods which were once heterogeneous became religiously homogenous. The logic of the war and of survival encouraged the formation of separate, exclusive and self-sufficient spaces. The communitarian differences and borders became territorial borders. One has to look at how the composition of West Beirut changed with Muslims shrinking from 40% to 5% over 5 years to gauge the scale of the displacement. As people were not living side by side anymore, militias were able to impose a geography of fear whereby the other residing in the other canton became the enemy. With the territory successfully split up into cantons, militias were successful into erasing the memory of the possibility of coexistence between the different communities. The survival of its own community was premised on the annihilation of the other community. Violence was therefore perceived as necessary to survive, hence it persisted.

Political Economy Of Civil Conflict [2]: when the war broke out it created new actors which substituted the central government in the exercise of governance. For these new actors violence had a precise function: to preserve the new economic and political order which so much benefited them. Firstly, the centrality of the state based in Beirut was supplanted by a proliferation of new center for each of the religious communities. One of the effect of this is that each of the militias came to dominate one port on the coast from which they engaged in drug trafficking and pillage. Secondly, as the monopoly of violence of the state was shattered, militias arrogated on the themselves the function of policing and of imposing internal security. This translated into the imposition of a myriads of checkpoints and passageways between the cantons. With the monopoly of violence exercised by the militias came another function: levying taxes. Citizens in the cantons were taxed for their economic activities, for their movements and for registering cars. Tributes were exacted in exchange for protection while no services were offered. Not only militias replaced the state in the exercise of government and robbed its revenues, they also muted into private business enterprises. Militias came in fact to impose a monopoly of import trade while reaping enormous benefit from the price differences between cantons and also with neighboring countries such as Syria. As a result, militias had no interest in the termination of the conflict. Conversely, war and violence served the purpose of their survival and enrichment.


[1] Based on “Civil and Uncivil Violence in Lebanon” by Samir Khalif

[2] “A History of Modern Lebanon” by Fawwaz Traboulsi

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