The rhetoric of murder

[Edited on the 16th Dec. to cull commas and sharpen the argument]

There is a rhetorical quirk that, if it were common in any other circumstances would be so irrelevant as to preclude mention, but its use in the context of violence makes it jump out and slap me in the face. I have only occasionally commented on current events, usually when it connects with my academic interest (or responsibility, depending on my mood) but I feel that vague obligation to do comment on this one detail.. There is a habit amongst commentators discussing large-scale ‘senseless’ acts of violence to add the qualification that the victims were  ‘innocent.’ It’s delivered in an unconscious, almost ritual, way but it indicates an unacknowledged sub-text behind Western ideas about crime, punishment, guilt, and the legitimacy or illegitimacy of violence.

When someone describes a victim of crime as an ‘innocent’ victim, the implication is that under different circumstances (or when considering different victims) that random and impersonal violence may be considered justified, such that the victim is no longer considered ‘innocent.’. This isn’t a major stretch in my reading of the term. Dig around through online news sites and see if the victims of drug-related violence get the ‘innocent’ adjective. You may get ‘innocent by-stander’ but there is an tacit assertion that some people (poor urban gang members, drug-dependant prostitutes) are somehow culpable in their own demise. They aren’t innocent enough.

I always want to say in response to the ‘innocent’ rhetoric: “yeah, why couldn’t that guy have shot up a school full of guilty children, that wouldn’t have been so bad. Really, random violence should only be meted out on the deserving or the guilty or culpable.” Because violence and pain are connected with the Western rhetoric of punishment and guilt, that qualification is necessary in indicating to others that this particular act is not legitimate. Conversely, some other similar events must, therefore, be legitimate. Consider the profoundly distorted moral self-justifications used in the 12 July 2007 gunship operations in Iraq. Sure, children were killed, but really, they shouldn’t have been there in the first place. They are not allowed the ‘innocent’ appellation because it would make it impossible to mitigate the immorality of their deaths.

I hate it. It’s use implies that there are situations and circumstances where this level of violence may be considered justified or righteous. Perhaps I am showing my particular take on pacifism but I think it is painfully, dishonestly, and grotesquely redundant to describe victims of violence as ‘innocent.’ When we say this we also say that there are some situations where, maybe those kids deserved it. Maybe they were all pure of heart and filled with hope and promise, thus making this particular event all the more detrimental to the public good. What bad luck the shooting did not target victims of less social value.

Really, this sort of rhetoric is just as useless, damaging, distorting and counterproductive as it is to call the performer of that violence as ‘evil, monstrous, inhuman.’ We should not grant violence or suffering a privilege place in the punishment of guilt, or the management of society. Since we do, we need to qualify the moral and ethical stand of any individual victim. We also should not absolve our collective responsibility for our fellows when they kill ‘innocent’ victims by dismissing them as crazy, by transferring our collective responsibility solely onto legal structures, or to simply disowning them as if they were one part of the human community yesterday but clearly were never really one of us today. If we do this, we are accepting that this sort of violence is an inevitability we should simply accept as part of our collective experience. If senseless violence defies logic, we absolve ourselves from any responsibility for it and we excuse ourselves from trying to prevent it.

At least, that’s the little monologue that plays inside my head whenever this sort of thing happens. Such is the life of the student of violence.

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2 thoughts on “The rhetoric of murder

  1. I like this thought-provoking post, so let me play the devil’s advocate.
    The use of the term ‘innocent’ arises from a rhetoric of perpetrators, not vicitms. Discuss.
    Would you say, rhetorically speaking, that the ‘innocent’ appelation bears any real relationship to the victims in the situations you describe? Or is the use of the term really determined by the judgement intended or encouraged to be cast on the perpetrator/s? In other words, school kids are innocent because it’s intended that the killer should be understood as monstrous and irrational, whereas Iraqi youngsters cannot be, because otherwise members of the military (or even the military generally) would be concommitantly evil which is incompatible with various major social discourses. Philosophically speaking, I guess this use of language admits the possibility of deserving and undeserving victims, but is that really how/why the words are being chosen?

    • I think that in this case, what you suggest is closer to the intent and I wouldn’t try and push the argument for a sub-text of relative guilt or innocence too far, at least not in all cases. There are always 3 perspectives on violence and they define its characteristics depending on what the victim, perpetrator and witness believe. Here, the choice of adjectives is used as a means of contrast between victim and perpetrator. It’s used to add extra levels to the condemnation of the perpetrator. I may be making too much of it, but I have a slightly visceral reaction to this sort of language, particularly when it is used purely for melodramatic effect. Does anyone need convincing that this is an unjustifiable act? No (at least, I hope there are very few that need convincing) but the hyperbole becomes a distraction from more useful reflection and action.

      And thanks for the comment.

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