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Social Justice

Terrorism and structural violence

Terrorism and structural violence

Esther Madriz

I AM A PROFESSOR IN THE SOCIOLOGY DEPARTMENT. ONE OF THE CLASSES I TEACH IS called “Violence in Society Today.” On the first day of class, I always ask students to give examples of violent acts. Frequently they mention murder, rape, assault, and, more recently, terrorism. All of these are acts of interpersonal violence. However, one of the goals of the class is to link the different spheres of violence — interpersonal violence with institutional and structural violence. Only late in the semester do students understand that any act of interpersonal violence is rooted in institutional and structural violence.

The terrorist act of September 11 was an act of the worst type of interpersonal violence between the terrorists and their innocent victims. We all condemn this horrendous act of terrorism. All of us are outraged by this seemingly senseless violence. However, it is clear to me that this violence is rooted in institutional and structural violence — specifically, in human rights abuses — that exist in the various countries of the Arab world.

Arab intellectuals in the West are split over who is responsible for the virulent radicalism that has been growing across the region. As intellectuals, we also wish to understand this radicalism. The point is not to excuse this or any terrorist action, but to base our moral outrage on careful, principled analysis of the situation. That is our responsibility to ourselves, to our students, and to our country.

Osama bin Laden could be viewed as an isolated madman and dismissed as an evil aberration. Yet intelligence reports of an expansive army of 11,000 militants cannot be dismissed as “single individuals who have all gone mad.” Arab intellectuals who are more acquainted with the situation can probably offer us insight. However, those in the West are split over how to respond to the attack. On one side are those who believe it is vital to understand the role of U.S. policies in creating this situation. Some believe that any attempt to link the attacks to grievances against the West is to play into the terrorists’ hands. Still others focus on internal conditions in the Middle East: tyrannical regimes, the rejection of modernity and individual rights, hierarchical social structures, and the lack of freedom.

According to Fawaz A. Gerges, a knowledgeable researcher in the area, to suggest that the U.S. did not play a preponderant role during the last half of the 20th century is to simplify and distort. “But to ignore the failure of the Arab leadership to create accountable political institutions, ensure civil liberties, and provide their people a measure of social justice and economic equity is also to distort and simplify.” The author of Cruelty and Silence, Kanan Mayika of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, has described his book as his J’accuse of Arab intellectuals. In it, he calls attention to the silence of Arab intellectuals on human rights violations in the Islamic world. I believe this to be key to understanding the situation in the Islamic world. Mayika believes the language of human rights and the language of Arab nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism to be irreconcilable.

The acts of September 11 are also a violation of human rights–crimes against humanity. Yet the conditions in the Arab world today constitute a flagrant violation of human rights, especially against women, but also against the majority of its citizens in general. Moreover, many of the cruel and inhuman policies administered in the Arab world today with U.S. support constitute violations of human rights. If the response of the U.S. military fails to distinguish between innocent civilians and people who have committed these crimes against humanity, most Arabs and much of world opinion will view the United States as a violator of human rights that is no better than the suicidal hijackers.

To adequately understand the relationship between the interpersonal acts of violence perpetrated on September 11 and the structural situation that exists in the Middle East, the issue must be framed in terms of human rights violations. Consequently, we should use existing international legal mechanisms to bring these criminals to justice. There are precedents. For instance, the Libyans who blew up Pan Am Flight 103 were tried at the World Court and Libya gave them up precisely because they were tried in a third country. Many believe that we will be more successful in apprehending bin Laden and his accomplices if we use legal mechanisms. The only way to win this “war” against terrorism is to manifest respect for the integrity of innocent lives and to reinforce this respect with a truthful commitment to the promotion of social justice.

ESTHER MADRIZ was until her recent death an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of San Francisco and a valued member of the Social Justice Editorial Board.

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