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Can the use of violence ever be legitimate?

A few questions

The topic of the discussion evening may seem a bit odd. Shouldn't members of the Irish Peace Society renounce violence per se, because we are very much concerned with peace around the world. But what is peace? Merely an absence of violence? And how do you define violence?
I think everyone will agree with me that physical harm/damage surely fits the definition; is relatively easy to measure as well: for example, you drop a bomb and people get wounded, are killed and/or buildings/constructions etc are (badly) damaged. Fairly straightforward.
But what about including psychological damage in the definition of what constitutes violence? How can you measure it, hence verify if psychological violence has occurred, or is being done onto a person? Disturbing events do not have the same psychological impact on all people, partly depending if you're 'used to it anyway'. If you include psychological violence, would you link it to some physical event inflicted on the person, or would you want to include e.g. the propaganda 'war' on terrorism? Reading the website of the US Department of Homeland Security, or, might actually fuel the feeling if insecurity, which is not a good basis for healthy living. Psychological damage/violence? If so, who caused that type of violence?
Then there's a notion of structural violence. The way institutions, organisations, or even the (current?) trends in globalisation, have a certain influence on people and their environment. Would you want to include that in the definition of violence? If so, how do you determine institutionalised violence? You might think of large multinationals in Third World countries 'squeezing out' the factory workers, or the embargos against Iraq, slowly killing about 500 000 Iraqi children over the past 10 years. But would you include the Western food industry, whereby nutritious food like grains and beans, produced in overwhelmingly Third World countries where the population does not have sufficient food for themselves, is being downgraded to livestock feed as 'we' want to eat more meat? (By the way, the author is a vegetarian). Another example, this time within the Western nations: is the consistent underpay of women a form of structural violence against women and their dependants?

Moving on to the next section of questions, focussing more on the main question of the discussion evening, can violence ever be legitimate? First, one has to determine the reasons why people resort to violence at a tool to achieve their goal. But have you? Could it be the case that you despise the use violence in any situation? That the idea of using violence to achieve your goal is always wrong: winning a 'battle' by means of violence is a battle half won, as 'the other' lost because you're stronger for whatever reason, but that does not mean you have won over their hearts and minds, therefore violence is never a useful tool.
If you disagree with the previous few lines, then let's look at what reasons can there be for using violence, as opposed to, say, dialogue or ignoring 'the other'. A statement I've heard before, is that "violence is the tool of the incompetent" , meaning people who cannot communicate by other means (talking). Is it that simple? What if you are competent and willing to talk, but 'the other' isn't interested and prefers violence? For example when somebody has invaded your country. Do you have the right to self-defence, and using violent means (like guns, self-sacrificing operations etc.) in particular? One thing to bear in mind is, that by granting the use of violence in a particular situation, you're entering a gliding scale, where the slippery slope may cause you ending up further downward eventually than initially intended. Say for example, there is the very real threat (by whichever way you have decided there is one), are you willing to allow the use of violence to end the threat? (The so-called pre-emptive strike.) Likewise, you might have decided that the threat is a form of psychological violence, therefore "you're not the one who has started the disagreement", and 'because' of that, 'entitled' to exert you right to self-defence.
Dragging these questions into the realm of real life: does the IRA have the right to use violence, or did the fighters back in early twentieth century have the right to fight for the freedom of Ireland? And what about the Hizbollah, who kicked the Israelis out of Lebanese territory, i.e. the Hizbollah were defending their territory. The Palestinians currently legally do not have their own territory at all, do you agree with them fighting for land, a place to live in dignity? How far back into history do you want to trace a 'moral right' on a piece of land?
A bit further down the slide, does anyone have the right to violently intervene in another country, knowing that the population is suffering. At the moment of writing, people seem to be somewhat divided on the issue when it comes to the impending war on Iraq, but there wasn't such a widespread disagreement or discussion in 2001 when overthrowing the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Did they suffer more than the Iraqi people to make interference legitimate and 'a good thing to do'?
What if there is no democratic outlet for (part of) the population to voice their grievances? An example are the Indians in the Andes. Peru isn't a democracy, so the people affected by the lack of services (schools, health care, electricity) have 'no real means' to bring it under the government's attention in order to improve matters. Or have they? When you, or your family members, are ill, slowly, painfully dying, and turning blind due to insufficient nutritious food, would you resort to violence to improve your and your family's and friends situation? Is this a legitimate reason to use violence?

These are just some questions one can ask him/herself, and are by no means comprehensive. Hopefully it will set your mind thinking and that we may have a fruitful dialogue on these issues on the 6th of March.

Written by Marijke Keet

Last updated on: 25 February 2003
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