Structures of accountability for violence

July 15, 2014

To understand the feedback loops that restrain people from acting out in violence, we have to understand the impetus towards violence as well. In war it is at its most nebulous, a group dynamic with an official rationale towards which individual participants are sure to harbor deep ambivalence. Is it boredom and ambition that propels them toward the action, under the banner of a political cause?

Elaine Scarry rejects various intellectual arguments about the sociological, cultural, historical or moral necessity of war: “even if they were valid, they would not have shown the necessity of war, but instead would only have shown the necessity of a ‘contest based on a reciprocal activity that would produce a nonreciprocal outcome abided by all.'” She characterizes war violence as an engine of dramatization for national fictions with an ethos requiring that bloody contests take place, as if the violence enacted were ritual rather than pragmatic.


She cites scholars of social theories that construct war violence as a central function of statecraft as advocates of such ritual purges. Carl Schmitt interprets Hegel’s use of the word ‘bourgeois’ as a pacifist of the following type: “an individual who does not want to leave the apolitical riskless private sphere,” and hopes that his personal resources for self-sufficiency through property ownership “excepts him from conflicts which will, despite his absence, nevertheless take place.”

He attributes pacifism to cowardice, “decadence, the demise of self-belief, the exhaustion of a conception of nationhood, propertied self-exemption from conflict and from self-renewal.” Tocqueville likewise believed the “intellectual creativity of a population and its readiness to go to war are related.” War is associated with initiative and drive, with the intelligence for strategy and the tenacity for tactics, with lust for adventure and pride in distinguished service. Violence tests us against one another, and when orchestrated on a grand scale it tests societies at large.

Scarry finds psychopathology at the root of this view of nationalism. “The dream of an absolute, one-directional capacity to injure those outside one’s territorial boundaries, whether dreamed by a nation-state that is in its interior a democracy or a tyranny, may begin to approach the torturer’s dream of absolute nonreciprocity, the dream that .. one’s opponents will be kept in a state of radical embodiment by its awareness that it is at any moment deeply woundable.”


Here she is drilling down to the microcosm of individual killings within a war zone, the acts of wounding, the moral significance of attacking a fellow human being in cold blood. This focus on the depravities of war gets to the heart of the question, but it is not enough to suspect everyone of harboring some shadow of a torturer’s fantasy inside. The fantasy itself must be deconstructed, its immature or nascent forms recognized in other acts.

I’ve done so with a “sadistic curiosity matrix” that maps four attitudes towards the intersubjective occurring on a fluid continuum from compassion to brutality. In this frame of reference torture is an extreme case of a normal social behavior, receptiveness testing, and it involves a slide towards ego-mania and preoccupation with threat receptiveness. It has parallels in the receptiveness testing of aggressive seduction, and anti-parallels in the cognitive and social process of taking a compassionate interest in another’s affairs.

curiosity matrix

I believe this kind of mental map can be used to normalize the psychodynamics of torture and to naturalize the psychopathology of violence. I think the normative claim “I would never intentionally be hurtful or cruel to anyone” is risky – you have to stop asking yourself “do you believe in absolutes like good and evil?” and start asking yourself, “do you believe in uncompromised evil?” In reality it is no more than an actualization of a universal potential in human nature.

Object relations theory can adapt this sort of mental map to the consumerist sphere of cause and effect, the civilian side of exposure to violence in a contemporary nation-state. Neoliberalism’s moral externalities are rather succinctly explained in George Bernard Shaw’s preface to On the Rocks. “Now the central fact of all these facts is that the private proprietors have irresponsible powers of life and death in the State.”

As to discouraging cruelty per se from a position of power through leadership, he writes “No doubt many private amiabilities have been inspired by this teaching; but politically it has received no more quarter than Pilate gave it.” And amiabilities are contingent on convenience factors – we owe them first and foremost to our personal associates, with whom they are more sincere.

In the evolution of Roman law, private tort suits among individuals who could afford access to the courts dominated the field and criminal law was often prosecuted privately (by the victim’s family, in the case of murder) as well. The first public offense was treason, and public resources were not directed much towards prosecuting crimes among individual citizens. “Self-help” was a protected power – the right to use violence to defend one’s property and life, and by default it was protected best in the propertied classes that could afford to litigate.


Contemporary law’s primitive origins still show in the way domestic violence is handled as a special case of assault, and domestic disturbances are handled as nuisance complaints by authorities who would rather be responding to a burglary call. Property owners have considerable leeway at home to characterize guests as intruders and resort to violence to control their turf.

Housing insecurity is a major cause of chronic exposure to domestic violence, and one about which no victim’s advocacy group is up in arms. It inhibits victims who might otherwise testify against their assailants, and the preconceptions police bring to the crime scene are merely pessimistic – that this case will be bad for the department’s performance metrics because it won’t produce a conviction, that it should be classified as a nuisance complaint rather than an assault.

“Direct incentives for safety outcomes tend to drive near-miss reporting underground.” – Taking the Lead in Patient Safety

Most murders are committed by someone known to the victim, often someone with a history of assault. You’d think the police would be more forward-looking about crime statistics and take advantage of any opportunity to break up a domestic violence cycle with “no contact” orders and public prosecution. Direct incentives for reductionist performance metrics like response times and conviction rates are probably to blame for their general reluctance to investigate a domestic disturbance closely.


My mother was arrested on the insistence of an arson investigator who seemed to have had access to better training for investigative work than the police officers who attended the crime scene. He was there to determine whether homeowner’s insurance covered the fire damage, and I suspect the insurance industry subsidized training in his department the better to discourage insurance fraud.

Homeowner’s insurance no longer covers domestic violence cases, a loophole for financing medical attention and litigation that was closed just when divorce law was reformed in the 1980s and demand for such services could be expected to increase as exit from abusive marriages became easier. There is virtually no market for private litigation covering domestic violence cases outside divorce court to this day, because a private attorney would have low expectations of recovering damages out of which he or she could be paid – absent alimony, out of which the lawyer could take a percentage as fee.

Hence the bottleneck at public prosecutors’ offices, and the low conviction rates for assailants in domestic violence cases. Self-aggrandizing behavior involving threat displays, bullying and outright brutality is shockingly easy to get away with behind closed doors.

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