How quickly the headlines move on. Last week the media was full of horrendous descriptions of the death of the Jordanian pilot. Yet despite the horrific nature of this act, we cannot stay in a permanent state of shock, other stories unfold and the world’s attention moves on. We move on until, of course, there is another act of terror when once again, for a while its horror will have our full attention. And we know there will be another, and then another and, for all the outraged statements of disgust, we know that even the most powerful nation in the world cannot stop the reoccurrence of these barbaric acts.
Our minds reel at the absolute horror of what is being done; we cannot comprehend such an act of violence. And often it is hard to see beyond that utter revulsion at what has been done. It is designed to grab our full attention. But behind this unspeakable violence lies a deeper and more troubling violence.
It is only possible to treat another human being in this way by reducing them to a non-being, an object – a thing – with which we have no relationship. It is this reduction of another human being that is the real violence which is being committed here Once that boundary has been crossed there is no limit to the degradation in thought, word or deed that can be heaped upon the other.
This primary violence occurs far more widely than in acts of terror. The moment we break or deny our relationship with another human being, when by our attitudes or acts we treat another as less fully human than ourselves, in dismissing another human being as a “them” or “not one of us”, we commit an act of primary violence.
In the breaking of a marriage, a dispute between neighbours, acts of racial intolerance, political oppression, religious persecution, the other becomes a lesser or even non being. It is this primary violence that leads to the secondary (but no less horrendous) violence, displayed in acts of aggression, war and terrorism.
It is only in the re-establishing of relationship, the re-discovery of shared humanity, the reaching out across the divide that the violence can be drawn to an end. In the face of the sheer horror of an act of terrorism, such talk seems simplistic and irrelevant. Yet Nelson Mandela is one who shows the wisdom of such folly. In the face of all that has been done to him and to those around him, he dared to affirm the shared humanity with those who would oppress him and from that was born hope, and the chance of a rainbow nation.
It is in resisting the primary violence that the horror of the secondary violence can be stopped.