Violence is a Relationship

Christopher Sullivan had an excellent guest blog post over at Political Violence @ a Glance yesterday. It’s a fascinating, rigorously academic look at an important question: does the use of torture actually help a state accomplish its security goals (i.e. reducing violence by terrorists or insurgent movements)? As a side note, it’s interesting that debates on torture inevitably fall back onto the empirical “does it work” side, which says something about the persuasive condition of moral discourse in our society – but that’s a point for another day.

Sullivan tackles the “does torture work” question by examining the conflict in Guatemala in close analytic detail, looking for micro-level correlations between the use of torture and various conflict outcomes (increased or decreased violence). Unsurprisingly (even to him), he found that the use of torture by the government did not have any effect on the level of violence by the insurgents, whom the torture was presumably supposed to help stop. This is an unremarkable finding, although it is good to have it verified in a careful and objective fashion.

What Sullivan did find surprising was that the use of torture was “robustly associated” with an increase in killings by the counter-insurgent forces. That is, the same people (or, at least, people on the same side) who were committing the torture also became more likely to engage in killing in other conflict contexts. He offers no explanation for this finding, at least in his blog piece, but does seem somewhat surprised by it.

While I don’t have access to Sullivan’s data, I can venture a guess as to why this link exists (and why blog, if not to venture guesses for others to comment on?) I am not at all surprised to find that the conflict side that engaged in torture also increased its killing correspondingly. Both torture and killing are not just conflict behaviors, they are relationships. Just as (to quote Tip O’Neill) all politics is local, all conflict is ultimately personal for the people involved, and is built around relationships (often deliberately distorted ones) between the participants.

The building blocks of this idea have been around for decades, and I am hardly the first one to suggest it. Back in the 1950’s Fritz Heider introduced us to Balance Theory in social psychology – the notion that affect and emotion drive our judgements of things (and, more importantly, of people) rather than our cognition of the facts about them. If we attribute one negative characteristic to a person, we tend psychologically to attribute lots of other negative characteristics to them as well. Decades of research since on stereotyping, racism, and related phenomena have only served to strengthen this understanding.

But in order to kill or torture another human being, the individual has to go far beyond simple racism or stereotypes, or even beyond sociopathic apathy (in which I don’t care about your welfare one way or another). The target of killing or torturing must be hated, loathed, feared – must be the embodiment of all that is inhuman and threatening to the perpetrator. Yes, some (perhaps many) perpetrators of violence in conflict are (to borrow John Mueller’s idea) simply thugs who delight in committing violence. But those thugs too have fashioned relationships with their fellow human beings – ones that condone, even demand, that they act with sometimes barbaric violence.

So the notion that committing torture makes one more likely to kill strikes me as an “of course!” kind of observation. This can be true for individuals, but also for groups through demonstration and diffusion. If I am an ordinary foot soldier and I know that officers of “my side” are torturing “the enemy”, what does that tell me about the enemy? Does that make it more likely that I will shoot first, and less discriminately, and ask questions later? After all, apparently some of the enemy deserve to be tortured – clearly I should not show them any mercy!

In our study of conflict, we often forget that it is precisely these kinds of twisted and severed relationships which lie at the heart of violent conflict. I am guilty of this myself, because in academic publishing it’s easier to focus on numbers and datasets and correlations and harder to peer into individuals’ hearts and minds. But this is where modern counterinsurgency doctrine gets something right – the battle really is within the hearts and minds, of both sides. And while I’m not an idealist who believes that if we just change our thinking we can all get along peacefully, I hope that we can bring this understanding a little better into our scholarship as well as policymakers’ understandings of what’s going on in a conflict. Because in the end, conflict really is relational, and the outcome is determined not so much by the things we find easy to measure but by the nature of those relationships.