It is common for politicians and commentators to use analogies and metaphors to describe and explain acts of political violence. Medical analogies are particularly common, such as the notion that terrorism is a ‘cancer’ or that aerial bombing can be ‘surgical’. The problem is that these analogies can influence the way we think; for example, they can make us believe that a massive bombing campaign against a country – a series of ‘surgical strikes’ or military ‘operations’ – can destroy the ‘cancer’ of terrorism or cure a lack of democracy; they can make us think that violence can sometimes be an instrument of healing. Particularly when the analogy or metaphor is inaccurate or misleading, it can obscure the reality of political violence and cause us to accept its legitimacy without really questioning its real-world effects or true nature. It can, in other words, lead to destructive policy choices.
Although no analogy is perfect and will contain its own distortions of the thing being described, I want to suggest two analogies which will help us to think more clearly and realistically about contemporary political violence. First, following the popularity of medical analogies, I want to suggest that we should always think about political violence as amputation rather than as general surgical operations or medical intervention. Adopting this analogy can help us to face some important truths about violence, such as that while amputation (violence) may sometimes be necessary in an extreme emergency to save a person’s life, it is always disfiguring and it will leave the patient (victim) a less than whole person who will suffer forever afterwards, even if prosthetics and other therapies make their life easier. In other words, violence can never be good or noble or positive in itself; it will always be destructive and cause suffering to its victims, even if it is viewed as necessary. Violence is permanently damaging and disfiguring by its very nature, as anyone who has ever been victimized will testify.
Another principle to take from this analogy is that amputation (violence) should always be the very last option and viewed as an extreme measure that we must first take every possible step to avoid. Accepting this analogy would limit the frequency with which our leaders go to war or intervene militarily in other countries, and encourage them to try a great deal harder to find non-violent alternatives to the policy of political violence. If the leaders of the world’s nations accepted that violent military intervention would be analogous to doctors chopping off a patient’s legs or arms, they might be more cautious and not necessarily advocate it as an almost automatic policy response to the lack of democracy, acts of terrorism, or humanitarian crisis. If we’re lucky, it might also convince the leaders of social movements to reconsider the decision to escalate their campaign to include violent strategies and tactics when they feel frustrated by the lack of progress on social justice.
A second analogy is to think of political violence as a crocodile, rather than as a dog or a horse (as in unleashing the ‘dogs of war’ or ‘war horse’). The fact is that, unlike dogs or horses, crocodiles can never be tamed or controlled. This is because crocodiles have very small, primitive brains which can only respond to instinctual survival needs. In other words, no matter how often someone feeds and cares for a crocodile, the crocodile will fail to recognize that person as anything more than a potential meal and a moment of carelessness will see the crocodile try to eat them, even after twenty years of loving care. It also means that even if the crocodile owner were to take it for a walk through town and it was not to try and eat every small child it came across, this would not be proof of the tameness of the crocodile; it would just be luck on that particular occasion.
The importance of this analogy lies in its application to humanitarian intervention and the application of military force as a policy option. The fact is that military force (like the crocodile) will always be an untamed beast that will try and devour its owner if it senses the opportunity. It cannot be tamed or controlled like a dog on a leash. This is because war and violence has its own inbuilt tendencies towards extreme action and unpredictable consequences, as Clausewitz explained a long time ago. Sometimes the application of violence will provoke violent resistance and further escalation; other times it will result in capitulation. Most often, it leads to the distortion of our thinking and impedes learning, and in every case, it has incalculable opportunity costs. There is no way to predict which way the crocodile will go, except that it will be painful and damaging for someone. Therefore, any politician who says that military success is assured is only expressing the hope that the crocodile won’t eat any small children on this particular occasion.
The emerging quagmire in Libya, with its thousands of civilian victims (the very ones the crocodile was deployed to protect), the growing prospects of civil war between rebel factions, and the lack of any measureable success, is testament to the crocodile nature of applying military force – as is the ten years of war so far in Afghanistan, the seven years of war so far in Iraq, and the inglorious record of military intervention in places like Lebanon, Gaza, Somalia, DRC, the former Yugoslavia, Chechnya, Kashmir, Colombia, and a hundred other conveniently forgotten places.
In sum, the lessons to take from these analogies are: if you take your crocodile for a walk, don’t ever forget that it can never be tamed and it will usually try to eat the little children who cross its path; also, it is not advisable to use a crocodile in an operation of surgical amputation, even when it’s for democracy or human rights or some other noble ideal. Try to find another approach instead. After all, there are plenty of tried and tested non-violent alternatives to resolving conflict, just as there are usually medical alternatives to amputation.