The domestication of violence during Lebanon’s civil war

During the war, violence and terror touched virtually everyone.
by Samir Khalaf

24 January 2019 | 15:22

Source: by Annahar

  • by Samir Khalaf
  • Source: Annahar
  • Last update: 24 January 2019 | 15:22

This picture shows a landscape in Lebanon's Bekaa valley (AP)

BEIRUT: In some remarkable respects one might well argue that wars in Lebanon, despite some of their appalling manifestations, displayed comparatively little of the bizarre and grotesque cruelties associated with so-called “primitive” and/or “modern” forms of extreme violence, namely; the systematic rape of women by militias, the ritual torture and mutilation off victims, the practice of forcing family members or a family group at knife or gunpoint to kill each other. Other than episodic massacres and vengeful acts of collective retribution (Sabra and Chatila, Tal-el-Za’atar, Damour, etc.), there was little to compare to the planned and organized cruelty on a mass scale typical of extermination campaigns and pogroms.

The incivility of collective violence in Lebanon was, nonetheless, visible in some equally grotesque pathologies, particularly those which domesticated killing by rendering it a normal, everyday routine; sanitized ahdath (events) bereft of any remorse or moral calculation. A few of these pathologies merit highlighting.

Collective violence assumed all the aberrant manifestations and cruelties of relentless hostility. Unlike other comparable encounters with civil strife, which are often swift, decisive, and localized, and where a sizable part of the population could remain sheltered from its traumatizing impact, the Lebanese experience had been much more protracted and diffuse. The savagery of violence was also compounded by its randomness. In this sense, there was hardly a Lebanese today who was exempt from these atrocities either directly or vicariously as a mediated experience. Violence and terror touched virtually everyone.

Fear, the compulsion for survival and efforts to ward off and protect oneself against random violence had a leveling, almost homogenizing, impact throughout the social fabric. Status, class differences and all other manifestations of privilege, prestige, social distinctions, which once stratified and differentiated groups and hierarchies in society, somehow melted away. At least momentarily, as people fell hostage to the same contingent but enveloping forces of terror and cruelty, they were made oblivious of all distinctions; class or otherwise. Other than those who had access to instruments of violence, no one could claim any special privilege or regard.

Equally unsettling, the war had no predictable or coherent logic to it. It was everywhere and nowhere. It was everywhere because it could not be confined to one specific area or a few combatants. It was nowhere because it was unidentified nor linked to one concrete cause. Recurring cycles or episodes of violence erupted, faded and resurfaced for no recognized or coherent reason. It may sound like a cliché, but violence became a way of life; the only way the Lebanese could make a statement, assert their beings or damaged identities. Without access to instruments of violence, one ran the risk of being voiceless and powerless. Literally, the meek inherited nothing. This was perhaps one of the most anguishing legacies of the arrogance and incivility of violence.

Abhorrent as it was, the fighting went on largely because it was, in a sense, normalized and routinized. It was transformed into an ordinary vice; something that, although horrible, was expectable. The grotesque became mundane, a recurrent every-day routine. The dreadful and outrageous were no longer dreaded. Ordinary and otherwise God-fearing citizens could easily find themselves engaged in events or condoning acts which once provoked their scorn and disgust. In effect, an atrocious raging war became, innocuously, ahdath (literally events). This “sanitized” label was used casually and with cold indifference; a true wimp of a word to describe such a dreadful and menacing pathology. But then it also permitted its hapless victims to “survive” its ravages.

This was precisely what had transpired in Lebanon: a gradual pernicious process whereby some of the appalling features of protracted violence were normalized and domesticated. In a word, killing became inconsequential. Indeed, groups engaged in such cruelties felt that they had received permission, some kind of cultural sanction or moral legitimization, for their grotesque deeds. Those witnessing these horrors were also able, by distancing themselves from their gruesome manifestations, to immune themselves against the pervasive barbarism. Witnessing and coping with the dreaded daily routines of war became also remorseless and guilt-free.

The manifestations of such normalization are legion. In the early stages of the war, when bearing arms and combat assumed redemptive and purgative features, any identification with the garb, demeanor, or life style of fighters and militia groups became almost chic; a fashionable mode of empowerment and enhancing one’s machismo. Belligerency, in fact, was so stylized that groups literally disfigured themselves to ape such identities. Bit by bit, even the most grotesque attributes of the war became accepted as normal appendages to rampant chaos of fear. Literary accounts and personal diaries, often in highly evocative tones, recorded such pathologies with abandon. The daily body count was greeted with the same matter-of-factness, almost the equivalent, of a weather forecast. Fallen bodies, kidnapped victims, and other casualties of indiscriminate violence became, as it were, the barometer by which a besieged society measured its temporal daily cycles.

The most dismaying no doubt was when those grotesque features of war began to envelop the lives of innocent children. All their daily routines and conventional modes of behavior – their schooling, eating and sleeping habits, playgrounds, encounters with others, perceptions, daydreams and nightmares, their heroes and role models – were inexorably wrapped up in the omnipresence of death, terror and trauma. Even their games, their language, their cognitive and playful interests became all warlike in tone and substance. Their makeshifts toys, much like their fairy tales and legends, mimicked the cruelties of war. They collected cartridges, empty shells and bullets. They played war by simulating their own gang fights. They acquired sophisticated knowledge of the artifacts of destruction just like earlier generations took delight in identifying wild flowers, birds and butterflies.

There was hardly an aspect of Lebanese children’s lives, and this was certainly more so for adolescents who were involuntarily drawn into the fray of battle, that was exempt from such harrowing encounters. They were all homogenized by the menacing cruelties of indiscriminate killing and perpetual anxieties over the loss of parents and family members. These and other such threats, deprivations, and indignities continued to consume their psychic energies and traumatize their daily life. Successive generations of adolescents, in fact, knew little else.

Norbert Elias’s notion of the “sanitization of violence” could be of relevance here. It will most certainly help us in understanding not only how violence is camouflaged, even stylized so that it no longer seems offensive, but how in the process it becomes protracted and insoluble (Elias, 1988). During certain interludes, these same horrors were not only bereft of any moral outrage, they managed to become sources of fascination and venues for public amusement and entertainment. The war, in other words, began to acquire some of the trappings of a spectacle.

This facile, almost effortless and light-hearted socialization of innocent adolescents into militancy is another disheartening legacy of the arrogance and incivility of collective violence. Legions of such recruits, often from privileged families, stable and entrenched middle-class groups, became willing volunteers to join the ranks of militias as regular fighters or subsidiary recruits. If one were to believe autobiographical accounts and obituaries of fallen fighters (often doctored to heighten notions of self-sacrifice, daring and fearless courage) they were all lionized into exemplary and mythical heroes. On the whole though, particularly during the early rounds of fighting, one saw evidence of over-zealous fighters buoyed by the bravados of their savagery and warmongering. This was again a reminder that killing was not a byproduct of some crazed deranged monster-like creatures driven by the frenzy of atavistic and irresistible compulsion for aggression. Rather, it was more often the outcome of ordinary people being induced by like-minded peers or the aura of bearing arms in defense of threatened values.

Dr. Samir Khalaf is a retired professor of sociology at the American University of Beirut and has been the director of the Centre for Behavioural Research at the university since 1994. He received his PhD in Sociology in 1964 from Princeton University.

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