Violence. How to define it? Because of the complexity of its definition and the ethical responsibilities it implies, the use of violence in protests, manifestations and resistance movements is often contested.
Violence is yet one of the main useful concepts to understand how resistance movements operate and how the latter use mainstream media to their own ends whilst being constrained by them. The case of terror, which is a particular use of violence, is incredibly interesting to understand today’s dynamics around resistance, and how mainstream media and terrorist groups interact in a dialectic movement, shaping each other’s narratives.
Violence: irrational, crazy, brutal … but not only
The extreme violence of terror groups, conceived as tremendously violent political communication, stems from intentional mystification that these groups take advantage of. Terrorism is often represented by mainstream media as irrational, random and with no real political aims or history. Most of the time, mainstream media put an emphasis on international terrorism whilst overlooking the reality of terrorist states. Yet, no matter how dreadful terrorist organisations may be, violence has a cost and thus abides by rational strategies. The threat of violence (more than violence itself) is not the product of a group of lunatic servants of God but a significantly efficient tool to make resistance credible and to lead to social change. All violence has a rational aspect, may it be against others or against oneself. And the mystification that Western media have given of ISIS goes hand-in-hand with ethnocentric depolitisation and decontextualisation of the Syrian conflict, thereby essentialising terror as mere random violence.
ISIS deliberately gives itself away to the media
From this point of view, ISIS has learnt how to disrupt Western people’s daily routine by regularly broadcasting official records of the organisation in which they warn Western governments that if they carry on their foreign interventions in the Middle East (in Syria notably) or if they keep on their ‘sinful’ way of life, they will be the next ones targeted. The threat of violence through mainstream media (and, here, combined with online platforms) is thoroughly used by the Islamic State. It is ‘terror through silence’.
It is also used as provocative communication to create a repressive attack, pre-emptive counter-violence. The rationale of provocative violence, joined with a dramatization of the attacks, is inseparable from the mediation act of the media. Terrorist groups, conceived as extreme resistance groups against a ‘corrupted West’, base their strategies on a dramaturgical framing of violence and moral panic. No wonder that they use the dichotomy often employed in mainstream media between ‘the good and the evil’!
So in an ultra-saturated media environment, violence may render a movement utterly visible. But this ‘grammar of violence’ is expected by mainstream media to discredit resistance movements. We end up on a vicious circle between the media and terror groups with an endless escalation of violence.
Political violence has to be demystified in order to be understood. Far from being irrational or random, it obeys to specific rules and strategies drawn to grasp the attention of mainstream media. Let’s not forget why ISIS has emerged: the use of direct action and violence becomes political when the judiciary system fails. They are an expression of discontent and exasperation when institutional channels of communication do not account for the voice of minorities. This was particularly the case amongst Sunni Muslims with the repression led by Syrian Alawite elites after the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The real debate is the following: is violence legitimate in certain circumstances? And how to define criteria upon which violence would be legitimate civil disobedience?