Johns Hopkins Magazine - September 1994 Issue


A Global Explosion of Populist Violence

Caryle Murphy, SAIS '87
Cairo Bureau Chief,
The Washington Post

CAIRO--The glamorous ex-wife of an American football hero is brutally murdered in California. A Colombian soccer star is shot dead because he had a bad day on the field. In Algeria, intruders partaking in a civil war slit the throat of a professor while his family looks on. A quarter of a million people are hacked to death in Rwanda. And in Angola, thousands more die from war-induced starvation and bullet wounds.

Murders like those of Nicole Brown Simpson and Andres Escobar are usually compartmentalized under the rubric of "crime," which somehow seems meant to distinguish them from the killings that are rending distant lands plagued by boiling ethnic and political tensions.

A broader perspective, however, views all these senseless deaths as manifestations of a global explosion of violence that has become a ghoulish pallbearer at the demise of the 20th century. This vast continuum of violence is comprised of many varied events which, taken together, give us pause about where we are headed.

Television news brings us the most horrific examples, the ones where thousands of defenseless people die without benefit of family farewells, and often without reaching adulthood.

But this fiend of global violence has other faces. It is seen in teenagers shooting each other in American inner cities. In the fact that for every cop working in America, there are also two private security guards on duty. In the sad admission by British "bobbies" that, for the first time in their history, they must bear arms when patrolling their beats. A tide of violent crime has engulfed Russia since the end of communism, and Germany is wrestling with neo-Nazi and neo-fascist gang attacks on foreigners.

States are also possessed by this demon of violence. Torture, arbitrary arrest, and "disappearing" all remain favored means of dealing with thousands of persons who dare question their governments. In its 1993 report, the human rights organization Amnesty International found such practices alive and well in 110 countries.

Like every disease, violence has its milder symptoms. If courtesy and civility signal that violence and aggression are far from the mind and heart, then what are we to make of the absence of these social graces in our times, particularly in the so-called "civilized" West? Why are we surprised when a shop clerk, a neighbor, smiles at us? Why do we feel relieved when a stranger is gentle and polite, rather than brusque and offhand?

And what are we to make of hockey players and basketball stars who apparently feel honor-bound to punch, poke, trip, slap, elbow, and sometimes bloody their opponents? Why does a tennis player who throws tantrums, flings his racket to the ground, and curses referees become a favorite? Why on earth do we find this violence "entertaining"?

A new publication by the United Nations Development Programme, called "Human Development Report 1994," notes that "in poor nations and rich, human life is increasingly threatened by sudden, unpredictable violence." Torture, war, ethnic tension, street crime, domestic violence against women and children, and drug use are offered as examples of this violence.

The report proceeds with illustrative statistics: In the United States, 14 million crimes were reported to police during 1992. Reported crimes in Germany went up 10 percent in the same year. In the second half of the 1980s, the murder rate in Italy and Portugal doubled. In Germany, it tripled.

All this rage curiously comes at a time when incidents of international terrorism have diminished after peaking in 1987, when titanic clashes of huge armies are a fading memory from 50 years ago, and when the threat of nuclear war has been reduced by the de-targeting of nuclear-tipped missiles in the United States and Russia after the end of the Cold War.

Today's danger, instead, is populist violence, fueled by a new egalitarian access to guns. Once, automatic rifles were the perquisite primarily of governments and their armies. Today they are easily available to ordinary people, be they drug traffickers, poachers, suburban housewives, Islamic rebels, teenagers in the ghettos of Washington D.C., or 16-year-olds dragooned into fighting for power-hungry clan elders in Africa and Serbia. Street criminals who brandished a sharp knife and their wits in less violent times now carry Magnums and Uzis.

All this raises anguished questions. Will this supply of guns be endless? Will the ammunition ever run out? Why is no one hounding the manufacturers of guns, which are killing more people than any nuclear weapon ever did? There is much talk about the evils of drug trafficking, the specter of international terrorism, and nuclear proliferation. Why is there no international campaign against "gun proliferation"?

If human beings require order and safety as a basic condition of life, then a way must be found to rid us of this violence. If individuals and societies are to flourish, this destructive passion to assault must be exorcised. Perhaps the medicine will be increasingly authoritarian governments, even in the United States. Or perhaps people on their own, moving in spontaneous, grass-roots ways, can achieve the Ghandi-esque miracle of defeating violence with non-violence, demanding that guns be banished from their neighborhoods, that social interactions be blessed with gentility, that destruction of their planet be stopped.

Egypt, where I have lived for four years, offers an interesting perspective on violence. A series of bombings and armed attacks against foreign tourists by Islamic militants seeking to topple the government grabbed headlines in 1992-93. Although only four tourists were killed--less than half the number of foreign visitors slain during the same time in Miami--the rebels' campaign chased away most tourists, depriving this poor country of much-needed revenue. This low-level insurgency was met with equal violence by the state in the form of mass arrests, torture, and the dispatching to the gallows of 36 people--more than at any other single time in Egypt's history.

The paradox is that Egypt has remained one of the safest places in the world for ordinary people, foreigners or natives. Rape and armed robbery are much rarer here than in other countries. A woman can walk around alone almost anywhere in Cairo, at any time, and not fear physical violence.

The reasons for this have a lot to do with the character of Egyptians and their society. For one, Egyptians would rather talk than fight, and though they may well talk you to death, they won't kill you. In addition, theirs is a deeply religious, traditional society marked by strong family ties and by respect for their past. Although it is now being desperately strained by poverty, Egyptian society is still one of the most cohesive in the world today.

Perhaps there are some lessons here. We need all the help we can get if a successful search-and-destroy mission is to be launched against the sinister trend of aggression and violence--of which the most terrifying is an amnesia about the fundamental fact of our common humanity.

Caryle Murphy won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for coverage of the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. Murphy has reported for the Post for nearly 20 years, serving as a foreign correspondent in Egypt and South Africa.

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