Police in riot gear and holding shields clash with protestors.

What We Get Wrong About Violence

Most of us would say that violence—intentional harm to another person—is wrong regardless of who does it. Sometimes, it’s less wrong, like in self-defense. It would be wrong if I brandished a gun at you if you leave your house, locked you in your bathroom for 20 years, or watched you freeze to death from the comfort of my home. Those things would be equally violent and wrong for you to do to me in return.

These are pretty uncontroversial moral beliefs. We should oppose violence, no matter who carries it out. But though we’d all say violence is wrong, we live as if the largest and most pervasive forms of violence aren’t violence at all. Worse than justifying violence is pretending it away. But that’s precisely what we do when it comes to state-sanctioned violence, the violence that our government permits—or conducts itself (The Guardian). 

Let’s go back to my examples of universally objectionable violence: threatening you with a gun if you leave your home, locking you in your bathroom for decades, or disinterestedly watching you freeze. The first is a curfew, where young people are prohibited from being outside during certain hours by a group of armed individuals called the police. Tens of thousands of people in the United States are locked in solitary confinement cells the size of bathrooms or smaller for years (Solitary WatchNCPR). Each winter, people die of exposure because they lack the title to legally enter buildings with rooms to spare (National Coalition for the Homeless).


• Oppose the violence committed against Palestinian civilians by calling and emailing Congress, attending a local protest, and donating to the Palestine Red Crescent Society.

Share content from on the ground in the Gaza Strip.

•  Consider: is there an argument against the U.S. being the most violent contemporary nation that doesn’t depend on valuing the lives of non-Americans less highly or justifying their deaths?  

While many acknowledge that policing, incarceration, and exclusionary housing policies can be violent, it’s a more radical claim that the existence of police, prisons, and a private housing market are inherently violent. Though we don’t consider a police officer patrolling a neighborhood or a property developer holding an empty building as violent, we’ve agreed that threatening people with guns or casually allowing people to freeze to death unnecessarily is violent and wrong, no matter who does it. What’s more, yelling at a police officer or prying open the door of a vacant building are coded as violent acts, though less harmful than the state-sanctioned violence of threatening someone with lethal force or abetting their death from hypothermia. People who demand protests remain “peaceful” are never talking about the law enforcement who brought armored personnel carriers, shotguns, and handcuffs. They’re criticizing protesters throwing objects or taking property, not the police pointing loaded guns at them.

It’s hard to discuss state-sanctioned violence because governments convince us that their violence doesn’t count. More damningly, any resistance to these acts is framed as violence from the very beginning. Ask yourself: which country or organization has caused the most violence in recent decades? You might think of Russia or China. You might reflect on ISIS and al-Qaeda and the horrors of 9/11. If you’ve been raised in the U.S. educational system, your first instinct is probably to overlook the correct answer: the U.S. government.

The U.S. killed more than 20 million people in 37 nations after World War II, which ended with the nuclear murder of the entire populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and is by far the largest exporter of weapons in the world (Global ResearchAxios). The U.S. is objectively the most violent nation that exists today. But we’re conditioned to rationalize away this violence as inconsequential because the U.S. was forced to kill those millions of people because of the reality of war, international relations, or the defense of democracy. This toxic narrative is being weaponized against Palestinian people. Any display of solidarity with Palestinian civilians is misconstrued as disrespect against Israeli people because, we’re told, the Israeli government has been forced to level neighborhoods in Gaza. Though Israel has a powerful air force, navy, and one of the most advanced militaries in the world (thanks to generous U.S. support), commentators suggest that murdered Palestinian civilians were actually the victims of Hamas, not of the Israeli soldiers who pulled the trigger (CNNNew Yorker). 

We should do more than denounce violence. We must dismantle the systems that create it. A logically and morally consistent politics of nonviolence would see the abolition of policing, militarism, and incarceration by any means necessary as the first precondition for peace since policing, militarism, and incarceration are themselves state-sanctioned violence. Opposing violence is our responsibility as human beings. But first recognizing the overwhelming violence committed in our name, with our tax dollars, by our supposed representatives is the primary responsibility for those of us living in the nations that have amassed the most wealth through inflicting the most deaths. 


• Most people have a moral sense that violence is generally wrong, regardless of its agent. 

• We are conditioned to overlook or explain away state-sanctioned violence.

• Logically consistent non-violence requires prioritizing nation-states’ ability to perform violence through policing, incarceration, and war.

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Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee is a writer and organizer plotting a better world in Philadelphia. His work has previously appeared in Notes From Below, Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, Plan A Magazine, ROAR Magazine, and Teen Vogue.

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