On Violence: Suicide, Homicide–and Both-And By Johan Galtung

download (3)Violence is to harm and hurt body, mind, spirit, even lethally, suicide, homicide, genocide (“cide”, from Latin “caedere”, falling). The focus here is on body violence, “sui” standing for Self, “homi” for Other. They do not exclude each other, they can be combined.

We have in mind US shootings-killings in recent decades, often at schools, spraying Others with bullets, in the end also Self, at his own hand or somebody else’s, with a gun. The killing by somebody else may or may not have been expected, but exposure to such extreme risk makes intention likely. In short, homicide and suicide. Both-And.

Hitler sacrificed millions of Germans, and committed suicide.

We are used to seeing suicide as the consequence of life being intolerable: “I am better off leaving this world”; and homicide as other(s) being intolerable, “the world is better off without you”. These tragic, aggressive outcomes of double frustration may be rooted in unsolved problems and conflicts (dilemmas, disputes). Seeing it that way the “both-and” category makes sense: “I am a total failure; but you people betrayed me and deserve to be severely punished”.

Suicide can be combined with individual or collective homicide. The latter should not be confused with Durkheim’s distinction between egoistic suicide on behalf of oneself only, and altruistic suicide, leaving this world because a beloved collectivity–the family, the Habsburg empire–fares badly.   The suicides we are talking about may be of either kind, but he or she wants to take others with them.

In wars and guerrillas there are even medals for the both-and. Volunteers are required for extraordinarily risky action against the enemy, behind his lines for instance, with great pay-offs in numbers killed. Person with both-and mindsets may be more likely than others to volunteer; not only camouflaging the suicide as an act of war, but going down in history as a hero, with a medal, possibly post mortem.

In terrorism the suicide belt is a both-and technology–possibly with somebody pushing others into the doubly violent act. However, after generations of life in camps, Palestinian Nakba victims may both want to leave this life and take it from others who are held responsible for their misery. So also in Afghanistan with their history of being invaded from the West, which uses their holy lands as a board for Western “chess games”. So also for 9/11, using hijacked planes as bombs.

This does not apply to state terrorism on the ground or from the air: homicide of tens, hundreds of thousands with no risk incurred, no suicide built into the act, more like an office job. The suicide may come later, though, hating oneself for the homicides committed.

A co-pilot of a German Wings flight from Barcelona to Düsseldorf slammed the plane into the French Alps–he himself, the crew, all the passengers killed. Much is said about his suicidal tendencies. This is not suicide, however, but something else, and very frightening.

To leave this life is simple: Men usually through gun violence or through trauma, jumping from high places; women often by more peaceful means, like pills. He studied meticulously the cockpit door, how it could be locked when the pilot went to the toilet, and alone in the cockpit took his own life and 151 others. There is no diagnostic term for this–we have only come up with “both-and”–but suicide it is not. It was not only that life was unbearable. He must have experienced, or imagined, serious grievances; maybe not from only one source but from several, and come to the conclusion that “the whole plane must be severely punished for what ‘they’ did to me”. No doubt, many in the know have similar conclusions. Nevertheless, since it adds problems to flying, they have simplified the diagnosis to something more familiar: suicide.

The remedies suggested went beyond individual diagnosis of suicidal tendencies and psychotherapy; a cockpit with no fewer than two pilots hoping that the syndrome is too rare to affect both.

An AMTRAK train derails close to Philadelphia, at least seven killed; but not the engineer. He was driving at twice the permissible speed in that zone, the rails being 100, 150 years old. The remedies suggested focus on the latter, the necessity of improving technology, even at enormous costs. That a country so high on innovation and technology tries to squeeze some profit out of rails possibly above twice the permissible age says much about their economic rationality. Yet a nagging doubt would focus on the driver: is he one of those?

We will not go into the case as it is by no means officially concluded but rather elaborate a little on two obvious conclusions.

The first is that any means of transportation puts the lives of the passengers in the hands of the driver. A twist to the left or the right, and all are gone. An argument not only for one driver checking the other, but also for automated driving-navigating-flying with its problems. In addition, the programmers are not on board for possible suicide.

The other is to make life attractive for our Selves and Others. Thus, Tolstoy welcomed the 1882 census in Moscow as a sociological investigation, “And the object of the science of sociology is the happiness of the people”. He deplores mapping suffering–from starvation, illnesses, loneliness–and wants thousands of census-takers to help directly thousands of sufferers. Neither sociology nor the census turned out that way, but mapping has served welfare states.

Much suffering has material causes that can be removed, like worn-out rails. But what about worn-out pilots and drivers? Could a more conscious work for a sense of well-being and happiness help? More ability to solve conflicts and problems? Massive challenges to the Western Judeo-Christian civilization; now threatened from a new angle.

Judeo-Christian? There are those in Israel and USA who suffer from unfulfilled divine mandates, in the Middle East, and the world. Could they do a Both-And, a Massada? Worth watching. Worth warning.


Johan Galtung, a professor of peace studies, dr hc mult, is founder of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment and rector of the TRANSCEND Peace University-TPU. He has published 164 books on peace and related issues, of which 41 have been translated into 35 languages, for a total of 135 book translations, including ‘50 Years-100 Peace and Conflict Perspectives,’ published by the TRANSCEND University Press-TUP.