In the aftermath of the Second World War, the victorious allies came together to establish the United Nations (UN). Its primary objective was to prevent another armed conflict of similar scale from ever happening again. But in the decades that followed, armed conflict persisted and in certain cases the U.N. not only did not condemn it, but instead actively engaged in it, such as the invasion of Iraq and the Korean War. Indeed, despite a global movement to promote peace and civility, violence retains is applications in today’s world, mainly as a last resort, and its limited use is sanctioned by the government and within societal norms when dealing with unsavoury parties.
The use of violence in situations where there are more peaceful alternatives, is generally not accepted by governments or society at-large. Although the blunt application of force can easily allow one to achieve their intended outcome in conflict, its downsides are numerous. Firstly, it grants the winner only a tenuous victory, for the defeated party is likely to bear residual resentment, especially after being subjected to grievous personal injury. As such, it is not uncommon to see the defeated party rebel after the forces of the victor are gone. The Crimean conflict is one such example. Even after the unlawful Russian annexation of Crimea, surviving guerilla Ukrainian forces continue to cause trouble for the Russian army, making their military success an unstable and potentially short-lived one. For the reason the effectiveness of violence is often doubted and governments usually do not sanction military action when a long-term solution to preserve stability is still possible. Secondly, violence is against cultural norms of many countries, due to the sheer bloodshed and havoc it can unleash. Generations of influential philosophers and thinkers have concluded that, any advantages of violence are outweighed by the collateral damage it can cause, physically and mentally, not just to the parties involved but also to their friends and families. For example, Confucius’ philosophy centres around compassion and love and condemns violence of any sort. Similar ideas are found in major religions as well. One of Jesus Christ’s main teachings is that of peace and to prevent conflict at all costs, even when it means great personal sacrifice. These cultural and religious influences contribute to society’s general aversion towards violence and feature in political decision-making, often making leaders re-evaluate violent actions before giving them the green light, for fear of public backlash.
However, it is a whole different ballgame when all peaceful alternatives have been exhausted. Violence is still recognised as an acceptable means to an end when it is the only option remaining. For example, when police are dealing with a hostage situation, gunfire only begins when negotiations fail to make progress and the hostage’s life is at risk. This has been standard procedure and was exactly what happened when terrorists opened fire in a cafe in Jakarta. Saving an innocent man’s life is considerably more important than protecting a malicious terrorist from harm and thus governments and societies deem such action acceptable. However, there is a possibility of abuse of power in such scenarios, especially when law enforcement agencies are not subject to close supervision. In the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, thousands of Black Lives Matter supporters marched onto the streets, calling for justice. In some cities such as Milwaukee, the protesters turned violent and assaulted the police, which then justified the police’s retaliation using batons in the name of self-defense. However, allegations of police brutality soon ensued, with critics claiming that certain officers went overboard with their use of force and caused hurt beyond what was necessary, such that death occured, including that of Breonna Taylor in a Louisville demonstration. Other times, officers were non-discriminatory in their bid to control the crowd, even striking at innocent, unarmed and peaceful protesters. That clearly constitutes an abuse of power and breach of trust and is not tolerated by society.
Besides self-defense and as a means to an end, violence retains some applications in the enforcement of justice as well. Although society has long since phased out barbaric punishments such as decapitation or burning at the stake, certain violent punishments remain. Capital punishment is one example that advocates of peace regularly criticise, for it is arguably the most violent form of punishment still widely practiced today, involving the state-sanctioned murder of a criminal. It has been abolished by many Western countries, most notably the E.U., but is preserved in the Penal Code of many more countries elsewhere in the world. Its acceptability hinges on what people and governments view as more important – punishment proportional to the crime or belief in human rights, understandably prioritise the latter, while Asian countries, including Singapore, are more conservative and hold that heinous murderers should be executed to deliver justice to their victims. In the sphere of crime and punishment, political norms are key and due to the differences in dominant political philosophies of the East and the West, different forms of punishment are meted out to criminals. However, that is not to say all forms of extant punishment are justifiable on the basis of inherent cultural differences. The use of solitary confinement in the U.S., for example, causing devastating adverse effects on inmates’ mental health by depriving them of social interaction, is generally viewed as unacceptable in Western and Eastern countries alike as it is seen to be tantamount to torture. Hence, not all forms of violent punishment are acceptable, even when controlling for cultural factors.
While many promoters of peace evoke figures such as Mahatma Gandhi, who famously said ‘An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind’ to justify that violence is a never-ending cycle and only begets more violence, the truth is the cycle of violence is sometimes inevitable, even in a modernised world where advancements in technology can help us prevent violence before it even arises. Even the U.N. has recognised this, establishing an armed force perhaps ironically called ‘Peacekeepers’ to ensure peace in war-torn regions, even though that peace may very well be fragile. In our collective goal to make the world a safe place, violence is seen as necessary, sanctioned by governments and tolerated by the public in dealing with hostile parties, even though it is generally not practiced due to the immense and often uncontrollable harm it can bring.