Reflections on “Senseless Violence”

Writing for The Corner on National Review Online last week, NRO media editor Eliana Johnson criticized President Obama for calling the Holocaust “senseless violence” in a statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. She wrote that “the idea that all violence is ‘senseless’ violence is one that has taken deep root on the left; it’s also, unfortunately, one that poses a major impediment to understanding the world.” This created a backlash in the blogosphere, with many blog writers going as far as accusing Johnson of anti-Semitism and providing a justification of the Holocaust.

Back in September, I wrote a column critical of Obama for describing the Benghazi consulate attack as “senseless violence,” and reached a similar conclusion about the term’s use. Johnson is also critical of Obama for using the term in that case, as the attack was clearly premeditated by an Al Qaeda affiliated group looking to make a political statement in Libya.

The sharp rebuke of Johnson’s NRO post is not surprising, considering the lack of understanding of the term “senseless” by our political leaders and media alike. “Senseless” implies irrationality. While we would like to think of violence as “senseless,” in reality, violence is a powerful coercive mechanism, whether orchestrated by Islamic terrorists or the Third Reich. Violence in these circumstances is also based on an ideology manufactured to justify its use.

In his rebuke of Johnson, Daily Kos writer Jed Lewison accuses Johnson of implying that since Nazism was not “senseless violence,” this means that “Nazism made perfect sense.” This is a misunderstanding of what it means for something to be “senseless.” Lewison seems to think the opposite of “senseless” is “sensible,” which Johnson correctly points out as untrue in her response to the onslaught of criticism. Planned attacks on individuals in the name of ideology or the attainment of a political goal are neither “sensible” nor “senseless.” These attacks represent the use of radical dogmas to justify the egregious and evil actions that we find in Hitler’s Germany and from modern day al-Qaeda.

“Senseless violence” is an incorrect label for these attacks, and the term has been used far too often to describe violent actions that occur for very different reasons. President Obama accurately used the term to describe the devastating Aurora, Colorado movie theatre shooting last year, where a gunman opened fire at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises, killing twelve innocent moviegoers. Since then, he has called the Benghazi consulate attack the result of “senseless violence,” and now same with the Holocaust.

There is a profound dissimilarity between these situations, and it is troubling that our government equates them all with the same overused phrase. Not all violence is irrational, and to imply otherwise makes it sound like the Obama administration lacks an understanding of rational violence committed in the name of a belief system with sensible followers. There is a reason people participate as willing accomplices in rational violence. As I said in September, the Benghazi terrorists had a “political goal” in taking over the consulate and killing Ambassador Stevens. Trying to fill a power vacuum left after Gaddafi’s fall from power, the terrorist group with ties to Al Qaeda sought a display of power. They used violence as a “means to achieve” this end.

So why label all these events “senseless violence?” I’m not entirely sure why the term is used so often, except to brush aside a much more problematic ideological current that tries to legitimize its means. Is it that we do not want to admit that “sensible people” have been responsible for great evil, as Johnson mentions in her clarification post? It’s certainly easier to dismiss these individuals as “crazy” and “irrational” than deal with the harsh reality that they have been driven to murder by an ideological current.

The critical reaction to Johnson’s post, and the Obama administration’s constant use of the term, makes me think that there are influential individuals who view all violent actions as “senseless.” This is a grave mistake, and one that has serious implications for American policy. Individuals around the world hold values diametrically opposed to our own. Al Qaeda recruits people and carries out terrorist attacks in the name of ideological opposition to American values. This is scary rationality, not senseless irrationality.

We need to have a mature conversation that recognizes where the roots of violence come from instead of dismissing all violence as “senseless.” There seems to be an impulse in the other direction, and that’s unfortunate.

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