The Shock of Violence

By Steffen Böhm
26th August 2005


I took your paper to read at home just after the events last Friday in London. I was very shocked with the descriptions, made by eye witnesses, of the way the guy had been shot. So, I read your text with this thought always present. I read it with my body, feeling the discomfort of the 'truth' of your words and, at the same time, the fear of our weakness and the difficulties we have to face in order to exercise the violence of critique in these days. The next day I knew that the murdered guy was a Brazilian – someone 'innocent' in many senses, as well as nameless. Probably for this fact, I realized that part of the discomfort I was feeling had to do with memory. All the statements of the British authorities were related to the need of the new procedures, were the defence of the state of exception. This was the name given by the Brazilian dictators for the suppression of the state of rights, when citizens’ rights were suspended in the name of the need to protect the order and the public against the enemy. I’m clearly shocked because some of the elementary principles of liberal democracy are being eliminated. If liberal democracy is not enough, totalitarianism is always worst. (Maria Ceci Misoczky; edited excerpt of an email sent to Steffen Böhm on 25 July 2005)

I’m quoting the above email with a purpose in mind. In my view, it clearly expresses the state of emergency – or the moment of danger, as Walter Benjamin calls it – we find ourselves at this very moment. Maria, a Brazilian educator from Porto Alegre, responded with her email to my paper ‘The Moment of Danger: Benjamin’s Critique of Violence’, which I had submitted to the editors of a book last week. I had written that book chapter in response to my experience of being in Scotland for the anti-G8 protests and the London bombings that took place on 7 July 2005. Since this book chapter will not be published until early 2006, and since it will probably be read by only a handful of people, I would like to take this opportunity to make some of the reflections offered in that chapter available to a wider audience.

Maria’s email expresses her shock in the face of the violence in London – by the suicide bombers as well as the police. It is this experience of shock that is the starting point for my reflections here.


Almost a century ago Sigmund Freud wrote an essay called ‘Timely Thoughts on War and Death’, which was his way of responding to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. In this essay he talks about the shock many people experience when faced with war and violence. Freud argues that in the heat of war one cannot think quite straight; one is shocked by the speed of transformation of all aspects of life. For Freud, the time of war is a time that is ‘out of joint’. In that time people are not in full control of themselves; we are like ‘crazy’, as he calls it. We lose our grip on things. According to Freud, there is thus a certain paralysis that is created in times of war and violence – our ‘normal’ rationality and bodily response systems are out of control.

No doubt, this feeling of shock is felt by many Londoners and other people around the world who have experienced suicide bombings. The bombings as well as the shoot-to-killing of Jean Charles de Menezes – the Brazilian man shot in the head eight times by police on an underground train because he was suspected of being a terrorist – suddenly bring war and violence very close to home. Many people – particularly those in the privileged Global North – usually experience war and violence on television. The multiple wars around the world take place in the ‘uncivilised’ world – one is trained to think. And television is a medium that, although it brings the world into our homes, also creates a distance between us and those things that the TV images are supposed to represent. With the violent atrocities happening on the streets of London, war and violence suddenly enter people’s lives – we are suddenly quite personally affected. We are shocked. And to some extent we are paralysed.

It is perhaps not a surprise that in precisely this moment of shock the UK government attempts to introduce a whole range of new anti-terrorist legislation. For example, it is proposed that people arrested under anti-terrorist laws should now be allowed to be held for up to three months without charge, instead of the current two weeks. Three months without charge! As Craig Murray writes (, over 1200 people – mostly Muslims, of course – have been held under the UK government’s anti-terror legislation since its introduction, but only a handful have been convicted of any terrorist activity. What is created here is a state of fear, a permanent state of exception, which, if we are not careful, will fundamentally erode taken-for-granted civil liberties. Fascism was also built on the idea that one had to suspend democratic laws in order to contain and control Jews and other unwanted people in concentration camps. Today, we are building camps again; and Guantanamo Bay, where people have now been held without charge for over three years, is not the only one.

But violence does not equal violence. And shock does not equal shock. That is, one of the most urgent tasks is to put the violence of the London bombings and the resulting shock into perspective. As Blair names the suicide bombers as being part of an ‘evil ideology’, he actively hopes to essentialise and fundamentalise this violence. To say that this was carried out by religious fanatics and fundamentalists is to deny the fact that many people have been recruited to be suicide bombers because of concrete political and military decisions by Western governments. Although the link might be indirect, there certainly is a link between the politics of Bush and Blair and the London bombings. Many people in the Middle East, for example, show sympathy with these shocking acts of violence, because of they have been systematically repressed. If the bombings have plunged Londoners into a certain temporary shock, this shock of violence has characterised the lives of people in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and many other places for decades.

Shock can also be a strategic tool, and the resulting paralysis of people can be an explicit military, economic or political objective. As Naomi Klein argues, it was perhaps this paralysis which the Americans and their allies hoped for when they invaded Iraq in 2003. She writes in her widely distributed essay, ‘Baghdad Year Zero’ (, 'Torturers believe that when electrical shocks are applied to various parts of the body simultaneously subjects are rendered so confused about where the pain is coming from that they become incapable of resistance'. She then quotes a CIA ‘Counterintelligence Interrogation’ manual, which states that a trauma inflicted on prisoners produces a kind of psychological shock or paralysis, in which the prisoner is more likely to comply. Klein is in no doubt that this shock therapy has not only been one of America’s favourite military strategies – comparable to Hitler’s ‘Blitz’ – but, indeed, also applies to the way free-market capitalism has been implemented in Iraq, as well as in many other developing countries under IMF and American influence. 'The theory is', Klein continues, 'that if painful economic ‘adjustments’ are brought in rapidly and in the aftermath of a seismic social disruption like a war, a coup, or a government collapse, the population will be so stunned, and so preoccupied with the daily pressures of survival, that it too will go into suspended animation, unable to resist'. The problem for the occupiers of Iraq is that this theory did not work in its totality. Resistance has sprung up everywhere. Strikes, demonstrations and suicide bombs. While the Western mainstream media usually only reports on the carnage produced by suicide bombs, it often forgets to show the multiple other resistances to the occupation evident in many parts of Iraqi society; for more information on this, see the websites of the Radical Activist Network ( and Iraq Occupation Watch (

What is important about these contributions is that the debate on the war in Iraq is moved on from the daily images of physical violence to a consideration of the structural violence exercised by the occupiers, the US and its allies. Iraq is big business; not only for multi-national companies like Halliburton that supply the US military forces, but also numerous business contractors that hope to profit from the opportunities of the new Iraq market, which is rich in natural resources and cheap labour. And it is this structural violence which is partly responsible for the daily carnage of suicide bombings. We are constantly told that if US and UK forces leave Iraq today, the country would plunge into even greater disarray, maybe even a civil war. But what Naomi Klein’s research, for example, has shown is that, more than anything, the violence is fuelled by, and directed against, the occupation and the way it wants to reorganise the country. This is not in the first instance a civil war amongst fractions of Iraqi society; this is an anti-occupation resistance movement, and it is the military, political and economic occupation which has radicalised many Iraqis.

But the military, political and economic shock therapy experienced by Iraqis – which has now gone so horribly wrong, with the civilian deaths reaching 25,000 since the start of the 2003 invasion ( – is not an isolated event. This violence is endemic; it is part of what we call capitalism. And this violence is not only experienced when suicide bombers blow themselves up or countries go and occupy other countries. When Walter Benjamin wrote about the way modern capitalism emerged in mid-19th century Paris, he was interested in the shocks produced by commodity relations, which are much more subtle than the shocks of violence created by war and suicide bombings. For him, advertising images, for example, work because they shock people into a certain paralysis, a certain experience which he calls ‘dreamworld’. The point Benjamin makes is that capitalist modernity is fundamentally characterised by this shock experience, as commodities try to continuously enter our bodies by way of marketing or news messages. Following Freud, Benjamin argues that a shock activates the subject’s memory. Normally, these shocks are absorbed by the body’s nervous system. However, if the shock becomes too intense or constant, it has the potential to produce a trauma, in which we are not able to resist shocks meaningfully. The aim of commodities is to subject people to a continuous stream of shocks, which literally traumatises people; it creates a dreamworld from which there is very little escape.

While Benjamin examined the basic workings of commodity production and consumption, what is important for us to realise today is that these relations are actively promoted around the world by inter-governmental, neo-liberal institutions, such as the G8, IMF, WTO and World Bank. That is, commodity relations don’t spread around the world just like that. They are actively promoted by these institutions, whose policies export a certain version of Western civilisation and capitalism in all parts of the world. This neo-colonial movement is also a shock therapy; it is the shock that is closely associated with commodity production and consumption.

The shock produced by the capitalist system aims to be total, in the sense that its objective is completely to reshape social relations. This total control of society works according to the logic of ‘us’ versus ‘them’, that is, ‘us’ who are civilised, democratic, producing wealth, and ‘them’, those ‘fanatics’, ‘evil people’, and ‘terrorists’ who have not yet been incorporated completely into commodity relations and ‘our way of life’, as Tony Blair calls it frequently these days. While the shock produced by capitalism aims to be total, it always works along specific lines. Fascism, for example, produced a shock that tried to reorganise the masses without fundamentally affecting capitalist property relations. Of course, today we know very well how many companies profited from the carnage of the last world war, and how they continue to profit from war today. As Walter Benjamin points out, what war makes possible is the mobilisation of social energy and technical resources on a grand scale while maintaining the property system. Whether intentionally or not, the war in Iraq, and the multiple wars the US and its allies have fought in recent years, or rather decades, follow this very logic. Capitalism and the violence of war are intrinsically connected to each other.


So far we’ve talked about violence, as if it’s a very clear and unproblematic term. What exactly is violence? Today, violence is often that which is represented as violence on television: the gun shots of the Terminator, the street riots in Los Angeles (the city of angels), the mass-murderer who is still not caught by the police, and the Muslim terrorist in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, New York, Madrid and now, also, in London. Violence, we are told, is also when anti-capitalist protesters engage in direct actions against property symbolic of global capitalism in Seattle, Genoa, Gothenburg or Edinburgh and, therefore, supposedly, use undemocratic means of protest, as our politicians are eager to stress on television and the media in general. The point to make here is that the media continuously reduces the multiplicity of images of violence to media-events of easily definable (physical) violations of state law; violations that can be recognised by, and sold to, a global media audience. This, as Sam Weber argues, leads to a tendency to identify violence only once it is recognised as violence by the media. That is, we only see violence when and where it is tele-visible, or when violence is branded as such by the Daily Mail or The Times. This means that violence which is not reported by the media tends to be ignored, forgotten, devalued and thus not recognised as such.

An example of the importance of the media for the construction of violence was seen on 6 July when thousands of protesters marched through the outskirts of Auchterarder, the small Scottish town nearest to the Gleneagles Hotel, which housed the G8 leaders. It was surely no coincidence that TV cameras were perfectly positioned on high cranes, in exactly the spot where the ‘violent’ protesters left the agreed marching route in order to reach the high-security fence, and iron-curtain-type watch towers that were erected all around the hotel. It also seems no coincidence that in exactly this spot, the police took no measures to prevent protesters from leaving the planned route, elsewhere fenced in and guarded by police officers drawn from forces from all across the UK. As was suggested by numerous people present at the scene, it looked as if this incident was orchestrated, and the hard core protesters provoked, in order for television to be able to show the ‘violence’ of the ‘anarchists’ who illegitimately left the agreed marching route ( No doubt, the creation of this tele-visible image of protest violence was part of the legitimation exercise for the extortionately high security costs, which are said to have reached up to £100 million (

The point to make here is that contemporary ideology – and the media are among its most important and effective tools – constantly tries to reduce the meaning of violence to an individual or physical violation of somebody’s personal sphere.What this tries to hide is the fact that today’s so-called non-violent democratic institutions themselves are the result of immense acts of violence. This is the point Benjamin makes in his essay ‘Kritik der Gewalt’, usually translated as ‘Critique of Violence’. It is worth nothing that the English ‘violence’ cannot be seen simply as the direct equivalent of the German Gewalt. In parts their meanings even contradict each other. Whereas Gewalt comes from walten (to rule or preside), which therefore connects it to the state, as well as institutional and organisational power, ‘violence’ is not separable from the notion of violation. That is, Gewalt implies the maintenance of a relation of power – whether this is the state or any other institutional arrangement. In contrast, ‘violence’ highlights the forceful (violent) infringement of something or somebody. Hence, we can distinguish between violence, as (individual and perhaps physical) violation, which infringes the sphere of others, and violence, as power, which maintains an organisational regime. However, there is not a clear demarcation line between these two types of violence; and often – as in the case of the police shooting suspected terrorists in London underground station – these types of violence merge into one.

For Benjamin, the first step of a critique of violence has to be a denaturalisation of violence. In a long historical process the state has acquired a monopoly of violence, which allows it to define what is violence and what is not. That is, the State defines the concrete boundaries of violence for us, the citizens, and these boundaries are constantly enforced by state institutions and technologies: the military, the police, CCTV surveillance, prisons, mental institutions…the list of disciplinary tools the State employs is long. These institutions commit acts of violence, as they infringe the movement of people, but it is accepted violence; it is a violence which is lawful.

Such an understanding of violence moves us away from the idea that violence is an individual, exceptional or excessive phenomenon. Instead, it establishes the view that violence is an intrinsic part of modern society. That is, there is something structurally violent about the way contemporary relations of power are organised. One could also say that the State’s monopoly on violence has led to a state of permanent excess or exception, or as Benjamin would say, ‘state of emergency’. This total rule of the violent exception is manifested by the ‘right’ of the state to fight ‘just wars’ and set up institutions of violence, such as the police and the army.

But, the view that violence and war are always already part of the modern State is, of course, rarely represented by the media or the political caste system of parliamentary democracy. In Benjamin’s view, parliaments have lost their consciousness of the latent presence of violence in the organisation of society. They are not conscious of the revolutionary forces to which they owe their existence. That is, parliaments often do not recognise the immense violence parliamentary democracy is built on, and continue to reproduce when, for example, they decide on global trade agreements, sanction pre-emptive military strikes, or decide on defence budgets. What is, instead, celebrated by parliamentary democracies are notions of individual freedom, pluralism, compromise and non-violence, which stand in stark contrast to the violent shocks of State rule, which their decrees maintain and extend.


One reason why many experience such a shock over the suicide bombings in the midst of ‘our way of life’, is that modern society continuously tries to keep death at bay; we try to eliminate death from our life. Often, the only way many people experience death is when they watch television, which turns death into a spectacle. When children die in Israel or Palestine, B52s drop their deadly material, planes fly on suicide missions into skyscrapers, death becomes a spectacle consumed by the TV couch-potato – from a ‘safe’ distance. This is how many encounter death – death is to be kept at bay. One could also say that death is turned into a commodity; death becomes a ghostly spectacle, a specral commodity. As we let technology and the commodity encounter death for us, our body feels increasingly isolated from death. And this isolation from death is, of course, part of the daily practices of modern institutions, such as medicine, which tends to keep even ‘normal’ death hidden from the quotidian.

As Sam Weber points out, in today’s TV-times, death also becomes a spectator sport; we enjoy watching the division between ‘us’ and ‘them’, home team against visitors, ‘our boys’ against the terrorists. TV makes it possible to be ‘in touch’ with all of these spectres at once. But what if the opponent or enemy is not clearly visible or determinable? The elusiveness of the terrorist enemy is not a problem; the term ‘terrorism’ itself is enough to justify any actions today. The enemy does not have to be clearly defined; the ‘war against terror’ is a war against a concept; against an ideal, between an idealized ‘us’ and a demonised ‘them’, against an elusive, spectral enemy. Everyone is a potential suspect. In such war, violence and death become even more distanced, even as they are brought ever closer to us by television and the media.

In the event of an encounter with real death, all this changes. Our body starts to disintegrate. The shock of this encounter puts us out of balance. We become crazy again, as Freud says. Suddenly we see real people dying, just in front of us, sometimes in their thousands. Death can no longer be denied. Death is no longer a chance event. Of a sudden ‘our way of life’ – meaning the life of the privileged minority living in the Global North – is interrupted. Americans, Brits, Australians and Spaniards suddenly realise that death really does happen; war is not just a TV event but very real. But the dreamworld is soon back in action. We deal with this deathly encounter by displacing our emotions, the fear of our own death, by fetishising ‘our way of life’. And soon, we rejoice and celebrate the survival of the own self, as Sam Weber points out. Death is at bay again. The defiant stance of Londoners, their public determination not to be intimidated by suicide bombers after the 7 July attacks, is just such a reaction against the shock of violence. One way of coping is to fetishise one’s own mirror image – to continue with ‘our way of life’ – in order to keep death at bay again.

So, after a few hours or perhaps days of interruption – when the ‘time is out of joint’ – the soap operas and Big Brother are switched back on. Death is relegated to the television again, which keeps it at bay. The images of the daily war atrocities in Iraq – a war that was sanctioned by the British parliament – flicker across the screen again. But, this death is far away; and we try everything not to connect these deaths ‘over there’ with the deaths ‘over here’.


The term ‘critique’ is said to be derived from the Greek krinein, which means to separate, to cut. Critique can be seen as an act of cutting through established ways of thinking. Does this not mean that there is also a certain violence at the heart of critique? I think it is precisely this type of violence – the non-violent violence of critique – which is needed today in order to cut through, as it were, taken-for-granted (media) images of violence. So, rather than inverting the image of violence by calling for peace, which is often such a hollow term, I think what is to be done is to apply the violence of critique to violence, as it were.

The popular perception of people living in the Global North, I think, is that since the two horrible world wars in the first half of the twentieth century, we have been living in times of relative peace. Post-war liberal democracy is often claimed to have ensured the peaceful co-existence of multicultural societies. What this celebration of the post-war liberal democratic consensus and ‘our way of life’ often forgets or neglects is the fact that numerous wars have been fought in the name of these very values around the world since the Second World War: Guatemala, Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos, Grenada, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, Afghanistan, and the list goes on. Pre-emptive wars are not an invention of the neo-conservative clique that currently populates the White House. The difference with the recent past is that today it’s official governmental policy. The point to make is that liberal democracy and its multicultural logic does not prevent the violence of war. Evidence shows that it even promotes it, as long as death can be kept at bay from its immediate surrounding.

So, what do I mean by applying the violence of critique? How can this be done? What is more urgent than ever is to critique the supposedly peaceful, liberal democratic consensus displayed by the G8 and other leaders of the West. The anti-G8 protesters in Genoa, Edinburgh and elsewhere aimed at exactly that: to question the violence ‘our way of life’ has inflicted upon the world. On 7 July, a few hours after the atrocities in London, Blair tried to equate the violence of the suicide bombers with the anti-G8 protests going on in Scotland. This was a deliberate attempt to de-legitimise the forms of protests and civil disobedience expressed by thousands; it was a deliberate attempt to expand the language of terrorism to include virtually all forms of resistance. It is one of the most urgent tasks to disentangle this unholy web of terrorism-discourse that is spun by the G8 and other dominant voices. The critique articulated by thousands of protesters in Scotland is not a violence that can be equated with the sense-less bloodletting in London and elsewhere. Instead, it is a critique, which is connected with the discourse expressed by a growing global justice and anti-capitalist movement active around the world. The resistance expressed by anti-G8 protesters is legitimate, and we need to resist attempts to de-legitimise our actions.

What is fully under way is the creation of a constant state of fear, of a permanent state of exception, which gives governments the excuse of making unprecedented inroads into civil liberties. The freedom which is supposed to be exported around the world by way of wars and military interventions becomes increasingly worthless. The G8 saw the biggest police operation in the history of the UK costing the tax payer millions and millions of pounds. What and who were they protecting? The summit was supposed to be about aid for Africa. Why not give the £100 million the security operation is said to have cost, directly to people in need? Meanwhile an innocent passer-by is shot in London because his skin colour isn’t white and he runs away from the police. Everyone is a target and a suspect today. It thoroughly reminds me of the regime I lived under in East Germany until 1989. Not much has really changed.

We have to critique this state of violence that is created in our names. With anger, but also with strategic thinking, we need to oppose the militarization of the state. We need to critique – that is, cut through – the liberal democratic consensus that is displayed by the leaders of the three main parties in the House of Commons. We need oppose this peaceful image of a permanent state of violent exception.

Steffen Böhm lives in London, teaches organisation studies at the University of Essex and is editor-in-chief of ephemera: theory & politics in organization (

This paper is based on Böhm, S. (forthcoming) ‘The Moment of Danger: Benjamin’s Critique of Violence’, in Jones, C. and ten Bos, R. (eds.) Philosophy of Organization, Routledge. Many thanks to Maria Ceci Misoczky and George Cairns for their useful comments on a draft of that book chapter, which have been incorporated into the reflections offered in this paper.