The Moral Status of Non-Atrocities

28 April 2010


A few days ago in a post to this forum titled Revolution, Genocide, Terror I observed the revolution has become the established mechanism of political change, genocide the established mechanism of purging the nation-state of unwelcome national and ethnic constituencies, and terror has become the established mechanism of asymmetrically expressing grievances often brought about the failures of nation-states brought about by revolution and purged by genocide.

This unholy trinity of revolution, genocide, and terrorism presents a frightening tableau of our age. The oft-remarked violence of the twentieth century has shown no signs of abating in the twenty-first century, and if this is true we must brace ourselves for a sickening repetition of this cycle of violence. But this isn’t the whole story of our troubled age, and perhaps not even half the story.

It seems to me that the greater part of suffering and misery in our time is not the result of spectacular events like revolution, genocide, and terror that punctuate the equilibrium of the ordinary business of life, but rather that in many cases the ordinary business of life is rendered difficult, if not miserable, if not unbearable, by policies, procedures, and practices that have been bureaucratized and purposefully kept at a level that does not cross the threshold of atrocity. Brutal leaders know that if they incur the displeasure of the world community that they may well be removed from positions of power, but if they maintain their depredations on their populations at a level that minimizes, as far as possible, state-sponsored horrors such as genocide and terror, they will largely be safe. Thus choosing the lesser part of horror is a strategy of regime survival and historical viability.

Human history, like natural history, demonstrates a pattern of punctuated equilibrium. We are easily re-directed to focus on the great events of history, and thus we pay attention to headline-grabbing events like revolution, genocide, and spectacular acts of terrorism engineered as thought to exemplify the Baudelairean conception of Fleurs du mal. It is the work of an evil genius to conceive and execute the kind of horrors to which we are all-too-accustomed. But, again like natural history, the bulk of human history is consumed by the ordinary, day-to-day existence of human beings not subject to spectacular evils. Nevertheless, the conditions of ordinary, day-to-day existence can be brought to a keen level of desperation without crossing the threshold of atrocity.

In Grand Strategy Celebrates One Year! I quoted one of my favorite passages from the famous Annales school historian Fernand Braudel, :

Events are the ephemera of history; they pass across its stage like fireflies, hardly glimpsed before they settle back into darkness and as often as not into oblivion.

Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Volume 2, Part Three: Event, Politics and People, p. 901

It has been said (by Friedrich von Schlegel, I think) that the historian is a prophet facing backward. In this case, Braudel is the prophet of the longue durée, and the longue durée is not constituted by events properly understood as such, however spectacular. It is daily life and ordinary experience, so often itself consigned to the ephemera of history, that constitutes the substance of the longue durée.

Consider the tyrants we have seen over the past couple of decades, people like Slobodan Milošević and Robert Mugabe. While Milošević can be connected to a genuine atrocity like the Srebrenica Massacre, most of Milošević’s actions did not rise to the level of atrocity. And while Mugabe brutally suppressed the Ndebele groups in the provinces of Matabeleland and the Midlands, which might be considered an atrocity, like Milošević, most of his actions have not risen to the level of atrocity. As noted above, a brutal leader can carefully contrive his policies so that the stop just short of the level of atrocity that would draw the attention of the international community, hence the possibility of intervention.

Nevertheless, a life lived under conditions just short of atrocity is itself a kind of atrocity, a low-level atrocity, a largely silent atrocity. We might call such conditions non-atrocities. What is the moral status of non-atrocities? If a political leader presides over policies that stunt the growth of his nation, that limit the lives of millions, and that make millions unnecessarily impoverished, how are we to judge such actions? We cannot compare such men and such actions to twentieth century monsters like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, who calmly presided over mass death. Stalin has been (probably incorrectly) credited with the statement, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” While he probably never said it, it was readily believed of him because it captures the casual brutality of his rule.

If Milošević was no Hitler, and Mugabe is no Stalin, nevertheless such men as these contemporaries of ours have meant the ruin of countless lives. This ruin has not always come in the form of mass murder, but lives can be ruined, stunted, and made hopeless without being lost in an absolute sense. If someone thus loses the potential of their life but does not lose life itself as the result of the actions of a tyrant or his minions, how ought we to properly conceive of this evil? Again, what is the moral status of non-atrocities? The fact that we largely lack a conceptual framework to discuss loss of quality of life in a detailed and meaningful way demonstrates that we are not yet prepared to deal with one of the great moral issues of our time.

I think that throughout the coming century we will see more non-atrocities, more widely spread, and influencing the lives of more people. The tyrants have learned some lessons from the twentieth century. Unfortunately, instead of learning the lessons of good government, they have learned that brutality kept within limits will be ignored and unpunished. Non-atrocities will proliferate even as genuine and undisputed atrocities will decrease. This will not mean that the world is, overall, a better place, but that the tyrants who perpetrate near atrocities will be more calculating and cunning in their use of force, constrained only by the threshold of atrocity.

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