On the violence of necessity

by NJ McGarrigle

Image from the Terence Malick film ‘The Tree of Life’ [2011]

Violence is both unavoidable and unjustifiable – Albert Camus

Violence is to man, what dust is to decay; it is a by-product of what makes us who we are. It’s in our blood to spill blood. Camus got it right on both counts: we cannot, and should not, ever look to justify violence, but we cannot deny its permanence either, or its deep-seated part of our nature. Violence shapes us just as much as music or education, so we should not flinch from looking at its ugly countenance, or attempt to peer past it towards some idyllic notion, ensconced in a sleepy valley of denial.

Asking the question if we can get beyond violence, or live in a world without its presence, is akin to asking if goodness can exist without evil? No, is the short answer: our actions will always cause reactions. The idea of ‘a world without violence’ cannot stand empirically: violence is an axiomatic part of our human condition just as much as greed, envy or lust are, and it applies to our nature as inherently as the basic laws of physics.

As Camus said, violence is inescapable; it’s part of the absurdity of life. The violence of necessity is something else, however – contra Camus, it is both justifiable and, because of its existential threat, allows us to avoid and neutralise many more potentially violent scenarios. A violence of necessity keeps a check on our baser instincts; it provides a natural order to things and has allowed humanity survive this far.

There is what we can call ‘macro-violence’, relating to Thomas Hobbes’s basic insight, that without a state, and state force, life is likely to be ‘nasty, brutish and short’. A state monopoly on the legitimate use of force reduces violence and makes everyone living under that monopoly better off than they would otherwise have been.

We can also consider ‘micro-violence’, which George Orwell understood when he wrote, ‘People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.’ Part of the reason we find so much stock in Orwell’s writing is that his voice never quivered – and when it came to the possibility of the humanitarian need for violence, which sounds oxymoronic, he never shirked then either. Orwell was a democrat, and at heart a pacifist, but he understood the necessity of violence, its function.

He foresaw how violence was being used in the corrosion of communism and socialism and how Stalin exercised power by homicidal brutality. Orwell understood how Nazism utilised violence to further its sickening cause; he was one of the few to wake up early (Winston Churchill being another) to the understanding that this type of violence needed to be faced with the violence of necessity – imperative for halting Hitler’s fanaticism, and Stalin’s demagogic brand of thuggery if the time came to do so. (History shows that Joe was a much cannier operator than Adolf though; Stalin knew when to sit down at the table or when to kick it over.)

Orwell’s experience fighting in the Spanish Civil War and witnessing the ugly face of Franco’s future autocracy helped him understand that the only way to stare down a menace such as fascism and totalitarianism was by taking up arms; in order to ‘Kick up the fire, and let the flames break loose, to drive the shadows back’, to use Philip Larkin’s phrasing.

Poppies by Richard Diebenkorn [Oil on Canvas 1963]

The nature of violence and the intrinsic role it plays in our lives has always had an inner working on my idea of self. For example, all my life I wondered if I could take a punch. And as chance would have it, three came along at once to answer my ruminations. After thirty or so years of conjecture, I found out I could take a biff to the old cranium and solar plexus. I took three punches from two men to be exact (to take a punch; it sounds fine when one says it, but looks strange when written down, with the verb turned on its head), two from the initial agitator and one from his rather large friend, his blow being the decisive one. I had replied in kind beforehand, with two strikes upon the provoker. I connected with my right, and a surprisingly good left, so much so that it hurt my hand. But the final punch I suffered landed right on a sweet spot: my left eye, and settled any dust kicked up in the dispute. It was the strike that cut the lights.

Of course all of this is in my mind’s eye. But I imagine the punch was thrown with a technique that would have had me applauding if I’d been sitting ringside watching a prizefight. Instead, I was busy getting on with the unfortunate business of becoming acquainted with the ground. In my case, Saturday night was not all right for fighting.

(Those that sing about fighting don’t tend to do much, really – the old Blues men apart of course, some of whom lived their lives as an eternal scuffle.)

The fellow I encountered had either boxed a little in his time, or was ‘handy’, in the street-fighting man sense of the word: the type used to knocking down selves, not putting up shelves. The boxing supposition might have saved my grounded self, however, as I lay face down in a neighbourhood that becomes filled with testosterone-soaked air at the weekend. For the shot that drops you does just that – it brings any debate to a close. There is an Irish phrase that encapsulates the perfect punch: ‘he softened his cough for him’. This type of manoeuvre is usually reserved for use upon lairy loudmouths or uncouth slabbers, and I’d like to assure you, dear reader, with a degree in modesty, that I am neither.

The left eye sees: a flicker of movement, a slant in the light, brilliant white followed by pitch-darkness and then something I don’t see much of nowadays – the gradual sight of tarmac forming right before my eyes.

Yes, I took the shot. I took the shot. Then my legs buckled, causing me to fall on my left side, meaning not only did I have a large shiner and closed-over eye the next day, but, to complement it, also a nasty weal above what remained of my eyebrow.

Needless to say it could always have been worse. But I think the aesthetic of that last blow was so right somehow – I’m surmising outside of myself here – that nothing else could have been done to improve upon it, except perhaps the fellow raising a triumphant right hand and walking back to his corner. Both sides had come to agreement;   the two of them walked off and I stayed put. And after a few moments, I dragged myself to my feet, bloodied and sore. On a blustery spring morning, I had as much control over my movements as I did over the weather. But I moved on defiantly, to continue my walk home. And all the while, I was thinking, so this is what it feels like; this is what it feels like.

Illustration by Stephen Doyle


Many commentators write about the underlying causes of violence, which are usually listed as poverty, inequality, and abuse of alcohol or drugs and so on. But we are made aware of violence from an early age: parents and elders often tell children ‘don’t let anyone else fight your battles for you’. As the psychologist Steven Pinker says, we really ‘are creatures of a violent world, biologically speaking – watching violence and learning about it is one of our cognitive drives.’

One such place we watch and learn about it is in the schoolyard, with its war zone state of mind. Children can be the most violent of us all, and when they are, there lies the beginning of a journey of self-discovery.

Scenarios are quickly forced in our faces where one has to stand one’s ground, or risk being exposed as a pushover or weak for the rest of one’s days; there are exceptional occasions when one needs to resort to violence to hold the line that’s been drawn.

In the feral surroundings of an all-boys Catholic school, I saw the existence of violence almost on a daily basis. Sometimes casual, other times brutally calculating. Here, I saw the purpose of violence, its role; used many times for bad reasons, some times for good, such as when the picked-on puny boy finally cracks and strikes back at the bully, who is shocked into stasis. At times likes these, I fondly recall how the herd of boys would fall in behind the upstart, cheering him on, while their scorn would rain down on the vanquished. Even young boys understand the value of the underdog’s victory, for somehow we know it is a status that will befall us all at some time in life.

One example sticks in my mind. We milled around the schoolyard during our break as usual, several hundred boys aged from eleven to sixteen. One of the regular ruffians started in on a new boy, only to discover to his dismay that this pocket-rocket knew something of what AJ Liebling called ‘The Sweet Science’ i.e. boxing.

The little chap unleashed such a flurry of punches that it sent a surge of electricity through the hundreds of other boys, who wanted to view this assured act of pugilistic justice taking place; we were drawn to it. A rush of bodies swarmed like angry bees around the fight, forcing it to progress towards the high-wire fencing enclosing the yard. The wave of bodies ebbed and flowed. As the fight came to a crashing end, when the small chap landed a plum right-hook, the weight of the crowd caused a crush that flopped upon the fence, flattening it like a pancake. The bars and wires were bent outwards so that they touched the ground – the fence looked like a half-completed wicker basket – causing the collective to let out a mighty roar, as they collapsed in a scrum. But the energy, the energy! Some boys were super-charged; they scrambled across the mesh and broke for freedom before any teachers could arrive on the scene.

Alas, the rest of us dusted ourselves down and went back to class with the sound of the bell ringing with what seemed more of a rage than usual. One person was glad to hear the bell: the bully, dazed and confused, and in the unusual position of nursing a bloody nose. I also caught a glimpse of the practitioner of Boxiana, smiling, unmarked, and being patted on his back with hearty congratulations. He looked like a fun-sized Gary Cooper.

As I walked back, I thought at the time, this is probably the most important lesson I will learn today, or most days for that matter. We dragged our heels back to the classroom, but as the asphalt settled again over the schoolyard in the morning sunshine, I had wondered how something could come so quickly, and disappear just as fast. I also appreciated that this thing, call it violence of whatever you wish, never goes away.

So wrote Ernst Junger: ‘Man is born violent but is kept in check by the people around him. If he nevertheless manages to throw off his fetters, he can count on applause, for everyone recognizes himself in him. Deeply ingrained, nay, buried dreams come true.’

Coombe Wood by John Constable [1812]


It is time we reached the fork in the road up ahead, signposted ‘Passivity and Diplomacy’ on one side and ‘Violence of Necessity’ on the other. I wish to state unequivocally that I would always choose to travel left, given the option, to use discussion to solve any dispute in life. This choice did not work for me recently (sadly) but it did allow me a deeper understanding of the human condition, and it is this: the right turn, marking violent action, will never be bypassed completely, whichever side you are on, and we should acknowledge this fact. Yes, this road will take us on journeys that are wrong from the outset, and which will end at dark, destructive destinations, but it will always be there; the road less taken or otherwise. Bob Dylan’s lyrics should still ring true in our ears: ‘Democracy don’t rule the world/ You’d better get that in your head/ This world is ruled by violence/ But I guess that’s better left unsaid’.

Violence has taken on a new identity on the global stage of the 21st century. Countries no longer officially declare war, but instead violence takes place on sliding scales of aggression. Diplomacy is reduced to nothing more than window dressing as a consequence, and is of little use to citizens who shake in the shadows cast at noon. If we in the west wish to maintain the values that we hold dear, then the violence of necessity will always have to walk hand-in hand with diplomacy. We need to speak softly and carry a big stick, as Theodore Roosevelt put it.

On a metaphysical level I wish that the world was less violent, but we cannot deny that it is part of the balance that keeps order on the nature of things. ‘It seems disingenuous to ask a writer why she, or he, is writing about a violent subject when the world and history are filled with violence,’ wrote Joyce Carol Oates, which I will use as part of my defence against criticism in writing this essay. For there will always come a time when men will choose to go to war, for a justified reason (‘When bad men combine, the good must associate’ noted Edmund Burke) or not. There will always be a time when a man will strike another, for no reason or otherwise. A world without violence is like a world without sin – an unreachable aspiration because of our animalistic natures and instincts. It is the fundamental existence of violence and its inherent threat that is key to maintaining order in our lives, and we should accept that a surety of force keeps us in check; what Steven Pinker calls the ‘pacification process’.

The point has been made before that you never need an argument against the use of violence, but you need one for it. Well, this, to an extent, is mine. Most of us may not be for violence, but we know what violence is for; it will always be with us, so we need to get over our guilt if we must call upon it. For society to endure, we need a violence of necessity that correlates. The German thinker Walter Benjamin was being realistic when he stated: ‘there is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism’. In the final analysis, violence of necessity can be used to stem the tide of mania, stop injustice, defend those who cannot defend themselves, or to stir change in a stinking pot of misery and misfortune. We, mankind that is, will always be the spoon of disorder, but the onus is on us to take a firm grip of it.