The Corner

On ‘Senseless’ Violence

Pundits and non-pundits on both the left and the right have reacted with derision and horror to a Corner post in which I criticized President Obama for referring to those who perished in the Holocaust — as well as the four Americans who were murdered in Benghazi — as victims of “senseless violence.” I argued that violence carried out in the service of ideology is a more serious threat than violence that we typically refer to as “senseless” or “random,” and that, as a result, it deserves more serious attention and analysis.

I’ve since been accused both of justifying Nazism and of anti-Semitism. This is not only wrong, but cheap.

The opposite of “senseless” is not, as many have suggested, “sensible.” Nor is it “good.” According to Merriam-Webster, “senseless” means “destitute of, deficient in, or contrary to sense: as: unconscious,” or “foolish, stupid,” or “meaningless.” Even the most cursory understanding of Nazi Germany reveals this to be a poor description of its behavior. It was precisely the threat posed by the “organized and calculated violence” of the German state and the “party organization, several millions strong, who derive all kinds of profits, good and bad, from the upkeep of the regime” to which Churchill sought to awaken his countrymen. Were the gravestone of the Third Reich a monument to caprice, its consequences would likely have been less dire. 

Many tragedies are indeed “senseless.” Those, by and large, are the ones that occur despite human attempts to understand and prevent their causes: the hurricanes that have ravaged large swaths of the country in recent years; motor-vehicle accidents; terminal illnesses; acts of violence that are truly random in nature; events, in other words, to which nearly any one of us, at any time, could fall victim.

Those carried out with forethought, purpose, and intent by men who have convinced sensible people — yes, sensible people — that the murder of innocents is justified in the name of Communism, Nazism, fascism, or Islamism are a different matter altogether. Dismissing such acts, and their perpetrators, as senseless demonstrates a failure to engage with a reality that is much more complicated; one in which politics, ideology, and human nature have combined to produce with careful planning some of the greatest episodes of evil in human history. Not for nothing did Churchill refer to Nazi Germany as a “monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark lamentable catalogue of human crime.” The lamentable crime to which he referred was more premeditated murder than manslaughter; sadly, it was not senseless, but the logical conclusion of a perverted worldview that was distressingly popular in its era.

The hysterical reaction elicited by my post underscores precisely the point I intended to make–that the notion, now deeply ingrained on the left, that violence is by definition senseless and incomprehensible poses an enormous impediment to understanding the world and the forces at work in it.


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