Bombs, Protests, and the Contagion of Violence

I write this blog post as I sit in a Starbucks Cafe, three blocks from my faculty office. The small space is jam-packed with students and faculty drenched by a welcomed September Texas rain and a very disturbing reminder of the dangers in our midst. Everyone on our campus of 50,000 students received text and email messages at 9:50am, ordering an immediate evacuation of campus—every building. A man with a “Middle Eastern accent” had called the university, identified himself as a member of Al-Qaeda, and warned of bombs set to detonate in various undisclosed university locations. Everyone had to run.

This local threat comes at the precise moment when more than 15 countries are witnessing major violent protests by Muslim groups against American and other Western facilities. From Libya to Egypt to Tunisia to Yemen to India and Bangladesh, threats to Americans are proliferating around the world right now. All of a sudden, it appears that anger has risen to a breaking point among many groups. In Libya, this dynamic resulted in the tragic murder of a widely respected American ambassador and other personnel.

The source or the “reason” for this global violence is worthy of study, but it is not the key point. What historians have noted but not sufficiently analyzed is the contagion of public violence at certain moments, like the one we are living in today. Acts of public anger spread across societies, and they inspire diverse “copy-cats,” under specific circumstances.

What are the circumstances that create this contagion? One element stands out: the dislocation of people from established sources of order. Public violence is a form of political expression by those who are disconnected from institutions, relationships, and beliefs that prohibit such behavior. Public violence is committed by people who have access to resources and knowledge, but are not integrated into the mainstream uses of those resources and knowledge. It is a radicalism of some semi-privileged, partially educated, and partially mobile people in various societies who recognize their potential and resent alleged “outsiders” who are conspiring to hold them back. These “outsiders” are American officials in the Middle East, and representatives of elite universities within the United States.

Why do these acts of violence spread so fast and so far? Psychologists have long observed the feelings of “actualization,” “belonging,” even “pleasure” that alienated individuals feel when they see their targets of anger suffering punishment. The witnessing of an attack on an American embassy emotionally inspires on-lookers who do not identify with the perpetrators, but share a wish to hurt the victims. The adrenal rush of seeing a powerful enemy brought low is intoxicating. Suddenly, dreams of turning the tables on the powerful seem possible. Abstract wishes find what appears to be an imperative moment for decisive action.

We want to think that history moves in slow and deliberate steps toward some improved goal, but that is not the case. History moves in spurts of forward progress and backward regression. These spurts are quick and unpredictable. They are frequently violent and they are increasingly global.

What should we do? If this analysis is correct, we should expect more violence to spread in the coming days. There will be more attacks on American and Western embassies. There will be more threats to universities and other domestic institutions.

The worst reaction would be to fan the flames of further violence with indiscriminate retaliatory attacks and apocalyptic rhetoric. Citizens and leaders must discredit the violence we are seeing at home and abroad with clear language about what our society believes, why our institutions are filled with integrity, and why we will never allow the violent few to hijack the good work of the peaceful many. Law enforcement is critical, patience is necessary, and civilized conversation is most important of all.

We need show that we are better than the violence, and that we are a society that values connections to everyone—even those who sometimes feel the world is set against them. Violent spurts dissipate when they lose their initial appeal among those looking for some kind of quick improvement to their unsatisfying circumstances. This is true in Libya, in Egypt, and even in Austin, Texas.

Jeremi Suri is the Mack Brown Distinguished Professor for Global Leadership, History, and Public Policy at UT-Austin. This story was first published by Global Brief.

Photo by JohnGoode via Flickr Creative Commons


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