Innocence and Violence: Why it is so hard to talk about Palestine?

by Giti Chandra

The work of violence is to undo what we understand as humanity and civilisation; to counter the need for, and power of, innocence that is foundational to both. It should work, also, as a reminder that requiring that a human being be ‘innocent’ in order not to be a legitimate target of violence is, in and of itself, a fundamentally uncivilised way to be. In the current calamity, over two-thirds of Palestinians killed have been women and children, and the image of the murdered child has dominated  much of the conversation around the crisis. Ideas of innocence and violence are intimately connected, both in our sometimes unacknowledged desire for civilisational innocence, as well as when the image of murdered innocence is weaponised in order to silence, and shut down other narratives. Emotional numbness and intellectual paralysis in the face of such images only serves the further propagation of both physical and discursive violence. How, then, should we wield the powerful responses the murdered child evokes in order to collectively think our way out of the vicious circle that conversations about Palestine have become?

“I have done no harm.”
I realised once again how literature allows us to think in unexpected and creative ways, and I come to an understanding of how innocence and violence impact the discourse surrounding the current crisis in Palestine through a reading of a scene in Macbeth. Perhaps one of the most blood-soaked of texts, I’ve often wondered what the very brief scene of Lady Macduff’s conversation with her child is doing in a play filled to the brim with graphic descriptions of battle and bodily violence. It does little other than to introduce two unnamed characters, only to kill them immediately. It’s function, to my mind, is to put forward a vital question, posed by a woman told to run from imminent death: “Whither should I fly? I have done no harm.” In a still-young century already characterised by the mass migrations of people who have done no harm, women and children (more than men) are routinely seen as innocent, collateral damage.

But what is this innocence that attaches to some and not to others, making some legitimate targets of violence, and others not? What is its function in a discussion of violence? Coming in the midst of so much bloodletting, in a world in which all hands are bloody, who, Shakespeare asks, are the innocent? Whose innocence makes bloodletting wrong, a moral evil, civilisationally destructive? In order to retain some semblance of morality and humanity, where may we locate our claim to innocence in a universe that offers us only amoral, politically sanctioned, power-fuelled, bloodshed? Not even in the women; for all that Lady Macduff claims that she has done no harm, she acknowledges “this earthly world, where to do harm / Is often laudable, to do good sometime / Accounted dangerous folly.”

Who, indeed, is the innocent, in a morally relativist, gradatedly complicit, foundationally violent, blood-soaked, world? Perhaps the truly remarkable thing about this scene is the murder of a child on stage. Macbeth is often thought of as the darkest of Shakespeare’s tragedies because there is no Fool to speak truth to power, but perhaps its darkness lies in the killing of innocence. After this, there is only “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”; not a civilisation worth saving, nor humanity worth dying for. And perhaps it is this darkness that we stave off when we hold candlelight vigils for children killed in faraway lands, and bear silent witness to each murdered child. Because while, with his dying breath, the son urges his mother to run away, we know that far away as the land may be, there is nowhere for us, as a civilisation, to run. Even if we have done no harm. The candlelight vigil counters emotional and intellectual paralysis as it holds a space, in silence, for a true, uncontaminated innocence that we cannot see in the real world. Its significance does not lie in its function as an exercise in sentimentality, but rather as a moment of faith in an unequivocal claim to civilisational humanity.

The ‘40 beheaded babies’
We know now that it never happened. Yet the initial claim had over 44 million impressions on X, over 300,000 likes and more than 100,000 reposts. Marc Owen Jones pointed out that “Baby stories are very emotive. Historically, they’re stories that can be used to rationalize a very brutal response.” Its worth noting that you don’t have to have a professor in the field to know this. Biden certainly knew it when he repeated it to the world. The many official social media handles that repeated it knew this, if not in theoretical exposition, then at least at the level of political stratagem. This is the terror that violence evokes and the silencing that it is meant to achieve: to destabilise all other knowledge systems, to draw all attention to itself, to confront moral, political, ethical, social systems of knowing with the hideous unknowable, unthinkable, unspeakable. In its unspeakability, to silence all speech. In its unthinkability, to dismantle all systems of thinking. In its unknowability, to make “the frame of things disjoint” that will allow chaos to come pouring in. Violence in discourse, as in politics, sucks all the air out, abrogating to itself and itself only, all right to existence and acknowledgement.

The opposite of ‘remember’ is not ‘to forget’, it is ‘dismember’. The broken body is a rupture in our understanding and knowledge of our self and our place in the world. In its place it leaves silence and inarticulacy. “We live in fear”, Stephen Owen once said, “of becoming ‘thing’.” The point of violence as spectacle is to take a human being, a ‘subject’, and make a ‘thing’, an object, out of them. Something meaningless and destructive of meaning which once was a living person in a comprehensible world. This is why it is so difficult to have a constructive conversation about situations like the current one in Palestine. Such destruction makes any discussion possible only on the edges as binarized, polarised, position-staking which does not and indeed, can not, lead to any complex thinking. Historical contextualisation, political nuance, moral or ethical debate, are all irrelevant until the speaker has identified their ‘for-or-against’ stance first. (‘Do you condemn Hamas or not?’ ‘Do you care about murdered babies or not?’) All else falls in the shadow of the idea of the beheaded baby.

After such ‘knowledge’, what forgiveness, indeed. There can only be more violence, and it is worth recognising that that is the endgame, the intention of the propagation of such imagery and narratives. But to understand how narrative works is to be able to change it, and changing the narrative remains our one big hope of effecting any real change on the ground in Palestine. Otherwise, in all this inarticulacy and silencing, the only ‘rational’ and ‘logical’ conversations will be about the ways in which more violence will resolve this violence and we will be left only with the names of dead children in our mouths.

Giti Chandra is Research Specialist at the University of Iceland and the author of Narrating Violence, Constructing Collective Identities: ‘To witness these wrongs unspeakable’ (2009).