In Complex Emergencies David Keen draws upon James Gilligan’s work on the psychological motivations of the most violent killers in American gaols as a source of insight into why atrocities are so commonly part of civil wars in countries such as Sierra Leone. Let me explore this with regard to Darfur.
Gilligan’s core insight, based on four decades of work with the most violent killers, is that shame—lack of self-respect—motivates their violence. These men are driven to commit the most extreme acts of violence, less from material necessity or hatred than from a craving to be respected, a craving that they believe will be satisfied only through making others fear them, and inflicting atrocious violence on those who have humiliated them. They are ready risk and lose their lives in the pursuit of this. As the penal system intensifies its efforts to shame, punish or demean them, so too they escalate their violent responses.
In many civil wars, the escalation of violence seems to follow only a self-annihilating logic, such that it is tempting to portray it as irrational or bestial. Those perplexed by this riddle should read Gilligan’s account of meeting a prisoner whose propensity for violence surpassed the prison officers’ capacity for punishment. In desperation the prison called in Gilligan.
“When I saw this prisoner I asked him, ‘What do you want so badly that you are willing to give up everything else in order to get it?’ It seemed to me that this was exactly what he was doing. In response, this man, who was usually so inarticulate that it was difficult to get a clear answer to any question, astonished me by standing up tall, looking me in the eye, and replying with perfect clarity and a kind of simple eloquence: ‘Pride. Dignity. Self-esteem.’ And then, speaking more in his usual manner, he added ‘And I’ll kill every motherfucker in that cell block if I have to in order to get it.’ He went on to describe how the officers were, he felt, attempting to strip away his last shred of dignity and self-esteem by disrespecting him, and said, ‘I still have my pride and I won’t let them take that away from me. If you ain’t got pride, you got nothin’.’ He made it clear to me that he would die before he would humble himself to the officers by submitting to their demands.”
As Gilligan notes, “Nor was that true just of this man.” Nor indeed is it true only of the ghetto sub-culture in which “respect” is such a pivotal value. Keen explores this for Sierra Leone. Let us sketch how such an explanation might go for Sudan.
When I lived in Darfur in the 1980s, the Darfurians possessed a culture in which pride and dignity were valued, and humiliation was regarded as the worst possible outcome. That is not to say that the Darfurians—Arabs and non-Arabs alike—were not selfless and altruistic. They were famously hospitable and impetuously generous. Their philanthropy was anonymous rather than public, in line with the Qoranic injunction that not even the left hand should know of the charity of the right hand. Except for the Sufi fakis (holy men)—who embodied the converse of these ideals—no-one sought out a reputation for charitable self-abnegation.
Darfur’s Arabs, especially the poor Abbala of the north, felt demeaned because their camel-herding lifestyle was considered backward by the government and the urban elites. They felt further disparaged because of their lack of education. The customary value system in which they had been respected for their courage and hardiness was being stood on its head.
In investigating why they inflicted such violence on their neighbours during the wars of the last two decades, I repeatedly heard the Arab leaders describe themselves as “victims.” They protested that they had been the most marginalized, that they had been attacked first, and that their sheikhs and fakis had been killed by the rebels, sometimes in gruesome ways. Their lifestyle had been assaulted—their camels stolen, their migration routes closed off—forcing them into low-status livelihoods like working as day labourers. It is easy to dismiss these explanations, especially when put alongside the far higher levels of killing they themselves perpetrated. But the echo of the rationale for violence expressed by Gilligan’s subjects compels our attention.
Also there was a remarkable frankness and these accounts that demanded attention. Arab militia leaders didn’t deny that, for example, in retaliation for the murder of one sheikh and his son, they had then destroyed an entire village killing scores of people. Somehow the disproportionate scale of that response was not seen as a relevant consideration. What counted more than the tally of dead was the message passed by the initial attack and the counter-message expressed in the reprisal. Butchering a community leader was a gross humiliation, which needed to be avenged. Pride could only be restored with a commensurate counter-signal, such as burning a village and killing its inhabitants.
The entire series of government offensives in 2003 and 2004 was, for some of the military commanders involved, an exercise in restoring pride after the humiliation of the rebel attack on al Fashir in April 2003. After suffering a reverse, the commanders felt they had first to even the score before they could negotiate on good terms.
In my experience of dealing with Arab leaders and Sudanese army commanders, they almost invariably respond constructively when approached with an attitude of respect. The door is opened. From this foundation, it is possible to discuss the most serious issues, explore the most severe disagreements and push for and obtain significant concessions. It’s slow and demanding, but it is possible. If put under extreme pressure, they will cave—but then seek a way of dishonoring an agreement that they don’t consider an honorable one to start with.
Those who know President Omar al Bashir concur that his most marked character trait is his sense of dignity. As an individual—as a member of the Ja’ali tribe, as a military officer and as head of state, he is intensely proud. When he feels humiliated, he is prone to angry outbursts marked by extreme rhetorical excess. His language becomes replete with exhortations to avenge insult and betrayal and crush the cowards and traitors.
For Bashir, international respect is tremendously important. Attending and hosting summits, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with other heads of state is a powerful incentive. But by the same token, he is proud to have resisted the ostracism and pressure of the international community. When forced into a public loss of face, he will not stand tall until he has evened the score.
The men who have won the greatest concessions out of Bashir are two fellow leaders, Hosni Mubarak and Meles Zenawi. Both were extremely tough with Bashir after Sudan-based terrorists tried to assassinate Mubarak in Addis Ababa. But neither of them disgraced Bashir as an individual in public. We have these steely but discreet Ethiopian and Egyptian efforts to thank for Sudan’s expulsion of al Qaeda.
In this context, the human rights approach of “mobilizing shame” is a more powerful instrument than we might expect, when used right. Traditional-style Amnesty International appeals do actually work in Sudan—though not as rapidly and universally as we might hope. As a rule, human rights organizations are poor at acknowledging their successes—and perhaps also rather bad at learning from them. Some important successes have come about by relatively small actions. One example I treasure is from the earliest days of Bashir’s regime, when it was imprisoning thousands of political opponents and civil society activists, many of them in terrible conditions in Shalla Prison near al Fashir. One of them—the late Khalid al Kid—smuggled a letter out of Shalla in which he detailed the conditions, including the contaminated water and the lack of medical care. But, he concluded, the worst of it was that the government was refusing to acknowledge the prisoners’ existence, as if preparing to do away with them altogether. I read portions of the letter on a BBC Network Africa broadcast. I later learned that the prisoners were actually listening in—and so was the governor of Darfur, or one of his aides, because the next day he turned up at Shalla and ordered that clean water and better food be provided and the sick detainees be transferred to hospital. (They weren’t released for some months.) Another instance was the publicity given to widespread rape in the Nuba Mountains in 1995, after which instructions were passed down to the army commanders in the region to put an end to it.
In these cases, rage at those making the accusations—I was labeled an enemy of the state over the Nuba case—was matched by prompt action which doubtless included shifting the blame to lower-level officials and commanders. Specific, targeted shaming can work.
But a campaign of shaming that is a relentless, escalating and personalized, is very different. I fear that the liberal use of the word “evil” to describe the Sudan Government, and the public naming and shaming of senior government officials, runs the risk of fuelling a vicious cycle of escalating acrimony. These insults register. To use shame as an instrument to humiliate and criminalize a whole government, is a strategy that brooks no chance of facing-saving, no opportunity for climb-down with respect. In turn, if a sense of being disgraced generates in its target the urge to win respect through fear and violence, then the strategy will be self-defeating. If Darfur’s Arabs, or President Bashir, foresee nothing but unending humiliation and punishment, then we shouldn’t be surprised if shaming unlocks a new round of violence.
I don’t have answers to these questions. But it is important that those who harness moral fervour to condemn also reflect upon the fact that there is something more important than condemnation–making things better.