Collective Violence – Examples

The first in another series, this one documenting mob violence, vigilante justice, and crowd retaliation around the world.


Mark Heim has well summarised Rene Girard’s ideas on the expediency of scapegoating and sacrifice as a (temporary) peace-making tool, a way to limit the contagion of violence in a society:

“Social life, particularly in its infancy, is fatally subject to plagues of rivalry and vengeance. Escalating cycles of retaliation are the original social disease. Without finding a way to treat this violence, human society can hardly get started. The ability to break this vicious cycle appears as a kind of miracle. At some point, when feuding threatens to dissolve a community, spontaneous and irrational mob violence erupts against some distinctive person or minority in the group. They are accused of the worst crimes the group can imagine, crimes that by their very enormity might have caused the terrible plight the community now experiences. They are lynched.

“The sad good thing that happens as a result of this bad thing is that the scapegoating actually works. In the wake of the murder [sometimes just an ouster], communities find that this sudden war of all against one has delivered them from the war of each against all. The sacrifice of one person as a scapegoat discharges the pending acts of retribution. It ‘clears the air.’ This benefit seems a startling, even magical result from a simple execution. The sudden peace confirms the desperate charges that the victim had been behind the crisis to begin with. If the scapegoat’s death is the solution, the scapegoat must have been the cause. …

Rituals of sacrifice originated in this way, says Girard. They were tools to fend off social crisis. And in varied forms they are with us still. The prescription is that divisions in the community must be reduced to but one division, the division of all against one common victim or one minority group. Prime candidates are the marginal and the weak, or those isolated by their very prominence. Typically, they will be charged with violating the community’s most sacred taboos. The process does not just accept innocent victims, it prefers them– ‘outsiders’ who are not closely linked to established groups in the society.”

“No one thought out this process, and its effectiveness depends on a certain blindness to its workings. Myth reflects the scapegoat event but does not describe it. Myth is the product of a collective killing that all the actors found completely justified, entirely necessary and powerfully beneficent. It is the memory of a clean conscience that never registered the presence of a victim at all.”


Keeping in mind James Alison’s comment, from a Sept. 2006 interview: “It is easy to look at mobbing and think: how primitive those people are. It is much more difficult to catch oneself being complicit in exactly the same forms of violence disguised in the values of ‘religion’ or ‘family’ or ‘civilization.'”


I’m recounting current accounts of mob “justice” to witness to this ongoing form of sacrifice and so-called peace-making, and to see how — as far as is possible having only media accounts of the incidents — they do or don’t conform to the aspects Girard and others have described. Some features of conformity include:

* there exists high levels of social unrest and/or conflict in the community

* the scapegoating is justified by the direct perpetrators and perhaps others, and is often called “justice”

* the scapegoating brings about a temporary feeling of security, balance, power, relief; it relieves the pre-existing ‘bad’ feelings of fear, powerlessness, anger, envy, alienation, etc., even if only in the moment

* those on the margins of society (high or low) will be the most likely victims; however, victims are fairly interchangeable once violence begins, so another hallmark is that seemingly unsimilar victims can be substituted with ease

* a small group may directly attack the victim, while a larger group gives tacit approval


Four stories this morning:

1. (28 March) Villagers catch ‘witch’, beat up and parade her, in New Delhi, India:

“When she [returned to] the village on Thursday, villagers tied her to a tree, beat her up, sheared and set her hair on fire. They then tied her hands and paraded her through the village, with even the village elders joining in. The incident took place a stone’s throw away [pun intended?] from the local police station.”

Another article about the event reports that “The entire village joined hands in punishing the woman.

The police did arrest six of those abusing the woman, and they arrested the woman for “conning people.” The CNN-IBN news article suggests that “the locals may have beaten up the woman because it is a ‘traditional thing’ to do when they are dissatisfied.” (Apparently, per another CNN article, she had been brought in previously to help cure a sick woman in the village but had not succeeded.) NDTV also reports the incident.

Conformity: A ‘witch’ from another town is certainly an outsider. Her ‘crime’ was to set herself up as ‘better than’ others (able to cure the sick), and secondly, to fail. Her failure to cure may leave the man without hope, desperate, and it may also leave him humiliated for having pinned his hopes on her cure. The scapegoating seems to have united the townspeople, as the village “joined hands” in punishing her and the elders lent their support, too.

2. (26 March) Xenophobic violence: In South Africa, at refugee settlements near Praetoria, mobs of people are attacking those they consider outsiders, throwing stones at them, torching their houses, and in some cases beating and killing them.

IOL reports that “about 300 immigrants [have been] forced from their shacks by marauding gangs in the Brazzaville informal settlement” this week. One woman, a South African, said “her home was torched because a mob thought she was an immigrant. ‘They burnt everything. How can a community turn on us like this? All they see is Zimbabweans everywhere and it doesn’t matter if you have the same ID as them,’ she lamented.”

The same source reports the death of Zimbabwean Chamunorna Kufondada, 38, who was beaten and burned to death by a mob of attackers. A neighbour, Mpho Mudau, “said he woke up at about 11pm when he heard Kufondada’s screams and saw a fire from his window in a neighbouring shack. ‘I don’t feel good. I was in my house and could hear his screams, but I couldn’t help him because they would attack me too,‘ Mudau said.” He said that foreigners are being attacked because they take jobs and commit crime. The charred body of a man believed to be South African was found nearby Kufondada’s.

Another article (also from IOL) quotes the South African Human Rights Commission spokesperson to say that “some people are blaming the immigrants for illegal electricity connections and shortage of services even though they cannot prove that it is their fault.”

Conformity: The immigrants and refugees are outsiders, and in fact it’s well-known that that’s why they are targeted. Locals may also be targeted if they interfere with the mobs, who seem to feel they are well-justified in attacking outsiders for their purported crimes: taking jobs, commiting crimes, and causing a shortage of public services. That is, the outsiders are not seen as innocent victims but as criminals and as the cause of conflicts.  One question might be whether targeting immigrants is “helping” to allay other conflicts in the community.

3. Mob lynches yet another man in Bihar, in India (26 March):

“In yet another case of mob violence, a man from a dalit family was beaten to death in a Bihar town, the police said on Wednesday. …The police said a mob caught the man in his mid-40s on suspicion of having stolen a cow from the house of Amarnath Pandey. ‘He was beaten to death with bricks and bamboo sticks,’ the police said. …

The Telegraph (Calcutta, India) has a fuller report and notes that “The family and friends of the deceased have lodged a complaint but there seems to be no resentment as the man had criminal antecedents.”

Conformity: The man killed is not an innocent but rather apparently a known criminal, though only suspected of the cow theft; and therefore, because he is seen as ‘set apart’ in some way by being a criminal, there is “no resentment” felt by his family and friends for his killing, and it’s implied therefore that there will be no revenge taken for his murder. I wonder if the man was killed for his cumulative deeds, his personality, because the cow’s owner was particularly liked or esteemed in town, or mostly because he could be killed without fear of mob reprisal? This is one of a string of lynchings in this area over several years.

4. Mob justice for wheel thieves, in Johannesburg, South Africa (12 March):

“Johannesburg Metro police saved three men from certain death at the hands of an angry mob near Diepsloot, north of the city, on Tuesday. Spokesman Superintendent Wayne Minnaar said Metro officers rescued the men from an angry crowd of taxi drivers and commuters after they were caught stealing alloy-rimmed wheels from an Opel that had broken down on the R511 near Diepsloot.  Its owner was in a taxi as it drove past and saw the theft going gown. When Metro officers arrived the three had been stripped naked and had been beaten so severely that they were only semi-conscious.”

Conformity:  There’s not really enough information here to guess. Certainly the punishment seems extreme for the crime, but that’s often the way with mob “justice.”

5 thoughts on “Collective Violence – Examples

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