Since September 11, 2001 . . .

A decade of intense theorizing on the forms of violence and human degradation, on global connectivity, on demands that scholarship be done in “real time” . . . a sense of urgency . . . disciplines are aggressively asked to prove their relevance . . . a deep disquiet on the part of many radical scholars and public intellectuals that the American public is increasingly becoming complicit in projects of warfare. We ask, are our senses being so retrained now that we cannot see the suffering of others or hear their cries? We declare with anguish that whole populations are defined as nothing but targets for bombing . . . as those whose deaths do not count, and hence those dead literally need not be counted. There is a desperation to hone in on what is new—perhaps, some theorize, what we now have is “horror” and not “terror” . . . perhaps, say others, what is lost is not only meaning but any trust in what might count as real.

Despite repeated calls for invention of new vocabularies, my own sense is that we have yet to come to terms with the violence of the past and that we have allowed our scholarly terms to be defined in a manner that we are becoming trapped in, terms that are already given in the questions that we ask. After all, do we need to be reminded that the single-most important factor in the decline of the total number of wars since 1942 was the end of colonial wars? Or that in the 1990s the region in which the highest death toll occurred was sub-Saharan Africa, and that it was the indirect death through disease and malnutrition that contributed to the enormity of the violence? I use the collective first-person pronoun to include myself within this trap of not being quite able to define what the right questions should be.

Ten years ago, when I contributed a short reflection on September 11 to the SSRC’s forum, something of this disquiet I feel about the mode of theorizing was already present. I argued that in the political rhetoric that circulated right after September 11, with its talk of attacks on the values of civilization, the American nation was seen to embody universal values—hence the talk was not of many terrorisms with which several countries had lived for more than thirty years but of one grand terrorism, Islamic terrorism. If I am allowed to loop back to my words, I asked, “What could this mean except that while terrorist forms of warfare in other spaces in Africa, Asia, or the Middle East were against forms of particularism, the attack on America is seen as an attack on humanity itself?” Perhaps we should ask of ourselves now the permission to be released from the grip of this master trope of September 11 that organizes a whole discourse, both conservative and radical, in terms of terrorism as the gripping drama of our times. We might then ask, what other questions have been under discussion among different communities of scholars and how might debate be widened to take account of these discussions?

One point I might put forward as a candidate for discussion is how affect is invested in some terms that come to be the signifiers of the pressing problems of a particular decade but then are dropped as if their force has been exhausted by new discoveries. When these terms drop out of scholarly circulation, do they still have lives that are lived in other corners of the world or in the lives of individuals who continue to give them expression? Consider the history of the term “ethnic cleansing,” which came to signify and organize much discussion in the nineties as referring to the pathology of what was termed as ethno-nationalism. As is well known, the term emerged in the summer of 1992 during the tragic events of the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the emergence of new nation-states that were making claims for international recognition. Although the composite term “ethnic cleansing” came to be used only then, the idea of “cleaning” a territory by killing the local inhabitants and making it safe for military occupation was known in colonial wars as well as expressed extensively in Latin America with reference to undesirable groups, such as prostitutes, enemy collaborators, and the vagrant poor.

Norman Naimark has made the point that ethnic cleansing happens in the shadow of war. He cites the examples of the Greek expulsion as a result of the Greco-Turkish war, the intensification of ethnic cleansing when NATO bombing started in Kosovo in March 1999, and Stalin’s brutal dealings with the Chechen-Ingush and Crimean Tartars during the Second World War.1 A chilling aspect of ethnic cleansing is its totalistic character. As Naimark puts it:

The goal is to remove every member of the targeted nation; very few exceptions to ethnic cleansing are allowed. In premodern cases of assaults of one people on another, those attacked could give up, change sides, convert, pay tribute, or join the attackers. Ethnic cleansing, driven by the ideology of integral nationalism and the military and technological power of the modern state, rarely forgives, makes exceptions, or allows people to slip through the cracks.

Yet a concept that was said to be central to explaining major mass atrocities is now rarely encountered—except perhaps in international law discussions on the distinction between genocide and ethnic cleansing. Are the kinds of mass atrocities that have occurred since September 11 not amenable to discussion under any of the earlier terms? Do subjectivities shift so quickly? Are issues of intentionality as providing the criteria for distinguishing between genocide and ethnic cleansing already resolved? What is at stake in the fact that ethnic cleansing is a perpetrator’s term while genocide is a term that privileges the experience of the victims? What kind of footing in the world do enunciations made on behalf of all sides in conflicts that draw on such concepts as human rights and human dignity have?

While one can understand why the media might have moved on to other stories, have we as scholars come to terms with why some concepts disappear from our vocabularies so quickly? I want to suggest that a long-term perspective on how we come to speak of violence—the appearance and disappearance of different terms—provides a repertoire of concepts to be mined for understanding how representation of violence in the public sphere was closely tied up with the West’s self-definition that in turn defined the twists and turns in the social sciences. Ethnic cleansing in the nineties was widely understood as the violence of the other just as terrorism now is understood as the violence that the other perpetrates. September 11 and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan then become events that need to be placed in the long history of warfare that has generated the concepts of social science—concepts that cannot be divested of their political plenitude even as we recognize that the technologies of war have changed considerably.

Are there other discussions on war that are not quite within the discursive fields that dominate the post–September 11 scenario and the notion of Islamic terrorism? I find it salutary to think that other theoretical discussions are taking place that are outside this frame of reference. For instance, the prolonged civil war in Sri Lanka, in which both Sinhala soldiers and Tamil militants engaged in killing, has led to discussions on the relation between Buddhism and violence and whether there are strains of Buddhism, especially within the Mahayana school, that make room for the exercise of violence. Interestingly, the issues here are not those of justifying warfare but rather of dealing with the anxieties about bad karma generated by the acts of violence.

A sustained analysis of what enabled such developments as samurai Zen, or soldier Zen, to appear in Japan or how it is that Buddhism could find a home within kingdoms as diverse as the Indians, the Mongols, the Chinese, and the Thai deepens our understanding of violence and nonviolence precisely because it has the potential to change the angle of our vision.2 Similar discussions from within other traditions, both religious and secular, would help to break the monopoly of concepts (biopolitics, state of exception, homo sacer) that are now routinely used to understand the world. This hope is not an expression of sheer nostalgia for non-Western concepts but a plea to cultivate some attentiveness to those discourses that are (or could be) part of the history of our disciplines. Scholarly discourse cannot simply mirror the ephemeral character of media stories—even when a particular kind of violence disappears, the institutions that were put in place for dealing with it continue to have lives of their own. The braiding of what is new and what is enduring might then define how we come to pose questions that are not simply corollaries of the common sense of our times.


Veena Das is Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Anthropology and professor of humanities at the Johns Hopkins University. Her most recent books are Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary and Sociology and Anthropology of Economic Life: The Moral Embedding of Economic Action (ed., with R. K. Das).

  1. Norman M. Naimark, Fires of Hatred: Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth-Century Europe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001).
  2. See Michael K. Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer, eds., Buddhist Warfare (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).