There were two ‘Reigns of Terror’ if we would remember it and consider it; the one wrought in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood … our shudders are all for the ‘horrors’ of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak, whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heartbreak? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror, that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror, which none of us have been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves. – Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

Does not the same duality characterise our present? At the forefront of our minds, these days, violence signals acts of crime and terror, let alone great wars. One should learn to step back, to disentangle oneself from the fascinating lure of this directly visible ”subjective” violence, violence performed by a clearly identifiable agent.

We need to perceive the contours of the background which generates such outbursts. A step back enables us to identify a violence that sustains our very efforts to fight violence and to promote tolerance: the ”objective” violence inscribed into the very smooth functioning of our economic and political systems.

The catch is subjective and objective violence cannot be perceived from the same standpoint – subjective violence is experienced as such against the background of a non-violent zero-level. It is seen as a perturbation of the normal peaceful state of things. However, objective violence is precisely the violence inherent to this ”normal” state of things. Objective violence is invisible since it sustains the very zero-level standard against which we perceive something as subjective violence. Systemic violence is thus something like the notorious ”dark matter” of physics, the counterpart to an all-too-visible subjective violence. It may be invisible, but it has to be taken into account if one is to make sense of what otherwise seem to be ”irrational” explosions of subjective violence. The true story of Kathryn Bolkovac, recently made into a film (The Whistleblower, directed by Larysa Kondracki [based on a book by Bokovac]), provides a terrifying example of the invisible violence. Bolkovac, a policewoman from Nebraska, applied in 1998 to join the United Nations’ international police taskforce in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Upon her arrival, she was put in charge of a project aimed at fighting violence against women.

Soon after, she stumbled upon a sex-trafficking ring, run by the Serbian mafia and trading in girls from Ukraine, Moldova, and Romania, some as young as 12. Soon, another sinister link appeared – the clientele for the trafficked girls were Americans working in Bosnia, even Bolkovac’s fellow police officers.

Evidence suggested that American and other international contractors were having sex with underage trafficking victims or even buying them outright. Proofs demonstrated the UN personnel even actively participated in the organisation of the sex-trafficking rings, profiting from it. Alarmed by what she saw, Bolkovac sent repeated reports up the chain of command, but time and again her reports were ignored or summarily dismissed as ”solved”. After less than two years on the job, Bolkovac was demoted and then summarily fired for gross misconduct. She finally was forced to flee the country, carrying a bag packed with her investigative reports, after it was determined there was a probable threat to her life.

Bolkovac successfully sued DynCorp, a private security company which hired her, for wrongful termination. DynCorp went on to dismiss seven of its employees in Bosnia for ”unacceptable behaviour” and publicised internal efforts to reform its screening mechanisms.

But the sex-trafficking scandal has not prevented DynCorp from winning several lucrative US State Department contracts, including similar police-training missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The company has faced accusations of massive misconduct in those countries as well; for example, a US diplomatic cable published by the WikiLeaks website suggests that DynCorp workers employed to train Afghan policemen had been seen taking drugs and paying for young ”dancing boys” or child prostitutes.

The New York Times review of the film rightfully points out that The Whistleblower tells a story so repellent that it is almost beyond belief. However, in an incredible ideological tour de force, the same review denounces the film’s very truthfulness as an aesthetic failure – The Whistleblower ultimately fizzles by withholding any cathartic sense that justice was done, or ever will be done, once Bolkovac spills the beans to the British news media.

True, in real life we are far from the ”cathartic sense” of films like All the President’s Men or The Pelican Brief in which the final disclosure of the political crimes brings a kind of emotional relief and satisfaction.

And is the lesson of Libya after Gaddafi’s fall not a similar one? Now we learned Gaddafi’s secret services fully collaborated with their Western counterparts, up to the participation in programs of rendition. We can discern this complicity between the ”rogue states” and the Western guardians of human rights at its most radical in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is again emerging as the African heart of darkness.

The cover story of Time magazine on June 5, 2006, was ”The World’s Deadliest War” – a detailed documentation on how about four million people died in Congo as the result of political violence over the previous decade. None of the usual humanitarian uproar followed, just a couple of readers’ letters – as if a filtering mechanism blocked this news from achieving its full impact. To put it cynically, Time picked the wrong victim in the struggle for hegemony in suffering; it should have stuck to the list of usual suspects: Muslim women and their plight, the oppression in Tibet. Congo today has effectively re-emerged as a Conradian ”heart of darkness” – no one dares to confront it head-on. The death of a West Bank Palestinian child, or an Israeli or an American, is worth thousands of times more to the media than the death of a nameless Congolese. Why this ignorance? On October 30, 2008, Associated Press reported that Laurent Nkunda, the rebel general besieging Congo’s eastern provincial capital Goma, said he wanted direct talks with the government about his objections to a deal in the billions of dollars that gives China access to the country’s vast mineral riches in exchange for a railway and highway. As problematic (neocolonialist) as this deal may be, it poses a vital threat to the interests of local warlords, since its eventual success would create the infrastructural base for the Congo as a functioning united state. In 2001, a UN investigation on the illegal exploitation of natural resources in Congo found that the conflict in the country was mainly about access, control and trade of five key mineral resources – coltan, diamonds, copper, cobalt and gold.


Slavoj Žižek

Slavoj Žižek is a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, and a senior researcher at the Institute for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London. He has also been a visiting professor at more than 10 universities around the world. Žižek is the author of many books; his latest are Against the Double Blackmail and Disparities.

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