March brought another series of stories about US drone strikes and yet another report–this time from the UN–highlighting the difficulties in counting the dead and the civilians among them. Despite a recent drone makeover courtesy of Jeff Bezos and the short-lived possibility of beer-by-drones, it is clear that stories of drone strikes and deaths are not going away anytime soon. Am I glad that this technology puts fewer US soldiers at risk? Yes. Do I know that civilians always die in war and that drones may be cutting down civilian deaths? Yes. Nevertheless, in this new phase of the global War on Terror, I have been thinking a lot about how people turn violence into the norm, how we make it acceptable.
No continent is more associated with routine violence than Africa. Because of my work in South Africa, I often get questions from people in the US about genocide, rape, and witchcraft–“all of the backward things that go on over there.” In response, I usually play a numbers and representation game that involves saying things along these lines: “The vast majority of people don’t kill gay people or albinos, and they don’t rape virgins. And even if many people do believe in some form of witchcraft, they do not often kill people as a result. The media sensationalizes these things without telling other kinds of stories.”
While the point about media representation is certainly true, I also know that violence is an unfortunate reality in people’s lives in South Africa. I may not know murderers or rapists or witches, but I know South Africans who have been murdered, raped, and accused of witchcraft. I do not want to make light of their struggles or their families’ by saying, “It’s not that bad.” For some people, it is. That said, nor do I want to let people who make statements about the horrors of African violence off the hook altogether because they are not simply making neutral statements of fact. They are making judgments. And they are judgments that Americans (or the citizens of almost any other part of the industrialized world) do not have room to make because we all have our own forms of routinized violence, many of which are rationalized in surprisingly similar terms.
Take drones. The basic logic governing the use of drones and of witchcraft accusations is not as different as many Americans might like to think. Why do so many of us accept the use of drones? Because we believe that people are plotting to harm us, and we do not want ourselves or our loved ones to get hurt. Why do some Africans kill people believed to be witches? Because they believe that people are plotting to harm them, and they do not want themselves or their loved ones to get hurt. Innocent people, including far too many children, die as a result of both. Perhaps the most important difference is in terms of scale: although statistics on deaths as a result of both witchcraft accusations and drone strikes are hard to come by, in the past year, I would hazard that far more innocent people have died as a result of drones.
In the US, many of us have the luxury of expecting violence to be distant and rare. We are so jarred when it isn’t for the very reason that we expect it to be. But distance does not make our violence any better. In fact, it might just make it more routine, more forgettable, and more often ignored. At the very least, we owe it to the people whom we label as backward and violent to remember that.
Lauren V. Jarvis is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Utah. Her research focuses on the history of religion in southern Africa and the African Diaspora.
***While working on this piece, I came across this great conference paper. It focuses on how people accused of terrorism and people accused of witchcraft are “othered,” highlighting another set of important similarities in the logic guiding the War on Terror and witchcraft accusations.