How we Sanitize Violence, Al Shabaab, #ManderaBusAttack and Other Things

StopTheViolenceWe live in a world that glorifies war and weaponry. I cannot tell you how much I sometimes read on the details of nuclear arsenals and their delivery systems. I suppose I’m not the only curious person alive. The nature of politics that goes into war-dialogues and war-making, and the amount of coverage given to war situations, easily supersedes any other human activity. We take pleasure in violent sports and marvel at machines that can cause the ultimate destruction. The movies we watch defy our relentless talks on peace, love, and compassion. We have accepted that humans are violent and self-destructing entities.

We are proud consumers of violence, and it can be argued that we have over-consumed violence and become largely desensitized by it. Of course we have sociological and psychological explanations to these aspects, we have political and economic undercurrents, and and have expanded our receptivity to new brands of violence, whether its cops on the streets, rebels and bandits, violent religious fundamentalists, government exterminations, race-inspired violence, domestic violence… you can add more brands to this list. But to be consumed, it has to be sanitized. We model violence into acceptable categories so that we can comfortably live with violence and continue enjoying the benefits of these brands. As a brands, beheadings are grossest and drone attacks are copacetic.

In the aftermath of the Post-Election Violence in 2008, I dutifully studied the photos taken and compiled by Boniface Mwangi to get a real picture of the depravity that we had sunk into. Such photos are important because they de-localize our understandings, sort of nationalize or globalize it and give it a more expanded and arguably objective interpretive lens. Over the past two years, there has been too much violence in public spaces, linked to Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism and youth gangs in slums – added to the police brutality and disappearances that have become part of Kenya’s culture. Yet I also know that since I have accessed most of these images through the internet, much of the population are shielded from the psychologically-imbalancing nature of these graphic depictions.   Which brings me to the question, can people take a firm position in fighting for safety, security, and peace in public spaces if they knew what actually happens (what has been happening)? But such a question can also be too simplistic. We know of scenes of mob justice and thief-burning and police gunning down of thugs in Nairobi. Whether such scenes have deterred criminality is contestable.

But I’m more concerned with the kind of violence that pervades the whole society at the same time and the fears it can create, or the courage it can create to make things a little right. I’m concerned with terrorist violence and ethno-political violence such as the 2007/2008 PEV. What do you think if a majority of Kenyans knew the extent of violence some regions of this country has been exposed to? Would there be a change in the divisive nature of our politics if we had a memorial for 2007/2008 PEV victims, something akin to the Rwanda case? Would we learn the cost of political violence of such a memorial was a constant reminder of the risks our nation faces during each election? And on Al Shabaab and Al Shabaab sympathizers, do you think there can be a change in how we perceive them and deal with the security situation if the graphic images of their massacres were accessible to many? So many questions. On a personal level, images and narratives have not won me over to their side, rather it has created the exact opposite, of detest and distaste, and agitation for the government to honestly and firmly deal with the security situation in Kenya. But I’m also worried that such images are becoming too common in our public space and it will not take long before we accept it as the status quo. Al Shabaab violence has become a new brand of violence that we consume from the comforts of our living rooms. We have added it to the list of Kenyan violences.

Unfortunately, what is consumed by a majority of Kenyans is the sanitized version. For example, on the #ManderaBusAttack, what many have consumed is not the expanded, brain-flowing, utterly disgusting version on Reddit. The Geneva Conventions have made wars neat and tidy. There are no desecrated corpses on the screen. These are no gory massacres. The violencing that war is, has been relegated to medieval history books. We have sanitized killing, made it presentable and safe enough to cheer. Statistics have replaced our interpretations of scale. A million people were killed. 20, 000 were massacred. 50. 10. 5. 1. Simple. Numbers help us to make justifications for appropriateness of violence.

So 22 killed in Kapedo. Hundreds in Baragoi. 28 in Mandera. Da. Da. Da. Simple numbers. If there is anger, it is measured. We are careful enough not to soil our political positions. We don’t want talks of incompetence. We don’t want talks of negligence. We don’t want talks of impunity. We are not angry enough because it is not us. Would we rise up against the government and demand accountability if we were angry enough? Would we deny Al Shabaab sympathizers a voice if we were angry enough? Would be flush out Al Shabaab’s within our midst, hiding in our houses, if we were angry enough? Even more important, would we talk against the uses of violence to achieve political objectives if we were angry enough?

We are experts in whitewashing the dark reality of violence. In some cases, religion helps us to justify violence. We sanctify violence when we pray to God to “bless our troops” as they go to war. Other religions such as Islam have edicts justifying war against those perceived as infidels. In these, we become righteous perpetrators and consumers of violence. Sanitization not only desensitizes us, but it also prevents us from acting on violence in our communities. Look at how we are desensitized to act. I have always been a proponent not showing graphic photos, images, etc to the public or sanitizing them. There are very good and humane reasons that support that argument. Lately I have been thinking of exceptions. Rather than the standard sanitizing, we need to find ways of using these images, not to instill and propagate fear, but to inspire the courage to act in Kenya. The history of the modern world is replete with examples of how some images of violence has been used to create a new path of change and understanding. We need to find a new way of using these information-images to induce anger for change, to implant a new way of interpreting images of violence in our public spaces, and strongly act against the perpetrators of such violences.

Lets continue talking. Lets continue acting.


[Today, November 25th, is the International End Violence Against Women Day. From today to the December 10th – the International Human Rights Day, you are called upon to stand up for women and human rights. During these 16 days of activism and conversations, we would like to know your clear stand on gender based violence.]

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