Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Structural Violence and the Iraqi Death Toll

Via Left I on the News:
In today's news about "success" in Iraq:
The number of internally displaced people, or IDPs, in Iraq grew by 16 percent in September — to 2,299,425, the Red Crescent said. That figure has skyrocketed since the beginning of 2007, when less than half a million people were listed as displaced.

"In addition to their plight as being displaced, the majority suffer from disease, poverty and malnutrition," the Red Crescent reported.
And, by the way, if any of them actually die because of that "disease, poverty, and malnutrition," you will only see those deaths reflected in studies like the ones conducted by Johns Hopkins scientists (the "Lancet" studies), not by those (e.g., Iraq Body Count) who only report of the so-called violent deaths that are reported in the English-language media. Why "so-called"? Because death from disease and malnutrition can be no less violent. The violence may be less intense, but it lasts a lot longer.
Structural violence refers to physical harm (including death) suffered by a particular group of people who do not have access to the same services and benefits as the rest of society. Internally displaced Iraqis would be considered victims of structural violence - in this case due to the collapse of their baseline socio-economic situation as a result of the US invasion. Structural violence is often the most deadly and insidious forms of violence. To take a few words from the book, Frantz Fanon and the Psychology of Oppression by Hussein Abdilahi Bulhan (1985):
Structural violence is a feature of social structures. This form of violence is inherent in the established modes of social relations, distribution of goods and services, and legal practices of dispensing justice. Structural violence involves more than the violation of fairness and justice. [p. 136]

Structural violence is the most lethal form of violence because it is the least discernible; it causes premature deaths in the largest number of persons; and it presents itself as the natural order of things. A situation of oppression rests primarily on structural violence which in turn fosters institutional, interpersonal, and intrapersonal violence. Structural violence pervades the prevailing values, the environment, social relations, and individual psyches. The most visible indicators of structural violence are differential rates of mortality, morbidity, and incarceration among groups in the same society. In particular, a situation of oppression increases the infant mortality rate and lowers the life expectancy for the oppressed. [p. 155]
The displaced are systematically deprived of the basics for survival, resulting in poverty, malnutrition, premature death. That's what structural violence is. The physical harm suffered in this case usually falls underneath the mass-media radar because it is less salient, less spectacular than deaths due to IEDs or aerial bombing raids. The structural violence in this case (as is true of various colonial genocides of the past) will also fall underneath the radar because it is built into the very fabric of the oppressors' worldview. Starvation and malnutrition for example are simply written off as "those savages cannot take care of themselves." The more liberal of the oppressors might even acknowledge such phenomena as partially their responsibility, but cheerfully contend that in the end "it was worth it" as Madeleine Albright said of the half million Iraqi children under five who had died as a result of economic sanctions during the 1990s.

The deaths caused from the stress of being displaced, and without access to fundamental human needs for survival are no less real, even if they don't make their way to the front page of New Pravda or cause CNN to break away from its coverage of the latest Britney Spears meltdown. Sooner or later, there will be a price to be paid. Bet on it.

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