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Violence Against the Defenceless

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December 19, 2013

The term ‘warfare’ is regularly used to describe human action against the natural world. I too have spoken of the war against nature and the war against flying-foxes. And yet, I haven’t felt fully comfortable with this language.

Nature (in general), and flying-foxes (in particular), have never mounted a war against humans. The violence in this ‘war’ is all one-sided. And, too, the violence is radically disproportionate. What humans have done to flying-foxes in Charters Towers, both now and in the past, bears no correlation to what flying-foxes have done or ever could do to humans. Reports indicate that the people who organised the Charters Towers violence have stopped. Apparently, they are ‘happy’ with the results. Can it really be that all this suffering and on-going injury, including starvation, all this totally unnecessary death, constitutes warfare and is something to be happy about?
A new book called Horrorism is helping me think again about the problem of using the language and imagery of warfare to describe human-animal or human-nature violence. Written by the Italian scholar Adriana Cavarero, and subtitled ‘Naming Contemporary Violence’, this wonderful book shows that there are huge problems in using the language of warfare to describe forms of violence that are directed primarily against the helpless. Her examples all concern violence perpetrated by humans against humans, but the general direction of her analysis works extremely well with human violence against animals.

Here is the key point: ‘violence against the helpless is becoming global in ever more ferocious forms, [and] language … tends to mask it.’ The masking language draws on images of warfare. But there are huge differences. In war armed combatants face each other knowing they are aiming to kill each other, and knowing they may be killed. Speaking for myself, I respect the armed forces, and I respect the fact that some wars (not all) are necessary.

It is clear that a great deal of contemporary violence does not live up to the model of the warrior. Violence against the helpless, violence for the sake of making life utterly miserable and uncertain for those against whom it is directed – this is not warfare. This is something that should be named as a hideous phenomenon in its own right. Horror, Cavarero explains, describes actions that ‘dismember and disfigure the body, the social relations, the uniqueness of that way of life’. In Charters Towers the use of weapons of harm was thoroughly engaged in damaging bodies, minds, and social relations. The attack on the maternity camp targeted defenceless young and nursing mothers, and thus was an attack not only on this generation but on future generations as well. In the mode of violence against the future it clearly aimed to violate the standards that have been set for conservation of native species (i.e., ensuring their continuity).

Is horror new? Not at all, Cavarero says, and yet something is changing. In part it is the scale of violence, in part it is the organised and sanctioned targeting of those who are helpless, and in part it is the wanton revelling in ruining the person, their bodily dignity, their life and future. In Cavarero’s words ‘a certain model of horror is indispensable for understanding our present’ time.

Cavarero discusses the totalitarian principle that ‘everything is permitted’ in the use of force against the defenceless. Here in Australia we have had legislation that prohibits cruelty to animals and the purpose has been very clear. Not everything was permitted in the use of violence against animals. But when Queensland made the legislative decision that the anti-cruelty legislation would not apply to flying-foxes, it opened the way for an apparently bottomless pit of cruel and vicious action. Yes, there had to be a permit to ‘disperse’ flying-foxes, and yes, the actions were meant to comply with the permit, but in the absence of any outside regulation, and with the tacit approval Local Councils for whom ‘everything is permitted’, cruelty becomes a matter of local choice.

Many of us wondered where the RSPCA was in all of this. A recent statement offers a bit of clarity. In a nutshell, if cruelty is allowed, then the only legal questions are procedural: was the action carried out in the manner in which it had been stated it would be carried out? This legal pit of violence was anticipated by many thoughtful people, as I discuss in my post on Zombie Politics. And yet, many of us really had not fully grasped the depths to which humans will sink, given the opportunity. The RSPCA asks to be notified in cases of ‘blatant cruelty’. What was the Charters Towers action if not horrific, and certainly blatant, cruelty?

It is clear in Cavarero’s analysis that the language of warfare puts a layer of conventionality over actions that are essentially crimes. Let us not forget: actions that would legally have been crimes if the legislation had not been changed are still the same actions. Nothing has changed except that people are now carrying out violence that previously the courts, the legislature, and all humane people had understood to be criminal. In the language of horrorism, people are savaging the bodies of those who have no means of defending themselves against this wounding.

Is the Charters Towers event over? Not for flying-foxes. Not for the survivors who may yet die of starvation or shock, not for those who come back next year, and perhaps not for the survivors who have gone to other towns in Queensland. Further actions are planned. The story of persecution is just beginning. This means that the need for action is not over either. Websites and Facebook pages are helping people to stay in touch with what is happening. A few of my favourites include Don’t Shoot Bats, Bat Conservation and Rescue, and Bob Irwin’s site.

I will close with some words from Louise Saunders, of Bat Conservation and Rescue:

The use of water cannons to hose bats from the trees at Charters Towers’ cruel and sadistic dispersal. An observer said a mother and her baby were hit with the full force and thrown to the ground. This is barbaric treatment to a gentle innocent and important keystone mammal. With non flying and dependent young many mothers tried to carry away their babies but the young are too big to carry far if at all. Nursing mothers so stressed from the cruel onslaught will lose their milk in the next week or so, as seen when maternity colonies are disturbed. Their babies die slowly and in agony. PLEASE if you have not written to confirm your disgust please we need your voice. Email the EHP Director General – [email protected] and the EHP environment minister Andrew Powell – [email protected] THEY WILL BE LEGISLATING FOR MORE TORTURE TO BATS IN THE NEW YEAR -KILLING ENTIRE COLONIES BY UNIMAGINABLE MEANS. PLEASE HELP OUR BATS. WRITE ASAP Thanks

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BATS. Megabats, Flying-foxes, Fruit bats and Microbats: Violence Against the Defenceless
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