Expressive violence, instrumental violence

James Carroll considers 'expressive' and 'instrumental' violence in the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting and the Baghdad bombings of April 2007.

As the video package he sent to NBC showed, Cho's was an act of what might be called "expressive" violence. Cho's murders, that is, were a form of communication, and their perversity adhered in the way in which he succeeded in conscripting the contemporary communications industry, centered on television news. He killed, and by the world's stopping and taking note of his having killed, the purest form of expressive violence was achieved. In making accomplices not only of the broadcast media, but of all who viewed it, Cho got what he wanted.

The murdered victims of such violence are mere symbols in the killer's self-communication, and it makes no difference whether that expression is a scream of rage or a cry for help. Such violence for its own sake lands on the vulnerable like typewriter keys on paper, but persons are not to be used as ciphers in someone else's message.

Last week marked the dawning of a horrible American question: Has our once-instrumental violence become merely expressive? Since our purpose no longer has to do with Iraq (no regime change, no democracy, no connection to global terror, not even oil), does it have to do now only with ourselves (maintaining "credibility," avoiding catastrophic defeat, denying that more than 3,300 American soldiers died in vain)?

James Carroll (26 April 2007), "The two types of violence", The New York Times.