On news that the United States ambassador to Libya was murdered, many are questioning how and why such a terrible thing could happen. Various answers have been put forth, ranging from the religious to the political, but each attempt merely looks at a single aspect of the killing, not the whole. In trying to come to a better understanding of the situation, I believe René Girard can be of some help.
Girard’s most famous theory, that of mimetic desire, says that we do not desire things simply because we desire them, but because others desire the same thing. We mimic those around us, which leads to violent impulses and the war of “all against all”.1
“The real source of victim substitutions is the appetite for violence that awakens in people when anger seizes them”
In many cases this mimetic desire results in the formation of an angry mob. “Every time you add one,” Girard has said, “the move towards the unity of the mob becomes faster, it has more power and attraction.” As more people join, as the media reports on it, as more people are talking about it the mob gains momentum.
At this point the violent impulses must be suppressed. A victim must be found and punished, what Girard calls the scapegoat2, an accessible target of the mob’s violence whose death (or expulsion) restores balance to the community. The scapegoat is not referred to as such, in the eyes of the mob it is the actual source of the problems, because the larger object of violence is often unreachable.
In I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (chapter 12), Girard says:
The real source of victim substitutions is the appetite for violence that awakens in people when anger seizes them and when the true object of their anger is untouchable. The range of objects capable of satisfying the appetite for violence enlarges proportionally to the intensity of the
In the case of the riots in Libya, could we say the American embassy was the scapegoat? The rioters, angry over blasphemy against Muhammad, saw America as the enemy but could do little against a far away nation. The ambassador and embassy building represent America and are therefore suitable outlets for violence.
The root cause is our innate brokenness and desire to blame the Other
This seems to be at the root of the type of violence we see in Egypt and Libya. Sure, we can look at religious answers or we can look at the geo-political issues surrounding the violence, but neither of those go deep enough. The root cause is our innate brokenness and desire to blame the Other and restore harmony to our community.
Finally, I think it would be good to caution against creating a scapegoat of our own in our desire to understand this. We can look at someone like Terry Jones, who enjoys inciting religious violence, and label him a crazy. Because we only are interested in self-righteous condemnation, he and his small group of followers thus become our scapegoat. Ultimately, we haven’t actually moved forward.
Update: This post was written immediately after the attack, before all of the details were known. It is now clear this was an intentional attack, not a spontaneous one. The point still stands, I believe, no matter what the impetus for the attack.
: I am indebted to John H.’s post at Curlew River here.
: For the Christian, or anyone familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, the scapegoat is a familiar idea. See Leviticus 16.