On the Ethics of Violence

From Palestine to Cyprus

Watchtower, Saketopoulou. Photo by the author.

When Cyprus was illegally invaded by the Turkish Armed Forces in the summer of 1974, the international community took notice. Condemnations were issued. There were reports about the Cypriots who were killed, the women raped, the families separated, those who went missing (many still unaccounted for), the displaced refugees. We would only later come to find out the true depth of the atrocities committed or hear about the mass graves into which Cypriot bodies were indiscriminately tossed to quickly dispose evidence of the massacres.

But if you are reading this, you likely don’t know much about Cyprus, you may have not even heard the country’s name, let alone understand much about its past. If so, you are in a solid majority. In fact, I wrote this piece to explain why Cyprus and its history is unfamiliar to many and how this relates to what’s unfolding in Palestine and Israel right now.

Cyprus is a small, sovereign nation in the Middle East, a Mediterranean island west of Lebanon and north of Palestine. To this day the one third of the island invaded by Turkey remains under occupation. Its capital, Nicosia, the last divided capital in the world, nowadays bustles with life and traffic. But find yourself in the Old Town and take the wrong turn and you quickly come up against military watchtowers, manned (it is always men) by armed soldiers, surrounded by barbed wire, with signs prohibiting photography. To stroll in the Old Town is to take the wrong turn often. Graffiti that reads “this is not where our borders are” marks resistance and the pain of dispossession. If you look past the watchtowers prohibiting your movement, you see an abandoned, ghostly city. From an aerial view it’s as if an arbitrary line was drawn between what’s vibrantly alive and the sepia of death and captured land.

Prior to its invasion, Cyprus had been under British colonial rule. In the 1950s Cypriots nonviolently petitioned the British government for their independence. The British politely declined. Their calls for self-determination perpetually ignored, Cypriots people eventually embarked in a bloody anti-colonial struggle that secured their independence in 1960. Britain, Turkey, and Greece then became the guarantor forces of Cyprus’s newly-acquired independence, which is as bizarre as it sounds: a country’s sovereignty assured by its recently former colonizer (the UK), by its soon-to-be invader (Turkey), and by a country whose complicity in the invasion helped overthrow its own dictatorship (Greece), which was itself installed by the United States. If the web of influence and control looks too messed up, it’s because it is.

So let me switch gears.

I know a lot about Cyprus because I am half-Cypriot and spent most of my childhood growing up in Nicosia. Our home was -and still is- situated right on the dividing line separating invaders from rightful owners and my early life was steeped in daily confrontations with barbed wires and sand bags. All of my childhood memories, like collecting roses from our garden to distill rose water with my great aunt, threading jasmine necklaces for my mother at dusk, the fresh lemonade my grandmother made squeezing lemons from our trees, these tender reminiscences were always sonically coated by the ongoing, Turkish military exercises just hundreds of feet away from us. On more evenings than not, my parents debated whether we should stay or go, fearful that the international community’s lukewarm interest in our struggle, left us vulnerable to the Turkish Republic invading again to take over the rest of the island. Since the stolen territories included the island’s main water reserves, I grew up on water rations and infrequent showers. At night, when we would turn off the lights, the bright illumination of an enormous Turkish flag carved and lit up into the side of a mountain ensured that we, along other Nicosians, remembered that we were dominated even when asleep. This is one of the many indignities still visited upon occupied Cypriots, impossible to habituate to even as they are pleated into everyday life.

One memory stands out.

On summer evenings, when the suffocating heat would relent, my grandmother and I would go for walks. She was reluctant to head towards the Green Line, as the dividing line to the “buffer zone” is known, to protect me from what I would see. But that’s all I wanted to do: to me it always felt that walking away from the Green Line as if we were on a careless stroll that was not proceeding under conditions of confinement felt fake. I recognize now, as a psychoanalyst working with trauma, that what I needed was to see the material markers of “the invasion”: the soldiers, the guns, the impassable line into our land which we were prohibited from entering. My grandmother would sometimes give in. When we would approach the military watchtowers, I would get upset and unfailingly ask about the blue-capped soldiers manning (again, always men) the stations guarding the buffer zone: “What are they doing here? This is none of their business!” My grandmother would patiently explain, “this is the UN and they are here to protect us” but the answer wouldn’t settle me. Rather, it also made me feel shame for being so ungrateful.

My grandmother’s mother, my great-grandmother Antigone, was of a different mind entirely. A quadriplegic woman confined to a bed since I had known her, Antigone begged to differ: “they are not here to save us, they are here for their own interests” she would say. “What does it matter” my grandmother would reply in frustration, “they have kept Turkey from stealing the entire island.” This made sense to me, I was glad the whole island had not been turned into a Turkish protectorate, so I was confused as to why Antigone’s insistence soothed me. It was years before I would appreciate that my discomfort had to do with what my grandmother’s reply (“they are here to protect us”) reflected, that British colonization was not only something she had suffered but also something she had internalized: a misguided understanding of international intervention as (the) protection (it often sees itself to offer), as if we were not entitled to having all of our country, we should be satisfied to be allowed to enjoy any part of it at all!

Antigone would have none of that. One of the oft-told stories in our family was how, during the invasion, Antigone ran towards our home amidst the firing of shots to save it. That story always impressed me, because having only known her in a bedridden state the image of Antigone running dazed me. So I wanted the story repeated often. My great-aunt would then take me around the house, moving furniture heavy with home-made preserves aside to reveal the holes left in our walls, the imprint of the enemy fire among which Antigone had raced to our home. I would always touch those holes, as if feeling the shape of our house’s wounds put me in direct contact with something elusive. To be clear, in my family the narrative of a frantic Antigone running amidst these shots was not told to capture her heroism but teasingly, as evidence of her stubborn nature. Still, to my child’s mind the story had reached mythological proportions matched only by the legacy of her name: Antigone, the woman who refused the law of reason and of self-preservation to do what was right and necessary, no matter the risk or consequence.

Antigone’s quadriplegia was never medically deciphered: no known cause was ever discovered for her body’s decline. The matter of why my great-grandmother was bedridden remained a mystery. The mystery that was Antigone, however, did not scare me: rather, it left me in awe. Her nearly total incapacity to move her body, her need for my great aunt’s ministrations -she had to use a bedpan and even drinking water required assistance- these were, for me, closely connected with the bold folly of her resistance, of running like a madwoman into a rain of ammunition when others were running for cover. I didn’t have the words for it back then, but I can articulate this now: my great-grandmother was a hysteric, though not in the sense of someone who imagined or made up her disability but someone whose body forcefully opposed expectations, someone who performed resistance through refusal. As I heard my parents debate at the dinner table plans of how we would save Antigone in a new invasion -moving her required several people and specialized equipment -, I came to realize that her loss of bodily agency was a bodily expression of agency. Simply put, Antigone would never become a refugee. Were Turkish forces to progress Antigone was going nowhere, her body had seen to it that she would never be displaced.

My early experiences, the blend of home-made lemonade and our home’s injuries, of jasmine and sand bags, of disability and resistance, were not caused, however, by the Turkish invasion alone. Only as an adult, after I was exposed to struggles of other colonized and occupied peoples, did I find words for why Antigone’s staunch refusal to see the UN as our saviors would relieve me. After the Turkish Republic violated international law and entered Cyprus displacing 162,000 people, the United Nations intervened. The stated intent was to prevent further bloodshed -though, as Antigone knew, the fear was also of further political and military destabilization in this area that has been geopolitically critical to U.S. and European interests. Their intervention, nevertheless, was not about protecting the refugees, undoing the harms of displacement and occupation, or addressing war crimes. What the UN did instead was to reinforce a “buffer zone” as to prevent further death and a deeper invasion. The UN’s rhetoric, that it was not in its jurisdiction to correct the illegalities of the Cyprus affair, had a powerful effect, which is that their establishment of a “buffer zone” effectively consolidated Turkish occupation. What the UN’s intervention helped found-and now ongoingly ensures and protects- is the invader’s new “border,” overseeing Cypriots’ continued nonviolent acceptance of the occupation.

Said differently, despite explicit condemnations and the international community’s clear position that the territories stolen by Turkey are occupied land, the peacekeepers’ ongoing presence on the island did not address but, in contrast, backed -both conceptually and militarily- the partition between Turkish invaders and Cypriot land. This is what complicity under the guise of containment looks like, and this is what the international community’s platitudes about peace and protection often materially result in. To have to be grateful for being kept safe by being kept under occupation is one of the many humiliations of what it means to be occupied. Part of what prevents a Cypriot liberation struggle are the psychic vestiges of our post-coloniality, the narrative that we are lucky to still have two thirds of our land in our possession and need not risk losing more. Hence the psychic mechanism whereupon one is forced to “consent” to (the) violence (of ongoing occupation) so that they are not violated again and against their will, so that they can at least save face, to themselves if not to the world, so that they are not doubly humiliated -first by the invader and secondarily by the “protecting force.”

One of the reasons for sharing this long personal story is to make the following point about what my experience helps me understand about the fight for liberation that Palestinians are now waging. To be sure, Cyprus and Palestine have irreducibly different histories and are not in identical situations -for one, Cypriots are mostly racialized as White; doubtless, the fact that we are overwhelmingly Christian – albeit Eastern Orthodox – helps whiten us. For another, although occupied, we are not facing the daily expectations of death, humiliation, and oppression that Palestinians contend with. And while our settler, Turkey, has certainly suffered Islamophobic hatred, the settler colony of Israel was instituted as a home to Jewish people who have also endured brutal antisemitism and genocide, and who are at continued risk worldwide on account of their Jewishness.

These stark differences aside, and they are irreducibly significant, Palestinians’ decolonial struggle resonates with me, I can understand it in my body: you see, I did not just grow up under occupation, I was an infant and a sick one at that, during the invasion, which is another way of saying that my body has experienced things that have deeply marked me and which I will never be able to retrieve as memories. That Palestinians are not evacuating–even if they trusted they would not be murdered in the course of evacuating, which the last days have proven to endanger them, makes visceral, embodied sense to me. Those of us who have grown up with war, under occupation, and/or with armed conflict, know in our bodies that running towards the bullets aimed at ones’ people and performing refusal -be it through symptom, decision, or volition- is hardly an act of self-destructiveness. Nor is armed struggle about devaluing life, as Palestinians who are revolting against their ongoing brutalization and humiliations and those who are refusing to leave their land when told to evacuate are accused of. Those of us who have grown up in occupied lands appreciate that peacekeeping efforts are never as innocent or impartial as they are presented nor as rooted in justice as advertised. Peace-keeping is not concerned with justice but with containment, with maintaining the status quo, even when that status quo has arisen through violent land grabbing and is sustained by ongoing oppression. Peace-keeping is preoccupied with not furthering death, the equivalent of not letting the Green Line move further into Cyprus. To be clear, I don’t find these protections unimportant–preventing death is vital and I am relieved for whatever protection against new aggressions UN presence may have offered. But relief is a very minimalist criterion for human rights, and Palestinians, whose lives seem to be immaterial to the international community, do not even enjoy that very impoverished standard.

Since 1974, the Turkish occupation Cypriots’ protests have been entirely nonviolent. In 1996, during a nonviolent march demanding the withdrawal of Turkish troops and the repatriation of refugees, a Cypriot man, Tassos Isaac, was beaten to death. Days later, Solomos Solomou, climbed on a flagpole to remove a Turkish flag illegally flown in the de-militarized area of the buffer zone. Solomou was executed by a Turkish officer in cold blood. Even though this episode, part of a live stream of protests, was broadcast in real time, leaving no question as to its circumstances, the murderer was never brought to justice nor did Turkey ever acknowledge the brutality.

Nonviolence, yes, but only on one side, which is how nonviolence ends up working.

The “Cyprus problem” as it has come to be known was never solved and it likely never will be. Perhaps we will be traded as part of an international deal but that’s besides the point of caring for liberation. Nor does it matter that we have been nonviolently protesting for decades with petitions, letters, efforts to make our anguish known. Summits and political initiatives have only yielded propositions that are offensive to Cypriots -e.g. a “two state solution,” effectively a federation legalizing the status quo. We know what such peace-keeping initiatives protect: the land theft established by invaders and colonists. To top it all, Cypriots are sometimes seen as ungrateful for rejecting all the efforts expended on our behalf. The refusal to be subserviently appreciative of the offer to ratify the occupation is part of our nonviolent protest. But you see how far it’s taken us: since 1974 nothing has changed.

Again, most readers will have never heard of Cyprus or its history. Would our plight be better known if Cypriots had been willing and/or able to fight with armed resistance? After all, it is rising up against the British that overthrew colonial rule: it was not nonviolence that got us there, violence did. This is not to say that in not rising up against the Turkish occupation Cypriots do not love their country or that any nation should have to engage in armed liberatory struggle not once but twice within a few decades of its history, or that we, as Cypriots do not see how we are used as a negotiating pawn in the international scene. To make matters worse, natural gas has now been found in our territories, and Cyprus has contracted with Israel for its extraction, getting into bed with Israel for fear that this valuable loot could agitate new Turkish military aggressions. But it’s important to recognize that what nonviolence gave us is ongoing occupation, thousands of missing persons, and a dead Tassos Isaac and Solomos Solomou. Similar indignities and much worse violences apply to the long history of nonviolent Palestinian resistance. To hold occupied people to the standard of nonviolence when the same criterion (of nonviolence) is not expected of occupiers is to condemn the former to slow death. To do so under the banner of “peace-keeping” is to test rationality, which is why so many of us who support Palestinian liberation are feeling that in being asked to condemn violence, we are being asked to endorse Palestinians enduring oppression and abuse peacefully and politely.

Earlier in this piece, I noted that before their armed struggle Cypriots had petitioned the British for our liberation and were politely declined. If even for a moment you thought to yourself “what did you expect,” if my phrasing made you smile at the naiveté of the ask, if you appreciate the thick irony in describing the refusal to decolonize as “polite,” then you are well positioned to understand this: the option of an armed struggle in the context of colonial structures, of land theft, and of collective brutalization needs to be on the table. It is part and parcel of every liberatory struggle, and history has shown us, time and again that colonizers do not willingly relinquish their powers.

Is violence a solution? Absolutely not. But, for as long as the ethnoracial consistency of nations and borders maintains its material and political hold in our world, what violent resistance can do is mount a desperate, last-ditch instrumental move in making colonization into a problem for the colonizer, a problem that the colonizer has to address. I emphasize the word “has” to highlight that such address cannot be at the discretion of or on the timeline of colonizers, or even on the slow temporality of petitions and marches, it has to share in the life-or-death urgency with which it is experienced by the colonized. Colonizers can wait, they have time and resources; the colonized cannot. The Cypriot occupation, for instance, is not a problem for Turkey: Turkey has no reason and no motivation to change this. And while many Turkish citizens recognize that occupying a foreign land has ethical urgency, just like many Israelis and many Jewish people passionately acknowledge that Israel is a settler colony, such recognition, while ethically meaningful, has no material effects.

Amidst the rampant antisemitism in the world -and we have seen several abhorrent such incidents spiking in the past few days, such as apartment buildings in Berlin marked with the star of David and a recent rally in Sydney with atrociously violent antisemitic chants– it is imperative to have more discerning conversations between the huge difference between verbal, physical, and structural violence that targets vulnerable populations -as antisemitism and islamophobia do,- and violence that is exercised at the moment by those with material power and unparalleled military resources (like Israel) against those who lack it (Palestinians). Said differently, we have to stop flatly condemning all forms of violence, thereby treating all violences as if they were equivalent no matter what their origins or motivations. Some forms of violence, like violence that is generated under certain conditions of oppression, is worth our critical attention, which is not the same thing as saying that violence is a good thing. It is to say, rather, that the refusal to suffer politely or to endure oppression peacefully can generate violences that are ethical: they are ethical not in the sense that they produce “good” results, there’s nothing “good” ever about people dying, be they Palestinians or Israelis, but in the sense that they are undertaken by peoples who are willing to put up a fight and risk their lives for their freedom.

My proposition is, of course, a terrible idea: it is terrible not in the sense that it is a bad one (I wouldn’t be writing this piece if I believed that) but in the sense that it is terrible that conditions like those that have prevailed in Gaza and the West Bank for the past several decades require us, as an international community, to take seriously the question of what an ethics of violence might look like, what an ethical violent practice might entail and exclude. For this reason, I find the framework of “war crimes” for the attack on Israel to be unsuitable because what is unfolding is not war, but a decolonial struggle. Calling this a war is not only inaccurate, it drags Palestinian resistance into a discourse that denies the grave inequity between Palestinian and Israeli forces, which is caused and preserved by the Israeli apartheid regime.

There is no question that violence causes heartbreak and pain, that it is destructive and brutal. I want this for no one. But what a liberal attachment to blanket prohibitions on violence does is strip some people from their right to fight their oppression and that is not a defensible ethical stance either. Is it just for the international community to expect the Palestinian people to acquiesce to their subjugation as an overall ban on violence effectively demands? That the Palestinians’ struggle unfolds under circumstances of subjugation and ongoing oppression should not be a controversial thing to say -and it isn’t for many people, including many Jewish people. And their right to defend themselves against occupation is literally spelled out in the United Nations Plenary meeting of 1980 which reaffirms “the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples for independence, territorial integrity, national unity and liberation from colonial and foreign domination and foreign occupation by all available means, including armed struggle.”

To think about the ethics of violence is not commensurate to not caring about its consequences, to being inhumane towards the other, or to being indifferent to the loss of life: it is about staying awake for and present with the violence meted by colonization while also noting how tragic that circumstance is. It is beyond the scope of this piece to sketch the precise parameters of what an ethics of violence could look like, to propose which violences might qualify as the ethical practice of resistance and liberation, to discuss how far ethical violence can go and what lines of brutality disqualify it as ethical, to address questions about how the fact that libidinal excitements of violence disrespect rules and intent, and to note how even legitimate struggle can become coopted by hatred, including religious and racial hatred. An ethics of violence inevitably means death and suffering. So, to write this piece, I have had to fight my own resistances: no one deserves to die and no one deserves to suffer. My wager is that there is an incommensurability here that we have to reckon with: violence is terrible and yet it may also, at times, be ethically necessary. To take this incommensurability seriously is ethically imperative at this moment in time when every conversation around Gaza is precipitated by a demand to condemn violence. It is precisely the fact that everyone deserves to live in safety and with dignity, that makes thinking about ethical violence exigent. The time for this difficult conversation is now.

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