It is useful to begin with the historical context identified by Williams in his original comment. Violence is associated at the individual level with "force," "vehemence," "impetuosity" and through "violation," with ideas of orally wrong breach of a custom or interference with a sense of dignity. It is also used at a wider level as part of a general description of a state into which a society might fall: one "Of filthe and of corrupcion / Of violence and oppression" (quote from Williams 330). It is in relation to this last usage that modernity introduces the latent complexity mentioned above, for it declares that modern society is defined against and founded in response to such a state of ill-being. The transition from the state of nature to the civil state is a move from a "state of violence" to a state of peace, order and security. From that moment, the opposition state of violence/state of society places a distance between how things were and how they are such that even recognizably violent acts in the civil state may carry the qualification that they are not "really" violent in an original sense. Violence deployed to avoid violence is no longer unqualifiedly violent.
This way of thinking is carried forward in Enlightenment philosophy and into practice via law. For Kant, even the use of wrongful violence is abstracted from its intrinsic qualities in the civil state. It becomes a generic "hindrance of freedom" while the violence of the state against it is the "hindrance of a hindrance of freedom that is compatible with reason (Kant, 1965: 35-36). Hegel only developed this philosophical extrapolation of violence the more when he described punishment as "the negation of the negation" (Hegel, 1952: 246). In law, categories of violence are also drained of their moral substance in favour of more "technical" or "formal" concepts. In English law, for example, the nineteenth-century category of "grievous bodily harm interpreted today to mean no more than "serious harm:' Similarly, the "guilty mind" required for the crime of murder is still expressed in the archaic, morally thick, form "malice aforethought," but this only means an intention to kill or cause serious harm.
These abstracted terms are sometimes criticized for their failure to reflect what is morally at stake within the law, though others would say that this is no bad thing. It has also been suggested that the neutralization of terms is ultimately impossible, and that "moral substance will out" either through the use of supplementary concepts or administrative practices (Norrie, 2001: 58). On a different tack, it has been argued that the philosophical and legal alignment of violence with individual agency decontextualises it leading to a false separation of individual and social, or structural, violence. This leads to a failure to connect our ideas of individual and social responsibility and justice (Norrie, 2001: 58). The starting point for all these discussions, however, is that modern society is constituted as a place of peace and freedom, and this conditions our understanding of when, why and how violence occurs.
Despite these criticisms of the Kantian-juridical approaches, there is something important in the space they fashion between acts of violence and their abstract expression. The criminal who "hinders freedom" or is responsible in law is permitted a distance from what s/he has done, understood in intrinsic moral terms, by the formal language in which s/he is judged. The space may be a difficult one, and it may be contracted or expanded depending upon how liberal a liberal regime actually is, but the separation of formal actor from concrete act permits a limited sense of the human being beyond the deed. The point is seen when a more rhetorical, morally thick, conception of violence is given greater political currency. Ideas of en of violence" or of "terrorism" are of dubious value given that today's "terrorist" may be yesterday's "freedom fighter" or tomorrow's "father of the nation." Yet, when law incorporates a concept such as that of "the terrorist," it reduces the philosophico-juridical gap between actor and act. Fusing the person with the crime, it essentializes and dehumanizes the former.
While the responsible legal subject may be guilty of terrible crimes, s/he retains the form of subjectivity s/he brought into the social contract. The same person represented as a terrorist already stands outside it. The invidious choice between a forced abstraction of humanity, which holds violence at a distance, and an equally forced concretization, which identifies some humans as essentially violent, appears increasingly to be placed before those living in western societies.
King's College London
ALAN NORRIE teaches criminal law and legal theory at King's College London. His work includes Law, Ideology and Punishment (Kluwer 1991), Punishment, Responsibility and Justice (Oxford University Press, zoo.). and Crime, Reason and History (2nd ed., Cambridge University Press, 2001). He has Gently published a set of collected essays called Law and the Beautiful Soul (Glass Her- Press, 2005). He is a co-editor of Critical Realism: Essential Readings (k-ledge, -8), and is working on a book comparing the dialectical critical realism of guy Bhaskar with the negative dialectics of Theodor Adorno.