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The death drive

Social violence is rooted in the fabric of society

The death drive

“The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.”

(Mother’s Day Proclamation, Julia Ward Howe)

Recently on a flight, I got the chance to watch the popular superhero movie Avengers: Infinity War. I was particularly intrigued to see that a character named Thanos was featured as the main antagonist. Thanos was bent on destroying most living things. My interest in the character stems from the fact that Thanos (related to Thanatos) is, of course, the Greek personification of death. In Freudian psychology, Thanatos is understood as the death drive – the opposite of Eros (from which the word erotic is derived). While Eros, according to Freud, is the instinct in all living beings to persist in life – seek nourishment, shelter and reproduce – Thanatos is understood as a death wish of sorts – seeking out activities which thrill but can result in injury, even death. Freud postulated that these two drives are held in a delicate, dynamic balance in all persons not afflicted by emotional or psychological illness and that the presence of a psychological illness can tilt the balance one way or the other. A person who is depressed can start developing suicidal ideas, which according to Freud is a manifestation of the death drive.

Recently, I had also been trying to avoid watching a video on social media of a young boy, who was caught during an alleged robbery attempt, and was apparently beaten and tortured to death. Incidents like these are, of course, not unknown in Pakistan. They occur with a rather depressing regularity not just in Pakistan but across the border as well. Lynchings of Muslims on various pretexts, including smuggling or selling beef, have become quite common in India, especially in the last few years since the Bharatiya Janata Party government came to power. In the United States, mass shootings in schools and workplaces have been taking place regularly and with increasing frequency for more than twenty years.

While it may be tempting to assign glib causes to events which horrify most of us, it is important to remember that there are usually no easy explanations for such acts of mass violence. In countries like Pakistan and India, where the veneer of civilised life is very thin to begin with, and where most people struggle to even feed themselves and their families, the threat of violence, either individual or in groups, is ever present. Frustration and despair about daily living can easily spill over into aggression. In addition, when a society has been conditioned over years to condone and even encourage violence, a minor argument or incident can easily escalate into a murderous catastrophe.

How a society is constituted from top to bottom and how it treats its most vulnerable members are indicators of how peaceful or violent it can be.

In general, it is not helpful to look for individual causes for events like the murder of the boy mentioned above. I often get calls from media channels and newspapers after an atrocity has taken place and asked for my reaction. I usually refuse such requests. My reason is that in their hurry TV channels and newspapers are not looking for nuanced explanations. They usually want me to give them a cause and try to nudge me towards saying that the person, or persons, who perpetrated such an atrocity are mentally ill. This serves two purposes: it gives them a convenient explanation while letting all the ‘normal’ people off the hook, and it further stigmatises those with mental illness – the vast majority of whom are neither violent nor aggressive.

So, what actually causes such acts and is there something we can do about it as a society?

Pakistan, by all accounts, was not always such a violent, divided place. According to people of my parents’ generation, prior to Zia’s dictatorship starting in 1977 Pakistan’s larger cities like Karachi and Lahore were rather laid back, liberal places with thriving cultural and art scenes. Women were a regular feature of public life; entertainment and recreation were plentiful and easily available; and life in general was slow paced. Most people you met made a relatively decent income, even though most, including my parents, lived pay cheque to pay cheque. Education of decent standards, from school all the way up to university, was available at a low cost. Most people who wanted to work had jobs and if you worked hard, in addition to leading a decent life, you could put away a little something for old age and retirement.

Things changed drastically in the 1980s. Drugs and guns from the neighbouring war in Afghanistan flooded our cities, and the military dictatorship purposely brutalised society to sow fear – public hangings and lashings became a regular feature of daily life. In addition, the economy was deregulated and privatisation became the buzz word from education to employment and everything in between. Huge fortunes were made – some legal, most not; people began flooding cities from rural areas in search of employment and opportunity. With the advent of private TV channels and later the internet, information began to flow at an ever-increasing pace and it has not stopped since.

Today, Pakistan is a society of stark contrasts: palatial bungalows in Lahore, which cost more than what a labourer or even a respectable middle-class worker can make in a lifetime, jostle alongside katchi abaadis with open gutters and no running water. The children of the wealthy go to private schools in chauffeur-driven cars and study with private tutors while children of the poor either struggle in public schools with minimal facilities, sometimes none at all, or are out of school entirely. Large public hospitals try to cater to huge numbers of poor and destitute people while those with money can buy the best medical care in luxurious private hospitals.

All of this generates a tremendous amount of social frustration for those who see unimaginable wealth around them but have no way of accessing it. This ever-present frustration can easily spill out targeting those who have nothing to do with creating or perpetuating this unjust social order. Thus, we have regular incidents of family members of patients in public hospitals beating up doctors and destroying property – this happens frequently in India as well which suffers from the same income disparities as Pakistan. And we also have incidents like the one in which the young boy was tortured to death over suspicion of robbery. The same social frustration animates random acts of aggression on the streets and at homes. And while police and government authorities have become more vigilant about such incidents and act swiftly, individual law enforcement efforts are not a replacement for social reform.

Also read: Mob justice is no justice

Why is it that such incidents are exceedingly rare in continental Europe and Scandinavia, or for that matter in Saudi Arabia or the Gulf countries? One could easily argue that a populace which is provided a minimum basic standard of living, access to education and healthcare and some kind of guarantee to a job with a liveable wage would, naturally, be less prone to frustration and violence. Even in Saudi Arabia and the GCC countries, which are absolute monarchies with no participatory democracy to speak of, the rulers are mindful of the fact that standards of living do matter and no amount of repression can replace food and shelter.

Assigning banal titles such as evil or crazy to acts of violence explains or solves nothing. In fact, it’s often a way of avoiding or hiding the real social causes behind such acts. Social violence is rooted in the fabric of society. How a society is constituted from top to bottom and how it treats its most vulnerable members are much better indicators of how peaceful or violent it can be. ‘Thoughts and prayers’ are of little use, and while arresting and prosecuting perpetrators of violence is necessary, without a complete overhaul of society from top to bottom, not much is likely to change.


The writer is a psychiatrist practicing in Lahore. He taught and practiced psychiatry in the United States for 16 years. He tweets @Ali_Madeeh

Ali Madeeh Hashmi

ali hashmi
The writer is a psychiatrist, author of Love and Revolution: Faiz Ahmed Faiz and a Trustee of the Faiz Foundation Trust. He can be reached at [email protected] and tweets @Ali_Madeeh

One comment

  • Beautifully written as usual. One important thing needs to be talked about & emphasised is overwhelming population. All sources are exhausted if there are too many mouths to feed & too many people under one roof. If something can be done , although it is quite late, is to first limit children through mass media compaign.. Only then can one have social amenities. If we start this today, we will see result after 50 years

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