Violence is the Failure of Our Government

Violence. A force that is intended to damage or destroy someone or something. Synonyms of violence include, but are not limited to, roughness, brutality, ferocity, severity, and so on. Maybe not all of these terms resonate the same way when we picture violence, as each person holds their own perception of what violence truly is. I believe that violence is a feeling. I believe that violence is not the action itself, but the aftermath and the looming effects it has on us. Author and historian Joseph Roach provides the quote, “…violence is the performance of waste” (Roach, 1996) in his book titled Cities of the Dead. Roach’s work relates back to many of our course concepts, developed from both the readings and in-class screenings, in a multitude of ways that I am intending to delve into momentarily. 

Roach has three interesting concepts of the term violence that I will tackle individually. His first concept states that “violence is never senseless but meaningful, because violence in human culture always serves, one way or the other, to make a point…” (Roach,1996). Without delay, this reminded me of a concept from our in-class screening of When The Levees Broke, a documentary directed by Spike Lee, about the aftermath of New Orleans, Louisiana, after Hurricane Katrina. In the documentary, we saw many first-hand experiences of the surviving victims from the vicious hurricane. New Orleans was flooded from the hurricane because of the breaking of the levees that were supposed to keep the city safe from flooding in the instance of a natural disaster. These levees were, said by Louisiana state’s politicians in the film, very poorly constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers. To worsen the matter, the multitude of victims that were interviewed in the documentary stated that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was absolutely useless when the people of New Orleans were in dire need of support. People were dying, starving, injured, and desperate with nowhere to go after their homes and belongings were destroyed. Families were torn apart, the streets were trashed, and nobody came to help for months. This left the people without food, clean water, electricity, money, or shelter for what felt to them like an eternity. When FEMA search teams finally came to search houses and account for dead bodies, they lied about checking houses and cleared those houses as having “no deaths”. Dead bodies were, in fact, later found inside by family members of the home that was supposedly already cleared. Now as we relate back to what Joseph Roach said about violence proving a point, the point proven here is clear as day to me. The United States Government savagely proved to these innocent people that they were not important enough to be helped in any sort of a timely manner. This violence performed by the government, which was fully aware of the disparity of the surviving residents of New Orleans, reveals the true flaws within our country. 

Roach’s second concept of violence that he offered in Cities of the Dead is that “all violence is excessive, because to be fully demonstrative, to make its points, it must spend things–material objects, blood, environments–in acts of Bataillian ‘unproductive expenditure’…” (Roach, 1996). I interpreted this quote as the idea that with violence, comes sacrifice. Sacrifice of things that are important and/or valuable to us. I believe that if something wasn’t valuable, then losing it would not be looked upon as being a sacrifice. The way I see it, in order to sacrifice, we have to possess something worth sacrificing. In one of our course novels, Unfathomable City, one of the two authors speaks about her personal experience of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. She says; “What’s normal here? Looking everyone you pass on the sidewalk in the eye and nodding, at the very least! Rolling thunder on summer afternoons, masked men on horses in parades, living your whole life here. (Before Katrina, we had the highest rate of nativity–the percentage of residents living in the same town where they were born–in the United States.) Guests visit and tell us that the city is different from other American cities…These people say we’re friendly, yet we’ll talk behind your back; they say we celebrate life, yet we’re killing our own; they think it’s easy to get by, but most everyone I know is working hard to make ends meet, and since Katrina, the cost of groceries and insurance has skyrocketed. The opposite of everything you can say about this place is true, too” (Snedeker, 2013). This moving excerpt from the book identifies the sacrifice (that Roach previously mentioned) as the heart and soul of the city. People’s spirits were crushed. Any sense of hope was lost. The city of New Orleans was permanently changed in a way that could never be fully undone. 

Joseph Roach’s claim that violence spends things also connects to the aforementioned When The Levees Broke documentary. We saw evidence of countless homes that were torn apart, carried away with the flood, or nonexistent whatsoever. The hurricane “spent” these citizens’ homes, their sacred belongings, and devastatingly, many of their loved ones. This is what they had to sacrifice in order to start over– their city mostly wiped clean of the possessions they owned before the hurricane hit and the levees broke. And although they never consented to sacrificing these things, it was sacrificed for them, against their will. The remains, or lack thereof, are the streets of New Orleans left trashed and unrecognizable for months on end, the loss of so many lives, washed away memories, and no hope left in our government. 

Roach’s third and last conspiracy of violence is “that all violence is performative, for the simple reason that it must have an audience—even if that audience is only the victim, even if that audience is only God” (Roach, 1996). This statement specifically stood out to me because I believe that, in a cruel way, the United States Government– being FEMA, the Army Corps of Engineers, and all of the political leaders who were bystanders in this devastating tragedy– were the audience, as Roach would say, watching uselessly as the violence unfolded over the city of New Orleans. The Katrina victims were suffering as the government watched them cry for help and did nothing to aid them. They viewed everything that was washed away in the flood as waste, not memories or keepsakes or peoples lives turned upside down. Through this course I now realize the significance that this storm truly held. That the ruins of Hurricane Katrina were not “waste”. They held the stories and the heart of New Orleans, and all of its beloved people. 

Two overwhelmingly important key concepts that Professor McCoy taught in class are the words memory and forgetting, inspired by Joseph Roach’s quote from Chapter 2, Echoes in the Bone, of Cities of the Dead– “Echoes in the bone refer not only to a history of forgetting but to a strategy of empowering the living through the performance of memory” (Roach 34). Memory and forgetting are so important because it teaches us, as human beings, a very important lesson. I interpret memory as meaning to honor, to talk about, and to always remember. Memory is so crucial so that we don’t end up forgetting. Without memory, we are bound to repeat the same mistakes time and time again. Forgetting is what happens when we don’t remember, we don’t honor, and we don’t actively work towards change. Forgetting is so important in the way that we must not do it. That is how “Violence is the performance of waste” resonates with me.