“It might not be safe for you to come back here,” a friend told me over the phone last week.
“I know,” I replied. “I’ve already thought of that.”
It was February 23, and we were discussing an article I wrote for this publication, bdnews24.com. He felt that public reception would be so intensely unkind, that it would end in my getting murdered. If it had been three days later though, we might have uttered the same words over the murder of Abhijit Roy, the Mukto Mona writer slashed to death by Islamic fundamentalists on February 26.
In the days since the attack, images of the pavement with its pool of blood are never far away. I keep imagining more of what it might have been like: the rickshaw-wallah, shaky-legged with adrenaline, as the attacker demanded that he stop, Abhijit and Rafida in a moment of benighted confusion – and then the sudden, thought-cancelling horror of the knife attack, the screams of pain, Abhijit’s swift death.
In my mind, I can see the attacker running past shocked onlookers, and then, further on, into an anonymity from which the police have yet failed to extract him. Rafida, too, comes into view: first amidst the grim indignity of the attack, then impotent and terrified in the wailing ambulance – and finally, in the odd cleanliness of a hospital room where incomprehensible dark loneliness, uncertainty, and fear lingered.
I suppose those details are beyond our capacity to know really, although they probably do not feel far away for anyone who lives in Dhaka – or for anyone who viewed the video of the Charlie Hebdo attackers on a Paris street a mere number of weeks ago. This violence is entirely too familiar. Every part of it is heart-breaking.
I knew relatively little about Abhijit Roy during his lifetime, although since his death I’ve realised that many of his opinions were not too far from my own. He was a staunch supporter of gay rights, a voice for the left, and a free thinker. I feel a certain measure of kinship.
In some sense, these details matter little. His death was a senseless horror not because I happened to agree with his views, but because he was human and no human deserves to be murdered.
Justice is compelling. That the government arrest and charge the killer, using the rule of law to determine appropriate punishment, is important to staunch the trauma the attack has caused the population.
But in a time when terrorism is on the rise, figuring out how to reduce the number of people victimised in such senseless violence is also compelling. This seems like a tougher goal – one that relies on something stronger than outrage.
His writing provides a clue. Abhijit was the author of Bishwasher Virus (The Virus of Faith), a book that argues for secular humanist values. The idea of social problem as virus is incisive, but not unique. Programs like Cure Violence have argued that violence can be viewed as a virus too – and that this is a key to ending its spread.
The assertion that violence is an infectious disease is based on data documenting how violence spreads from person to person. But the theory has another, more subtle purpose.
A virus – a contagion that uses a host to multiply and spread itself– is a morally neutral phenomenon. People sickened by viruses have an obligation to get well and not to harm others where avoidable. They usually bear little or no fault for having contracted the illness themselves.
This is an interesting concept for preventing violence, which is by definition an act associated with moral outrage. But Cure Violence has shown that regarding violent people as suffering from resolvable un-wellness, rather than intrinsic evil, allows both the people and public health workers to take critical actions to avoid prospective perpetration. These actions include violence interrupters’ slow, steady efforts to alter perpetrators’ distorted thoughts and destructive behaviour, replacing them with norms that strongly discourage violence. (For Abhijit’s killers, the ideas to replace would include the violence-promoting religious ideas he described in The Virus of Faith.)
Violence interruption, in other words, uses an idea that is counter-intuitive and even anxiety-provoking: stepping away from harsh blame grants the opportunity to take actions that can convert perpetrators into non-violent people. The drive to kill arises in deeply unhealthy minds. Fix the minds, Cure Violence says, and the killings will cease.
There’s no conflict here with criminal justice for people who have already harmed or killed others, including Abhijit’s attackers. The courts are retrospective by nature – they look at events that have already occurred – and violence interruption involves averting future harms and stopping the disease of violence from spreading. Interruption doesn’t replace justice; rather, it short-circuits revenge.
At a time when terrorism appears to be growing out of control, the idea seems worth trying in Bangladesh. Neither submitting to hartals nor protesting against them seems to help much, and the effort to match anger for anger seems like a race to the bottom.
Speaking out against Islamic fundamentalism, while essential, does not dissolve the problems that make extremism attractive to millions of Bangladeshis. Nor does waiting for more people to die make any sense. By every single method currently in use, extremist violence is a stuck problem.
A program like violence interruption does not involve exhausting rage, endless protest, or embracing death. It permits a move from demonisation to treatment, which allows the problem to be solved.
It is, in short, enacting an idea that the Dalai Lama has popularised: that compassion is when you see a man beating a dog and you feel as bad for the man as you do for the dog.
Perhaps that sounds radical. But I wouldn’t ask you to adopt that viewpoint if I wouldn’t do the same.
In fact, I already have. In 2011, on my first trip to Bangladesh, friends and I were driving in a neighbourhood in Uttara when a car began to follow us. Soon, we recognised what was happening: a carjacking. Alongside the driver, the car behind us held a man with an assault rifle.
As we attempted to escape the armed criminals, I considered them. I felt strangely calm – and filled with pity. It was clearly harder for them to live their lives than it was for me to live my peaceful one. Whatever had happened to them to lead them into committing such horrific behaviour, I thought, probably affected them more deeply than we could imagine.
To refuse to be victims was the best thing we could do for these unwell people. So we did it. We escaped, having no interaction with our would-be attackers than a few tense glances through the rear windshield. Thank God.
In the heat of that moment, seeing things the way Cure Violence does seemed absolutely correct. My friends and I were the dogs being beaten, figuratively speaking. Even now, feeling compassion for the men doing the beating makes sense.
Whatever was wrong with Abhijit’s killer was probably even worse as his actions imply. What makes a person crazy enough to hack someone else to death? Something really hideous and painful, quite likely. The killing itself likely granted the killer no reprieve from his misery, since a sizeable percentage of people who commit violence seriously traumatise themselves by their own acts. Abhijit’s killer is a horrible criminal who deserves a prison cell. But he’s also likely a totally wretched mess.
To get rid of Islamic fundamentalist violence would be compassionate to absolutely everyone. There’s no downside, except to leaders who’ve relied on manipulating public fear and anger to advance crooked ends.
All I propose here is to replace the element of luck that saved my life in Uttara with purposeful actions that could save many more. We should stop the attacks by intervening in whatever is going so terribly wrong before they happen – bearing in mind that violence interruption has already worked in the US and seven other countries, including Iraq and Syria.
Would outspoken Abhijit Roy approve of this proposal? It’s possible. He was a strong and gentle person, and I can’t imagine he’d wish for anyone to follow him into death.
Having written enough in these pages for Bangladeshis to warn me that my life is at risk, I don’t take this issue lightly. I know that I could possibly follow Abhijit to the grave, although perhaps the assailant’s political alignment would be different.
But it’s clear that many, many people in Bangladesh also remain at serious risk – sometimes, as with Bishwajit Das, for no reason whatsoever.
When I think through what that knife attack must have been like, I don’t want it for anyone.
In Abhijit’s memory, let’s work to end this.
Sophia Newman, MPH, is a freelance writer. She completed a Fulbright fellowship in Bangladesh in 2013, and is currently reporting in Africa.