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State violence is the use of legitimate governmental authority to cause unnecessary harm and suffering to groups, individuals, and states. State violence stems from the desire of official state actors to reach the organizational goals of a state or governmental agency. The goals may be implicit or explicit and are often related to building or preserving hegemony and control, racial and ethnic exclusivity, imperialism, or facilitating the accumulation of capital or scarce resources such as oil. The most common forms of state violence are human rights violations, crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide, torture, prisoner abuse, and the oppression of racial, ethnic, gender, religious, or political minorities. These acts are prohibited by several international laws and agreements (e.g., the UN Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Geneva and Genocide Conventions) and some domestic legal codes (e.g., the United States Constitution). The September 11, 2001, attack on the United States is not conceptualized as state violence since Al-Qaida was and is not a legitimate state entity, although the violence was the result of the group’s attempt to reach its organizational goals.
State violence in pursuit of organizational goals is both historically and contemporarily ubiquitous. Wars of aggression (i.e., those not fought in self-defense) number in the thousands, have claimed tens of millions of lives, and have resulted in innumerable injuries. State-organized genocides, such as the Nazis’ systematic killings of Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals during World War II ended over 6 million lives in horror. Instances of state violence in the late 20th and early 21st centuries are numerous: Genocide has been documented in the Darfur region of the Sudan, the Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Albania; violent suppression of dissent has been ordered by govern-mental officials in Columbia and China; illegal wars have been commenced, such as the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Serbian aggression in the former Yugoslavia, specifically Kosovo, in the 1990s, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, all of which were
military actions prosecuted without the legally required UN Security Council approval, as specified in the UN Charter; and thousands of women have been sexually assaulted by military personnel in the process of conquering regions in times of war (e.g., recent conflicts in Afghanistan and the former Yugoslavia). Although violent acts by individuals not in positions of state power are disproportionately discussed in the popular press, governmental crime reports, and in popular cultures, violence by legitimate states and state actors pursuing organizational goals dwarfs the injuries caused by traditional street crimes.
There is considerable debate on whether all forms of state violence are appropriately classified as criminal. One school of thought, the legalistic perspective, considers only those behaviors that violate codified national or international law to constitute criminality. The major competing position, proposed by sociologists and critical criminologists, is that a crime is not only a violation of law, but also an act or omission that is analogous to legally prohibited behavior. From this perspective, violence by a state need not be specifically identified in international or domestic law as a criminal violation but is one that is comparable or that is similarly or more harmful.
Using the latter perspective, known as the social harms approach, state violence is a form of white-collar crime, which is widely misunderstood, even by some scholars, as a nonviolent crime. Although some instances of white-collar crime may be solely economic in nature, such as embezzlement, crimes by individuals performed through their employment or political positions are equally or more likely to result in some form of physical injury, such as when corporations or states pollute air and water in the course of manufacturing nuclear weapons or chemicals. Thus, state violence, along with corporate violence, is one of the major forms of organizational white-collar crime.
An important distinction is made between violence committed for state or state agency organizational interests and violent acts committed by individuals against others who simply happen to occupy positions within a legitimate state. The former is properly regarded as state violence because the motivation for the behavior is rooted in a specified bureaucratic or larger governmental outcome. Crimes committed by those holding positions of state power that are not related to state goals but rather reflect personal or individual interests (e.g., violation of public corruption laws through receiving bribes or kickbacks) are most appropriately labeled political deviance or political white-collar crime.
State violence may be the result of commission, omission, or negligence. States and their agents may act in a violent way, such as engaging in a war of aggression, or they may fail to provide equal protection to their citizens, such as when a group is excluded from services to the point that their well-being is threatened. Both discrete physical acts and overarching governmental policies that amount to negligence can have cumulative effects on victims and their families. In the case of negligence, for instance, the lack of proper police protection, medical services, and access to quality education are correlated with other misfortunes such as unnecessary death and injury, high infant mortality rates, homelessness, and street crime victimization. State indifference on the part of both high- and low-ranking governmental officials to the risks posed to groups living near nuclear weapons manufacturing, testing, and experimental sites, including some in the United States, have resulted in premature death and disease and rendered entire communities and future generations more susceptible to health problems.
Typical victimizers involved in state violence are heads of state, regional political officers, agency or unit directors, and supervisory military personnel. Since state violence is administratively driven, presidents, prime ministers, national security officials, and sometimes lower level state agents (such as the police or local legislators) are the chief actors in the crimes. Typical victims, like those injured most by traditional street crimes, are those with less social, economic, and political power in a given milieu: the poor, the uneducated, women, and racial, religious, or ethnic minorities. State officials are not proportionately drawn from these populations nor are the victims likely to be well represented in powerful positions in government. Not only are individuals in disadvantaged groups more likely to be victimized by state violence, but less powerful and economically undeveloped states in the world (such as Nicaragua, Cuba, Iraq, and the Tibetan region) are also more likely to be victims of state violence than powerful states, such as the five influential states occupying permanent seats on the UN Security Council (China, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States).
Criminological and sociological explanations of state violence focus on the coincidence of three variables: motivation, opportunity, and control. State violence, it is theorized, is more likely to occur when states have strong economic or political goals, temporal pressures to achieve these objectives, appropriate human and technological resources, and operate in the absence of external coercive audiences, such as a vigilant press, knowledgeable public, or the threat of negative international legal responses. Scholars have noted that the ability of states and state agents to operate in secrecy, appeal to higher loyalties (e.g., national security or defense), and deny the extent of the victimization are often associated with both the decision to engage in violence and subsequent defenses of the activities.
Theories of controlling, deterring, preventing, or reducing state violence have significant variation. Some scholars believe that international systems of justice, such as the newly created International Criminal Court (ICC), have some preventive potential. Under certain conditions, the ICC has the authority to investigate, initiate prosecution, and punish actors accused of, among other things, crimes against humanity. Although the creation of the ICC in 2002 has been lauded by many as an important step toward a stable international system of justice, the court is treaty-based and thus not universally applicable to all states. Half of the countries in the world have ratified the treaty and belong to the ICC, but many powerful states are not party to the institution, including four of the five countries occupying permanent seats on the UN Security Council. Other theories regarding the control of state violence suggest a variety of responses: international sanctions and oversight, mediation, restorative justice, transparency in state decision making, and strengthening minority or oppositional social and political movement groups. More fundamentally, some scholars contend that the very nature of the world capitalist economic system and the inequalities it produces are responsible for much state violence, and thus basic political and economic structures must be significantly altered or completely changed in order for state violence to seriously diminish in frequency and prevalence.
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- Friedrichs, D. O. (2007). Trusted criminals: White collar crime in contemporary society (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
- Kauzlarich, D., & Kramer, R. C. (1998). Crimes of the American nuclear state: At home and abroad. Boston: Northeastern University Press.
- Kramer, R. C., Michalowski, R. J., & Rothe, D. L. (2005). The supreme international crime: How the U.S. war in Iraq threatens the rule of law. Social Justice, 32, 52-81.
- Simon, D. R. (2006). Elite deviance (7th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
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