Illustration credit: Kathryn Gichini

Being changed forever can happen unexpectedly.

Rwanda, 27 June 2009: My task at the Mutobo demobilization centre that day was complex, but (I had expected) achievable. I was to interview former members of a rebel force that had recently committed a series of horrific atrocities in eastern Congo, part of a United Nations investigation that would contribute to determining the chain of command, and thus responsibility, for war crimes. I had been doing this work for years and felt confident with the backing of an arsenal of international human rights treaties and the bastion of Security Council resolutions that mandated my investigations. I was convinced that within a few weeks—months at most—we would have forensically mapped out who had ordered what, when, and where, and thus be on the way towards something like justice.

Probably: I had already been at this kind of work for too long. Likely: I was exhausted. Yet from that collapsing space of conviction emerged a different kind of possibility: on that day, my refined capacities to judge and my honed skills to ascribe blame instead gave way to seeing more deeply and to listening more completely. Consequently, what I saw and what I heard brought me closer to humanity than I had ever been before.

Captain X was escorted to the table where I was conducting interviews: I first saw his face, without a jaw, that I would learn had been blown out years before by a grenade. Then I heard his voice, which carried a trembling story of devastation, loss and fear. His testimony embodied Pierre Bourdieu’s ‘law of conservation of violence’, which explains how violence—like electricity—will continue to travel the path of least resistance. Captain X and all the countless others were entrenched in systems of structural and global violence from which they had no means of emerging.

The systemic violence that Bourdieu describes lays at the foundations of the social, economic and political structures that organize the societies in which we live. It is transmitted between individuals and across generations—and, crucially, through institutions, laws, policies and practices—and is thus conserved. Such conservation can feel inevitable. Yet we are—right now—living in a moment that calls into question such inevitability. A pandemic has shown us that we can stop. One more killing has shown us that it is enough.

The work of transforming systemic violence can feel grueling. It can be exhausting. Yet it must be done. It is actually easier than we think: it simply starts with that next right action.