cover image Violence


Wolfgang Sofsky. Granta Books, $13.5 (224pp) ISBN 978-1-86207-614-3

To those fortunate souls who live without the threat of aggression, violence often seems random and senseless. But Sofsky, a German professor of sociology, argues that brutality has discernible rules and patterns. The massacre, the police action, the death march--each method of group violence""follows its own laws,"" and each has a common aim:""to spread terror, instill respect and dispel tedium."" Similarly, violent individuals, like the assassin, the mercenary and the berserker, also have a reason for their behavior: to achieve a euphoric state of total liberty. One who beats or kills another has""the burdens of self lifted from him; he has escaped the compulsion to control himself."" These ideas are enough to make Sofsky's volume provocative and unsettling, but the reader's discomfort intensifies when the author elucidates, in unsparing detail, what happens to the victim. (The most astonishing section describes the effects of war wounds:""Grenade splinters...could rip off whole limbs, cut faces to shreds, or behead a man."") Sofsky is at his most disturbing when he examines the aftermath of""collective crimes"" like genocide, which, he says, brings only the desire for revenge, a""bitterness"" that will be passed on for generations. (The author is especially harsh when discussing""narcissistic German guilt,"" which he sees as having less to do with remorse""than with an apparent demonstration of improved moral standards."") Sofsky's pessimism is unrelenting but appropriate; moral indignation suffuses every page. Sofsky does occasionally make some dubious assertions, and his themes are too loosely organized. Nonetheless, this is a powerful and absorbing look at one of the most common and ineradicable aspects of human behavior.