America from afar… we are a violent society.

America is a violent society. Yup. I said it.

What does that mean?!

Violent societies are often defined in relation to what they are not. They are societies without open conflict and without ready access to violent weapons. They are societies where justice is equitable and accessible, and where perpetrators of violence don’t roam free.

But, definitions are slippery. Violence in society — just like violence against women — exists everywhere. No country is immune. Violence — as defined by the World Health Organization — is the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, with a high likelihood of harm, injury, death.

Yes, more violence occurs in countries experiencing conflict. But violent deaths, as one measure, are not restricted to conflicts. In fact, 80% of violence deaths occur outside of armed conflicts.

Looking at the U.S. from across the oceans, I’m shocked as to how deeply violence is embedded in U.S. society. It has become — for better or worse — our way of life.

And yet, we continue to howl into the void about the extent of gun violence in the country. 2023 is only 31 days old, and we’ve already had 40 incidents of gun violence. Since 2020, there have been on average 600 mass shootings in the U.S. each year. That means that more than 600 incidents where four or more people were killed at one time.

But what’s interesting is this… the U.S. doesn’t necessarily see itself as violent. It sees those of us across the oceans as the violent ones.

Spending time out of the country offers me a different perspective. And this — like all my writings — is a personal musing on a supremely complex subject. One that is written from the perspective of an Arab-American woman whose life’s work is built on the unfortunate existence of violence.

The thing is, no matter the context, where there is violence in society, there is always violence against women in particular.

And, despite its rampant denial of its own violence, the U.S. is no more or less violent than the countries it perceives as “violent.” So, what does America look like, I’d like to know, from the perspective of those it tries to “civilize”?

I asked a young Lebanese man. He put it this way:

We have our own issues, but unlike America, we do not concern ourselves or meddle in their affairs. Are they violent, you ask? Most certainly yes. The stories we hear are always about violence in America — on their streets, in their prisons, in their communities. And it is about race. That’s how we see America.

At the same time, from this end, I am actively digging for information on the unfortunate intersection of violence, guns, racism, misogyny that characterize American life. In the US, we marinate in this news every headline, every day.

Do those who exist “on the outside” see the U.S. as a violent society as much as we do on the inside?

(And even then, those of us “on the inside” who see it are too few, or it simply wouldn’t continue at the rate that it does!)

A young woman had this to say:

Why should we get involved? Why should we care? They only care about us selectively, when it is in their best interest.

And another added:

And meanwhile they support, protect, cover up a violent state that oppresses Palestinians every day.

And yet, as I’ve often said, even the fear of violence is a form of violence.

America is among the most violent of the supposedly “civilized” countries of the global North. Looking at the number of firearms per 100 residents, the US rate is 120.5. Yes, you read that right. More guns than people. None of this is surprising. Meanwhile, Lebanon, where I currently sit, is at 31.9. And Iceland is just below it at 31.7.

The excess of violent responses amounts to a culture of violence. Meaning, it’s so deeply embedded within our daily lives. And, it is accepted and legitimized by society.

A young man added this:

Our violence is viewed as political violence. And from the American perspective, it is given labels. This violence is labeled as terrorism or cultural or religious or brown or Islam or Arab, and so on. Americans see everything that happens here through that lens. Labeling our violence as “terrorist” makes it visible. At the same time, Americans view their own violence as isolated incidents. They don’t see a pattern. As a result, they make their violence less visible. But it is no less violent.

So the point is that American violence is violence. It is so deeply embedded in the culture that we are failing to see it. And in countries like Lebanon, we recognize our violence. We might not be able to stop it, but we certainly don’t deny it.

A culture of violence also helps justify violence against women — through rape myths and victim-blaming — the stuff so deeply engrained in our society and our psyche that we fail to see it. And so it continues.

Violence runs from men to women — and this reinforces the cycle of violence. For me — and for anyone, I’d like to think! — there’s a link between violence in society and violence against women.

And, while rates of violence against women in the U.S. are just as high as anywhere else in the world, the U.S. continues to use violence against women in the global South to justify its own violent interventions in other countries. Violence against women is used to convince people that we — Arabs — are the violent ones. They argue that our men are violent, and that they must “save” us from this violence.

There’s plenty of language around “saving” brown women. Saving them from their own men. This feeds into a rhetoric that views us as “savage.” And it makes for an easy way to justify occupations. My first book on Afghanistan — and many others before and after me — have made this point very clear. Worse, colonial interventions like Afghanistan and Iraq and just about everywhere have been shown to increase violence against women. Yes, this exists everywhere, all the time, but occupation makes a bad situation that much worse. And, this violence is perpetrated both by colonized and colonizer.

Not only is America violent, one activist says, they are racist. Look at what they did in Afghanistan. “Saving brown people.” And they left them in the middle of the night. Saving brown women. It was all talk.

The U.S. does a stellar job of constructing an exaggerated violent masculinity when it comes to “other people” — brown people in “other countries over there” and also, Black men and other immigrant communities in our own country. At the same time, the U.S. is characterized by a hyper-masculine cowboy culture. I’ve written about this before. As have too many others. Who’s listening?!

One Lebanese feminist put it best:

Not only is the U.S. violent in general, their violence against women is so insidious they don’t even see it. The reversal of Roe v Wade is a great example of violence inflicted on women’s bodies that the U.S. doesn’t count as violence. If the U.S. claims to be the great global example, what example is this?!

The perspective from across the ocean is that yes, the U.S. is violent. And it is no less violent than the countries it perceives to be “violent.”

As Americans, we are great finger-pointers. And perhaps great illusionists too. By rendering our own violence less visible, we’re able to more easily deny its existence. Less visible, but no less violent.

From the Arab perspective, America sees us as the savages. As an American — who also happens to be an immigrant, who also happens to be an Arab, who also happens to be brown, who also happens to be a woman — I think perhaps America needs a mirror.



Global women's rights expert, author, speaker, aid worker, feminist activist with 25 years of experience in 20 countries worldwide - and lots of stories!

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Lina AbiRafeh

Global women's rights expert, author, speaker, aid worker, feminist activist with 25 years of experience in 20 countries worldwide - and lots of stories!