Justifying State Violence

This paper belongs to Open Session 1 of the Gothenburg Meeting Science Symposium

David Gibson, University of Notre Dame (Sociology)


One thing people do in meetings, particularly important meetings, is justify decisions — including those lying in the past, when things have gone sour, and those lying in the future (and perhaps imminent). Particularly weighty are decisions made by political leaders, and arguably most weighty of all are decisions to use violence against foreign or domestic adversaries, if only because it is harder to undo violence than, say, to undo a tariff or a cut in entitlements.

This is a paper about how heads of state and their advisors justify violence to one another, drawing on data from several cases: Lyndon Johnson’s phone calls leading up to his decision to retaliate against North Vietnam for the (partly imagined) Gulf of Tonkin incident in August of 1964; Saddam Hussein’s discussions with his top advisers a few days before he ordered the invasion of Iran in September of 1980, setting off the eight-year Iran-Iraq War; the meeting of the Polish Politburo in December of 1981 from which emerged the authorization to impose martial law (a kind of gateweay to violence) in response to the challenge posed by Solidarity; and the deliberations of the Standing Committee of the Chinese Politburo during the student protests in the spring of 1989, which resulted in the imposition of martial law and, soon afterward, the bloody clearing of Tiananmen Square.

My goal is to explore justification as an interactional phenomenon. I begin by unpacking the logic of justification, including both its basic components and its syntactic variations. Then I make some observations about the role of justifications in warranting state violence. Next I take up each of my five cases in turn, providing some historical context and then considering the justifications provided and the conversational dynamics surrounding those. The Conclusion briefly lists some things we learn from these cases about how states justify violence, many of them unanticipated by my initial theorization.