The Myth of Senseless Violence

(Chapter for Palgrave Handbook of Philosophy and Public Policy)
People have a fascination with something called “senseless violence”. The term originated in Dutch police reports and media stories in the 90s (zinloos geweld), but has since then found its way into other languages as well. It refers to violence that is unprovoked, random, excessive, ruthless, and above all devoid of meaning.[i] Perpetrators have no discernible motive, and are not accountable to reason. Some scholars call it ‘autotelic violence’, violence that is committed for its own sake.[ii] Most people who use the phrase, believe that senseless violence is an especially troubling phenomenon, and that it is on the rise in our societies. Here are some recent headlines from Dutch newspapers that illustrate the extent of public concern: ‘Senseless violence among youth on the rise’. ‘More and more senseless violence’, ‘Senseless violence is increasing’, ‘Yet another incident of senseless violence’. In April 2006, eighty tho…