Moral force and “Bloody Sunday”

A still from Paul Greengrass’ 2002 film “Bloody Sunday”.


Note — This post is by Nicole Diroff, a student in the Honors College at Oakland University double majoring in philosophy and cinema studies. Over the next few months, students in my course, International Relations on Film, will be contributing posts to the blog reflecting on the movies we are watching in class. Nicole’s piece is the first, presented here with only minor editing.

“What is force?”

That was the question asked by Maj. Gen. Robert Ford when he was asked whether or not the shootings that took place on January 30, 1972, in Northern Ireland were justified, as depicted in Paul Greengrass’ film Bloody Sunday. The use of force, and what force actually is, is not only a large theme in the movie, but this question is also essential to answering some of our own problems in 2016 America.

First, even though “What is force?” is a valid question that should be answered, using it in response to a question about the shooting of a peaceful protest is completely unfair. (You can watch the  entire scene from the film in the clip below.)

Asking “What is force?” in this situation completely absolves the British army from any responsibility for killing these protesters, and further can justify any action they do. Because, if they do not know what force is, there is nothing stopping them from going overboard.

However, force can be defined. And it should be divided into physical force and moral force.

Physical force is a clear concept, and it can easily be seen in the movie. It is clear that the troops attacked the protesters with violence when that level of violence was unnecessary. The paratroopers shot randomly into the crowd, and even after a ceasefire order was issued, they did not stop. A crowd of protesters ran from the shootings, but soldiers shot them from behind and even shot at them while they were down.

In this case, the question is not about what physical force actually is, but rather whether or not the force used was excessive. In short, yes, because the protesters did not pose a real threat to the troops, and also because they willfully shot at civilians.

Things change a bit when moral force is brought into the conversation, and this is also where America should reflect upon its own situation that has been happening for the past year and a half.

Moral force and physical force can be on two ends of a spectrum of force, but moral force can also be  a requirement for physical force. Police officers and the military are often seen as the embodiment of a moral force, thus, when they use physical force, it must be for a good reason. However, even if they can be considered a moral force, that does not mean that society cannot be a moral arbiter itself.

The police and the military should not be the source of morality, but rather enforcers of a morality that society has already set for itself. As the topic of police brutality becomes increasingly more relevant in America, more and more people continue to state that they support the police, not criminals.

Unfortunately, this is an oversimplification of the problem. It’s easy to claim a moral person does not support criminals, but a support of criminals is not the same as not supporting the ways in which those criminals are brought to justice. Maj. Gen. Ford says in the film that everything that was done by the British Army that day was to re-establish law and order, but if the massacre of civilians is what is considered law and order, perhaps society should reevaluate what they consider to be moral.

The film did have one other example of moral force, and that was force shown through the peaceful marchers. There were certainly some in the march who became less than peaceful, but the clear objective of the march was to protest for civil rights in the name of peace.

However, as stated above, moral force seems to be some sort of prerequisite for physical force, and Bloody Sunday explores this concept in a different form, as the way the military or police would. The protesters tried to be peaceful, but the nonviolent Northern Ireland civil rights movement was killed that day along with the 13 civilians shot down on the streets by British paratroopers.

At the end of the film, Ivan Cooper, the Protestant member of parliament who was one of the organizers of the march, says at a press conference that as a result of the killings, hundreds of able-bodied men were now motivated to join the Irish Republican Army. The use of physical force has led to a circular aggression, in which each group brings violence against the other, all for the sake of trying to achieve peace.


  1. Caitlyn Ulery says

    Dividing the idea of “force” into two categories is an interesting concept that I had not considered when viewing “Bloody Sunday.” It’s a concept that fits very well with the idea of “good vs evil” that I felt was represented in the film. Just as moral force and physical force are not black and white, “Bloody Sunday” did not divide the idea of good vs evil into simple terms, but rather depicted the intricacies behind the concept. The Irish were not entirely good and the British were not entirely bad, just as force is neither wholly good or wholly bad. Dissecting the concept of force and pulling out the complexities it holds helps to demonstrate the complexities of war and violence depicted in “Bloody Sunday.”

    • Pete Trumbore says

      What I especially liked about Nicole’s piece was the idea that the question as to whether any use of force by police or military is moral is a function of the morality of the society in whose name they act.

      The consequence is that it makes us all complicit in and in some ways responsible for the violence that is done in our name by agents of the state. Gives you a different spin on the problem of police brutality if you think about it.

  2. Angela Givens says

    Excellent job! I enjoyed reading your insight on the film. When you talk about physical force and how it lead into a circular aggression, that really made me think of past history and how certain riots/protests started and ended. How history is a repeating cycle that is endless. When people decide they want things that they believe is deserved to them, they fight for it and more often than not, police get called for “disturbance of the peace,” when all they are using is moral force at most times. Seems like when authority gets involved, moral force tends to turn to physical force and then recycles generation after generation.

    • Pete Trumbore says

      Angela, that’s an interesting point that you make, that when authority becomes involved moral force tends to become physical force. Why do you think that is?

      • Angela Givens says

        I think that when people see a figure of authority step into what they believe is a moral protest, like a strike with signs or a sit-in demonstration, they see the authority as intending to stop or shutdown their moral protest. So they retaliate with words and then it turns physical when tempers flare. Like the theme of escalation in this movie.

  3. Dominic Mier says

    I really liked that you tied it all together in the end. You spoke about the altering uses of moral force, both good and bad, and touched on physical force as well. You went on to tie moral force to physical force as a prerequisite, and then in the conclusion simply stated that the use of force only lead to a continuous cycle of force. You summed up a major theme demonstrated not only throughout the film, but also found easily throughout history as well. As Martin Luther King once said, “Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence.” The situation portrayed in the film was a great example of that quote, you did a great job breaking it down!

  4. Jonathon Dillon says

    I was impressed with your point on the issue of “police or criminal” being oversimplified. Its not about supporting the actions of the criminals, but saying that actions of the police are too heavy-handed and, at times, violent. This movie is a great example of it, as the British paratroopers used an unnecessary amount of physical force against a peaceful protest from the citizens of Northern Ireland. All in all, this was a great write-up on the film, thanks for the insight!