In reading an ostensibly leftist publication about this past week's attacks in Paris, I was struck by the neoliberal tone of "How to Politicize a Tragedy." In his article Sam Kriss states that "death is always political, and nothing is more political than a terrorist attack," while completely eliding any discussion of the terrorism enacted by western powers against what these powers deem to be the "real terrorists." While I appreciate much of Kriss' essay which focuses on the need to politicise violence, to politicise tragedy--especially now--his framing of tragedy becomes a uniquely western tragedy when the word "terrorism" is invoked. Kriss invokes sympathy for "all victims," yet in his article, like the many pieces coming out in support of the "real victims" of Paris over the past 48 hours, he stakes out victimhood in relation to the Paris attacks of last Friday night calling for a solidarity within this ephemeral ethos to victimhood. Moreover, the very politicised term of "terrorism" remains unexamined and victimhood once again falls to those who have fallen to some ubiquitous sense of "evil." The "us" and the "them" are once again paradoxically dichotomised without any analysis of how we might be contributing to this division, how such divisions elide any cogent reading of violence, and how such readings contribute to the plurality of violences (and of acts of terror). Critiquing the abuses of politicisation (ie. making one's death about the self), Kriss advocates another form of politicisation: "Insisting on the humanity of the victims is also a political act, and as tragedy is spun into civilizational conflict or an excuse to victimize those who are already victims, it's a very necessary one." But the humanity of the victims is and has been inevitably focussed upon the European subject (both victim and reader) where the loss in Beirut and Garissa is only highlighted in relationship to the tragedy in Paris largely because westerners have naturalised death as normal in places like Lebanon and Kenya.
For the past twelve years I have been working on issues related to violence and terrorism, specifically that of suicide bombers. And in my research one thing became apparent from early on: terrorism is an ideological term to divide one form of violence from another. The power which proclaims its own violence as just and other as terror is where this equation begins and ends. Not only does the political machinery and the media feed off of this linguistic difference, each side of this dialogue of violence believes its own actions justified, a harbinger of Gandhi's notion that an "eye for an eye" will leave us all blind. The call for sympathy for the victims and solidarity between those of "us" (ie. those who deplore violence) is still a recasting of this age-old dichotomisation of a specifically western ethos that uses violence for just ends as opposed to "those folks over there" who are demonically driver to suicide missions and who "don't value life...because of what we love." It is simply not enough to encourage solidarity through suffering (or the threat of the other) as we replicate the same discourses of divide and conquer in this "battle for hearts and minds."
Let me state the obvious: that terrorism is bad. Now let's turn to face other serious questions integral to our understanding of terrorism and its relationship to violence: How might violence be created by other violences? And how do such puerile and morally depraved explanations for violence (ie. western media's and government's desire to frame violence in relation to a specific religious zealotry, the elision of western acts of violence, etc.) elide the social obligation that we have to understand that these violences likely occur, in part, because of our politically repressed notions of the other? The colonial unconscious has a very familiar way of re-emerging in the object of one's repression. Freud confirms this with the unconscious, Marx demonstrates this with his analysis of the process of commodity fetichism and labour alienation. And Hannah Arendt elucidates how violence returns to the public sphere in a cry for attention:
Violence, being instrumental by nature, is rational to the extent that is is effective in reaching the end that must justify it. And since when we act we never know with any certainty the eventual consequences of what we are doing, violence can remain rational only if it pursues short-term goals. Violence does not promote causes, neither history nor revolution, neither progress nor reaction: but it can serve to dramatise grievances and bring them to public attention (79).
Arendt remarks upon the aspect of public attention in a era where media was far less pervasive and certainly less immediate and visceral, an era where the printed or radiophonic word represented the eyes of the reporter. Yet, when we add to this formula the spectacle of televised and Internet coverage, we can begin to understand how gaining "public attention" is directly related to the politics of war and the acceptance of state-sponsored terrorism which is often measured in terms of media-driven polls and the subject's access to data that query the public support for said "war" or "invasion," which act as litmus tests for how angry certain people are about Paris versus Beirut versus any number of human deaths in a given day. Where the media has an opportunity to play a role in questioning the similarities between these two terms of "war" versus "terror," the media instead plays into their differences becoming the trumpet for political tendencies of one extremely ethnocentric perspective.
What needs to be analysed when we approach such tragedy is not any sort of teleological solidarity with the dead, nor to ponder how people might take to their soap boxes or chat modes after such an occurrence. Instead we must absolutely compel ourselves to question how political discourse and media representations of terrorism confirm one another, whereby the subjects of one element are informed by those of another. And we are part of this process as we discuss current events, especially those of us who write about and represent them. Media might not uniquely be the message, but it is certainly the grim reaper which establishes a relationship of power between the public and the state bodies, querying this public as it informs (or misinforms) to lend authenticity to the state which continues its aggressions in the name of this rationale. The role of how violence and rationality function is no longer in the realm of Arendt's "short-term goals," since today the media is directly responsible for how we view certain acts (ie. 9/11) as more ghastly than others (ie. the over fifty-year long colonisation and repression of Palestinians by the state of Israel). To bifurcate "terrorism" from other forms of violence is a troubling political act and we all participate in this.
Last autumn Dominique de Villepin, former French Prime Minister, sagely analysed the west's "War on Terror" highlighting, quite cogently, the lack of self-analysis within this vectoring field of violence: "The War on Terror cannot be won... We need to be conscious that we have ourselves in large part given birth to Daesh.... We do not watch the same images from the other side of the Mediterranean... We do not interpret these images in the same way...What is true over there is also true here...This Crusade cannot be won! We are feeding a process of destruction, we are nourishing a process of hatred...We follow the Americans who, as always, look for an enemy across the planet engaged in some sort of Messianism." Villepin's words remind me of a critical position to which I invariably return: to what degree is eliding the necessary questions regarding the whys and hows of violence simply a violence in and of itself? And why does the western subject so readily revert to bifurcating one form of violence (justified war) against another (terror), when the solidarity that is required is far more uncomfortable than a solidarity with the dead? Indeed the solidarity we must call upon now more than ever is with the living--the solidarity that we enact when we pay taxes, go to the voting booths and urge our governments to continue the suffering inflicted upon those lives who never receive news coverage (or body counts) as the drone wars, the covert actions and the mediatised reports of "our heroes" treat the victim as a video blip or a distant, extrapolated representation on Homeland.
The reality of terrorism is that the "fight against those who attack concerts and cafes," restaurants, wedding parties, hospitals, and schools must involve the uncomfortable fight against ourselves and our homespun ideology that would have us view that terrorism inflicted over here as any different from our own brand of terrorism we launch over there leaving approximately 1.3 million dead (and this is the most conservative figure). It is not that "atrocity demands solidarity," but rather that atrocity demands that we critique how we form solidarity and that we redress how we conceive of the first-person plural.