Last Friday morning, as I was preparing to lecture on suicide bombing and terrorism (by way of Talal Asad’s 2007 book Suicide Bombing), the city of Boston was on lockdown as tanks and armed forces canvassed the city in search of Dhokar Tsarnaev – one of two brothers accused of setting off explosive devices at the Boston Marathon. (See my reflections from that morning < here > )
This week, I end another semester of teaching religious ethics by leading a further discussion of state power, using Tom Junod’s excellent piece in last July's Esquire Magazine: “The Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama” as the central text.*
I am on board with Asad’s assertion that there is a fundamental tension – contradiction – at the heart of what he calls “the liberal West’s culture of war.” This tension is, on the one hand, the state’s need to legitimize organized violence against a collective enemy and, on the other, the humanitarian desire to save lives. This requires that some violence be legitimated and other violence to be delegitimated. This legitimizing process, however, seems to rest on the idea that there are distinct groups who can be labeled as good and bad AND that this designation is somehow ultimate or transhistorical or – at the very least – reliant on something other than contingent social arrangements.
It’s only within the parameters of these arrangements that some are in a position to effectively declare themselves just/right/good and others unjust/wrong/evil. Rather than establish who is right and wrong, I have used Asad in the classroom to draw the students attention to the “space of violence” described by Asad – within this sphere, the state is able to extend its presence by producing the legitimate violence upon which constitutional states rest (while stigmatizing the violence that challenges this sovereignty). That the state is foundationally dependent on violence is often kept out of the public eye (or described using broad, abstract ideals such as labeling violence as perpetrated by those fighting for or by enemies of justice, freedom, our way of life, etc.)
While today I’ll lecture on what Junod has referred to as “the deep fog of the lethal presidency” – the secrecy and uncertainty regarding the President’s decision to place one or another person on a list of enemy combatants to be targeted for killing – I am still struck by the space of violence I watched unfolding last week.
One of America’s major cities was rendered populationless – or, at least, the entire population was hidden from view as a swarm of news cameras descended upon the city. The troops then entered the empty streets – hundreds and hundreds of heavily armored soldiers and vehicles carrying and equipped with heavy artillery on a manhunt.
Judging by twitter, facebook, and television news, there seemed to be a lot of fear and uncertainty surrounding the entire endeavor. Who were they hunting? What was going to happen? Is anyone safe?
The constant coverage and transformation of Boston into a temporary police state heightened these questions to the point that when Dhokar was found bleeding in a stranger’s boat, the entire nation (at least those I was observing) breathed a sigh of relief before rejoicing and celebrating the triumph of America – once again – over the forces of evil.
I’m not saying that this relief is unwarranted, that the fear wasn’t “real,” or – by any means – trying to belittle or ignore the victims of violence in Boston last week.
I am, however, noting that – for a brief span of time – state power and violence was on full display. A nation believed it was, once again, under attack. The leadership responded by an absolutely stunning display of force alongside actual and potential violence. While certainly the folks in Boston mourning loved ones and those afraid to walk the streets rightfully expressed relief at the culmination of these events, we must keep in mind that we are a society much more dependent upon violence than we may realize.
It’s a fact that’s a bit easier to ignore – or at least to refrain from questioning – when attacks are carried out abroad without widespread public knowledge, as is the case with many targeted strikes.
That this fact was, by and large, ignored – or at least not be questioned – when it became the constant focus of 30+ hours of news, however, is somewhat more alarming.
Some will ask “what’s the point of drawing attention to our state being dependent on violence - what should one do with this information?”
Thanks for reading.
*Other pieces of Junod's writing on the topic have helped me think through a lot of the issues at stake in the discussion of targeted killing generally and drone strikes in particular.