Friday, April 26, 2013

Reflections on a Violent State

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?”

Good question.

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.

Friday, April 19, 2013

In Defense of Critique

I teach Religious Ethics.  This week, we are discussing terrorism - a topic that my father noted is, among other things, timely.  Today, specifically, we are reading a section of Talal Asad's Suicide Bombing.  As this book is highly critical of state power and socio-political distinctions, I felt the need to preface our classroom discussion with a defense of the practice of social criticism while many are relying on state power for personal safety.  Here is a portion of what I'll share with the class:

It’s days like these where critics get themselves in trouble because criticism of state power is often seen – or, better, portrayed – as treasonous, overly/unduly suspicious, unhelpful, and possibly dangerous.  These are charges meant to silence critique.

At times when we are told that our security – or at least the security of those who we are somehow identified with – is threatened, a corresponding idea that order and safety needs to be restored tends to occupy a prominent discursive space.  Before moving to Asad’s critique of terrorism and motives, it is worth noting what he states at the very beginning of his book:

“A brief warning against a possible misreading of this book: I do not plead that terrorist atrocities may sometimes be morally justified.  I am simply impressed by the fact that modern states are able to destroy and disrupt life more easily and on a much grander scale than ever before and that terrorists cannot reach this capability.  I am also struck by the ingenuity with which so many politicians, public intellectuals, and journalists provide moral justifications for killing and demeaning other human beings.” Talal Asad Suicide Bombing page 4

What Asad offers is not to be read as a treasonous apologetic for terrorism – it is a shift of emphasis, a re-focusing of the discourse from “who’s right and who’s wrong and how can those who are right stop those who are wrong” to “who gets to make these decisions and how? What structures are in place that divvy up the space of violence to justify some while demonizing others?  How is this done?”

Before we get to Asad’s analysis of Walzer’s “emergency ethics” I’ll briefly note two things I watched on the news this morning that deserve a different line of questioning: first, I watched appeals to the internal states of the bomber motive, states of mind, and radicalization (described as “self-radicalization,” “internal radicalization now being externally manifested,” “older brother controlling the mind of younger brother,” “religious ideas motivating action,” and “state-sponsored ideological training” – if not verbatim, all this came from CNN’s coverage).  Second, I watched what I can only describe as a small army of armored tanks, trucks, and soldiers carrying large guns.  These men were all in search of the violent perpetrator of violence.  Pause.

This is a distinction being drawn within what Asad refers to as a “sphere of violence.”  There is good violence.  There is bad violence.  The difference, however, tends to rely on appeals to the internal state of individuals.  We therefore have a vaguely defined social space where violence is occurring and an undefinable internal status that determines who is in the right and who is in the wrong.  The trick is that someone has to be in a very specific socio-political position of power to make these declarations – a position which denies such position to others.  I don’t like to analyze events as they are going on – too much is unknown, there is chaos, and there is an overreliance on speculation so I’m not going to specifically address what’s going on…now in Boston.

I will note that the definition of terrorism implies an altruistic non-terrorist.  Terrorism, however, is a very, very shifty term and yet its boundaries are tightly maintained.  I’m not interested in figuring out guilty and not-guilty or assigning blame.  I’m interested in the ideological work being done when indefinable spaces are somehow defined and loosely defined terms are rigidly fixed.  The social world – of which we are students – doesn’t have some kind of innate, inherent order.  I’m interested in the process by which this disorder is presented as order.  This isn’t treason.  It’s critique.

Thoughts are with all those within various spheres of violence.

Thanks for reading.