On the Erasure of Violence and the Violence of Erasure
I want to spend some time talking about the relationship between violence and erasure, particularly as they relate to the recent killing of Osama Bin Laden. In order to understand the violence of the erasures that enabled a celebration to follow, we must begin with the violence of the killing itself, what some are calling the ‘assassination’ of Osama Bin Laden.
It’s early in this article, and I may already have made the reader uncomfortable. I have just characterized the killing of our lifetime’s Public Enemy Number 1, as an act of violence. The association is disconcerting. It does not readily compute. But what else does one call an act that requires the raiding of a home, and the shooting of an unarmed man, and others, until they are dead?
I suppose there are a number of words that could be, or rather, have been, used to describe the killing. Words that erase and take the place of that other, more obvious, descriptor: violence. In recent days, the killing of OBL has been described as retribution, as redemption and, to borrow from our President’s vocabulary, as ‘justice.’ Let us accept that each of these words ‘works’ (read: describes the killing in a way that resonates with people), the crucial question that must then be asked, is: why do some words (like retribution, redemption, and justice) work, while others (like ‘violence’) do not?
It appears that at least one of the reasons why ‘violence’ doesn’t seem to ‘work’ is that we do not want it to. It is not that the killing was not violent, but that in characterizing it as such, we tend towards the dangerous possibility of humanizing a man who was and must remain, in memory and in history, a monster. Recognizing that violence has been enacted upon another requires recognizing the humanity of the other.
A second danger exists in the fact that recognizing the killing of OBL as an act of violence would necessitate recognizing the actions of this country as violent, a reality that contradicts the imaginary of civility that simultaneously defines who ‘we’ are, and how that ‘we’ is different from the violent actors we call ‘terrorists.’
Humanizing the enemy is always a risky business, but it becomes particularly problematic at times of war, for the logic of war necessitates overlooking the humanity of the ‘Other.’ The evidence for this exists in our less-than-convincing attempts to compensate for this lack through the re-presentation of war as an act (carried out in the name) of humanity.
War also requires a dehumanizing binary logic: there is an ‘us’ that stands in opposition to a ‘them,’ and we are the heroes who selflessly eradicate the villains. Through this logic, these false dichotomies, the villains are transformed such that they cease to be bodies upon which violence can be enacted. This does not mean that viole nce is not being enacted, but that the enacted violence is no longer recognized as such. The villain is the perpetrator of violence, and so he can no longer be its recipient. The heroes are fashioned as defenders, fighting against the violence of villains, and so they could not possibly be its enactors.
Given these rules of (dis)engagement, anyone attempting to point out the violence of the hero is likely to be accused of not simply humanizing the villain, but through that humanization, identifying with those who must remain ‘Other.’ In recognizing our own violence the danger is not simply that our perception of the villain is threatened, but that our perception of all that is in relation to him, including our perception of ourselves, our claims of heroism and good, collectively come into question.
The problem in all of this is not just that certain forms of physical violence go unrecognized, but that the means through which that violence is made unrecognizable, namely, via erasure – an act that is in and of itself violent – also goes unrecognized. And the erasure of the violence of erasure, if you will, is precisely what enables descriptors such as retribution or redemption or justice to ‘work’ and for incredible atrocities to take place.
We have waged and are still waging wars. In these wars, we carry out practices that must be critiqued not simply because they are unlawful, but because they are violent. There is a violence in the logic that enables the violence of indefinite detention to take place; a violence in the thinking that leads to the unchecked use and abuse of torture; a violence in the imperatives that compel the production of new and more ‘effective’ technologies of war, like drones, for example, that are disseminated in order to kill ‘high value targets,’ and it doesn’t seem to matter that these machines, literally called Predators, have preyed upon and will continue to prey upon hundreds of men, women, and children with ‘incredible accuracy.’
You see, we may not want to recognize the killing of Osama Bin Laden as violent (much less an atrocity), but Osama Bin Laden is not a sole entity. If he were, the War on Terror would have taken its last breaths with him. Because of the corporeality of OBL as much as what he has come to signify, Muslims all over the world have become bodies upon which incredible violence is enacted, and yet this violence is neither recognized nor articulated as such.
When even these conspicuous forms of violence, committed daily in the name of counter-terrorism, are not recognized as violence, then less conspicuous forms become ever more impossible to recognize, articulate, and challenge. The normalization of the imaginary of the terrorist that has come to determine the everyday lived experience of Muslims is just as much an act of violence and erasure, but this violence is strangely inverted.
To cite but a few examples of these violent inversions: the halting of mosque-building initiatives, we are told, takes place NOT because of rampant Islamophobia, but because of ‘zoning laws’; the implanting of informants in Muslim communities is NOT an attempt to perpetuate cultures of fear, suspicion and accusation, but in order to find the ‘terrorists’ within; the use of entrapment is NOT in order to produce phony terrorism plots implicating Muslims, but in order to contain the threat of Muslims with a ‘proclivity’ for violence; anti-shariah hysteria exists NOT in order criminalize even the ablutions that Muslims are required to enact for prayer, but in order to safeguard liberty. None of these inversions of reality are constituted as violence, and precisely because Muslims are no longer a people upon whom violence is perceived as being enacted. Not because violence is not being enacted, but because the ideology of the War on Terror, its insidious language and violent logic, has ensured that these violences remain unrecognizable.
More often than not, the alternative vocabulary that violently erases and replaces the language of violence, too, is violent. Take the term counter-terrorism, for example. The work of the word ‘counter,’ is that it annihilates the possibility of ever characterizing our violence as ‘like’ (much less akin to) terrorism. But these are not just words. Through this language, we absolve state actors as much as ourselves of responsibility and self-reflection; we successfully evade the crucial, even if uncomfortable, questioning that comes when one is forced to reckon with the fact that one is not simply the victim of violence, but a perpetrator of much of the same. It is a state of mind enabled by a violent negation of reality, a purposeful and injurious amnesia. Ironically, this violent negation of reality was also the precise problem of Osama Bin Laden: he too constituted his violent acts as something else, no less retributive, redemptive, or just.
In the face of all that I have noted, I could not help but read the same erasures and violent logic at play in the celebrations that took place shortly after it was revealed that Osama Bin Laden had been killed. There are a number of ways to read, indeed recognize, the violence in that moment of elation:
At one level, one might say that war is in and of itself a celebration of violence. Think about the logic of war: identify an enemy, attempt to annihilate the enemy, and then, upon the enemies’ demise, celebrate your victory over the enemy. The photographs that we have all seen, of soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, standing beside their captives smiling into the camera or signaling a thumbs up, provide ample evidence for the fact that the celebration of violence does not simply mark the end of war but , in fact, constitutes its essence. So when we look back upon the celebrations that took place in the aftermath of OBL’s killing, we can see the ideology of war, an ideology that celebrates violence, at play.
Some will raise objections to this reading of war; they will say that the celebration of OBL’s death was not a celebration of violence, but a celebration in spite of violence. But if we take this to be true, then celebration in spite of violence is no less violent, for it must then be understood as an act enabled by the erasure or disavowal of violence. Indeed, in order for that moment to have been celebrated, the partiers would have had to suspend logic for a while; they would have had to overlook the violence of the 9.5 years of war, and the incalculable loss of lives, money, and morality that it has brought with it. These erasures of history, these disavowals of the truth, must also be understood as violent.
In the aftermath of Osama Bin Laden’s killing, it is telling that few voices have taken issue with that act. And even the few that have attempted to challenge the ‘killing as justice’ narrative, have stopped short of a truly ethical debate about that act or what it implies about us. Rather than engaging with the question of violence, critics of the ‘assassination’ have questioned the ‘validity’ of that act through a discourse that, in most ‘liberal’ societies, has come to stand in for and limit the realm of ethics; that is, the discourse of the law.
The Law acts as a body through which the ethics of our actions as a nation are measured; but the problem of the law is that its logic is largely tautological. If the Law recognizes an act as in accordance with its laws then it is lawful. If a legal claim is not recognized then it is rendered unrecognizable. And if an act is found to be in opposition to the law, then it is unlawful.
Ok, but what happens when the violence that I have described here – the violence that enables the killing of certain kinds of people, but also the violence of disavowal and erasure – is not recognized by the law as unlawful, either because the legal claim is not recognized (see the dismissed case of U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, whose targeted killing was issued by the Obama Administration) or, even more dangerously, because the law finds the act to be lawful. Does an act of violence that is not recognized by the law as violent cease to exist as violence?
The problems and discursive limits of the litigation in the War on Terror can also be understood through this conundrum. The ‘ethical’ body that acts as a check and balance for the Executive’s actions in this war is the Law, but more often than not, this ethical body recognizes, and therefore affirms, so much of our state-sanctioned violence as ‘lawful.’
In the face of these limitations, we cannot rely upon the Law as a moral compass. Our only recourse is to widen the scope of what violence means, widen it such that we are able to recognize these purposefully overlooked forms. Our only recourse is to re-insert omitted vocabularies, like the vocabulary of violence, back into a discourse that has quite successfully been reconstituted by other words, like justice, redemption, retribution.
If we do not insist upon this, we may travel so far into the realm of the delusion that whenever someone attempts, as I have here, to convey the most obvious aspect of an act like the killing of a man, even a monster (if you prefer), like Osama Bin Laden, as violence, the obvious will continue to accost the reader as absurd. The normalization of the absurd, the erasures that take place through this normalization, the celebrations that are enabled by these erasures, ALL constitute violence. Our violence.
Note: Much of the theoretical framework for this article comes from scholars who precede me, including Judith Butler, Freud, Zizek, Talal Asad and Mahmood Mamdani. This work has also benefited greatly from intellectual, challenging and strengthening conversations with friends and interlocutors, Beena Ahmad, Amna Akbar, and Curtis Murungi. Traces of their voices can be found everywhere in this work.