Thursday, 23 May 2013

Identity and Empathy in the Logics of "Terror"

When Islamophobia explodes across England because an individual who happens to be a Muslim commits an act of violence, it suggests our Kingdom is not as United as our politicians like to think. In the wake of the murder of a British soldier in Woolwich, we would do well to take a step back and turn a critical lens on our media before we feel the need to lock ourselves in our homes for fear of the terrorists in our midst.

“In the life of a nation, we’re called up to define who we are and what we believe”1.

George Bush uttered these famous words in defence of the US decision to send military forces to Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf crisis. Bush, like most politicians, was linking identity to national security by saying identity is something we must define, enclose within national boundaries, and send troops abroad to kill and die in the name of its assumed unity. In these types of state-centric narratives of identity, we do not and must not identify with the suffering of those outside our national borders. There is the nation and there is outside the nation. “The boundaries of a state’s identity are secured by the representation of danger”2.  It is through danger which we define who we are because danger is intrinsically Other and outside ourselves. It is a representation of what we do not want to be and what we do not want to happen to us.

“Danger is not an objective condition. It is not a thing which exists independently of those to whom it may become a threat”3. Acts of violence are represented in different ways which tell us a lot about how we define ourselves. When the English Defence League assaulted police in Woolwich last night, this was represented by the mainstream media as a “protest” and the damaging of mosques were “attacks”. These are dangers but of a lesser and local order. There is no link to national security in the way the incidents are reported and discussed. On the other hand, a British soldier being murdered by a Muslim has been immediately labelled “terrorism”, a supposed threat to the very existence of our nation.

So who is under threat? For David Cameron, this was “an attack on Britain – and on the British way of life and that “people in every community will utterly condemn this attack”. Why is this incident an attack on the “British” way of life? Why are racially motivated murders not elevated to this level of threat? Why are the lives lost to violence in working class council estates all across the UK not seen as a “threat” to our nation? These are stories of threats to people’s lives which occasionally make the news but are never seen as matters of national security. These lives are not deemed as valuable as those of British soldiers because they are not seen to embody the nation and so they are represented as local problems of an altogether less threatening nature. This is simply not the type of nation many British people want to live in and it only reinforces existing divisions over class and race to simply pretend they do not exist.

The way the Woolwich violence is represented frames our identity in a way which obscures competing perspectives on the violence and on who we are. It demands we see this attack as a threat to ourselves in a way which racial assaults and violence against young working class men are not. It demands we empathise with the victim and that we must not empathise in any way with the perpetrator. Otherwise, we are excluded from this conceptualisation of “community” which is “sickened” and intellectually paralysed with feelings of condemnation. So we are told we must feel a certain way about this because we are British. When David Cameron says “this attack sickened us all” he may be right but it sickens people in very different ways and for very different reasons. Can we not be sickened by the attack, the nationalist response, and the militaristic UK foreign policy all at the same time? Yesterday, one BBC interviewer even asked “what is that is so annoying about having British troops on their soil?”. To frame British troops invading other countries as an annoyance yet one murder in Britain as a threat to our nation exemplifies an utter dearth of empathy in Britain’s historical and current role in initiating and fomenting violent conflict, simply because it has hurt one of our own.

Condemning comes very easily but trying to understand why this happens takes effort, even empathising with people who you may find disagreeable. Some media coverage has worked to deny British people the right to make up their own minds. The video of one of the attacker’s speech was edited to deny our right to empathise by cutting out the parts where he attempts to empathise. Here is a slightly extended version where he says:

“Remove your governments, they don’t care about you. Do you think David Cameron is going to get caught in the street when we start bussing our guns? Are your politicians going to die? No, it’s going to be the average guy like you”.

You may hate the messenger but it is working class persons who are sent to wage the wars which this man himself highlighted as his reasoning behind the attack. Perhaps not going to wars in the name of national identity might make the people we choose to kill in its name feel more secure. If they felt more secure, they may be less likely to want to wage what they see as very similar wars to what happens when British troops leave our shores in the name of “freedom”.

1. Bush, George (1990) “In Defense of Saudi Arabia” in Sifry, M and Cerf, C (eds) The Gulf War Reader: History, Documents, Opinions.
2. Campbell, David (1998) Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity.
3. Campbell, David (1998).

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