Silencing Propaganda: When Art and Speech Become Violent

Last week, my history class discussed the death of Thami Mnyele, a South African anti-apartheid activist and artist who was killed in an attack by South African forces in Botswana. Mnyele, the subject of a biography by Diana Wylie (which was our reading for class), was a South African artist whose works went from emotional depictions of oppression under Apartheid to campaign posters as a part of the Medu Art Ensemble. He was also an anti-apartheid activist influenced by Black Consciousness and was a part of the ANC’s militant wing. Despite not being a high-level ANC leader, Mnyele was killed as a part of South Africa’s famous raid on Gaborone in 1985, when South African soldiers crossed into Botswana in the middle of the night to attack a number of ANC safe houses.

My professor told us to ignore his militant side and asked what it meant to consider whether or not his murder was legal. What it meant to even think about saying it was okay to go across borders to kill an activist. I pointed out that it gives credence to South Africa’s argument that propaganda is violent. But I didn’t say that because I thought the government was wrong – propaganda can definitely be just as violent as a gun or a bomb – words and images have power. I was merely pointing out that contemplating whether or not crossing borders to kill activists is okay implies that it could be. But I suppose the real question is, at what point is it okay to silence that speech? And back to my professor’s point, what does it mean to consider that as an option?

Looking at Mnyele’s art (Wylie’s book is replete with images), my mind kept coming back to Aaron Bady’s recent ruminations on free speech and its place in America. In looking for the line between speech and violence, he argues:

My point is not that any of this is or isn’t legitimate; some forms of speech are odious, and if the state has a right to prohibit, criminalize, and punish “violence,” then criminalizing speech is just one of those things it’s going to do, and does. But the difference between behaviors which are prohibited and those which are protected has nothing to do with the red line between speech and violence, and never has, because  no such line exists.

We’ve been dealing with this a lot, be it freedom to camp in parks as expression or right to post other people’s photographs online. To what extent is expression or speech or art okay, and to what extent does it need to be silenced by censorship, arrest, or even murder? At what point is shooting up an Obama campaign sign or tweeting that #AGoodJew is #ADeadJew something that must be stopped? And at the more extreme end, at what point does anti-state speech warrant assassination? Mnyele was clearly an enemy of the South African government – he was actively opposed to its rule, and worked against it – militarily, yes, but primarily through art and recruitment. Similarly, Anwar al-Awlaki was allegedly involved in planning some terror attacks, but his true value to al Qaeda lie in his ability to preach and recruit for the cause; Samir Khan was an editor for a magazine published by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Like Mnyele, neither were high level operatives, but both were effective recruiters through propaganda. Both were American citizens killed by a drone strike in Yemen without due process, solely because of the threat their speech possessed.

In light of the drone strike, the questions mentioned before have been flipped around. Because Apartheid = Bad, and America = Good, al Awlaki’s death is made to seem okay. Instead, people are left to debate what it means to even consider that killing him was wrong. People who raise his rights as an American citizen and point to his low-threat position in militant operations are shunned in the name of national security. “But he was al Qaeda.” But what does it mean to consider that this killing is okay? Again, it means that you’re giving credence to the state’s assertion that preaching and publishing warrants death. And again, it’s not that recruiting through speech and expression can’t have negative effects – it’s that we haven’t been able to find the point at which it’s okay (and as a result, find the point at which it’s not okay) to silence our opposition. And this is because, perhaps like the line between speech and violence – it doesn’t exist. The state will always weild its right to crack down on its enemies, we just have to wait and see who falls into what category. The government will decide who falls into the category threatening enough to put a name on a list. That’s how Mnyele was targeted, and that’s how Khan and al Awlaki were targeted.

But because that wasn’t enough, al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son would be killed two weeks later, and when asked how he could justify the killing, Press Secretary Gibbs explained, “I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father if they are truly concerned about the well being of their children.” It’s not just the threat level that goes into determining if you deserve to live or die. It seems, in some cases, your lineage is enough to warrant your guilt, and therefore your assassination – but we already knew that.


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