Bombing as Speech Act

There’s an interesting article up at Sapiens by William M. Cotter on military leaflets dropped over civilians during war in the Middle East, specifically Israeli messaging in Gaza as well as U.S. and allied leafleting over ISIS-held Raqqa. As a linguistic anthropologist, Cotter looks particularly at the language used in such leaflets, analyzing them for their strategic use in war. Looking, for example, at the vague language in messages informing Gazans to “stay away from Hamas elements,” Cotter asks, “What does the lack of specificity mean? Why are civilians only being provided with part of the story and given only a portion of the information that they need in order to avoid becoming victims of military strikes?”

The answer is of course because war – even with precision bombing and high tech missiles – doesn’t actually care about civilians or even the distinction between civilians and combatants. Especially in a place like Syria, where total war consumes lives regardless of this distinction, or in places like Gaza, perpetually stuck in interwar1 as civilians never know if violence is near. Actors such as ISIS fighters, the U.S. military and its drones, or the IDF often don’t care about this distinction either. Cotter provides some good analysis of what the messages are actually doing: they provide cover for militaries by technically “warning” civilians of impending violence but without adequately shielding them. In such instances of asymmetrical warfare, such leaflets or other messaging can act as an actual warning for civilians, but also also act as a free pass for military aggression or as a form of psychological warfare to intimidate the opponent.

While my own ongoing work on radio messages and leaflets in Uganda and the Congo resonates with this is somewhat tangential ways (and that will maybe be a forthcoming post), I want to flip the message of Cotter’s piece. The subtitle for his Sapiens article says: “Modern warfare isn’t only conducted with bombs, tanks, and guns—language also plays a central role.” But what if we think of bombs, tanks, and guns as linguistic tools?

If we conceive of bombing as a speech act, a tank as a performative, or a gun as medium, we begin to see all of warfare as communicative practice. War and violence say something, after all. Leaflets and propaganda say something about war, of course, but the politics of war-making and actual acts of war also have a lot to say. We should be attuned to violence as speech. Continue reading

Hierarchies of Mourning: Notes on Paris, Beirut, and Beyond

When I first heard news of the shootings and bombings in Paris, my heart sank. Terrorism continues to be a fear in the corner of many of our minds (and much more than that for many others), and the recent expansion of the Islamic State’s reach is definitely troubling. But I also felt so many other things that will go into this otherwise perhaps haphazard post. In mourning for victims to terror around the world, here are a few reflections on the state of things, and a call for solidarity with victims of violence.

In writing this post, ostensibly about expanding solidarity and mourning, I run the risk of trying to “score points” or “politicize” a tragedy. I aim not to earn credit of any sort, but I do aim to bring politics into an already political situation. This post is as much for readers as it is for me – to jot down what my mind keeps circling back to, to reflect, to hope for a better future.

That said, I think it’s prudent to remember the context in which so much violence continues to occur. It is not coincidence that this attack happened in the heart of France, a country where Islamophobia and xenophobia are very real, visible, tangible forces in everyday society, and a country which has committed itself to stopping Islamic extremists across North and West Africa in addition to contributing to the fight against the Islamic State, just as it is not random that the United States was the target of multiple attacks in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Acknowledging this does not excuse the violence that follows. Neither does it necessarily lead us to a solution or a recommended action. Nonetheless, I mention it because it should frame our understanding of events and frame the discussion of what comes next.

Terrorists are not irrational madmen – though we want to think of them as such – but are actually incredibly logical and methodical in where and how they carry out their brand of violence. Just as 9/11 targeted sites of America’s financial and military global might, the attacks in Paris targeted the most cosmopolitan parts of Parisian life: music, sports, cafés. The goal was to make a statement, and also to provoke a response. This is worth keeping in mind as our countries’ leaders weigh their options. As Vijay Prashad notes, Raqqa is still a city of hundreds of thousands of civilians, even as France drops bombs on it in response to Friday’s attacks. Sophia Azeb writes that “Daesh wants refugees to have no refuge. They want a global war. They want to expand the global war that the United States and other Western nations have been waging for over a decade. A lot of our heads of state want to give it to them.” If the reaction to attacking civilians is a retaliation that also takes civilian lives, we’d be hard-pressed to explain why we expect things to change for the better. As Sam Kriss notes, on politicizing such events:

There will be more war, more death, and more tragedy. The TV stations are bringing in experts to insist that this is all the fault of the migrants and the foreigners, as if refugees were carrying the violence they fled along with them. More repression, more cruelty, more pogroms. Terrorist attacks, as we all know, are carried out with the intent of setting the people against each other and sparking an intensification of the violence of the State, and so the people are duly set against each other, and the State announces its determination to do violence. This is already a politicisation of the tragedy, and to loudly speak out against it is yet another.

Looking at the history of the world, it is absolutely possible to argue that “the hellish world we live in today is the result of deliberate policies and actions undertaken by the United States and its allies over the past decades” and still mourn for the innocent lives lost. After all, those who walk the streets of Paris or work in the offices of New York or shop on the streets of Beirut are not the ones leading the world into further violence – they are the victims of it, as are students in Gaza and doctors and patients in Afghanistan.

“Their wars, our dead,” one headline says rather succinctly (“leurs guerres, nos morts”), declaring that “the only response to wars and terrorism is the unity of workers and peoples, beyond their origins, their skin color, their religions, beyond the borders.” We can condemn terrorism and recognize that state violence brings it about, all while mourning the victims of both. This is the way to speak out against the more-violence argument and still condemn terror.

Indeed, the only thing we can do is stand together against terrorism and tyranny. As Iyad El-Baghdadi notes, the objective of the Islamic State is to drive a wedge through humanity. To create a world of us versus them is to deny us all a chance at coexistence. But resisting radical terrorism and resisting imperialist wars can and should be part of the same struggle for a more peaceful and better world. If flattening the Islamic State’s territory isn’t an option (and it shouldn’t be, as it only reinforces their objective), and doing nothing isn’t an option either (and it hardly is in the face of such violence), then solidarity is at least a path forwards.

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But shared humanity has to move beyond just linking arms between New Yorkers and Parisians. In the aftermath of the massacres in Paris, there was a chorus calling for attention to the other victims of the Islamic State’s violence, not only in Syria and Iraq every day but especially in Beirut, where a suicide bomber had killed over forty people just a day before the attacks in Paris. “The problem lies in our unwillingness to confront the conditioning which has allowed us to only view certain people as victims when terror strikes,” one writer states:

We pray for those in the west, those that personify our western exceptionalism and ideals rooted in what whiteness designates as worthy of attention. We are taught to mourn with Paris, but not with Beirut or even Newark or Chicago. Social media outlets implement ways to honor certain victims, but not others. Parisians are cloaked in martyrdom while Lebanese are met with silence and blame as they await the coming of our mourning. That in itself is terrorism, for it teaches people that they aren’t valued. It places a hierarchy on who is to be grieved and is contradictory to any assertions that all lives matter.

This sort of statement is common on the left today. Sometimes likened to victim oneupsmanship or lecturing people on how to mourn, I prefer instead to see it as an urging for expanding empathy – a global #BlackLivesMatter. Beyond this, though, it’s also a strategic rejection of the Islamic State’s values. It’s not difficult to imagine that the Islamic State intended not only to strike fear into the Western world by shattering the illusion of safety, but also to “highlight our selective outrage” in the face of brown lives suffering the same fate. If the so-called “gray-zone” is endangered, our rallying behind the French flag while Lebanese, Syrian, Iraqi, and Turkish lives are forgotten helps endanger it further. (Indeed, the ubiquity of the French tricolore over profile pictures is especially important – it may intend to stand as metonym for the French victims of violence, but to many it is also a symbol that colonized Syria and Lebanon and so many others). In response to terrorism anywhere, we have to stand with victims everywhere.

I’ve referenced inequalities of war and hierarchies of humanity before. As long as there is a hierarchy of mourning for victims of terror, we’ll continue to feed into the cycles that lead directly to that terror. If we recognize those who suffer at the hands of our militaries and those who fall victim to terrorism “over there” alongside the victims “here,” in that shared humanity we can find some semblance of a future without all these types of violence.

French flags cover social media newsfeeds. Companies are flocking to express solidarité with Paris. World leaders give speeches pledging to stand with France.  President Obama said that “this is an attack not just on Paris, it’s an attack not just on the people of France, but this is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share.” None of this is wrong – it is vital to stand together with the French people, but it is also important to stand with the rest of the people who are victim to this kind of violence. Beirut’s bombing – an attack on civilians – has been framed as an attack on Hezbollah (which also pledged to fight the Islamic State before the attacks) and has not been equated as “an attack on all of humanity” by the leader of the free world. Instead, countries rush to close their gates to refugees who are the frontline victims to the same perpetrators (even though most of those involved in the Paris attacks were French and Belgian nationals).

When I visited the French Embassy and the Lebanese Embassy yesterday, both had flowers and other mementos left by those mourning for victims of violence, but the scenes were very different. Only one had four news crews outside filming segments. Only one massacre has captured the passions of so many. This should give us pause.

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In the days immediately after the attacks in Paris, I saw something peculiar on Twitter. People were tweeting about the Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria in January as if they had just happened (they did occur the same week as the Charlie Hebdo killings, prompting posts at the time not unlike this and others about Beirut now). I also saw a large number of tweets about the massacre at Garissa University in Kenya (seven million people clicked through to this BBC story, 3/4 of them from social media), similarly ahistorical. Tweeted headlines stated things like “Kenya attack: 147 dead in Garissa University assault” or “Kenya attack: 147 dead in Garissa University assault unbelievable what is this world becoming” without any hint that the messenger was comparing events from seven months apart. Indeed, some of the confusion may have come from posts making a historically conscious comparison, but many lifted the news without any context. Tweets containing the words “Kenya attack” numbered relatively low all month before peaking this weekend.

I joked that the reason these stories were re-emerging was that “everything that happens in Africa is timeless,” but this is also a serious effort to make sense of these types of occurrences. For people who had forgotten (or never knew) that Al Shabaab and Boko Haram have been carrying out violence in east and west Africa, these tweets seemed like news. People don’t forget about events that happen in Europe or America very easily, but events that happen in the Global South don’t always register in our news feeds or our minds. And if we didn’t notice it happen before, it can happen again in the context of Paris. It can be news in November because it wasn’t news in April or January.

Whenever a terrorist attack happens now, many of us in the West are reminded of 9/11, or of the bombings in London and Madrid, or of countless school shootings. I also think often of the Kampala World Cup bombings, not only because I was in Uganda at the time (way upcountry and far from the attacks, but still) and when I talk about it people seem to have no idea what I’m referencing, but also because it reminds me that these attacks happen in other parts of the world too. The Islamic State’s reach into Parisian streets and Russian airliners is definitely a troubling thing to come to terms with – one’s vulnerability always is – but we have to remember that this is a fear shared by those living within the Islamic State’s reach, often exponentially.

This doesn’t lessen our mourning for the victims of Paris at all. Rather, it should expand our mourning to all those who suffer, to put us back into the realm of empathy and coexistence and solidarity. This is a fundamentally important point that I am trying to make: I am not arguing that it is wrong to mourn for or stand with the victims of the attack in Paris, only that we can do even more, and stand with humanity in the face of bombs and guns. So when Sophia Azeb asks of the articles and thinkpieces that emerge after incidents like these, “Do we want to be a little more human, or a little less, as this rock we live on hurtles around the sun?” I hope that, in calling for solidarity in mourning, I lean to a world a little more human.

Inequalities of War

When I first heard that a recent U.S. airstrike hit an MSF hospital, I was appalled. MSF does critical work to help those in need, regardless of who they are, in especially dangerous situations. They often provide care when nobody else will, and their neutrality is critical to their ability to do that. This work treats people based on their humanity alone. Hearing that their work suffered such a tragedy is awful news.

But I’m also not surprised. The way that the U.S. has been conducting warfare, it was bound to happen. Things like this have already happened. Jails have been bombed. Funerals, too. In the first year of coalition fighting against ISIS, they have reportedly killed more than 500 civilians in Syria and Iraq [pdf].

This is what comes from bombing everything that moves. The New York Times reported that “the joke was that when the C.I.A. sees “three guys doing jumping jacks,” the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp, said one senior official.” And this line of thinking leads to things like classifying the dead – after killing them already – in a manner that “in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”

This may seem like a tangent, but the inequality of lives on the ground versus American lives is one that leads to a lack of oversight or a trigger-happy order that leaves a long trail of fatalities.

Dider Fassin writes about the “inequality of lives” in the context of MSF in a very different, but enlightening, way. In an essay titled “Inequalities of Lives, Hierarchies of Humanity” in the edited collection In the Name of Humanity, Fassin highlights flaws in humanitarianism’s attempt to treat all lives as equal in light of the fact that some are more privileged than others.

Fassin’s chapter highlights the perceived differences between those who assist and those who are assisted; those who are sacred and those who are sacrificed. He also cites the death of MSF workers in Iraq – and the organization’s subsequent handling of that incident – as emblematic of this hierarchy. It’s an analysis that may very well prove relevant as more information comes out about the recent US bombing and as the media and state narratives about it continue to take shape. But for now, I think the framing of hierarchies and inequalities also applies to the bombing itself.

MSF released a statement charging that the US knew the hospital was there before and during the sustained bombing campaign:

As it does in all conflict contexts, MSF communicated the precise locations of its facilities to all parties on multiple occasions over the past months, including most recently on September 29.

The bombing in Kunduz continued for more than 30 minutes after American and Afghan military officials in Kabul and Washington were first informed by MSF that its hospital was struck.

The decision to knowingly bomb an area close to a hospital (or, even worse, bomb a hospital directly and intentionally) is a decision made on a calculation. Whose bodies are worth protecting, and whose are worth sacrificing? Time and again, civilian lives in the Middle East are not worth as much as others’. Even doctors treating patients cannot be exempt from the warfare going on around them. As Fassin writes: “under the moral economy of Western armies, the sacrifice of civilians is the undesired but necessary burden of, at best, establishing human rights or exporting democracy or at worst, of protecting private and national interests.”