At 2:49pm the bombs went off. Three people were killed, 183 injured. Millions remain petrified. And again we find ourselves asking, why did this happen?
More than a decade has passed since the September 11 attacks occurred and the subsequent War on Terror was launched. In that time, 12 sovereign nations have been subject to military invasion or interference, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and injured and millions displaced, and an unprecedented amount of laws have been proliferated radically expanding state and police powers, including intense surveillance of communities and zones of exception such as Guantanamo Bay – all of which have become disturbingly normalised.
One would imagine that after such an intense relationship with terrorism over the past decade that an interest in its underpinnings and motivations would have been sought, but, alas, our most basic understanding of terrorism has remained as shallow and pathetic as ever.
This latest Boston incident, rather than providing an opportunity to do things differently and demonstrate a more nuanced understanding of the phenomenon of terrorism, has simply served to re-entrench familiar narratives and responses which have evidently failed since 2001. Perhaps this was inevitable given that the Boston attacks were immediately hailed as ‘Boston’s September 11’, thus locking them into an infinite cycle of repetition, which has proven increasingly difficult to evade. It has also locked us again into playing out the trauma of terror and the intense emotions that refuse to dissipate.
And so with the comforting shock, anger, and cathartic celebrating of counterterrorism and martial law techniques with the chant ‘USA, USA, USA!’, we see the same old questions asked and the same tired responses grip public discourse once more. Oblivious to the richness of such questions, Americans again asked why and how any person could possibly harm innocent lives? It’s like watching a bad Hollywood rendition: same actors, a predictable script, and always a cringe-worthy and unsatisfying portrayal of America as the omnipotent and innately innocent victor in the end. Crying women and children, people fleeing, bloodied bodies and acts of heroism dominated our screens.
The blasts from the bombings and the immediate terror were unceasingly repeated sending us into a hypnotic trance and provoking a baseline response of horror. Just like September 11, we were being asked to relive the moment with America, share in its terror, share in its fight against The Enemy. We came to imagine America as an innocent bystander under attack by an amorphous enemy, who we never are supposed to really know.
Flooded by a cascade of emotive images and commentary, has there been time to reflect on the political backdrop that colours these events? To think about how the past 12 years have been characterised by the militarisation of both domestic and international space, how the American government daily drops bombs on innocent people around the world, tortures and detains, lies and deceives to invade and occupy countries, props up and supports brutal and corrupt regimes – and all in the name of democracy? Amidst the outrage at the violence of the bombers, and the applause at the violence used to bring ‘justice’ for Bostonians, one might easily forget these terrifying realities are brought to bear by America’s 800 military bases around the world.
To therefore have no inkling as to why some people might have ill feelings towards the United States demonstrates an extreme ideological insulation at best, an abashedly willing ignorance at worst. Or perhaps Orwell was chillingly right in his predictions. The fact that Americans would be shocked at the ‘unprovoked’ nature of terrorist attacks suggests that – despite its political reality – they do not consider themselves to be in a state of war, thus bringing to full fruition the notion of ‘war is peace’. The portrayal of the September 11 attacks as an initiation of war (rather than as a response to the prolonged objective violence enacted by the United States in how it engages the rest of the world) is testament to this alarming state of affairs.
But such a portrayal also de-politicises, de-historicises, and altogether de-contextualises the events of September 11 – and all subsequent terrorist attacks. The idea that terrorists are driven blindly by extremist ideologies or insanity and not by political motivations has pushed governments across the world to spend large swaths of public money on de-radicalisation programs, aimed at promoting a ‘moderate’ understanding of Islam so as to dissuade potential terrorists from enacting violence. Meanwhile, much of the literature on terrorism has focused on the psychological characteristics of terrorists, both in an attempt to create terrorist profiles for police use, as well as to understand the mindset of a madman, firm in the belief that the problem of terrorism emanates from the mind of the individual. This is despite the most comprehensive study of terrorists ever undertaken, here in our very own Flinders University, illustrating that no common psychological characteristics exist between terrorists, and that no personality disorders are evident. The principle cause established in the study of more than 20 years of terrorism cases, which any young Palestinian – or Chechen – boy could have taught us, was political motivation.
But the Boston response, following obediently in the footsteps of those before it, ignores such inconvenient facts. Nothing illustrates this more succinctly than the current media frenzy surrounding the suspects of the case, with an intense focus on their personality and beliefs, highlighting much of what is wrong with our approach to terrorism. Friends and family are being asked about the characters of the young men, as if that in itself will indict them, when in fact it further instils anxiety as we soon discover – perfectly in line with the research – that ‘they were so normal!’ The proliferation of images of the young men, along with the fetishised, almost pornographic, discussion of the most private aspects of their lives, means that the possibility of a fair and free trial is nearing impossible. In this way, the suspects feel the full brunt of law’s violence, whilst simultaneously being denied any of its protections. In fact, again demonstrating all that is wrong with the treatment of terror suspects, the declaration that ‘justice is served’ has already been served, despite the fact that neither of the suspects has even been charged, let alone tried or convicted. Here the definition of the term ‘suspect’ loses its presumption of innocence, and is instead replaced with the understanding: innocent until proven Muslim.
An interrogation of the suspects’ interests has also shown that they have watched Islamic lectures online, including some by Australian sheikh, Feiz Mohammad. The profile of the sheikh is also now being produced in an attempt to cast further suspicion upon him and the entire Muslim community. The racist logic of this narrative of profiling cannot be ignored. Uprooted from a broader context, Muslims are depicted as pathologically violent and full of rage, untrustworthy, enemies of democracy and the rule of law, and needing constant management and surveillance. As a result they are pressured to constantly perform their loyalty to the state via means of condemnation of terrorists and love and appreciation for (the right) authority, with many obliging obediently. Having uncritically accepted George W Bush’s simplistic dichotomy of there only existing two sides to the terrorism debate, many Muslim groups, disagreeing with terrorist tactics, have unashamedly chosen to participate in this reductionist narrative rather than showing a political will that hasn’t entirely been manufactured by the logic of Islamophobia.
However, the stakes are always increasing in such a relationship. With condemnation no longer sufficing, we see Muslims today resorting to further extremes to prove their unfettered loyalty to the state. In the Boston case, aside from the predictable and counterproductive bouts of condemnation, a number of Muslim groups have refused or expressed an unwillingness to afford the deceased suspect proper Islamic burial rites, with one group going so far as to denounce him as an apostate. The fear and anxiety which permeates Muslim communities directly following a terrorist attack is crippling. Increased calls for Muslims to spy on one another has created a climate of fear and suspicion and has led to an unhealthy relationship amongst Muslims, with many now blaming each other for the violent excesses of authority as well as Islamophobic attacks by the public. What we are witnessing is the internalisation of Islamophobia’s persistence of the always-guilty Muslim.
But facts seem to matter little in our discussions of terrorism, as an anxious public is quite happy to concede more and more in the zero-sum relationship between their rights and police powers, apparently in search of a sense of security. Perhaps they forget that throughout history, the greatest threats to security and individual freedoms have always come from government, and that constitutions, human rights and international law were set up specifically to restrict the violent powers of states and minimise their potential to abuse subjects they consider undesirable. And such abuses are not restricted to history either, as police have shown through their ‘shoot to kill’ policy that they’re most willing to kill innocent people, as happened with the violent murder of Charles De Menezes in London in 2005, who was mistaken for a terror suspect and shot by police seven times in the head at a public subway.
Perhaps the ideological insularity, the inadequacies of today’s narratives on terrorism, and the depressing political realities trampled by a tiresome national bravado of USA, USA, USA! are best illustrated in Obama’s response: ‘As Americans, we refuse to be terrorised.’ Perhaps we should consider for a moment that the rest of the world might do so too.