The term ‘terrorist’, Alain Badiou argues in ‘On September 11: Philosophy and the ‘War Against Terrorism’ has become ‘an essentially empty term,’ a ‘non-existent substance, an empty name,’ a void which is ‘precious because it can be filled’. The predicate ‘Islamic’ (or, in the past week ‘Palestinian’) has, for Badiou, no ‘other function than to give ostensible content to that form’. Palestinian, in all the fervent releases of faux outrage and alarm from the Israeli Defence Force and Netanyahu, ‘has no function except to give apparent content to the word “terrorism”, itself devoid of all content’. This is, Badiou remarks, a ‘matter of an artificial historicisation which leaves what really happened’ unthought. Thought is not prohibited, for sure – and Israel’s spokespeople and defenders are nothing if not detailed in their accumulation of charges – but what is to be thought gets policed by the term ‘terrorism’ with a confusing precision.

So it’s possible to have a debate, at times impassioned, about whether a sovereign state has the right to defend its borders. But what those borders are, how they came to be, what their maintenance, in ‘normal’ times, involves: all of this is removed from discussion at just the moment it becomes essential.

Something has shifted, though, from the world of 11 September Badiou describes. Then, the evocation of Evil was used to close off any sense of context or History. (Why do they hate us so much? No, wait, don’t answer that. Who’s even heard of Afghanistan?) Now, instead, there’s a quite informative, if horrifying, set of lessons to be learned around the response to ‘terrorism’: send Palestine back to the Middle Ages, flatten them like the US did the Japanese.

Exterminate all the brutes!

Another line ‘filling’ the ‘empty term’ terrorism offers a kind of negative map of Israeli history and aims; a psychoanalytical vocabulary of projection and identification feels useful here, as each claim advanced by the IDF against their enemies tells us quite a bit about what Israel hopes to achieve. Hamas is accused of seeking the destruction of a whole people, a task Israel carries out before us each day; borders are held sacred by a body tasked with breaching them; civilian lives are offered as the motivation for the ‘preventive execution’ of infants, children, bystanders, civilians.

Nobody actually believes any of this nonsense, of course, least of all the people making the claims. As China Mieville has argued, part of the point of the ‘lies that aren’t meant to deceive us’ is tactical and to a very particular purpose. Time spent proving, as in the latest outrage, that United Nations Relief and Work Agency schools aren’t used as terrorist shelters is time taken away from the task of documenting what actual outrages the IDF is committing, just as it contributes to a general atmosphere of defensiveness and confusion.

A sense of the deranged has its uses for terrorist forces as well, as fears about the suicide bomber (the absolute Other to ‘us’ Westerners) make clear. It’s here that the IDF’s grotesquery – ringing in warnings for families to clear areas they’re not able to leave; dropping leaflets that urge retreat at the moment this is too late; sending a random sense of fear and bewilderment through a trapped population – reproduces and enacts most clearly all the characteristics of the ‘empty term’ terrorism operation ‘Pillar of Defence’ ostensibly opposes. Terrorism needs to be terrifying, as each well-planned IDF ‘excess’ makes clear. Much like ever-shifting and ungraspable Israeli conditions for ‘peace’, terror needs to be in excess of itself, beyond the set aims of a military operation. Gaza needs to be in permanent fear, to renounce any normal rights (to self-determination, to a military defence of its people, to have elected representatives). Or what? Who knows; for me here Lear’s lines always capture the necessary, fearful incoherence of the threat of terror:

I will have such revenges on you both,
That all the world shall – I will do such things, –
What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be
The terrors of the earth.

The awfulness of what there is to see coming out of Gaza – the terror of babies killed, houses flattened, families destroyed – sets me thinking also about writing and resilience. Palestinian survival, and the struggle for Palestinian survival, gives each piece of writing and documentation a significance and an audience that other social formations can’t produce. Every Palestinian text, many in my tradition have argued, ‘even those which are seemingly private and invested with a properly libidinal dynamic – necessarily project a political dimension in the form of national allegory: the story of the private individual is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public third-world culture and society.

Manifestoes and artistic declarations from within imperialist countries often ring shrill or false not because they’re wrong or objectionable (quite often the opposite) but because they’re forced to acknowledge, no matter how obscurely, that they haven’t an audience. Poets have no public or programmatic profile in countries like Australia and can’t wish one into existence. Poets in Palestine can’t escape their public profile. There’s a detached, empty intellectuality to Don Delillo’s riffing on the connections between writers and terrorists in Mao II, a play on connections he need never more than entertain; the tens of thousands gathered in Ramallah to mourn Mahmoud Darwish faced that link as a slander. Those attempts to bridge this social gap – the best and the worst of which is fused in Adachi Masao’s PFLP Declaration of War and the tragic history of the Japanese New Left’s political suicide, underline the difference.

(An irony in writing this in New Zealand is that we possess an exception to prove my rule. Dr Pita Sharples, co-leader of the Maori Party and senior government minister, is a major poet and public intellectual. This part of his life is nowhere apparent in his usual political self-presentation, though. The author of ‘Te mihini ātea’ is active culturally in the Maori world only, however; this disjuncture suggests a similar political struggle here. Ian Wedde has written sensitively and informatively on Darwish and Palestinian poetry in a New Zealand context.)

Darwish was polemical through fidelity to a kind of lyrical documentary style:

Gaza is not the most beautiful city.
Its shore is not bluer than the shores of Arab cities.
Its oranges are not the most beautiful in the Mediterranean basin.
Gaza is not the richest city.
It is not the most elegant or the biggest, but it equals the history of an entire homeland
Because it is more ugly, impoverished, miserable, and vicious in the eyes of enemies.
Because it is the most capable, among us, of disturbing the enemy’s mood and his comfort,
Because it is his nightmare,
Because it is mined oranges, children without a childhood, old men without old age,
And women without desires,
Because of all this it is the most beautiful, the purest and richest among us
And the one most worthy of love …

Just a few days ago a ceasefire was said to be impossible without Palestinian guarantees of nothing less than total surrender. The document released now, whatever comes of it, talks of opening borders. This is a victory and a reminder of another of Darwish’s themes: defiance.

You may fasten my chains
Deprive me of my books and tobacco
You may fill my mouth with earth
Poetry will feed my heart, like blood
It is salt to the bread
And liquid to the eye
I will write it with nails,
eye sockets and daggers,
I will recite it in my prison cell –
in the bathroom –
in the stable –
Under the whip –
Under the chains –
In spite of my handcuffs
I have a million nightingales
On the branches of my heart
Singing the song of liberation.

‘Terrorism’ has, for a long time, worked as a scare-word, a way of closing conversations, a justification for state terror and ignorance of history and much else besides. It can’t do that job forever, however, and a certain representational strain is beginning to show: how many more photographs of dead babies can be contained in such a capacious term?
Against this ideological and rhetorical attempt at erasure, complementary to the physical process going on around them now, the Palestinians counter with history, memory, and appeals to the very terms of universalism the ‘West’ and its ‘we’ forgets each time it asserts its unique relation to them. Our roots are still alive is the title of an old book of Palestinian material I picked up many years ago. One poem in that collection, from the one-time mayor of Nazareth and Communist Taqfiq Zayyad feels appropriate at the moment:

Here we shall remain
A wall on your chests
We starve,
Go naked
Sing songs
And fill the streets
With demonstrations
And the jails with pride.

Dougal McNeill

Dougal McNeill teaches postcolonial literature and science fiction at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. He also blogs at Nae Hauf-Way Hoose and is an editor of Socialist Review. He’s currently writing a book on politics, modernist literature and the 1926 General Strike in Britain. He tweets as @Lismahago.

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