Three Perspectives on Death, Suicide and Mass Murder – Part II

Talal Asad

Asad’s volume, “On Suicide Bombing”, develops a three-tiered genealogy of the conditions through which terrorism, suicide terrorism and the affectivity of horror that is the subject of the prior two categories are rendered intelligible or significant as political phenomena. And like Mbembe’s theory of Necropower/Necropolitics, Asad is wary of explanations positioning terrorism within a Manichean dialectic of civilization vs barbarism in their thinking of the “value” or meaning of these acts. Likewise, Asad is dismissive of the “Clash of Civilizations” thesis that took root in the popular and political-realist imaginary in the wake of 9/11. For Asad, as for Mbembe, the significance of these acts is constituted in a complex play of competing values, reversals and ironies that is the proper subject of genealogical critique. It follows that the contest of values and meanings assigned or ascribed to terrorism (and counterterrorism) implicate liberal democratic societies in the codifications of violence and law as much as they do Islamic states and cultures.

Terrorism is an epistemological object in modern society, something that calls for theorization (what is terrorism?) as well as for practical information gathering (how can one forestall this danger?). These two tasks are dependent on each other. Terrorism, however, is more than the object of these tasks. It is also an integral part of liberal subjectivities (the urge to defeat political terror, the fear of social vulnerability, the horror and fascination with death and destruction), although terror itself is dismissed as being essentially part of a nonmodern, nonliberal culture.

In doing so, Asad unsettles the narrative “in which rational democrats in the West react defensively to destructive terrorism from the East” by charting an expansive historical space in which “violence circulates” and basic presumptions about the coherence of motives and agencies produced by conventional geopolitical explanations (and valorizations) falter in their account of the constitutive conditions in which violence is enacted and legitimized.

Asad’s argues that liberal-democratic societies’ identification of terrorism as an object justifying various kinds of humanitarian military interventions and novel policing structures generates a liberal politics of intervention undergrided by a peculiar blend of compassion and cruelty.  He points to Michael Walzer’s Arguing About War, which argues for a dichotomy between terrorism and civilized forms of warfare which defines the destruction of terrorism as its essence and the collateral destruction of conventional military powers as an excess. By Asad’s account, Walzer imagines that the military commander only “crosses the line” into wanton destruction as a last resort when the patience and regard for the inviolability of civilian life is exhausted by military necessity, and even then only does so reluctantly (read: weighted with that pathos of guilt). Walzer’s is effectively a moral argument, rather than an ethical one, which inquires about the particularities of evil and the “moral limits of justified counterviolence”.  Instead, Asad poses an effective counter discourse: “What does the adoption of particular notions of death-dealing do to military conduct in the world?”. In doing so, Asad unsettles the terms in which the violence of liberal military interventions are legitimized:

If state killing is authorized on the basis of due proportionality and military necessity (as humanitarian law requires of conduct in war), and if the question of what is proportional or necessary cannot be determined without regard to overall war aims as well as military strategy (there are always war aims in every war), every kind of forceful means can be – and is – used in war on that basis, including the destruction of civilians and the terrorizing of entire populations.

The shift in register brings the subject of intervention into sharper focus by shifting the emphasis away from the actions of military commander towards “what he has judged necessary and then chosen to do”. This brings military action into the “interpretive process that lies at the heart of modern ethics”. This is a distinction that is decidedly not extended or applied to the terrorist by arguments like Walzer’s.

Terrorism, conversely, is conceived as an object rather than a subject:

Terrorism is a generalized construct derived from our concepts of morality, law, and the rules of war, whereas actual terrorist are shaped by culture, ideology and politics–specific inchoate factors and notions that motivate diverse actions […] In other words, the discourse of terrorism is dependent on a constructed object (not an imaginary object) about which information can be collected.

In this way, terror becomes an object of discourse, enabling “a redefinition of the space of violence in which bold intervention and rearrangement of everyday relations can take place and be governed in relation to terror”.

Asad then turns his focus to suicide bombing itself, unsettling questions about the motives of suicide attackers, and the significance of the acts themselves.  The intentions of these kinds of attacks are usually apparent, and do not require construction or reconstruction in the same way as motivations do, and so the divining of motives preoccupies this section of his study.

Asad argues that notions of sacrifice (sacri-ficium or making holy) are inadequate to describing the concept of martyrdom (shahid) in the political imaginary of Islam. As an explanation, which loads the gesture of suicide with a Christian significance, it is therefore inappropriate (even if it remains significant to Asad’s argument as an idea). So too are psychoanalytic explanations, such as Etienne’s, which posit suicide terrorism as a kind of neurosis of the death wish, of which “war is the outlet”. Even if these kinds of questions productively trouble the coherence of the suicidal agent (does he/she decide?; are they compelled by unconscious desires?), the civilizing pretenses of guilt are no bar to the repetition to the transgression of the laws of war (see above). Moreover,

war is not a neurosis but a collectively-organized, legitimized, and moralized game of destruction that is played out much more savagely by the civilized than the uncivilized.

The problem, for Asad, is that explanations that account for motives require “typologies of action that are conventionally recognized and to which individuation is central”.

For example, by the juridical system that determines (by using one or other psychological theory) guilt and innocence, or by theologies of salvation that trace the origin and consequences of sin, or by a secular theory of the unconscious that claims to make us understand our perplexed unhappiness.

He argues that the “uniqueness” of suicide bombing resides in its contingency, suggesting that the horror (a state of being distinct from terror that involves admiration and a kind of sublime pleasure or desire) terrorism provokes is essential to understanding the phenomenon, connecting this horror with the transcendental values ascribed to the crucifixion (obviously the most potent image of self-sacrifice in the Christian imaginary). I won’t elaborate on this too much (it’s not far off some of Sontag’s arguments, and draws from Bataille’s interpretation of the infamous Leng Tche photo).  Nonetheless, the analysis yields to an elaboration of

the complex genealogy that connects contemporary sensibilities about organized collective killing and the value of humanity with the Christian culture of death and love, a genealogy that I think needs to be properly explored. For what needs to be identified here is not simply the willingness to die or to kill but what one makes of death – of one’s own death and that of others.

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