Brussels and the Body Politic

“There is no reason for the bomb, which exploded in Ankara, not to explode in Brussels, where opportunity to show off in the heart of the city to supporters of the terror organization is presented.” – Recep Erdogan, March 21, 2016

One day later, terrorists did explode bombs in Brussels. Two at the airport, one in the metro system, killing upwards of thirty people. ISIS (ISIL/Daesh) claimed responsibility for the attacks shortly after the apprehension of Salah Abdeslam, the suspected mastermind of the November 2015 attacks in Paris. The Belgian Prime Minister commented, “What we feared has happened. We were hit by blind attacks.” But were these attacks really blind? Were they as random and indiscriminate as the comment suggests?

For many years there has been concern that a terrorist strike on the networks of social connectivity, most commonly understood to include things like power grids, communications networks, and the like, could cause considerable damage to our information-based society. In many ways this concern is warranted, although the primary targets are not those infrastructural networks under corporate control, but rather much more informal networks of face-to-face community formation.

ISIS has a record of striking a specific set of targets, most of which are not specifically military in nature: cafés, nightclubs, sports stadiums, transportation centers, marketplaces, publishing houses, historical sites, and sites of religious and cultural significance. There are a few things that stand out about this set of targets that may give us an indication of what is actually at stake. Political science has long used the concept of the domestic analogy, in which the state is essentially a large-scale individual. With this in mind, these target-sites are the arterial pathways that feed and nourish the body politic. Each of these locations must be “open” in order to operate at all. That is, they must allow for a free flow of people and the ideas they bring. As such, they are the soft targets, the very locations in which our sense of community with each other forms and grows. They cannot be anything but soft. Extremism is an illness that would seek to rupture all of our arteries.

Attacks on these particular types of targets present a particular type of challenge. It is a challenge to the understandings that we have of ourselves. We like to think of ourselves as being progressive, open, accepting, and “liberal.” Extremism is a blatant affront to that image. We are correct to challenge and resist it, but we must be extremely cautious not to become a mirror image of the illness that threatens us.

In the moment of crisis there is a relatively narrow range of responses available to us as individuals. These can be typically classified as “fight, flight, or freeze.” They are raw survival tools, and they are extremely useful as such. However, they are far less useful in any condition outside of the immediate crisis. And by immediate crisis I mean the moments when the ceiling tiles are collapsing upon you, when the bullets are flying directly over your head. In any moment beyond that, they are far too restrictive.

We must be cautious that we do not permit the state to limit its responses to these three very primitive ones. And yet this is precisely what our current politicians are doing. It is not acceptable to sit back and passively hope that things get better, to simply hope for peace, nor to hope that attacks won’t happen here. Nor is it acceptable to bow down before extremism. Given the current state of politics, and specifically of political rhetoric, the option leaders and commentators most often rush to is “fight.” This is not acceptable either.

To demonstrate why the “fight” option is not acceptable, even if a call for it is understandable, we need only look at the evidence. Violence begets violence and so it is not an effective means to put a stop to it. The problem at the moment is that our language of security is entirely steeped  in violence. In its current use, what security means is more men — and it is primarily men — in uniform with guns, more “hardening” of the various arterial pathways of the society we hope to defend. It is a variation of the illness that is killing us in the first place. Like terrorism, anti-terrorism is a social coronary disease.

Look for example at the evidence provided to us by recent events in Turkey. In the past few years, President Erdogan has followed a pathway of highly divisive politics that works to replicate multiple iterations of “us versus them.” Clear lines are being drawn between Turkey and ISIS, between Erdogan’s party and the political opposition, between Kurds and Turks, and so on. The net effect of all of this division has been an increase in the number of incidents of social unrest, and attacks from Kurdish separatists and from ISIS. The cycle becomes self-reinforcing because the attacks provide evidence that tighter security is required, which works in turn to deepen the divisions in the society. This feeds back into some marginalized people feeling justified in the application of further violence, and the cycle continues on its horrific, oppressive, and bloody downward spiral.

We should pay attention, then, when Erdogan says (somewhat presciently) that the bombs that went off in his country may well be the bombs that go off in Brussels tomorrow. We need to understand this comment more than literally. We need to understand him as speaking about a societal bomb, a political bomb. Erdogan’s experience in Turkey can provide an outstanding model of what not to do. It is a clear indicator that doing more of the same will bring us only more of the same.

The cycle is the trap into which politicians presented as “mainstream,” including Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, fall. The problem is not resolved by a greater intensity of the application of violence, but exacerbated by it. There is a common theme in the politics of division, which is to assert that the root of the problem is to be found “over there,” or “with them.” Yet this overlooks the fact that the majority of the recent attacks in Europe and in the USA are carried out by local people, against local targets, making use of local matériel.

The nature of these attacks indicates at least two things. On the one hand it renders every neighbor a possible suspect, every local landmark a possible target, every shopkeeper a possible aid to terror. On the other hand it eliminates the falsity that the problem is “over there.”

How could one form a society based on such levels of suspicion? The very fact that we have a society at all indicates that these levels of suspicion are relatively new and not given or natural. The primary weapon of the terrorist is not the explosive vest or the AK-47, but paranoia and suspicion. These are the same weapons deployed by the anti-terrorist forces. Their presence alone is indicative of their “foreignness,” though this is not to be understood as a geopolitical reference; they are foreign to our humanity.

Terrorism and the state dominated anti-terrorism that accompanies it are the veritable unmaking of society, the undoing of the human being. The spectacular violence they produce is a critical test of survival for an emerging humanity. Is humanity strong enough to continue believing in itself? This question is experienced on an individual level as a test of faith in the worth of humankind. Is this thing that we are creating — that we are becoming — viable? The suffering serves as an exploratory probe, or perhaps an ultrasonic scan of our emerging but still embryonic humanity. What it reveals is that, so long as we continue along exactly the same path we have been on for centuries, any further development will remain stunted, and may even be terminated entirely.

What the circumstances actually call for is a reconfiguration of the concept of security. We do not increase security by calling in more people with guns. We do not necessarily increase security by scrutinizing more and more data, by being scanned by more machines, by removing more of our clothing, or by standing in the ever-increasing lines that these new technologies generate. Rather the lines themselves become new targets. The attacks in Belgium are a stark and horrific reminder of this. They are a reminder that security, or at least what we call security, goes hand-in-hand with the violence and insecurity it is intended, at least ostensibly, to counteract.

Human beings have a relatively long history of using various spaces and activities to gestate societies. This is what the marketplace is. The sports team, the workplace, the daily commute, the classroom. The nightclub, the pub, the community center. This is what religion is. They are wombs out of which communities grow. But this is also what the boot camp is.

What kind of society grows in a security lineup? Is it the type of society that we would choose to live in?

Extremism, whatever its shape, color, or content, is the invasive species. It is the pathogen that would shatter the balance of an existing ecosystem, replacing it with its own monoculture. It is for this reason that a closely considered philosophically and theoretically informed critique of terrorism, its targets, and its thought patterns is so urgently needed. It is quite clear that “doing something” must urgently include “doing theory” even if (and maybe especially because) the latter is currently considered “doing nothing.”

A complete solution may be out of reach, yet it is perhaps possible to lay out a few preliminaries for what an alternative might look like. The first preliminary is that you cannot expect any new or original answer with an approach dictated by fear. You can expect more of the same. It is therefore important that responses to extremism be considered with a sense of non-emotionality. Emotions must be taken into account, but response makers, including you and I, cannot become caught up in them. This does not mean that one cannot fear, but that we must learn to observe ourselves in the state of fear, as if above it. This observer position may be identified as dispassionate. This is not the same thing as uncaring.

It is not strictly speaking a “rational” or “logical” response that is required either. “Rational” approaches have already been in many ways co-opted by those who treat technology as a panacea. To call for more security cameras, more sophisticated scanning devices, more expansive datasets, or “smarter” weapons skirts around the issue that the technology itself does very little to expose the thinking behind itself. Indeed, it may even mask the problem. This is a human problem and as such not completely amenable to a technological solution.

The second preliminary requires a willingness to question one’s self and one’s assumptions about the world. This is intimately tied to the first. I hesitate to use the word “objectivity,” but it does capture something of the flavor of what is required in a response. Facing oneself, taking seriously the possibility that one might carry at least some of the blame, is a terrifying prospect that most of us would rather not face. And so we continually run in the same circles and are continually surprised when we arrive at the same outcomes. The second preliminary sounds simple, but may actually involve a complex and careful reassessment of one’s own past and present so that one might reconfigure the future. It is a willingness to revisit everything held sacred and sacrosanct so that it might be examined. This is not the same thing as a call to reject all one’s assumptions. Far from it. It is instead a call to understand them better, to reclaim pieces of them that may have been buried or lost. It is an act of reverence with the outward appearance of irreverence. It is, in short, a willingness to be wrong so that we might, as a result, be more right.

Preliminary number three is to operate under the assumption that if an answer presents itself easily, chances are it is not the correct answer. The pathways that we have for thinking about what counts as a good answer are so entrenched that what we should be looking for may easily go unrecognized. It goes without saying that this is closely related to the second point above. A willingness to be wrong includes a willingness to admit that our standards, even of what counts as a good answer, might be mistaken. Far too quickly we reject creative or innovative solutions to standing problems because they do not fit the hegemonic models for how to think about those problems.

In more concrete terms, a solution to the problem is not to be found in the abdication of responsibility for that problem to some outside source. I suspect that a solution is to be found through the enactment of programs and activities that encourage more trust rather than less. More community rather than more isolation. More openness rather than more walls. This can take all kinds of different forms that may or may not be seen, at first glance, as “appropriate responses” to the problem. Given the fact that the gut response in this type of a situation is along the lines of “less talk more action,” then perhaps a good place to begin is to counter that response by encouraging more dialogue. What is required is an avenue through which the broadly diversified voices of those who are not in the extreme might be heard.

We could do well to learn the lessons of book 24 of Homer’s Iliad. When Achilles encounters Priam there is a recognition of the self in the other, which is sorely lacking in today’s world. We must learn to break down the boundaries of the self and the body politic which have shown themselves to be time and time again far too limited, far too limiting, and, in a word, hubristic.

Chris Erickson is a professor of Political Science at the University of British Columbia. He has a PhD in Political Science from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and an MA in Philosophy from Bond University. He has appeared as an authority on international political and security issues via numerous media outlets including CBC radio and television. He is the author of The Poetics of Fear:  A Human Response to Human Security (Continuum Books, New York, 2010).

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