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‚ÄčThe Pageantry of Political Violence


In the Palestinian movie Paradise Now, there is a scene in which the two protagonists record a video testimony for their kin, planning to blow themselves up in a suicide attack against the Israeli occupation. The recording goes clumsily and a second take has to be done, showing the ridiculous pomp inherent in such attempts at martyrdom. The movie was made in 2006.

Contrast this elaborate planning and ritual with some of the more chaotic terrorist attacks of recent years: men armed only with knives and cars, driving into pedestrians or stabbing commuters. These terrorists are often radicalized on the internet or in small peer groups, hail from all sides of the political spectrum, and often only have a cursory understanding of the ideology they are performing the deed for. The writer Ray Valentine characterizes these lone wolves and their acts as a symptom of the disintegration of structures that have historically enabled mass political mobilization. If they have any impact at all, it will be to accelerate that process, not to arrest the breakdown.(1)

Valentine mentions the hollowing out of the commons and a lack of sites of resistance to the current model of society as a cause of people violently lashing out (whether alone or as part of a radical movement), but it is also precisely this unchanging nature that creates a belief that the chance of sudden upheaval is dismal. Fukuyama's thesis in The End of History was that with the fall of the Soviet Union liberal democracy prevailed and there were no challengers to this ideological hegemony. In more somber accounts, it gets formulated as a lack of imagination in coming up with alternatives to neoliberal capitalism. Political violence has been unable to shake it up so far: even the banking crisis and post-9/11 climate of perpetual war hardly seems to have shook the system over the past decade.

In such an environment, political violence is pure pageantry: rhetoric of a grand caliphate, a genocide of white people or a fascist regime that needs to be overthrown creates an enemy in whose light every action is justifiable. But by instantly reaching towards the most extreme of solutions, it both skirts the hard work of building a movement through time and patience, and also reaches back into the past for an answer (small wonder the ideologies feeding the three types of rhetoric mentioned above are all relics proven wrong by history). This betrays a lack of imagination on part of the agitators: they adopt the trappings of a muhjahdeen while gorging themselves on decadent pleasures, claim to be patriots while donning the jackboots of a regime that wanted to subjugate them or claim to be anti-authoritarian while carrying the red flags of some of the most dictatorial governments the world has known.

This even forgoes the constantly descending death toll of terrorist acts on a global scale, or the inflation of what counts as a street fight in an era in which protest tactics really as much on getting the other party to commit an incriminating act on camera as they do on fisticuffs. Political violence has lost purpose and impact, and casting it as pure theater means the question of morality and in which cases an exception should or could be made is irrelevant. Anyone who brings it out of the realm of fantasy is someone who will be wholly ineffective at changing the world.

[1] Ray Valentine, Odd Future Lone Wolf in Orchestrated Pulse(18 July 2016). http://www.orchestratedpulse.com/2016/07/lone-wolf/