Illusions of Terrorism and Democracy

XU*5034480The recent bombings in Beirut elevates Lebanon to the ironic status of a democratic country, in the modern Western sense of the term. Sadly, this is no privilege at all, more of a burden really. As I argued earlier, Terrorism as a particular form of carrying out political action is only possible if certain democratic structures are part of society’s general culture. Terrorism targets the feelings of civilians because the latter can, through this particular human disposition, extract concessions from political elites.

After 2005, most assassinations in Lebanon involve a mix of vendetta types of violence that target political actors and this “democratic” form of politics. Vendetta types of violence do not necessarily target the feelings or views of a specific group of people, only political actors. Terrorism though does and is peculiar to the modern age. There is no terrorism without some form of democratic politics as understood through liberal ideals of representations (such as individualism, freedom of choice, mass consumption economy, etc.) and the political setting of the Nation-State. Wherever there were terrorist attacks in the non-Western world, it is noticeable that they always involved a political message either to foreign countries (say attacking touristic sites, nightclubs), or local political regimes that are democratic in the sense that the “feelings” of their societies can have a direct bearing on the political process.

Yet even though nowhere before have we been faced with the immediacy of distant death, nowhere before have we been so distant to killings that are incurred by people who are trying to send a message to us. In effect, terrorism targeting civilians is not targeting the people who were actually killed but potentially any people that are part of a political delineated community (here the Shi’i community but also the Lebanese, and so on). Terrorism in this sense is one of these rare instances where violence is used on a person or group who is not the real target.

To come to the recent suicide explosion in Dahyeh, I’m not here analyzing the political message sent to the elite (Hizbullah’s political party, or whoever is incurring such attacks) or to the constituency of a political movement or organization. I’m more interested in what people actually do about it. Although people can be “terrorized” by what is happening they seem helpless as to what to do about it. Can they really force political actors to change their course of actions?

Then, Terrorism is doomed because on the one hand it assumes that the feelings that civilians have, fueled by media strategies, are going to influence political elites to do something about it, and on the other hand, it assumes that civilians feelings are in themselves a motive of political change. Raw emotions do not create interesting change at the political level. Only does reason. And it is reason that is the stuff from which political decisions are made.

This is why terrorism is a victim of the media effect, and democracies or ideals of democracies are experienced as a spectacle in today’s societies. In our modern political systems that are animated by the technological and media industry, “feelings” and “emotions” understood in a raw sense are the primary human traits that is meant to dictate political action. This is why terrorism exist. In the absence of such human predisposition, terrorism would not be a viable weapon.

Here lies one of the contradictions of the culture of democracies and how they are the source of  their own misery. Democracies as they function today involve a politics of emotions that traditionally was never linked to politics as such. It does not mean that traditionally, feelings where not getting in the way of correct handling of political matter, far from it. War practices always involved forms of cruelties that surely were triggered by specific types of emotions and feelings and in turn triggered these types of feelings. But never, were feelings used in a way were curtailed by higher forms of politics that ordered the way agreements were reached, successions were arranged, or war were started.

Nietzsche: Prophet of the Twentieth Century?

From Human All too Human, “A Glance at the State”
Paragraph 472:

But what if a quite different conception of government such as is taught in democratic states begins to prevail? If it is regarded as nothing but the instrument of the popular will, not as an Above in relation to a Below but merely as a function of the sole sovereign power, the people? Here the attitude towards religion adopted by the government can only be the same as that adopted towards it by the people; every dissemination of enlightenment must find its echo in their representatives, and an employment and ex- ploitation of the religious drives and consolations for political ends will no longer be so easy (unless it happens that powerful party leaders for a time exercise an influence similar to that of enlightened despotism). But if the state is no longer free to profit from religion itself or the people come to hold far too diverse opinions on religious matters for the government to be permitted any single unified policy regarding religious measures – then the way out will necessarily be to treat religion as a private affair and to hand it over to the conscience and customs of every individual. The first consequence of this will be an apparent strengthening of religious feeling, inasmuch as suppressed and concealed manifestations of it to which the state involuntarily or deliberately gave no breathing space now break forth and proceed to excesses and extremes; later religion will be overrun with sects, and it will become plain that at the moment religion was made a private affair an abundance of dragon’s teeth were sown. The sight of this conflict, the malignant exposure of all the weaknesses of the religious confessions, will finally admit of no other way out than that every better and better gifted man will make irreligion his private affair: which disposition will then come to dominate the minds of those in government and, almost against their will, give to the measures they take a character hostile to religion. As soon as this happens the mood of those still moved by religion, who formerly adored the state as something half or wholly sacred, will be transformed into one decidedly hostile to the state; they will lie in wait for the measures taken by the government, seek to obstruct, to cross, to disrupt as much as they can, and through the heat of their opposition drive the counter-party into an almost fanatical enthusiasm/or the state; in which development they are secretly aided by the fact that, since their sundering from religion, hearts in these circles have felt a sense of emptiness which they are seeking provisionally to fill with a kind of substitute in the form of devotion to the state. After these transitional struggles, which may well last a long time, it will at length be decided whether the religious parties are still strong enough to revive the past and turn back the wheel: in which case the state will unavoidably fall into the hands of enlightened despotism (perhaps less enlightened and more troubled by fear than formerly) – or whether the anti-religious parties will prevail and, perhaps through schooling and education, in the course of generations undermine the propagation of their opponents and finally render it impossible. Then, however, they too will experience a slackening of their enthusiasm for the state: it will grow ever clearer that, together with that religious adoration to which the state is a sacred mystery, a supraterrestrial institution, the attitude of veneration and piety towards it has also been undermined. Henceforth the individual will see only that side of it that promises to be useful or threatens to be harmful to him, and will bend all his efforts to acquiring influence upon it. But this competition will soon become too great, men and parties alternate too quickly, hurl one another too fiercely down from the hill after barely having attained the top. None of the measures effected by a government will be guaranteed continuity; everyone will draw back from undertakings that require quiet tending for decades or centuries if their fruits are to mature. No one will feel towards a law any greater obligation than that of bowing for the moment to the force which backs up the law: one will then at once set to work to subvert it with a new force, the creation of a new majority. Finally – one can say this with certainty – distrust of all government, insight into the uselessness and destructiveness of these short-winded struggles will impel men to a quite novel resolve: the resolve to do away with the concept of the state, to the abolition of the distinction between private and public. Private companies will step by step absorb the business of the state: even the most resistant remainder of what was formerly the work of government (for example its activities designed to protect the private person from the private person) will in the long run be taken care of by private contractors. Disregard for and the decline and death of the state, the liberation of the private person (I take care not to say: of the individual), is the consequence of the democratic conception of the state; it is in this that its mission lies. When it has performed its task – which like everything human bears much rationality and irrationality in its womb – when every relapse into the old sickness has been overcome, a new page will be turned in the storybook of humanity in which there will be many strange tales to read and perhaps some of them good ones. – To repeat in brief what has just been said: the interests of tutelary government and the interests of religion go hand in hand together, so that when the latter begins to die out the foundations of the state too are undermined. The belief in a divine order in the realm of politics, in a sacred mystery in the existence of the state, is of religious origin: if religion disappears the state will unavoidably lose its ancient Isis veil and cease to excite reverence. Viewed from close to, the sovereignty of the people serves then to banish the last remnant of magic and superstition from this realm of feeling; modern democracy is the historical form of the decay of the state. – The prospect presented by this certain decay is, however, not in every respect an unhappy one: the prudence and self-interest of men are of all their qualities the best developed; if the state is no longer equal to the demands of these forces then the last thing that will ensue is chaos: an invention more suited to their purpose than the state was will gain victory over the state. How many an organizing power has mankind not seen die out: for example that of the racial clan, which was for millennia far mightier than that of the family and indeed ruled and regulated long before the family existed. We ourselves have seen the idea of familial rights and power which once ruled as far as the Roman world extended grow ever paler and more impotent. Thus a later generation will see the state too shrink to insignificance in various parts of the earth – a notion many people of the present can hardly contemplate without fear and revulsion. To work for the dissemination and realization of this notion is another thing, to be sure: one has to have a very presumptuous idea of one’s own intelligence and scarcely half an understanding of history to set one’s hand to the plough already – while no one can yet show what seed is afterwards to be scattered on the riven soil. Let us therefore put our trust in ‘the prudence and self-interest of men’ to preserve the existence of the state for some time yet and to repulse the destructive experiments of the precipitate and the over-zealous!

Democracy for you

What is mostly fascinating in Lebanon is that it presents an excellent example of the fictions of democracy. It renders visible the inherent tension between power/authority necessary for rules and decisions to be taken and people’s ‘bread and circus’ the democratic processes where unlike the Roman setting, here, we are made to believe that ‘everybody has an opinion that has to be taken into consideration’.

But authority discriminates inherently. State (and Nations) are built on this fundamental principle. Language, histories, territory, etc change based on this inherent violent founding act.

People are quite content to talk about democracy, liberalism, and the right to choose a leader, when the most basic violation has already happened: that people are defined by the very authority they think they are choosing, the very way authority is structured in the first place. In this case, people never choose, they are born and grow up in a conditioning state, established by the local legislative contexts and the relation to a history, a past they inherited from others before them.

Do you choose to be an American, a Lebanese, or anything else that authority sanctions before you are even born?

And in effect, Lebanon is a flagrant example of this because it has several layers of conditioning hierarchies while championing the discourse of democracy and rights et al. First there is the absurd positing of Lebanon as an entity with a State that barely functions. Today, no one questions this fact. Second, the confessional system which in the way it was established here (I will draw your attention to the radical difference with the Swiss case in a later post) precludes the possibility of building a State. Democracy here (the actual act of voting in the legislative and municipal elections) is set to strengthen this status-quo by renewing the acceptance of this newly conceived ‘society’, or ‘civil society’ (another absurd term), of the prevailing divisive and discriminatory system (to the different ‘confessions’ of the territory, and to who is conceived as ‘non-Lebanese’).

Democracy, in the case of Lebanon, has this added element that it fosters, year after year, the schizophrenia of people that must answer to the jurisdiction of that State.

Terrorism and Democracy

I was watching the Battle of Algiers, a film on the Algerian resistance against the French occupation made in 1966, only four years after the actual declaration of independence of the country. A film most of you have probably seen or heard of but was completely unknown to me until yesterday!

Beyond the fact that the movie has many great subtleties at the level of its images, screenplay, etc I just want to point out from this film one underlying penetrating question that stayed on my mind. After the arrival of the “Colonel Mathieu” who is sent to destroy the terrorists FLN (Front de Libération Nationale) and the start of the “interrogation” that is a facade word for torture in order to extirpate information from any suspiciously looking Arab, there is a very interesting dynamic at play that the authors (possibly not voluntarily) put in image. The film shows in a very raw and powerful manner how the world (here the UN) sat silently while thousands of people were tortured in order to dismantle the FLN:

The eyewitness reports and recently published documents leave no doubt about the brutality, extent and systematic use of torture in Algeria. Part of the daily practice included mass rapes, submerging victims in freezing water or excrement, and repeated use of electric shocks. Even in the Algerian hinterland where there was no electricity, electric shock torture was carried out using the so-called ” Gégène“, utilising the pedal-powered generation system used for the radio stations.

So to go back to the film, the Colonel holds a press conference after we learn that one of the leaders of the FLN have committed suicide in his cell. After several questions prodding indirectly the practices of the military, one journalist decides to directly ask about torture. And the colonel stops him short by saying that he and his military institution are no ‘fascist’, “a bunch of us fought in the resistance against the nazis” he says by adding something like “we are designed to fight and win, once YOU have decided that Algeria should be to France”. The directors of this movie are verbalizing the idea that the army was actually imprisoned of French politicking, and was kind of ‘doing its job’. But there is something much more important to this event, especially when you view it in light of the half a century that passed since then.

Beyond the French policies of the time, it is the French people and their ‘voices’, the intellectuals, the press, and others that are targeted here. Of course I don’t think the directors of the movie tried to make a value judgment imparting full responsibility on either the army or citizens or whoever. And I personally think we would miss in this way the real lesson learned from this very contemporary movie. I think there is a lesson to be learned in the age of mass-mobilization politics. What’s important here is that there is a kind of symbiotic relationship between ‘terrorism’ and ‘democratic’ politics. People have probably written about this before, and no time here to refer and elaborate (but please advise if you’ve seen something written about it) but terrorism is kind of a by-product of democratic politics. Terrorism takes very seriously that it is the people at the end of the day – “in this day and age” – that are structurally linked to the decision taken to exploit, colonize, etc. other people.

But why are we horrified when civilians get killed etc. when most of the time it is civilian pressures that end up extracting political decisions? Of course we all know that when militants hit civilian targets, when they want to create “terror” it is exactly for that, to extract political gain. I just want to stress the fact that although this happens people are still horrified by militants not restricting their targets to military infrastructure. And beyond the fact that ‘terror’ is also practiced by the powerful to extract political gains or just for revenge (for example the Israeli in Lebanon in summer 2006), when we look at terrorist acts arising from an oppressive colonialist situation in this age of democratic politics, people cannot stand horrified at these practices, turning a blind eye at how decision-makers are actually representing them.

In western societies, people take pride in their revolutions, their ‘rule by the people’, the concept of democratic citizen etc. when it actually suits them. The revolutionary narrative (in America or France for example) is either a long gone metaphor that keeps the public at large self-imbued, satisfied by their ‘rights’ gained etc, or just a nationalist idiom that help create a collective imaginary. But when it comes to actual ‘dirty work’ on the ground performed by their military, there is some kind of disjunction. They are not linked to it. It is not them giving the orders. Structurally though it is. Actually the modern state and its democratic/capitalist practices permits this decentralization to the fullest. There is a fantasy in which the population of a country live in that is kept alive by the very institutions they glorify. But more on this later.