Sunday, March 12, 2006

On the subject of violence and "terrorism"

If you're up for wasting some time and not feeling too bad about it, browse a few of the Koufax nominees for best blog post. I did--mainly to confirm that my vote goes to John McGowan's July 7 guest post for Michael Bérubé, "The Rhetorics of Violence." (Runner-up: "Skin and the color of money" by Pam Spaulding.)

I was moved enough at the time by John's efforts to come to terms with violence as a rhetorical act, giving rise to a range of rhetorical responses, most of them unproductive, that I blogged about it myself, connecting his tentative move toward pacifism to the longstanding, principled pacifism of my favorite Christian theologian, Stanley Hauerwas.

Since the incredible act committed on the UNC campus on March 3 by Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar, the question of how to respond to an act of violence that the actor himself describes as political has taken on a local urgency. Commenting on Eric Muller's first foray into the subject, I pointed out the obvious: that since 9/11 the word "terrorist" itself has become contaminated. The field of language is polarized. If the actor happens to be Middle Eastern, assuming he is not mentally ill (and we don't yet know that he isn't), he must be a terrorist, with all of the extreme baggage that the word implies. On Orange Politics, and within the UNC community, empassioned discussions are going on about what to call this act, what it means, what the consequences are. As Eric later points out, the community itself is the victim, and so it is right and healthy for this discussion to go on.

I'd like to bring the community voices of John McGowan (of UNC) and Stanley Hauerwas (of Duke) into the conversation. John, writing in the wake of the London subway bombings, concedes that a pacifist response strikes him as "intellectually and emotionally incoherent." Yet he continues,

But my response to today’s bombings in London is a sickening: “Here we go again.” So I am casting about for some alternative narrative to replace the all too predictable one we are about to reenact.

The rhetoric of response to violence is predicated on understanding violence itself as rhetorical. The terrorists are trying to “send us a message.” Their message is: give up your way of life or we will destroy you. Once their actions are interpreted in this way, the tenor of the response is pre-scripted. As Tony Blair said it today: “We will not allow violence to change our societies and our values.” How we will send our message? By imposing our will on theirs. “We shall prevail and they shall not.” Their initiatory act of violence calls forth our responding acts of violence.

The advantage to the pacifist response, he finds, is that it shows that the alternatives are worse. It challenges our ideas about "good" violence and "bad" violence. "Pacifism asks us to cast a cold eye on this human capacity to take joy in violence, irrespective of its consequences or its legitimacy. We need to devise ways to push a leash on or divert such capacities—and we should be wary of the high-minded or instrumental rhetorics that often mask a love of violence for its simplicity and the heady sense of vitality it affords."

Hauerwas, similarly, turns to pacifism for pragmatic purposes. Pacifism provides a discipline for avoiding the ready label of "terrorism":

Explanation domesticates terror, making it part of "our" world. I believe attempts to explain must be resisted. Rather, we should learn to wait before what we know not, hoping to gain time and space sufficient to learn how to speak without lying. I should like to think that pacifism names the habits and community necessary to gain the time and place that is an alternative to revenge.

"But," he continues, "I do not pretend that I know how that is accomplished."

No comments: