Monday, September 2, 2013

Discursive Violence, Simone Weil, and "Asking Congress to Send a Message to the World"

What message is President Obama "asking Congress to send" here?
From the August 31st Statement by the President on Syria:
Here's my question for every member of Congress and every member of the global community:  What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?  What's the purpose of the international system that we've built if a prohibition on the use of chemical weapons that has been agreed to by the governments of 98 percent of the world's people and approved overwhelmingly by the Congress of the United States is not enforced?  
Ultimately, this is not about who occupies this office at any given time; it’s about who we are as a country.  I believe that the people’s representatives must be invested in what America does abroad, and now is the time to show the world that America keeps our commitments.  We do what we say.  And we lead with the belief that right makes might -- not the other way around.
I’m ready to act in the face of this outrage.  Today I’m asking Congress to send a message to the world that we are ready to move forward together as one nation.
Much has been written about President Obama's decision to use retaliatory strikes against the Assad regime in Syria over the use of chemical weapons—because of just war theory, because the use of chemical weapons is a "game changer," because of the Responsibility to Protect—but I have not yet seen much of anything written about the intrinsic rather than consequentialist meaning of this decision.  In other words:

What does it mean to use military force "to send a message"?  What does it mean to kill or to be killed "to show the world that America keeps our commitments"?

Whether or not the retaliatory strikes achieve whatever desired effect Congress and the international community might hope for from them—ending the use of chemical weapons or tipping the balance of power in Syria—and whether or not the retaliatory strikes are even voted for by Congress and supported by the international community, discursive violence has already been done to Syria.

As George Yancy recently argued with regards to the Travyon Martin case in his piece entitled "Walking While Black in the 'White Gaze'":
Zimmerman later said: “Something’s wrong with him. Yep, he’s coming to check me out,” and, “He’s got something in his hands.” Zimmerman also said, “I don’t know what his deal is.” A black young male with “something” in his hands, wearing a hoodie, looking suspicious, and perhaps on drugs, and there being “something wrong with him,” is a racist narrative of fear and frenzy. The history of white supremacy underwrites this interpretation. Within this context of discursive violence, Zimmerman was guilty of an act of aggression against Trayvon Martin, even before the trigger was pulled. Before his physical death, Trayvon Martin was rendered “socially dead” under the weight of Zimmerman’s racist stereotypes. Zimmerman’s aggression was enacted through his gaze, through the act of profiling, through his discourse and through his warped reconstruction of an innocent black boy that instigates white fear.
According to Yancy, Zimmerman had already done grave harm to Martin before even getting out of the car just by how he saw and spoke of Martin.  This act of discursive violence, this act of "render[ing] 'socially dead'," is similarly what we are currently doing to the people of Syria.  By seeing and speaking of Syria as to-be-bombed we are putting the people of Syria in a situation tantamount to the box in which Schrödinger put his hypothetical cat.  While we debate, they are both simultaneously living and dead, for as President Obama declared, "this mission is not time-sensitive; it will be effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now."

However, whereas the lethal violence done to Schrödinger's cat was a "choice" made by the laws of physics, the symbolic violence done to the Syrian people is a choice made by us, and thus a choice that we need to think about in different terms than the consequentialist framing currently dominating this debate, for the very act of debating whether or not to strike is already an act of violence, is already a framing of human beings as worthy of being attacked, and moreover as worthy of being attacked in order to "send a message."

If, as President Obama declared, we view the use of chemical weapons as "an assault on human dignity," then we should "send a message to the world" not by perpetuating the degradation of human dignity by allowing it to be "rendered 'socially dead'" but by showing the world that we respect human dignity.  The members of the military who are to carry out these symbolic strikes and the people of Syria who are to be symbolically struck are not having their dignity respected in our current debate.  Dignity is not respected by forcing human beings to exist not knowing if their potential deaths will be "effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now."

An Encounter with Simone Weil
As Simone Weil wrote in her brilliant essay "The Iliad, or Poem of Force":
Here we see force in its grossest and most summary form—the force that kills.  How much more varied in its processes, how much more surprising in its effects is the other force, the force that does not kill, i.e., that does not kill just yet.  It will surely kill, it will possibly kill, or perhaps it merely hangs, poised and ready, over the head of the creature it can kill, at any moment, which is to say at every moment.  In whatever aspect, its effect is the same: it turns a man into a stone.  From its first property (the ability to turn a human being into a thing by the simple method of killing him) flows another, quite prodigious too in its own way, the ability to turn a human being into a thing while he is still alive. 
A man stands disarmed and naked with a weapon pointing at him; this person becomes a corpse before anybody or anything touches him.
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