We Are the “Human Shields” of Our Governments

Satirical Map brussels

Introductory note: In July-August 2014, the war launched by the Israeli army on Gaza killed 2,251 Palestinians, among which at least 1,463 were civilians. When confronted to these figures, the Israeli army legal corps justified this drastic proportion by invoking legal fictions supposed to legitimize them. Many of these fictions have already been exposed here (see here, here and here), but one in particular stroke us for its extreme demagogy: Palestinian civilians were killed by the Israeli bombs because they are used by Hamas as so-called “human shields” (see past article). In a forthcoming article for The Funambulist Magazine’s fifth issue (May-June 2016), Nicola Perugini and Neve Gordon deconstruct the racist dimension of this legal narrative manufactured in order to legitimize the killing of thousands of Palestinians.

I was in Brussels all day yesterday, which allowed me to experience the heavy deployment of military and para-military (masked police officers with assault or sniper riffles, etc.) forces in some (strategic) parts of the city. “My thoughts and prayer [do not] go to the family of the victims” as the formatted sentence normally says. I suppose that, in their immense pain, they could not care less about this; instead, I hope that my anger represents them well. If we follow the dubious logic of the Israeli army’s spokespersons, their loved ones, and us all, ‘normal’ citizens using the public transportation systems of our metropoles are nothing else than the so-called “human shields” of our governments. In the wake of the November 13, 2015 attacks, the powerful slogan “Your Wars, Our Deads” (Vos guerres, nos morts) quickly emerged, although it did not reach the circulation of a consensual “Pray for Paris” — the French extremists of secularism still managed to find it problematic! — or the significantly more cleaving “Je suis Charlie” created after the assassinations of journalists in January 2015. Although the absolute conceptual separation of citizens and their governments is problematic in the deresponsabilization that it would imply, there is indeed a clear separation between them when it comes to the experiencing the consequences of the last 200 years of violence deployed by Western governments both internally and externally — a similar argument could be applied to the Turkish state-violence in Kurdistan or the islamophobic policies of the Indian local and national governments for instance.

The European quarter, targeted by the bombing of the Maelbeek subway station yesterday, carries in its very name — a name that I share, sadly — this violence. The European Parliament is indeed situated in the “Espace Léopold,” adjacent to the Parc Léopold, both named after Belgium King Léopold II (1835-1909), whose colonial policies are responsible for the death of no less than 10 million Congolese. The map above shows this urban situation and satirically calls out “civilian areas” the parts of the city surrounding the various institutional buildings. Of course, this text is not an invitation for terrorist organizations to target governmental representatives instead of arbitrary citizens. Rather, it intends to use the legitimate emotions of fear and trauma that anyone experiences when affected one way or another to extreme violence, in order to draw a parallel with the much more frequent (direct/ indirect, past/present) deployment of Western violence in the Global South and with the way this violence is implicitly or explicitly legitimized through the essentialization of entire parts of the city — even in the case of terrorist attacks in Global South cities (see the critique of the notion of “Hezbollah bastion” in the context of the November attack in Beirut for instance). It also intends to denounce what Georges Orwell called the “doublespeak” of our governments that simultaneously (sometimes in the same sentence) call for “more peace” and announce the deployment of more violence through military interventions (i.e. war) in symbolic sites that are dubiously associated to the authors of the attacks, despite the fact that many of them are citizens of the country where the attacks occurred. Martial violence is a self-fed entity, i.e. violence necessarily calls for more violence and the fact that such a platitude is not made evident is highly revealing of the demagoguery of our societies.

Security as well (another form of violence), is a doomed-to-fail solution since, by definition, it is implemented as a reaction to the violence it is supposed to prevent. Its function is more a spectacular one, intended to manifest the presence of the State within society both in terms of protection in the city centers and economic sites, and suppression in the marginalized parts of the city, where suspects are searched, to the detrimental assimilation of the local population (in Molenbeek in Brussels for instance, or in the banlieues in French cities). We should therefore not hold our governments responsible for failing to secure us; instead, we should hold them accountable (and through them, the part of us that legitimize their existence) for their own national and international violence. This is for the sake of the (almost always racialized) bodies it targets, as well as for our sake, us citizens of the cities of Brussels, Ankara, Bamako, Paris, Abidjan, Bombay, Madrid, Istanbul, London, Beirut, etc. indiscriminately targeted by the tragic echoes of our own violence.

In the spirit of this text, I have to recognize that writing it after yesterday’s Brussels bombings rather than after the recent attacks of Ankara, Istanbul or Abidjan or any recent American drone strikes in Somalia or Afghanistan is symptomatic what I denounce, since it implies that this kind of text is only necessary when European cities are affected, i.e. when our emotions are indexed on the proximity of violence. I therefore apologize to my readers for these marks of a not-entirely decolonized discourse.

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