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Celebrating state power

Published on 22 March 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024
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As events in Toulouse (France) unfold I’m offered by the media instant updates by SMS, RSS-feeds, and voyeuristic footage of the siege of a man who, for “political” reasons allegedly killed seven people in cold blood – four of them children.

Media hyper-involvement is immediately striking: I’m not sure it serves any obvious public interest. It certainly serves the media, who want to justify themselves to their patrons – advertisers – or pander competitively to prurient interest (that the media report mostly on each other in a joint celebration of their role is telling). Cynically: we want “action” – that’s why we love “action movies”. For once these phantasies receive a reality check: let’s indulge ourselves. This is understandable, though hardly legitimate.

Beyond the self-congratulatory and prurient role of the media: is there a covert “public interest” being served? And my jaundiced view is that there is.

We are treated to conspicuous display of state means: hundreds of policemen in full attack-garb covering every possible exit route; floodlights like on a film set; the wailing of sirens in the background; the white/red ribbons securing the perimeter; the nattering helicopters hovering overhead (I’m sure the sewers have also been secured). All this for a lone bike-rider with a gun. Traces of well-rehearsed rituals are not going unnoticed.

The purposes of state and media are interlocked. Expect such public displays to become more elaborate and self-regarding.

Beyond the immediate context the state is conveying two political messages: (a) it spares no expense in protecting upright citizens; (b) the danger is BIG. I wonder whether these messages are the right response.

First: The same state, which is over-skimpy in patrolling chronically dangerous neighborhoods (and whose police forces have essentially withdrawn from certain areas of cities), now plunges the full extent of its resources to capture a lonely gunman. The imbalance between means and ends (conveniently justified by the “precautionary principle”) is striking. The difference between acute and chronic danger is not the outcome – the chance of dying are the same – but our perception that “we can and should do something about it” when risk in impending rather than immanent. Such overfunding of acute (and media-savvy) events conveniently hides the state’s ineffectiveness in coming to grips with daily violence in the streets.

Secondly: Terrorism is a terrible thing to endure, but as we do we should never let its symbolic character slip our undivided attention.

  • The extreme character of terrorism’s political claims and its despicable means makes it an unlikely candidate for a large following. Even when people vaguely sympathize with the goals, the majority will reject the means – as long as a gap between goals and means yawns. Osama bin-Laden’s ideological claim that he was defending Islam from Western “neo-colonialism” gained much needed political traction when, in response to 9/11, first Afghanistan and then bystander Iraq were invaded. Excessive display of force on the part of the state tends to comfort terrorists’ claims and give them ex post legitimacy. In the battle for “hearts and minds” between terrorism and the state then excessive display of state power is likely to be counterproductive. We have an asymmetry that favors the underdog: having little or no legitimacy the terrorist can only gain, and the state can lose much of his own.
  • From Al-Qaida’s point of view the historical import of 9/11 is not the horrific deed as much as the – alas successful – triggering of a “path-dependent outcome” in which the US is exhausting itself morally and financially in an endless “war on terror”. Osama bin-Laden’s 200’000 US$ investment in the half-baked training of pilots yielded a US government response in the low trillions US$ – not to speak of the social consequences of this path of violence. “War on terror” is favoring and accelerating historical forces already at work against hegemonic US aspirations.

Only the state’s own actions are likely to transform terrorism from symbolic gesture into political reality.

Ever since David mobility had an edge over brawn (but then we were on the side of mobility – Goliath’s people may have held a different opinion and found David’s disregard for the rules of engagement despicable). Goliath’s swaggering may have played to his own gallery, but had no effect in the field. In fact it was a dangerous distraction.

The Chinese soon saw that large armies were useless in their fight against raiding Nomads . So they developed crossbows, which foot soldiers could load at leisure and firmly hold with both feet on the ground (or atop a long wall). Its projectiles outperformed mounted nomads fast-shooting arrows from horseback without stirrups (today’s drone might be the crossbow’s avatar).

The military stalemate 2000 years ago between the steppe and “the sown” led to uneasy cooperation between two opposite and irreconcilable world views. The unintended yet felicitous consequence was that together they generated the dynamics of the Silk Road.

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