Mourning the 'War on Terror's' ungrievable casualties

Photo: wikimedia commons

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Certain forms of grief become nationally recognized and amplified, whereas other losses become unthinkable and ungrievable ... A national melancholia, understood as a disavowed mourning, follows upon the erasure from public representations of the names, images, and narratives of those the U.S. has killed. On the other hand, the US's own losses are consecrated in public obituaries that constitute so many acts of nation-building. Some lives are grievable, and others are not ... -- Judith Butler, Precarious Life

On Thursday May 15, President Obama presided over the dedication of the National September 11 Memorial Museum, constructed at the site of the destroyed World Trade Center towers -- a "sacred place of healing and of hope," the President solemnly proclaimed.

A sacred place, indeed, in the secular religion of post-9/11 American nationalism. And the Memorial Museum is a shrine to the saints and martyrs of that tragic, catastrophic day: "nearly 3,000 innocent souls -- men and women and children of every race, every creed and every corner of the world. We can touch their names and hear their voices and glimpse the small items that speak to the beauty of their lives."

On display: a pair of shoes still tainted with the smell of the day, a favourite sports jersey of a deceased son, a chair burned in the conflagration -- mundane objects transformed into relics by their encounter with violence. The everyday, prosaic nature of these items enables the entire nation to identify with those caught in the attack: "in a very real sense, they were who we are," said Joe Daniels, President of the Museum.

At the same time, the personal, individual nature of the objects exhibited reminds viewers that each life destroyed on September 11 was irreplaceable, unique. The nation comes together in mourning them.

As eminent art historian Professor Carol Duncan observes, "To control a museum means precisely to control the representation of a community and its highest values and truths ...  What we see and do not see in ... museums and on what terms and by whose authority we do or do not see it is closely linked to larger questions about who constitutes the community and who defines its identity."

The Memorial Museum projects an uncomplicated image of a righteous and heroic America, a shining city on a hill assailed by terroristic forces of darkness. The heroes of this Manichean narrative are those brave Americans who put their own lives at risk to rescue others: "coworkers who led others to safety ... Our men and women in uniform who rushed into an inferno. Our first responders who charged up those stairs. A generation of service members ... who have served with honour in more than a decade of war." They embody what Obama declared in his dedication speech to be the "true spirit of 9/11 -- love, compassion, sacrifice" -- transmuting the bloody event which launched the bloody decade (and counting) of the "war on terror" into an occasion of American salvific virtuousness.

The terror of 9/11 might have inspired empathy for all those around the world who experience violence, or the threat of violence, as a daily reality (rather than as a rare, discrete event which can be isolated and museum-ized).

Instead, it has served as the justification for the multiplication of violence, the casus belli for a war of pre-emptive invasions and lengthy occupations, of secret torture and extrajudicial killings, of illegal rendition and indefinite detention.

While the events of 9/11 were made hyper-visible -- broadcast repeatedly on news outlets around the world, and now recounted in minute-by-minute, pictorialized detail on the Memorial Museum's website -- so much of its brutal aftermath has been hidden from us, marginalized in the media or obscured under the veil of of secrecy. (For example: the U.S. Senate recently scrapped a proposed legislative provision which would have required the President to publicly disclose information about drone strikes and their victims.)

At least 18,000 civilians killed in Afghanistan. At least 136 000 civilians killed in Iraq. Hundreds of civilians killed by drones in Pakistan and Yemen.

First responders rushing to the scene of drone attacks -- far from being hailed as "heroes" -- have been targeted in "double-tap" strikes. We cannot "touch their names and hear their voices and glimpse the small items that speak to the beauty of their lives."

And 9/11's "true spirit" of love and compassion apparently does not extend to embrace their bereaved families and communities.

Consider the markedly discrepant treatments accorded Taliban assassination target Malala Yousafzai on the one hand, and the family of 67-year-old grandmother and drone casualty Momina Bibi on the other.

Malala has been feted by governments, media and civil society organizations around the world; when she visited the United States, the Obama family received her in the Oval Office, and hailed her courage in promoting girls' right to receive an education.

In starkly illuminating contrast, when Momina Bibi's family -- schoolteacher Rafiq ur Rehman and his children, 13-year-old Zubair and nine-year-old Nabila -- travelled from North Waziristan to Washington, D.C. to testify before Congress about her killing by drone, only five out of 430 representatives bothered to show up.

As philosopher Judith Butler argues in Precarious Life, "Some lives are grievable, and others are not; the differential allocation of grievability that decides what kind of subject is and must be grieved, and which kind of subject must not, operates to produce and maintain certain exclusionary conceptions of who is normatively human."

Professor Butler's point sharply reminds us of what is at stake in the question of which deaths we mark and mourn, and which we marginalize and ignore: the recognition, or non-recognition, of some Others as fully human, fully living (at least at one time), fully entitled to a future, fully deserving of protection from violence and death.

Apprehension of the grievability of a death entails recognition that what has been destroyed was more than just a "bare life" -- more than just a hollow figure merely breathing and occupying space, easily obliterated to "bug splat (the entomological epithet applied by drone operators to their kills).

While "our" dead and injured on 9/11 are humanized through display of their objects, "their" dead and injured are reduced to objects through their dehumanization -- their lives and their deaths made virtually invisible to us whom the "war on terror" claims to be protecting. The radical effacement of these casualties of the "war on terror" permits their treatment as so much necessary collateral damage.

"When such lives are lost they are not grievable," writes Professor Butler, "since, in the twisted logic that rationalizes their death, the loss of such populations is deemed necessary to protect the lives of 'the living.'"

There will be no museum for those rendered "bug splat."

Azeezah Kanji is a recent graduate of University of Toronto's Faculty of Law, and Programming Coordinator at Noor Cultural Centre.

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