Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Death of Osama Bin Laden

It is clear what significance the death of Osama Bin Laden has for the vast majority of the American public, liberal or conservative. The kind of reaction that is occurring is not the least bit surprising.

But what does the death of Osama Bin Laden really mean? The answer to this question boils down to whether one views the problem of terrorism in terms of individuals or systems. If the former, then one is likely to see acts of terrorism (most notoriously 9/11) as the expression of individual defects: psychological disturbance, moral depravity, an essence of pure evil, personal feelings of anger and resentment. Possibly religion plays a role, but only in so far as religion is characterized as a set of beliefs that may populate and shape an individual's consciousness. The antedote to a "bad" religion, then, is the spread of either a better religion, or of Western humanistic rational thought (or both).

Religion, culture, ethnicity, and images of "evil" human beings, in fact, have all been used to great success as a smokescreen to obscure the real nature of violence, terrorism, and warfare. If the general populous feels (or are made to feel - often through the creation of dubious internal and external "threats") a strong attachment to a particular religion, ethnicity, nation-state, or if they desire to "fight bad guys," then these rationales work as a great motivating force to support endeavours which would be totally unpalatable otherwise.

However, from an anthropological standpoint the following can be argued: violence is not just "human nature"; blind passions and hatreds may stir masses of people to action, but they do not ever cause coordinated, strategic acts of violence. Violence is systemic. In terms of the lived experience of the general population, religion, ethnicity, ideology, etc. do fuel war, but only as part of an overarching strategy that has nothing to do with any of those things.

Thus, I would argue that terrorism must be understood in terms of systems, and not individuals. Our entire global political-legal-economic complex is sustained by, legitimizes, and naturalizes violence. The political/legal system that constitutes the nation-state, as well as the "community of nations," is fundamentally premised on the concept of "legitimate violence." The state is, in the last instance, an apparatus of coercion and a means of "legitimate" violence. Other state functions are not indigenous to the state apparatus and extend beyond the state itself. Even our legal system and concepts of "justice" work to uphold the legitimacy of state violence.

Moreover, relationships that enable large-scale accumulation of wealth, and in particular, those pertaining to modern capitalism, employ violence in a very systematic way to maintain structures of exploitation and unequal exchange. The development of capitalism and industrial society would not have been possible without the violence of colonial conquest and slavery. Capitalist aims continue to be pursued through the support of coups and brutal regimes, political assinations, and full-scale invasions of other countries. This is in addition to the violence of extreme poverty and malnutrition, abuse suffered in the workplace, etc. etc. Add to this the forms of violence that sustain the social division of labor: the violence of patriarchy, racism, and xenophobia.

In essence, violence is a characteristic of a type of relationship: more specifically, a relationship of inequality. It is the very fabric of our current social structure. However, violence is not the only characteristic of relationships of inequality, and it is by no means a necessity of human existence. It is a historically determined phenomenon.

Therefore, when terrorists employ violence to challenge neo-colonial domination, they are simply utilizing what is immediately at their disposal - the methods (and, often, the knowledge, tools, and resources) of the system in which they are enveloped - as a means of resistance. Perhaps this demonstrates the difficulty of acting (even thinking) completely outside of the structures one is challenging.

So what does this say about the death of Osama Bin Laden? A man was killed. The system was not. In fact, as Bin Laden's death entailed further state-sponsored violence (including, it now appears, the inhumane interrogation techniques at Guantanamo Bay), it stands as a victory not for the families of 9/11 victims or first responders or ordinary Americans, but as a victory for systemic violence. The system will persist, and so will violence of all kind.

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