The thanatopolitics of terrorism

by Costas Douzinas

The Barcelona attack had the typical marks of new terrorism. The perpetrators like in all similar attacks came from marginalized ethnic and religious communities in Spanish towns, the Paris and Brussels banlieus, the invisible backstreets of British cities. Young people, born in Europe and hailing from North Africa or the Middle East, are told that they are Europeans but unemployment, police oppression, hopelessness tells a different story. They turn away from their real home and towards the unknown countries of their parents and of the imaginary ummah.  The wars the West wages in Islamic countries completes the picture. The only place these desperate people know well is hostile, they live in an enemy state. Yet this generalized and simplified picture does not tell the whole story. The religious suicide bomber, unlike the political terrorist, is the ideal postmodern nihilist.

A little commented detail from the Barcelona attack exposes the irrational deathbound philosophy of jihadist terrorists. All five terrorists shot dead by police in Cambrils wore fake suicide vests. They thought that acting like suicide terrorists would oblige the police to kill them to prevent them from setting off the explosives and increasing the number of victims. The victims’ death and the actor’s suicide are both the means and the goal of the terrorist attack. And there is no doubt that the monotheistic religious aspect with the sharp division between the here and the hereafter is involved in this celebration of the end of all celebration. If biopolitics is the operation of power on life, thanatopolitics is the deluded denial of life or politics.

Political terrorists, like the RAF, the Red Brigades, the IRA or ETA, chose their targets carefully according to their ideology. Their victims were politicians or other public luminaries part of the power elites that the groups considered enemies. Immediately before or after attacking or kidnapping a victim, these groups would publish a long, ideologically framed statement and would proudly accept full responsibility for their action. The fundamentalist terrorists choose their targets randomly, do not publish statements assuming responsibility and remain unidentified and anonymous until their identities are discovered  by the police. Occasionally a shadow organization claims responsibility, which often remains ambiguous and disputed.  The unique message of the suicide bomber or the truck driver who crashes his victims is found in the event itself: killing and suicide. The action is self-contained; death is both its means and its goal. The absence of message serves as the message of the action: death destroys both language and meaning.

The place and the time of the attack form the secondary symbolism: Bastille Day in Nice, Westminster in London, Las Ramblas in Barcelona. The terrorist attacks the secular state and its symbols, the beautiful Mediterranean city with its unique European architecture and Gaudi’s extraordinary Segrada Familia church, which the Barcelona cell planned to bomb. The attack takes place in the tourist season: a time of relaxation, fun, physical and cultural pleasure. Death over life, dead spirit over mangled body, punishment over pleasure are the hallmarks of the act.

In the past, religious martyrs denounced the finitude and vanity of terrestrial life and tried to expedite their move to the hereafter. Their death gave the term ‘martyrdom’ its double meaning: testament and victimization, confession of faith as well as sacrifice. Suicide bombers take a step further: fervently believing that the afterlife is infinitely superior to the harsh reality of this vale of tears, they turn their bodies into bridges linking the earthly with the heavenly. Whether out of religion or ideology, a martyr wages his life on the coming of justice, freedom (‘Freedom or Death’) or the triumph of his faith. A suicide bomber bets the lives of others on his ‘superior’ goals.

In modernity, it is the prerogative of the sovereign, emperor, king or state, to sacrifice his subjects and enemies. He sends soldiers to war, citizens to the scaffold or to the many state hecatombs. As the secular heir to deity and the embodiment of theologico-political power, the sovereign uses sacrifice to make sacer. Sacrifice – sacrificium in Latin – is a sacer facere,  making sacred; it serves to bridge the earthly and the heavenly.

The terrorist seeks to appropriate this power. He becomes the servant of a reverse sovereignty and claims the privileges of a soldier-representative of god in earth. In one of the rare messages of terrorist responsibility recorded before the 2005 attack on the London underground, Mohammad Sidiqui Khan a suicide bomber declares that ‘we are in war and I am a soldier. Our words have no impact upon you, therefore I’m going to talk to you in a language that you understand. Our words are dead until we give them life with our blood’. Terrorism breaths the oxygen of thanatopolitical symbolism. We should not consider the terrorist as a soldier but as a paranoid and destitute murderer. This is not a war between two sovereigns and expressions like ‘war on terror’ are wrong. We are dealing with murderous criminals whose serious crimes fall under the jurisdiction of the police, the security service and the criminal courts.

The psychological profile of terrorists usually reflects marginalized lives at the limits of delinquency and social exclusion. The atrocious act turns a social ‘nobody’, someone who suffered marginalization throughout life into ‘somebody’ at the moment of death. ‘I kept listening to the news about the bombing of my brothers’, the terrorist seems to be saying, ‘now I will turn actor from spectator’. As Terry Eagleton put it, the jihadist’s death is his own making, giving him a taste of freedom. Or, as Dostoyevsky suggested, the suicide leads to god’s death since the terrorist usurps god’s exclusive right over life and death. In this sense, the act of killing turns the suicide bomber into a fake sovereign at the precise moment of his own death. An angel of death and a refuser of life and the world, the terrorist acts as the servant of a sole and unique ‘truth’; he thus becomes the symbol of the paranoid search for absence of doubt and absolute power.

Nevertheless, this usual psychoanalytical explanation should be supplemented by its exact opposite. Fanaticism, the act of killing others and himself, should not be seen as the result of a religious lack of doubt. If the terrorist had an absolute faith in divine providence, he would trust god’s unknown will and would patiently wait for his intervention in history.  On the contrary, the action indicates that faith has been shaken by doubt, that theodicy does not work; why doesn’t god intervene, why does he allow the infidels to win? Self-punishment is the only way to treat this diabolic lack of faith. In this sense, the suicide bomber is a creation of the postmodern deconstruction of every metaphysical foundation. He responds to the loss of value and meaning by elevating death, the end of all meaning, to the highest meaning.

The victims of the terrorist are chosen randomly. They are not killed because of their identity, they are not famous or politically targets. They are chosen by chance, as a matter of bad luck, unpredictably, just like the strike of lightning or an earthquake. Modernity attempted to tame randomness, to abolish or restrain the capriciousness of fate. The disenchanted world has exiled moira to fairy tales and myths. We are constantly told that we are responsible for our luck, that life failures in life result from ignorance, incapacity or laziness. The modern mantra is that taming destiny and controlling contingency makes us autonomous, free. However, contemporary sociology’s ‘risk society’ returns us to the omnipresence of risks and dangers.

Danger rises out of external attacks that cause fear and make us take precautions. The ubiquitous risk, on the other hand, creates an ever-present, inchoate, oppressive anxiety. it internalizes and legitimizes the existence of an invisible but omnipresent danger. Danger – an earthquake, a fire or a robber – brings people together to take measures and defend themselves. Risk, on the other hand, atomizes. It calls for constant alertness, suspicion, lack of trust in others. Risk is a neoliberal tool; it destroys communities, it makes us buy insurance policies ‘just in case’. Terrorists and suicide bombers become allies of power and agents of promotion of risk society. With their blind strikes they turn everyone into potential victims who never feel safe. Blind strikes lead to increasing police powers, repression and surveillance. The fake imitators of the sovereign give an excuse to the state to further restrict our shrinking liberties.

There is no other response to terror attacks and ever-present risks than opening the door to foreigners and joining the ‘we are not afraid’ mass protests as in Paris and Barcelona. Watching the death of the other, we bring to mind our inevitable and exclusively private death – the one thing that we cannot share. This way, mourning the death of others helps build communities of life that resist both sovereignties and their abominable imitations.