Saturday night, September 17, 2016, a bomb exploded on Twenty-Third Street in Manhattan injuring twenty-nine people. Soon after, unexploded devices were found on Twenty-Seventh Street. Over in New Jersey, one of three pipe bombs exploded just before a running event in Seaside earlier on Saturday, and then on Sunday, in Elizabeth, unexploded homemade bombs were discovered near the train station.
The Manhattan explosion was close to The New School and as it happens even closer to where my grandson and his parents live. My other grandson lives in Paris, about a mile from the attack on the kosher supermarket at Porte de Vincennes. Thankfully the bombs in New York and New Jersey, did not lead to mass killing, as was the case in the Paris attacks of last year, but as The New York Times declared in a front page headline the New York attacks involved “Bombs Built for Carnage.”
Such events are apparently happening everywhere, in the U.S. and France, but also in other American and European cities, in Africa, in Turkey, and ferociously and extensively in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The attacks kill. Killing innocents appears as the primary goal. The barbarism continues without apparent end.
And as barbarism again hits close to home, it concentrates my mind. I find myself trying to understand the incomprehensible. A person tried to randomly kill anyone on an apparently random street. Another person drives a truck into a crowd of people celebrating a national holiday at the seaside. A group of people attacks a grocery store as if it were a military target. Others attack a satirical magazine, apparently because its editorial line offends them, and still others kill mostly young people out to enjoy nightlife in the city of lights. And then there is the group that ingeniously used civilian aircraft as guided missiles, massacring three thousand innocents, including my best friend, Michael Asher.
It concentrates my mind, but it doesn’t make sense. I have been struggling to understand since Mike’s death. Stories are told that justify particular targets, but quite often the motive for a target is bewildering, as was the case last month. And even though it does hit close to home, I have trouble really believing it has happened. I know it happened, but I have a hard time believing it. (I have the same feeling about the Holocaust.) It doesn’t fit my common sense understanding of my daily encounters.
I often walk from The New School to my son’s place and pass the site of last month’s explosion. Why on earth would anyone want to kill the people I meet along the way? The kids playing in Madison Park, the homeless living in desperation on the streets around Herald Square, and the retailers selling “genuine Brazilian hair pieces,” and their customers on Broadway, along with the posh customers of the high end eateries and clothing stores along Fifth Avenue. Yet, on the other hand, how is it that I — we — have come to expect such events? We New Yorkers are not naïve. We know that terrorism is ubiquitous and that our city is a prime target.
We despair and seek a remedy. We face a new form of barbarism, postmodern barbarism, and we desperately seek ways to respond. I am struck by the tragedy of it all, as I wonder whether there is a way out. I despair over the terrorist acts, and also by the responses to the acts.
I see barbarism both in the terrorist acts and in many of the responses to it. I have worked to define the situation as barbaric, both of the terrorists and the anti-terrorists. Although I don’t want to equate those who support or justify suicide bombings with those who are sanguine about collateral damage, I worry about both. Thus, as I pointed out in my response to the attack in Nice France:
The two faces of post modern barbarism, as I see them: of course, the face of the man who drove his truck into the crowd last night, along with the men who flew the planes into the buildings almost fifteen years ago, along with the many others who engage in such acts, relatively small and monstrously large. But also those who respond brutally and without thought to these people, who without thinking declare a war on terrorism and see terrorist under every bush, or actually in people from a certain part of the world, who hold different religious beliefs than their own.
It hurts to think. This was my feeling when I wrote The Politics of Small Things. The feeling returns, but so does the conviction that I must push through it. The challenge then was to identify a path of engagement that did not buy into the Manichean logic of the terrorists and the anti-terrorists, that didn’t in one way or another justify the horrors of terrorism and of anti-terrorism. I rejected the terrorists, the anti- terrorists, as well as many of my anti- anti-terrorists friends who seemed to be justifying the attacks of 9/11 as an example of “chickens coming home to roost.” I found an alternative in the online Presidential campaign of Howard Dean and its relationships with the anti-war movement, with people redefining the situation in face-to-face interactions that created very promising alternatives. I named this “the politics of small things.” It reminded me of the democratic opposition in Central Europe of the nineteen eighties. As I studied both these movements, I committed myself to act with and through both.
But identifying such engagement and commitment is not my puzzle now. I think it is clear that work in social movements pushing official politics, reframing definitions of situations is where the action is. I will explain in my next post on the American election. The pressing problem now is, rather, to understand the accounts of atrocities, how they are rationalized, and shape action. With my friend and colleague, Daniel Dayan, I am working on this, as we consider the dramaturgies of terrorism and after terrorism.
More soon on this from Daniel and me.
4 thoughts on “On the Chelsea Bombing”
Asking why is mind boggling. Because it is the wrong question somehow. Or asking how anyone could do this. The wrong question. The only narrative that makes any sense (and the actual violence is not about sense, but operates somehow on a different plane, a different felt experience, phenomenology) is that both sides of the equation see people as symbols and not as people. Terrorists attack American imperialism by killing Americans and we use drones that leave “collateral damage” that overlooks the innocent lives lost.
I know you are talking about more than American lives, so let’s say western lives. Also I think the violence must be rush, a pleasure in and of itself and one that is powerful or people would not do it. And the violence of the oppressed must be all that they have in their toolkits and then they get hooked on it. Something like that.
I think asserting that terrorists see people as symbols, not as people, contributes to understanding, as you suggest Lisa, but I am still perplexed how they come to the symbols, what they mean for them and for us. And I am not only talking about American or Western lives, and I strongly believe that violence is not the only thing the apparently powerless have in their tool kits. One of the reasons why I wrote “the politics of small things” was to debunk that truism. As for violence providing a rush, perhaps for many, but it is opaque to me, even though distinguished thinkers have underscored this.
I was once fascinated by the question of violence and not so much any more. I do think it feeds on itself. People, on the level of the individual and the social, have a very hard time breaking the cycle so I assume there is a kind of satisfaction in it, even if the satisfaction is of the dark arts. Yes, the powerless have other tools. And I agree with your premise in the “politics of small things”— I know you are talking about all lives. There are far more constructive ways to channel rage– and despair and I suppose the first step is to get people to see (a la Durkheim on suicide) that their plight is often social, or socially determined, to make a politics of it. Makes me think of the despair and drugs across Appalachia and their buying into the Trump con. This is not constructive. Bill would be good to go there and talk to people; he comes from that stock and he understands and he had most of them in the money. I don’t think you can explain violence with language– the “logic” of the violence has to be opaque. Scattered thoughts.