Senseless, sickening, horrifying. The usual scramble for explanations. (You’d think we’d have a few by now). The dramatic promos, ominous background music, and somber pontificating on the broadcast and cable news outlets — all for the purpose of carefully shaping a story for mass consumption.
The violence carried out on Thursday by a Fort Hood army psychiatrist is all too familiar, with all sorts of troubling questions (re)erupting with the brutality. One of the biggest: Where are the “cracks in the system” (gaping craters, more like it) that keep the military from meaningfully addressing the invisible wounds of war?
But it’s also worth pondering why it is exactly, within liberal democratic social orders, that individual acts of terrorism strike much more horror and revulsion in us than does the violence of war enacted by modern states.
The short answer, of course, is that we acknowledge the legitimacy (the sovereignty) of modern states and therefore concede, whether happily or reluctantly, the necessity — the clear moral rightness, even — of some wars. (Rogue terrorists, by contrast, have no such ground to stand on).
That this leads to the glorification of war and a host of pieties about the necessary dreadfulness of what must be undertaken in armed conflict is a given. What is almost never acknowledged, though, is something that Talal Asad observes in his book On Suicide Bombing:
To countenance any kind of moral equivalency between modern warfare and non-state terrorism, especially in this dangerous post 9/11 world, is to ask for trouble, plain and simple; it is to court controversy, invite misunderstanding, cause great offense. Name-calling can’t be far behind. Freedom-hater. Anti-American.
But can we set aside the initial gut-aversion to such a suggestion and ask if there might be subtle pedagogies at work which train us to regard, say, the motives of military strategists as complex, while those of individual terrorists as singular (and de facto irrational)? Are we conditioned (by media manipulation, for example, or religious training) to assume that “last resort” — to many, a legitimate criterion for waging war — could never be claimed by a lone gunman on a military base or a college campus?
Much has been made since 9/11 of how radical Islam appeals to divine authority to justify its acts of extreme violence. The modern west recoils in disgust at such primitive religion while at the same time grounding state sovereignty (and the right to do “whatever it takes”) in the will and special favor of the Judeo-Christian God. As John Milbank has noted, “the theocratic notions of sovereignty are not simply something archaic within Islam that stands over against our Western modernity.”
The tragedy in Texas is real, the heartbreak palpable, and there will be much to sort out in the coming days and weeks. But nearly a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq — and its tidy narration in the U.S. by corporate media — has left us adrift in a sea of contradictions about killing and dying, terror and war, reason and madness, and the nature of good and evil itself.