Vos Guerre, Nos Morts: Reflections on Paris…. (and Beirut and Damascus)

There is a risk in writing about one’s experience of tragedy as if one is breathing too much oxygen and the rust of to head causes hysteria. It is also easy to sound brave or apocalyptic from the comfort of one’s chair. Even though I am in Cairo, and the events of of Sharm-El-Shiek are barely a week old, I feel relatively safe. There are birds outside and the desert sun has relented. Children play in the near-by park. Here there is a feeling of life as usual but the under-tension of a powderkeg: not of sympathy with the attackers with confusion about how things have gone in Cairo after the Arab spring is but a memory of a season.

There is also a tendency in those with well-intentioned finger wagging to engage with this as “I am with Paris but..,” as if comparative atrocity or morning only what one knows was inhuman or wrong. I personally mourn Beirut and Damascus, but Paris hits home for what it means beyond Paris and because we know have known Paris. Because in some way, Paris both does and doesn’t ‘look like us.’ Who the us is? How it is? This is not known. Indeed, Beirut looks more like “us” than we know, but nothing is gained from pure comparison. Lost is lost. Paris, Beirut, Damascus, even Chicago… all are related. If you count just the battles in Syria, the bombing in Beirut, bombings in Syria and Iraq, and Paris.. you easily have 1500 dead in two weeks.

As I pondered this, I felt a part of an idealism that had been slowly fading from myself die. Perhaps this is a tragedy, perhaps not. To lay blame on “the West” or “France” is to miss to point: yes, there is a context of immigration and poverty. Of course, there is imperialism at the root. Yes, this will absolutely be used to xenophobic ends, and yes, ultimately, this will mean war. I can imagine little good coming from this between the gris mill of competing Western powers, Salafist cults and states, and tons of Muslims and Post-Christian Europeans caught in the gris mill between. I cried last night because it reminded me of 9-11, because the paranoia it will induce, because we will claim not to be afraid, because of the future that we might have just lost, because the innocence of the dead.

There is context for all of this. There are legitimate grievances and griefs. For poverty of migrants, for the cynical use of demagogues and mullahs of that poverty even in this act of terror, for the posturing of alienated young whose soul yearns for something greater, for liberals and conservatives who have wish they could explain this in terms of only poverty or only Islam, for a litany of sins for all involved. In these moments, it is important to remember that while an eye for an eye may leave the world blind, it was a way to limit revenge. There is the history here: 16th century Wahabism, the Algerian wars, the crusades, global capitalism. It all plays its role. It all points to an answer.

In response to this I see two answers in morning after: the notions of solidarite and a crude opportunism that casts itself as anti-imperialism. Those of us in our thirties and adults for 9-11 remember this then, but that was in a context that was less tense with seeming proxy wars and civil wars. I wish well-wishes and tri-colors and towers would undo what not only has been done but will be. I wish I could honestly say we should not be afraid. That we aren’t. Perhaps this will blow away like a bloody storm leaving only this instance in its wake, but this has a history and when all sides have grief and grievance that is real–rarely has hearth and home gone untouched. History has taught me to wish for good in man, but learn only cold comfort. It is because I love people and have loved them that I resist any notions of humanism. People think I find the world a miserable place, I don’t. I just find nothing is about what anyone deserves, and now justice will be on harsh terms if it comes for any, it will take more than its fill or its debt.

Furthermore, I wish there was something more deep that this opportunistic finger wagging would do other than build resentment towards the immigrant, the muslim, the other. I know, however, that the political order is often what drives politics. In many ways, only it and class struggle make that clear, but the old Marxist belief that class struggle trumped symbolic kinship notions seems horribly naive in moments like this one. Vos guerre, nos morts. But who is us?

Well, who is them: the Salafist, the capitalist, the imperialist, the demagogue. But us is still vague. Who are we?

One response that seems at least partially right-minded is from a man with whom I rarely agree. Sam Kris wrote on how to the politicize a tragedy

Last night, President Hollande stood outside the Bataclan concert hall, where many dozens had died, to say that ‘we are going to fight, and this fight will be merciless.’ There will be more war, more death, and more tragedy. The TV stations are bringing in experts to insist that this is all the fault of the migrants and the foreigners, as if refugees were carrying the violence they fled along with them. More repression, more cruelty, more pogroms. Terrorist attacks, as we all know, are carried out with the intent of setting the people against each other and sparking an intensification of the violence of the State, and so the people are duly set against each other, and the State announces its determination to do violence. This is already a politicisation of the tragedy, and to loudly speak out against it is yet another: is that also unacceptable? The day before the attacks in Paris, two suicide bombers blew themselves up in Bourj el-Barajneh, a predominately Shia suburb of Beirut, murdering 43 innocent people as they went about their lives. Wire agencies such as Reuters reported an attack against a ‘Hezbollah stronghold.’ The humanity of the victims disappeared, they were brutally synecdochised into a political party that some of them may or may not have supported, they weren’t people, they were Hezbollah, as if what had been attacked were a castle sharp with battlements rather than a neighbourhood full of families. Many people very loudly voiced their horror at this – but that was also the politicisation of tragedy: was that also unacceptable?

When it’s deployed honestly, the command to not politicise means to not make someone’s death about something else: it’s not about the issue you’ve always cared about; it’s not about you. To do this is one type of politics. But there’s another. Insisting on the humanity of the victims is also a political act, and as tragedy is spun into civilisational conflict or an excuse to victimise those who are already victims, it’s a very necessary one. There is the politicisation that seizes on death for limited political aims, and then there is the politicisation that would refuse any predetermined script other than the call for liberation. It insists on the political nature of tragedy, not to shunt it towards one or another narrative pit, or to put a left-ish or right-ish filter over the images of bloodshed, but because politics is a way out of all this. Atrocity demands solidarity. Absolute sympathy for the victims; for all victims. To insist on having an opinion, not the knowing sneer of someone who was right all along, but undiminished solidarity in the face of devastation. To fight against those who attack concerts and cafes, those who bomb cities with fighter jets and with their own bodies, those who abandon migrants to the cold outside their borders, and those sent them fleeing. To struggle: the common struggle of all who suffer, against suffering.

Kris is right, and more right still because both sides of the debate would like to separate the grayspace between the Muslim and post-Christian European. To drive a wedge between peoples. This attack and its response is calculated to just that. To shut down borders during a refugee crisis because “the enemy is among us” but the enemy was already among us. Yeah, who that enemy is not just the terrorist alone.

This will be not be done here. And, yes, my idealism is dead. To quote O’Conner’s Misfit: “there is a meanness in this world.” We can fight against it like O’Connor saw herself doing, embrace it like Misfit, or hide in hearth and home though it will loom like the family the Misfit slaughters. In that moment, there is clarity although it is tragic. In that moment you can choose to love or not. But that humane gesture won’t be found in humanism or some belief in progress or the arc of history is justice. To struggle against suffering to be political. It is to be something more. It is the task we find ourselves in. Even if the Manichaean vision of Jihad vs McWorld or Caliphate vs Empire: I find that one should reject both knowing full well what that would mean. We cannot reject violence as violence is the world. That Gandhian and transcendentalist hope should be vanished from us, but we should also never accept violence purely on its terms.

A man I respected called me a conservative today, and I replied, “if that is true, then I am too conservative for anything like American conservatism.” Perhaps it is true. I do not wise for us to have delusions about justice or goodness or the likelihood of peace, although I truly hope we have peace and restoration. However, while I would take the Salafist warriors and the imperialist leaders of the world out from it in a second if I could, I know we do not live in that world. We, however, do not have to accept their bloody visions or their false security and closed borders.

This is not much of a hopeful vision but it is one that does not give up struggle for those who would be preyed upon. Be they from Beirut, Paris, the US, the Congo, or wherever. Nor do we deny the uniqueness of French pain or lose of those families of at least 140–I am betting almost none of home had ever hurt a Muslim directly.

In the end, I leave you when a poem of dark hope from Robinson Jeffers, who wrote this hoping that something, anything, good may come out of the world wars he opposed:

The Bloody Sire
By Robinson Jeffers

It is not bad. Let them play.
Let the guns bark and the bombing-plane
Speak his prodigious blasphemies.
It is not bad, it is high time,
Stark violence is still the sire of all the world’s values.

What but the wolf’s tooth whittled so fine
The fleet limbs of the antelope?
What but fear winged the birds, and hunger
Jewelled with such eyes the great goshawk’s head?
Violence has been the sire of all the world’s values.

Who would remember Helen’s face
Lacking the terrible halo of spears?
Who formed Christ but Herod and Caesar,
The cruel and bloody victories of Caesar?
Violence, the bloody sire of all the world’s values.

Never weep, let them play,
Old violence is not too old to beget new values.

It is for love that I wept last night, and for love, that I will not weep anymore. Vos Guerre, Nos Morts. We must do more than bring out dead; we must be clear-headed and realize that this will be a hard row to plow: The temptation to undialectically reduce, identify, to place simple blame and “pick” a side will remain there and easily lead one astray. We have to be harder than that. We must be if things get worse, and if that blood will be used to build anything beyond it.


Addendum:
Two friends made relevant points that I did not include but should have. They aren’t directly related to be my personal reflects but inform them and so I will include the entire commentary:

It’s worth making the point that imperialism is a necessary but not sufficient condition to account for salafi-takfiri terrorism. The trouble with the line that holds that “those who died in Paris are themselves further victims of Western-backed wars and the reaction against them” is it is *only* saying that the victims of Paris are the victims of the *necessary* condition, of the background – imperialism – with the “reactions” mechanistically flowing out of that background. Thus, it has nothing to say about the *sufficient* condition – the form of political religion being advanced, how it came, in its own terms, to be, and why it is being advanced as a “solution”. To say something about that – and something actually does need to be said about that from the left, it can’t be left to liberals and the right to talk about it – requires the difficult work of having to argue why an *anticapitalist* left – not just an anti-imperialist left, but one which is opposed to the independent pseudo-emancipatory class programs of these reactionary political projects – is the only thing which can actually defend against these threats. Anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism, while inextricable, *aren’t* simply synonymous, so that class lines end at the “antagonism” between a “Western” oppressor and a “Muslim” oppressed. Just so, *their* wars, *our* dead runs across the East-West divide, without the share of destruction thereby having to be assumed to be proportionate. It’s through the hole this conflation makes that the problem of salafi-takfiri terrorism keeps falling upon us all, here and there. But fuck those forever who, under the high-minded guise of being against “relativisation” of the violence or “apologizing for Islamist terrorism”, demand we suspend our perspective, even momentarily, out of “empathy for the victims” and refuse, at the crucial moment of its most bloodily intimate evidence, to link this foreground in any way to its background.” – D.R. (name shortened in case they do not want it shared)

Today was a tragic day, not solely for the lives that were lost, but also for the events that have been thrown in motion. The punctuated act of mass terror committed on the streets of Paris, likely by IS or a group affiliated to IS, shall now give the supposed rationale for an assortment of fascistic hooligans who wish to commit their own wave of racist terror and violence against the Muslim populace of the continent, though said groups have had no problem committing violence against Muslims before, though previously on a more discrete level.

This though pales in comparison to the gains that certain nationalistic-populist parties will make throughout the next general elections among European states, who shall do their utmost to paint the Muslim (and likely also black) worker, already among the most precarious social class in said countries, in their country as the enemy within who needs to be removed to ensure the security of state and the purity of the nation. All this set against the backdrop of one of the worst humanitarian crisis in Europe’s recent history, were in an almost Orwellian-like manner of doublespeak, both people who are feeling from wars and people who are feeling from a livelihood of destitution no worse than war, are referred by segments of the European public as “invaders”.

It is in these trying times, where the tide of nationalistic (both ethno- and religious) barbarity and baseless seems to be rising from all directions, that the construction of a truly emancipatory and internationalist movement, a movement dedicated to the construction of a communistic society, must not give in to the easy, opportunistic gains that are most visibly present, and must instead remain true to itself and the values of its cause above all else.

And that is all that I will speak on this matter.-A.R.

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