What began as a war on terror is now the violence of the everyday—as the violent fantasies about Begum remind usby Lyndsey Stonebridge / March 4, 2019 / Leave a comment
Last week, a shooting range used the face of the teenager who joined ISIS, Shamima Begum, as a target. It was posted on Twitter, captioned with the words: “traitors,” “made your choice” and “no remorse.”
“The targets provide some fantastic reactions and conversations and allow people to have some light-hearted fun and bring out the inner child in us all,” a spokesperson for the range said. “The targets don’t always reflect personal opinions and we don’t want to condone terrorism. But after watching the interview with Ms Begum, there was a lack of empathy that she had shown and we decided to listen to our customers and use them as targets.”
Which provokes a question: what kind of everyday violence are we now living?
Sigmund Freud asked himself the same question in the middle of World War One. Writing on the Austrian home front in 1915, he wrote:
In the confusion of wartime in which we are caught up, relying as we must on one-sided information, standing too close to the great changes that have already taken place or are beginning to, and without a glimmering of the future that is being shaped, we ourselves are at a loss as to the significance of the impressions which bear down upon us and as to the value of the judgements which we form.
There is something violent, Freud was saying, about the very time of conflict itself: its images, the things it does to time, to judgment, to being, to our ability to take our moral moorings. Wartime is not only dead and wounded bodies; it is also to be lost in a whirlwind of images attached to feelings—dangerous feelings, which require targets.
Exclusive: a shooting range in Wallasey defends using images of Shamima Begum as target practice because of a ‘record number of requests’ from its customers. It allows people ‘to have some light-hearted fun bringing out the inner child in all” they tell us. More at 10am pic.twitter.com/AzYlhY1ne6
— Victoria Derbyshire (@vicderbyshire) February 27, 2019
Freud was disturbed but not surprised by this everyday violence, happening far from the front. Wartime was not the end of civilization. It was the end of the illusion of civilization. We’re always a mess of conflicting drives, in Freud’s view; always secretly happy that somebody else is doing the dying for us, taking surreptitious pleasure in human pain—hence the power of drama, art, and narrative.
But in wartime, something else happens: that inner violence becomes part of the politics of the everyday.
Freud then says something very striking. It isn’t that this violence threatens the state or democracy, but that it wants it for itself: “People are more or less represented by the states which they form, and these states by the governments which rule them,” he writes. But in wartime it becomes clear that the state prohibits the violence of its citizens, “not because it desires to abolish it, but because it wants to monopolize it, like salt and tobacco.” Governments aren’t so much threatened by violence; they just want to own and control it.
This was in 1915. Fast-forward now to 1948, and Orwell’s classic novel about hate and ideology, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Everyone remembers the rats in the novel, and the role of terror in securing ideological obedience. Few people remember the sinking ship full of refugees in one of the novel’s earliest scenes. Winston’s first act of defiance is to write in his diary. He begins by recalling a night at the movies:
April 4th, 1984. Last night to the flicks. All war films. One very good one of a ship of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean. Audience much amused by shots of a great huge fat man trying to swim away with a helicopter after him….
The audience is encouraged to have some light-hearted fun, to discover their inner children. Just thirty years after Freud, Orwell imagines a political world in which wartime violence has become the everyday of politics.
No-one is threatening to chew our faces off if we don’t use an image of Shamima Begum face for target practice. We do not live in a totalitarian state. The violence of ISIS, who would prefer it if everyone did live in a totalitarian state, is very real.
Yet the legitimization of violent fantasies about Begum does share one thing with the refugees targeted by Big Brother’s gunboats and cameras: both are imagined as being beyond, and therefore threatening to, the nation state. They are carriers of anxiety, others imagined as enemies, whose vilification, somehow, is presented as a form of border control. Many of us are currently as bewildered by these fantasies as Freud was in 1915.
What began as a war on terror is now the violence of the everyday. That alone ought to worry us. The Begum case isn’t just about a corrosive lack empathy or mercy, crass Islamophobia and misogyny—although it is about all those things too.
It is about political failure. Violence, Hannah Arendt famously argued, is not the manifestation of political power: it is what happens when politics collapses. When Sajid Javid moved to strip Begum of her citizenship, he did more than simply legitimize taking pot shots at her image. He was not even using everyday violence to shore up the legitimacy of the state—in fact, many doubt the legality of removing Begum’s citizenship altogether.
He was demonstrating a willingness to appropriate everyday violence for the sake of violence itself. And that, in the end, might well end up being our own Room 101.