As new enemies replace ‘terrorists’, Westerners will reflect on how one word justified colonial massacres in Gaza—and what, in truth, that word was good for.
May 27’s Q&A farce did not surprise me in the way it could have. I was not surprised by the difficulty of Palestinians to get one voice on the panel, or that the two handpicked questions were from Zionists. I was not even surprised by the lobbyist who described the ‘distress’ of an IDF captain’s dog in a room safe from potential Hamas fire.
I was somehow surprised that when Randa Abdel-Fattah responded to this dog anecdote—with a reminder that dozens of our children were being massacred with nowhere to hide—the audience member fell silent and nodded, and the audience applauded. I am somehow surprised every time that Palestinian life is recognised, but in retrospect, I am surprised at our surprise. As great power politics return and the Western gaze pivots to Asia, things feel different than they did five years ago.
‘It’s very good,’ Netanyahu said in his first reaction to 9/11. ‘Well, not very good, but it will generate immediate sympathy.’ Israel has long enjoyed a claim to identity with a Western Self, against Palestinians in an undifferentiated Islamic Other.
What Netanyahu anticipated was not precisely ‘sympathy’ for Israel, but a means to dehumanise the population it kept under occupation. To be human is a twofold experience: it is about one’s life and one’s death. We see the human as living vulnerably, rationally, uniquely and with agency. Having lived meaningfully, their death is then bestowed with meaning. Nobody at the funeral subjects it to utilitarian rationalisation—certainly not the person’s murderer.
But what if some array of words could preserve the coloniser’s ability to be mourned, and not the colonised? What if those words, by definition, only evoked the vulnerability of those with state power, against the violence of those without? Highlighting existential threats to the state, rather than to certain people in it? What if all of those people’s subjugations and human aspirations were obscured, replaced with immaterial, ‘irrational’ religious motives neatly positioned against a ‘civilised’ Western protagonist?
What if this alien irrationality foreclosed the possibility of negotiation, enabling violent discipline as a first resort? What if it also meant the people and their culture were in some perpetual state of ‘deadness’, and so could not really be killed? What if it created a double standard of recognition, where only existing statehood had to be defended, maintained and recognised without question?
What if it helped us forget one very important fact—that all violence is intended to terrorise, especially the urban bombardment of civilians, which has been a state tactic since World War II? That to ‘evacuate’ civilians before obliterating their homes, schools, hospitals and every space that could remind them of their humanity, is in fact to terrorise? Or that to give people no option to ‘evacuate’ a 12-kilometre-wide open-air prison, is to terrorise?
What if the stateless other—without legitimised, non-‘terrorist’ leadership—became an undifferentiable mass, whose lives were thus disposable as statistics? What if they were collectively responsible, and thus all punishable? Part of a global mass, in fact, so that two unrelated militias at war with each other were ‘branches of the same poisonous tree’?
What if the juxtaposition of enlightened democracy with oppressive ‘terrorist’ rule eradicated the agency of the colonised, muting their political and linguistic existence? Wouldn’t that mean they were both unaccountable for the violence and collectively punishable for it?
Well … they’re irrational, remember, so their preferences are indeed violent, but self-defeating. We just need to liberate their true preferences, those which coincide with the interests of the colonising state. So what if they only ‘lived’ as undignified objects of their own backwardness, as ‘cattle’ women and human shields, sent by the agents of terror to protest and be shot by us in the thousands? What if we needed to trap them in order to free them from … themselves?
What if these deaths were tragic—truly tragic—but also the cost we pay to fight terrorists? The same terrorists who kill our people in the disgusting belief that a murder could ever be justified for any political end? What if we glorified our fallen fighters against terror, in televised national funerals, while denying any family the right to bury a terrorist child? Wouldn’t grieving only prove that there was a human life, worthy of grief?
What if this word and its discourse were so self-hegemonising that for decades, anyone of the colonised race would be nervous to openly unpack how meaningless, sinister and racist they were, for the very fear of being swept under its implicit categorisations and targeted by the public, the media and the state as a sympathiser?
What if the War on Terror’s binaries, while legitimising all of the atrocities necessary to maintain a settler-colonial state, actively silenced those with the greatest incentive to oppose it?
Well, that would have been ‘very good’.
Nahed Elrayes (Instagram @nahedelrayes) is a Palestinian-Australian composer and writer, with a Master of International Relations from the University of Melbourne.