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On Being the Gatekeeper of Your Own Nightmares

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The FBI are investigating Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik as terrorists because the latter reportedly swore allegiance to Islamic State in a Facebook post before going on the shooting spree in San Bernadino that killed 14 people. As various news outlets have pointed out, this would effectively shift the political debate away from gun control to the traditional scare narrative over terrorism which to date has only ever succeeded in intensifying the problem.

If any single characteristic has defined the official response to terrorism in the decade and a half since 2001, it has been that officialdom has made itself cause and cure of the same problem. Rather than responding in way that avoids the single major pitfall of reproducing the parameters of the problem it seeks to resolve, it has at every step fallen headlong into it by invoking exactly the kind of black and white binary logic between us and them that feeds fear of terrorism.

This is of course exactly what terrorists want, and they bank correctly on Western politicians being duplicitous enough to want to take advantage of the moral panic over terrorism to push through extraordinary measures that are ordinarily intolerable to democratic sensibilities, but apparently justifiable expediences given the seeming circumstances.

The duplicity of Western politicians aids the ends of terrorist extremists in several ways. Western xenophobia and Islamophobia alienates the vast majority of moderate Muslims. The idiotic responses of Western political rulers who decide policy on the basis of opinion polls and the pressure exerted on them by the Murdoch media monopoly in particular also does their job for them of speeding the destruction of democratic culture and institutions on the other.

Since the officialdom (and the media conglomerates too for that matter) are cause and cure of the same problem in this respect, we can also safely say that they embody the process sociologists refer to as the ‘production of deviance’ — the central process associated with the development and perpetuation of moral panics. As Howard Becker once wrote:

Deviance is created by society. I do not mean this in the way that it is ordinarily understood, in which the causes of deviance are located in the social situation of the deviant or in ‘social factors’ which prompt his action. I mean, rather, that social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infraction constitutes deviance and by applying those rules to particular persons and labeling them as outsiders. From this point of view, deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an ‘offender.’ The deviant is on to whom the label has successfully been applied; deviant behavior is behavior that people so label. (Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance)

In creating deviants out of Muslims in the process of rendering themselves cause and cure of the same problem for the sake of indulging their own duplicity, Western political rulers likewise create the conditions where people who feel alienated from society can adopt the deviant role as a guaranteed way to upset people they don’t like. Teenage kids dye their hair black and sport satanic symbols for the same reason — because the religious squares place a taboo on it.

In other words, rather than working in such a way as to lessen the value of the deviant role, the approach that Western rulers take in flapping up and down about the evil terrorists because it’s a great excuse for passing all those draconian laws that are also useful for social control and population control puts a premium on it. Feeling pissed off about something and you have the opportunity to take it out on other people because you have a gun? Hey, let’s get even more mileage out of going out in a blaze of glory by turning it into a terrorist incident to really wind up the panicked masses. I bet all those office workers who used to go postal before 9/11 would be super pissed if they knew what we can get away with now.

Last year, in 2014, Man Haron Monis took eighteen people hostage at a Lindt chocolate café in Martin Place, Sydney. Monis was acting alone and apparently out of a variety of issues, including legal problems stemming from a variety of common assault and sexual assault charges (why he was out on bail remains to be accounted for) and general mental health problems. During the siege he asked for an ISIL flag, apparently not having adequately prepared for the amount of media attention he was receiving. He was denied this request, but the fact that he made it mid-hostage taking again indicates the appeal of adopting the bogeyman role for those who know what effect it has on those with whom they have some kind of beef.

People don’t tend to sport mohawks the same way they did at in the early days of the punk era, not just because stealing the hairstyle of a colonized people is culturally imperialist and generally anachronistic, but because it’s not really shocking. Everyone knows what punk is. The fact that it takes someone longer to put up a mohawk in the name of anti-conformism rather than have a regular haircut actually inspires contempt. Mohawks are only shocking as long as you have a premium on regular haircuts.

And so it is with terrorism. As long as you use it as a stepping stone to try to reconstruct your own legitimacy by making yourself out to be cure of the problem for which you’re also the cause, you inevitably create panic around the hated evil which makes it all the more appealing to precisely the kinds of irrational killers who should be dissuaded from it. Again, this is exactly what terrorism per se is designed to do — particularly to the extent that Real Terrorism is built around a scattered insurgency rather than a centrally directed organisation of the type Al-Qaeda was purported to be.

To the extent that Western rulers continue to fall into the trap of doing exactly what the terrorists want them to do in the process of being cause and cure of the same problem, they demonstrate their own pivotal role in the production of deviance, and thus of the terror panic that sustains the status quo while facilitating the destruction of whatever remains of democratic culture and institutions as per the terrorist agenda. That this should include resistance to gun control is not surprising, but entirely consistent with their implicit collusion with and ultimate loyality to the extremists they claim to oppose, but with whom and with whose goals they clearly identify.

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Ben Debney is a PhD candidate in International Relations at Deakin University, Burwood, Melbourne. He is studying moral panics and the political economy of scapegoating. Twitter: @itesau  

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