Outrage From the Imperial Playbook

The disparity in coverage of violent outrages depending on who the victims are is one thing that never ever changes about the news media. Drone strikes are up 432% under Trump; his first military action, a special forces raid in Yemen, resulted in the deaths of 30 people including women and children in the vicinity in addition to the 15 Islamist militants and a US navy seal. Maybe he should have examined the intelligence reports. US-sponsored aerial bombing by Saudis has killed thousands of Yemenis over the last few years.

There are of course no sprawling headlines for them, for Yemenis are poor and brown, and are therefore expendable unpeople. This is not so much the case in the first World, where violent outrages meet with a chorus of righteous outrage from officialdom and the media — all of whom are complicit in the culture of terrorism that makes it possible to write off the deaths of thousands of people as collateral damage in the war for civilization.

It is well known to criminologists that lone wolf attacks are the most common form of violent outrage, and the hardest to combat. There are no communications between conspirators to be intercepted and no groups to be infiltrated. Lone wolf attacks are particularly disastrous given the fact that, in addition to the destruction of life they produce, they expose the shortcomings of deterrence policing — as do, ironically enough, coordinated acts of terrorism.

Definitions of terrorism are notoriously hard to pin down. Attorneys working for the US government tried to formulate a suitable working definition at one stage, and had to give up because, no matter which way they framed them, every definition they came up with applied to policies and actions of the US government. Perhaps this explains why the working definition of terrorism these days is ‘refuses to allow their country to be used as a colony for US corporations.’ Or perhaps this is the working definition of communist. They are much the same in practice; ask a Latin American. Ask one of those dead Yemenis.

In the case of the London attack, officialdom and the media decide the act is one of terrorism despite no apparent indication at all as to why it happened. Some speculate that it’s because 22 March is the first anniversary of the Brussels bombings. Perhaps it would have been a coordinated attack in that case. It’s also the anniversary of the Enabling Acts, Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, the release of Ricky Martin’s Livin’ La Vida Loca (which went on to sell 8 million copies), and the awarding of a Golden Raspberry to ‘Freddy Got Fingered.’ Maybe the attacker felt Tom Green deserved more respect. How do you know otherwise without evidence?

Furthermore, the perpetrator managed not to die until he was shot by police. Towards the end of January, a deranged driver in Melbourne drove through the Bourke St Mall in the central business district, killing 4 and injuring scores. In that instance, the driver was Greek, and was neither shot dead even after killing and injuring a comparable number of people, not was the outrage adjudged a terrorist attack. In this instance, we still don’t even know the name of the suspect, but we are asked to believe he was ‘inspired by international terrorism’ (Business Insider).

Which international terrorism would that be then, theirs or ours? Many are inspired by our terrorism after all and we have exactly zero problem with that. We disavow the United Nations and international law to the point that most people no longer even bother to wonder if we shouldn’t defer to them in conducting relations between states, we construct a culture of lawlessness and terrorism based on victim blaming, playing of the victim and refusing to differentiate between being criticized and being attacked, and then act surprised when people adopt exactly the same principle we make the rule instead of law against us. The cognitive dissonance is unmistakable — much less to say the hypocrisy.

But then never let facts get in the way of a good story I always say. Cue the standard clichés about protecting our way of life and how we will not be cowed, make some defiant poses to the echo chamber that cost us nothing while we keep the terror alert at severe despite not having any information whatsoever so suggest that an attack is immanent. It does serve as a great way to keep people scared and to remind everyone — those who are alienated and thinking of doing something stupid to get their own back on this majestic neoliberal paradise that has left the vast majority of the world’s population behind — that we are a society that uses violence to solve our problems.

We are also one that shamelessly exploits tragedy each time to perpetuate the vicious cycle of blame and retribution endlessly as excuses to big note ourselves, ensuring a fresh batch of victims at some point in the future to be used by opportunists amongst the political class as excuses to grandstand, play the victim and reassert the legitimacy of a corporatist status quo from which they and the interests they represent benefit most, nay at all. Reading like a champion from the script in this sense, London Mayor Sadiq Khan insists that;

You will see Londoners returning to work whether it’s in Parliament, whether it’s in City Hall, whether it’s in hospitals or businesses across London, because that’s who we are. We are not going to allow these terrorists to cow us, we’re not going to allow them to change our way of life.

All the standard clichés narrowed down to two sentences; such is worthy of a gold medal at the Propaganda Olympics. For others of a more pompous and grandiose bent it often takes more; either way they’re still so very, very tired. ‘Our way of life’ always refers to those who benefit most from the counterterrorist narrative — that being the one that associates challenges to the right of global corporations to use second and third world countries as colonies for exploitation as they see fit with threats to freedom, as noted. So of course Londoners are those who work in Parliament, or City Hall, or businesses, they being the ones who benefit most from corporate globalism.

Londoners who work casually or part-time, on the other hand, maybe not so much. Londoners who are out of work, remember them? They don’t fit the standard narrative about our way of life, hence unpeople — paradoxically enough much like the forgotten victims of our terrorism which is also conveniently swept under the rug much like the many and increasingly terminal shortcomings of an increasingly dysfunctional political system which in the US has of late produced a true monstrosity. But such is the will to carry on with the standard counterterrorism narrative that the politicians who wax lyrical about our majestic virtues need reminding of Donald Trump.

I would just like to say I for for one can’t wait for the Internet Troll President to start sounding off about the glories of electoral democracy and western civilization.

An extra special effort in articulating completely predictable but false outrage (since it never inspires anyon who espouses it to address the root causes, cf. Chomsky’s comment about the best way to prevent terrorism being to stop participating in it) came from Australian PM and corporate sock puppet Malcolm Turnbull who announced that, ‘This is an assault on every democracy, every parliament, every free nation.’

In what pass for representative democracy in the west, the assaults on democracy are coming from a far different source — that source being neoliberalism — and have done so unrelentingly for some decades now. But again, never let the facts get in the way of a good story. The increasingly threadbare character of the counterterrorism narrative is absolutely no reason to stop using it as long as there are rubes willing to believe that their interests and those of the transnational oligarchy are one and the same. Of even more interest in Turnbull’s case is that what appears as a statement of solidarity is in fact a subtle form of convergence, part of what renowned sociologist Stuart Hall described as part of a ‘signification spiral’ of strategies designed to shift blame though the production of deviance and the construction of moral panics, ie.

a) The intensification of a particular issue;
b) The identification of a subversive minority’;
c) ‘Convergence’ or the linking by labeling of the specific issue to other problems;
d) The notion of ‘thresholds’ which, once crossed, can lead to further escalation of the problem’s ‘menace’ to society;
e) The element of explaining and prophesying, which often involves making analogous references to the United States – the paradigm example;
f) The call for firm steps (Hall et al; Policing the Crisis, 220).

There is nothing more paradigmic where counterterrorist narratives are concerned than the United States, though the idea that freedom and human rights there is under greater threat from anyone other than the Trump administration and the Deep State might perhaps serve to explain why President Anyone For Golf has to the time of writing been restrained from indulging his characteristic grandiosity. Even his handlers can see that Trump spouting that shit about the majestic values of democracy would have people rolling in the aisles.

The political class and the corporate media don’t hate terrorism, they love it. If the facts were otherwise, they would not turn themselves into the world’s biggest free public relations mouthpiece for terrorism there is. They love terrorism so much they need to make terrorism out of things that aren’t terrorism, and people who aren’t terrorists. Just ask the Newburgh Four. When someone decides that they want to take their problems out on other people and don’t feel like being classed as a common criminal, they can claim affiliation to Islamic State in the aftermath to pretend that their pure and simple lashing out was an expression of anything other than their incapacity for self-restraint, or to deal with their own problems constructively and without engaging in criminal violence. In this respect, the use of counterterrorism narratives to rationalize things like keeping terror alerts high in the face of zero evidence to actually justify doing so only serves to enable this kind of behavior.

It is no secret why the powers that be should be so attached to them. The refusal to make any distinction between the interests of the world as a whole and American interests — much less to say the class privilege of wealthy elites (‘American interests’ in counterterrorism narratives) and the common interests of everyone — has been and remains the tool that the political class in the west and the corporate interests they serve have used to rationalize invading other countries to steal their resources and prop up the value of the dollar and dismantle civil liberties at home in the name of national security. If we ever stopped for a moment to ask ourselves why we don’t reflect on our own shortcomings and why we can’t brook criticism, then we would know why terrorist atrocities and violent incidents never stop happening. But then there would be no culture of counterterrorism, or more honestly just terrorism, to use as an excuse to avoid ourselves.

Ben Debney is the author of The Oldest Trick in the Book: Panic-Driven Scapegoating in History and Recurring Patterns of Persecution (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).