In keeping with the concept of “unmournable bodies” limned by Teju Cole in the New Yorker (more on this below), news arrives today of yet another clutch of unimportant, unmournable deaths at the hands of extremist violence. From McClatchy:
A U.S.-led coalition airstrike killed at least 50 Syrian civilians late last month when it targeted a headquarters of Islamic State extremists in northern Syria [the town of Al Bab, near the Turkish border], according to an eyewitness and a Syrian opposition human rights organization.
… The Syrian Network for Human Rights, an independent opposition group that tracks casualties in Syria, said it has documented the deaths of at least 40 civilians in airstrikes in the months between the start of U.S. bombing in Syria Sept. 23 through the Dec. 28 strike on Al Bab. The deaths include 13 people killed in Idlib province on the first day of the strikes. Other deaths include 23 civilians killed in the eastern province of Deir el Zour, two in Raqqa province and two more in Idlib province.
The issue of civilian deaths in U.S. strikes is a critical one as the United States hopes to win support from average Syrians for its campaign against the Islamic State. The deaths are seen by U.S.-allied moderate rebel commanders as one reason support for their movement has eroded in northern Syria while support for radical forces such as al Qaida’s Nusra Front and the Islamic State has gained. Rebel commanders say they have intelligence that could avoid civilian casualties, but that U.S. officials refuse to coordinate with them.
McClatchy located two sources who confirmed a high civilian death toll from the strike. One witness, an activist in Al Bab, gave the death toll as 61 civilian prisoners and 13 Islamic State guards. The Syrian Network for Human Rights estimated the death toll at 80, and said 25 of those were Islamic State Guards and another 55 were either civilians or imprisoned fighters from non-Islamic State rebel groups. Either number would make the Al Bab strike the single worst case of civilian deaths since the U.S. began bombing targets in Syria.
… [A witness] said some 35 of the prisoners had been jailed shortly before the airstrike for minor infractions of the Islamic State’s harsh interpretation of Islamic law, such as smoking, wearing jeans or appearing too late for the afternoon prayer….
Huda al Ali, a spokeswoman for the Syrian Network, said its investigation had found that in addition to violators of Sharia law, the two-story building also was being used as a prison for fighters from groups opposed to the Islamic State.
In other words, the unilateral, illegal bombing campaign of the Peace Prize Laureate killed dozens of victims of Islamic extremism. But unlike the Charlie Hebdo case, there is no worldwide mourning for these nobodies, these brown nobodies from the back of beyond. Islamic State denied their “free speech” by imprisoning them; then Barack Obama ended it entirely, by killing them. An excellent example of bipartisanship in action, where both sides find common ground and work together! Then again, we see a lot of that in the Terror War.
Meanwhile in Paris, more than a million people marched in a moving — if highly selective — show of solidarity against violent extremism and the repression of free speech. Unfortunately, the moral high ground of the march was lowered somewhat by the presence of several purveyors of violent extremism and repression of free speech in its ranks. Such as that well-known avatar of tolerance and free speech, Benjamin Netanyahu, who, as Cole notes, had killed more than a dozen journalists in Gaza last year, in his American-supported (and American-armed, American-funded) devastation of Gaza last year.
Not far from him was Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas, the Holocaust denier who became a darling of the West when he instigated a civil war among the Palestinians after his party lost a free and open democratic election to Hamas. Abbas is the still the “president” of the PA, although his term ended years ago; and despite being forced by internal politics to make dissenting noises from time to time, he continues to serve the Israelis well by sternly policing the West Bank for them. There were officials from the horrific Saudi regime — who had, that very weekend, given 50 lashes to a journalist, the blogger Raif Badawi, for exercising his free speech. These lashes were just the first of a weekly series of 50 lashes until Badawi has been given 1,000 strokes to punish him for having opinions that the elite don’t like.
Daniel Wickham provides an excellent rogues’ gallery of the free speech repressors — including, most emphatically, the chief mourner at the rally, French President Francois Hollande — who paraded their moral virtue at the Charlie Hebdo march.
But while the whole word lamented the murders at the magazine (see this striking graphic of a world engulfed with JeSuisCharlie twitter messages in the hours after the attack), there are whole classes of people who are, literally, unmournable in the discourse of our society, as Tejo Cole notes in his New Yorker article. Here are a few excerpts:
Western societies are not, even now, the paradise of skepticism and rationalism that they believe themselves to be. The West is a variegated space, in which both freedom of thought and tightly regulated speech exist, and in which disavowals of deadly violence happen at the same time as clandestine torture. But, at moments when Western societies consider themselves under attack, the discourse is quickly dominated by an ahistorical fantasy of long-suffering serenity and fortitude in the face of provocation. Yet European and American history are so strongly marked by efforts to control speech that the persecution of rebellious thought must be considered among the foundational buttresses of these societies. Witch burnings, heresy trials, and the untiring work of the Inquisition shaped Europe, and these ideas extended into American history as well and took on American modes, from the breaking of slaves to the censuring of critics of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Rather than posit that the Paris attacks are the moment of crisis in free speech—as so many commentators have done—it is necessary to understand that free speech and other expressions of liberté are already in crisis in Western societies; the crisis was not precipitated by three deranged gunmen. The U.S., for example, has consolidated its traditional monopoly on extreme violence, and, in the era of big data, has also hoarded information about its deployment of that violence. There are harsh consequences for those who interrogate this monopoly. The only person in prison for the C.I.A.’s abominable torture regime is John Kiriakou, the whistle-blower. Edward Snowden is a hunted man for divulging information about mass surveillance. Chelsea Manning is serving a thirty-five-year sentence for her role in WikiLeaks. They, too, are blasphemers, but they have not been universally valorized, as have the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo.
The killings in Paris were an appalling offense to human life and dignity. The enormity of these crimes will shock us all for a long time. But the suggestion that violence by self-proclaimed Jihadists is the only threat to liberty in Western societies ignores other, often more immediate and intimate, dangers. The U.S., the U.K., and France approach statecraft in different ways, but they are allies in a certain vision of the world, and one important thing they share is an expectation of proper respect for Western secular religion. Heresies against state power are monitored and punished. People have been arrested for making anti-military or anti-police comments on social media in the U.K. Mass surveillance has had a chilling effect on journalism and on the practice of the law in the U.S. Meanwhile, the armed forces and intelligence agencies in these countries demand, and generally receive, unwavering support from their citizens. When they commit torture or war crimes, no matter how illegal or depraved, there is little expectation of a full accounting or of the prosecution of the parties responsible.
…This focus [on the Hebdo victims] is part of the consensus about mournable bodies, and it often keeps us from paying proper attention to other, ongoing, instances of horrific carnage around the world: abductions and killings in Mexico, hundreds of children (and more than a dozen journalists) killed in Gaza by Israel last year, internecine massacres in the Central African Republic, and so on. And even when we rightly condemn criminals who claim to act in the name of Islam, little of our grief is extended to the numerous Muslim victims of their attacks, whether in Yemen or Nigeria—in both of which there were deadly massacres this week—or in Saudi Arabia, where, among many violations of human rights, the punishment for journalists who “insult Islam” is flogging. We may not be able to attend to each outrage in every corner of the world, but we should at least pause to consider how it is that mainstream opinion so quickly decides that certain violent deaths are more meaningful, and more worthy of commemoration, than others.
… We mourn with France. We ought to. But it is also true that violence from “our” side continues unabated. By this time next month, in all likelihood, many more “young men of military age” and many others, neither young nor male, will have been killed by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere. If past strikes are anything to go by, many of these people will be innocent of wrongdoing. … Those of us who are writers will not consider our pencils broken by such killings. But that incontestability, that unmournability, just as much as the massacre in Paris, is the clear and present danger to our collective liberté.