Recent violence prompts question of which lives matter
This column was contributed by Lesly, ’13
Who may be killed without repercussion, without significant outcry from the international community? What sort of lives—or nonlives, rather—are disposable? Despite the establishment of a universal code of human rights after the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust, we still live in a world where only some lives count.
Hannah Arendt believed that refugees, without a nation-state, lack significance and fall under the category of “human remnants.” Theorists such as Giorgio Agamben and Judith Butler have dealt in depth with the question of how states may destroy any citizen by suspending political rights and declaring a state of emergency, and in turn protect themselves against the legal charge of “human rights violations.”
What does a non-life look like, and how can we see it in our contemporary political context? These lives unworthy of recognition are, unsurprisingly, difficult to locate. They “live” (if we can call it that) in Guantanamo Bay, in Abu Gharib, in tribal areas of Northern Pakistan where American drones freely roam and hunt their (sub)human prey.
These lives are hidden from us in two ways: first by their inability to present themselves and their own story through Western media ears, and second by a series of dismissive categorizations that prevent us from feeling any empathy with these marginalized and erased bodies: Terrorist, Muslim Extremist, Al-Quaeda Sympathizers. More than political classification, these are terms aimed at dehumanizing.
Once given one of these labels, the category comprehends from our perspective the person’s entire being. Even sympathizing with a “Terrorist” that was a mother or father is difficult, since “we,” the funders of drone strikes and massacres, cannot see their death, for they were already stripped of their humanity and symbolically “killed” through categorization as the enemy.
The recent massacre in the Gaza Strip presents a complex example of how Palestinian lives are erased in plain sight. Between Nov. 14 and Nov. 21, 172 Palestinian men, women and children were erased, all while the world stood by and America trumpeted Israel’s “right to defend itself” by committing extrajudicial assassinations and shelling civilian areas. How can this be?
Israel and the United States have been able to justify an extensive military occupation, followed by a “withdrawal” and siege that began in 2006. The blockade has proven that balancing Gazans between humanitarian disaster and death is child’s play. The most recent major military strikes include the 2008 “Operation Cast Lead” that killed more than 1,400 Gazans, and the most recent “Pillar of Defense.” Among the “terrorist enclaves” destroyed by U.S. weaponry this past week were a kindergarten, a hospital, the media center that housed global and local news agencies, and countless family homes that entire Gazan families were, according to several tweets, cowering in since “dying together would be a blessing.”
Of course, Israel is not the only aggressive actor in the recent conflict: Hamas is also active in missile attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians. Hamas will not comply with Israeli demands to demilitarize, despite their decision to recognize a two-state solution, which excludes territory annexed by Israel during the 1967 war.
However, the most important lesson to be drawn from this situation is that Israelis and Americans must recognize their role in rendering Gazans unworthy of political and human rights, then disposing of them. Until this happens, the blood on all of our hands, for our complacency with the murder of brown bodies, remains.
A new political spectrum could emerge within the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict once this cycle of two-step erasure is recognized. Palestinian lives must be mourned and granted human and political status for Hamas to similarly recognize Israeli lives. Until the sacredness of life is recognized and mourned for, we all remain vulnerable.
Filed under: Opinion