There is No Batman: On Terrorism in Our Time

By Mark McConaghy

Like many in North America and around the world last Friday, I was riveted by the manhunt for the Tsarnaev brothers.

I watched with surreal fascination as the entire city of Boston was locked down into a police state for an entire day. Two young men, pressure cooker bombs, guns, stolen cars, and a willingness to commit heinous acts of violence had shut down one of America’s largest metropolitan areas. A week that began with the Marathon, an event meant to celebrate the joy of the city and its urban community, had ended with the city locked down in a tumult of fear, its social space militarized by state forces in a concerted attempt to find a suspected terrorist in its midst.

It was like a scene from the film the Dark Knight brought to life, when Gotham stands empty and forlorn after Bane launches his terrible onslaught. At times on Friday, I half hoped that a masked crusader would swoop down on Boston and find Tsarnaev quickly, bringing peace and order to the fallen metropolis.

If ever there was a time when we wanted a bat signal to shine out into the darkest of nights, it was last week.

boston lockdown 7
The Militarization of Social Space in Boston

Throughout the manhunt I joked with my family over email that they could always return to Canada. My three siblings have all made their careers in the United States, despite our childhood spent north of the border. I often urge them to return to Canada as soon as possible, owing to the multitude of financial and social calamities the US is currently facing. Although my “leave America” jokes are meant as good hearted banter, there is an aching point of truth to them: I do truly believe the days of American supremacy are over. The country’s social model (neo-liberal capitalism) and the ideology that underpins it are fundamentally flawed. Social stability is found in delicately balanced social democracies, like Canada, while large scale economic growth is to be found in cheap labor markets who have embraced mass-commodity consumption, such as China and India. America, alas, can’t compete on either front anymore.

And yet just as I was making my point to them concerning Canada’s safer and more equitable society, the forces of historical irony came in to dash my argument. For Canadian’s woke up this morning to find out that two foreign nationals living in our country have been arrested on suspected terrorism charges, in connection with a plot to blow up a Via-Rail train.

Following a week where we have seen a city just south of our border shutdown by terror, the arrests have struck an ominous chord in the Canadian populace.

The RCMP announces the arrests of alleged terror suspects
The RCMP announces the arrests of alleged terror suspects

The truth is, for all the very real social advantages Canada has over an increasingly impoverished and polarized America, it is not immune from violence motivated by political terror and religious fanaticism. Nor is it, for that matter, immune from violence generated by organized crime, street gangs, gendered discrimination, and racism.

If the ideal society is one which values every single member within it-  providing each one of those members with a baseline of material security and freedom from physical and mental suffering- then Canada, like every country in the world, is far from where we need to be. The goal of the ideal society has never been reached anywhere, and it is our generation’s task to bring it into being in the here and now. That seemingly impossible task- the building of a world free of suffering- is the great collective political project of our time.

We often say at this blog that such a collective politics could be summed up with the dictate: no dead bodies.

And so how would such an ethical imperative grapple with the problem of terrorism? How can you maintain a pacifist stance in the face of groups of people coordinating attacks against civilian targets for the express purpose of taking innocent life?

I was struck this week by how far our ideal politics (no dead bodies) and our contemporary state truly is, regardless of whether we are discussing the Canadian or American context. For to achieve a state that provides material security for all, we will need to deal with those elements who would like to kill the innocent in that society indiscriminately. When it comes to terrorism, the sad reality is that we here in Canada, just like our American counterparts, need some coordinating police force to watch over the populace, to track groups who would wish to undermine collective security, and to impose order in the name of social stability.

It is an acute irony, then, that on the same day the RCMP announced the arrests of the suspected terrorists, our federal parliament was debating to renew a bill that would provide the state with greater police powers to investigate potential terrorist groups. As the Toronto Star summarizes the bill:

“The Combating Terrorism Act would renew powers introduced after the terror attacks of 9/11 but had lapsed under a sunset clause. This includes giving police the power to preventively arrest people without a warrant. It would allow investigative hearings that would force people with potential knowledge of a terrorism offence to tell what they know.”

There is, unfortunately, no Batman in our world to magically restore social order in the face of radically violent forces. Rather, what we have are laws that provide the state with powers of arrest without warrants, forced interrogation, and (as we saw in Boston) the ability to instantly militarize social space. In the real world without superheroes, it is the state that takes on extraordinary powers of social control.

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How do we Find a Balance Between State Security and Civil Liberty?

There is a delicate balance that must be maintained between protecting our civil liberties and tracking militant groups who are set on murdering innocent civilians. In moments of high tension- and last week was certainly one of them- the desire for justice can often lead to the suspension of those civil liberties, and that of course is a trend we must be ever vigilant to monitor against. Social rights cannot be rend in the name of combating terrorism. No matter how onerous those rights seem for law enforcement agents, they are the cornerstone of the freedom of every individual citizen and, on that account alone, need to be protected.

I certainly hope that our representatives in the commons as well as our journalists, lawyers, and legal professors take a long hard look at the Combating Terrorism Act from the perspective of the rights of the individual, for those cannot be sacrificed if we desire to nurture a politically free society.

And yet, it is equally true that society must be defended from wanton murder. However much we resent a watchful state that intrudes into our lives, however much we would like to see precious resources which are now plowed into state security go instead to educational or medical investments, we cannot abide by the murder of innocent civilians. And so on some level we must accept a watchful police state, even with its ability to suspend our civil liberties, because when I walk onto the subway in downtown Toronto I want to know that I will be safe. I do not want to lose my life or the lives of my loved ones because we happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

It is not a matter of unquestionably accepting everything state security forces do. We must be vigilant over them in the name of our civil rights. And yet the treacherous reality is that without public security there would be precious little social stability upon which to erect a functioning social democracy. We need, after all, to feel safe when we go out in public to run, bike, shop, go to work, and meet our friends.

It is, as I said, a fraught balance.

Who Watches the Watchmen?
Who Watches the Watchmen?

And there is one crucial point in all of this that we must insist upon: terrorism is prevented not just by police officers storming down the doors of would-be bombers. It is prevented first and foremost in the world of ideas, in the way we treat one another, in the public discourse we have, and in the nature of our social relations.

As Justin Trudeau, the untested leader of the federal liberals put it last week, we must find out the root causes of terrorism so as to prevent future expressions of it. Trudeau was unjustifiably criticized by the Conservative government for this statement, which was on the whole an appropriate and mature reaction to the terrorist attacks in Boston. The Conservative critique only further revealed that this government never misses an opportunity to show how petty, power-hungry, and out of touch it truly is with our suffering and our sorrows.

The question of “root causes” amounts to this: we must find out what leads young people to martyr themselves in the name of abstract political and religious ideals. At what point do they take that fateful step to pursue political grievance into the realm of militant action? How can we build a culture in which the mere notion of taking an innocent life to further a political program would seem anathema to us all?

It is on this cultural front that we as parents, teachers, writers, mentors, and citizens can do the most good. For when we build a common culture of democratic engagement, when we listen to the voice of the Other with the desire of understanding its perspective, when we find non-violent means of addressing the disagreements that stand between us, we are already combating terrorism without knowing it.

If we want one day for the police state to truly cease, then we must win the battle for peace in the realm of ideas and culture. A bomb placed in a public square is nothing but a political ideal put into action. If the political ideal was different to begin with, if it embraced a logic that made the taking of human life impossible, then the bomb would have never been planted in the first place.

Thus all kinds of social activity, all kinds of social media, all kinds of public discourse which seem to have very little to do with politics, and even less to do with terrorism, actually can contribute to building a world in which planting that bomb is made impossible. For all the small, quotidian gestures of understanding, communication, openness, and dialogue mount over the body of a society to produce a social fabric in which terrorism has no place.

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The Police State is not Enough to Combat Terrorism

This is the daily work that we must all do to combat the politics of violent action. It is, ultimately, the only effective long-term strategy by which to ensure a bomb does not go off on our morning commute.

And in the mean time, as we work to build such a culture, the sad reality is that a strong police apparatus is still necessary- to protect us against those forces that would rend our social fabric through terror. And yet the police state alone is not enough- we must root out the threat of violence in the very logic by which we live our lives.

Ultimately, the task is to build a world in which there is no need for a Batman. As we strive for that goal, the battle over what ideas will define the lives of our youth is far more powerful than how many tanks and soliders we can send into our streets.

Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at the University of Toronto. He studies aesthetics, political economy, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century. An avid cinephile, he also reviews films for the Toronto Review of Books. At the moment, he his integrating his political interests into a variety of aesthetic projects, spanning from poetry to experimental film.

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