Terrorists: you ignore them for ages, then a whole bunch come along at once. Or so it seems, as the everyday profiling of Muslims as threatening others reconfigures how we all move about the city. An old fashioned racism based on looks, surface and skin has risen to unquestioned prominence at the very time when discussion of race transmutes into talk of religion, ways of life, and civilizational virtues. We hear over and over in the mainstream press, and from the Government, talk of a clash of values, integration and of the need for community cohesion. This old ‘new’ racism is blatant and its prejudice is clear. Policy by scare-mongering and tabloid popularity poll. There is also a theoretical parallel to this in the work of scholars who write today about ethnicity, identity and culture, and even in the work of those who ostensibly would offer up radical critiques of the way the war of terror has been prosecuted by those in power.
Profiling is designed to fill us with dread. A culture of fear and anxiety provokes shivers and panic, has us tingling with unease. Everywhere I look I see intimations of this story – as I commute to work, railway station announcements warn that my belongings may be destroyed if I leave them; I am told not to hesitate to ask someone if an unattended bag is theirs; a general air of uncertainty pervades the tube; fellow passengers are almost too careful and too polite to each other; I suspect them of moving far away from anyone with even a hint of a beard and a backpack; and we all move away from those with Brazilian good looks (because we remember Jean Charles de Menezes, who was shot by police at Stockwell). I avert my eyes and read my newspaper (a free advertising sheet, with minimal – often sensationalist – news); and even at home I am not spared, a constant stream of bombings on screen. Myriad incidents conspire to make us squirm.
This squirm is strangely marked by a transportation theme, and an iconic one, which – as I will suggest – is inflected with an unexamined uncanny aspect. It will be easily accepted that the red double-decker bus is the globally acknowledged symbol of London, you can buy trinket sized models of them in the souvenir stalls. As everyone knows, the bus became even more potently symbolic after the devastating bus and underground attacks on the morning of July 7th 2005. Indeed, we are continually forced to recall the horrific details: on that day three tube carriages and a number 30 Routemaster were destroyed, leaving 52 people dead.
The real face of terror for me is a delinking of cause and effect in relation to this incident and the bombing of this particular bus: it is what I will call a transportation mutation and a blindness of representation. It is my argument that as commentary turns to religion or culture, any critical response to the scene of the ripped open vehicle becomes somehow silenced, and that we become blind to what this image means. I am invoking here the terms used by Susan Buck-Morss and Slavoj Žižek in books that address issues of terror and violence. Along with Alain Badiou, they refer to such atrocities, and to the actions of suicide bombers, as mute, blind, silent and disconnected. This was also the perverse refrain of former British Prime Minister Blair in defending British foreign policy in the wake of the London bombings (‘there was no link between last week’s bombings in London and the Iraq war’ 25 July 2005 BBC).
In his 2008 book Violence, Žižek calls terrorist attacks and suicide bombings a ‘counter violence’ that is a ‘blind passage a l’acte’ and an ‘implicit admission of impotence’ (Žižek p69)? I find this not dissimilar to how Badiou, writing of September 11, 2001, starts his essay on ‘Philosophy and the War on Terror’ by saying ‘It was an enormous murder, lengthily premeditated, and yet silent. No one claimed responsibility’ (PolemicsThinking Past Terror, offers ‘the destruction of September 11 was a mute act. The attackers perished without making demands … They left no note behind … A mute act’ (Buck-Morss 2003 p23). It should be said she qualifies this with a question ‘Or did they?’, but the suggestion of an absent verbal – mute – message is something we should attend to, listen closely, consider again, and not just with our eyes scanning for evidence (hint: on the side of the bus, see inset), but with our ears and minds as well. In a similar tone, we might pass over the curiosity that Žižek chooses the infirmities of blindness and impotence to characterise the terrorist suicide bomber, as if the twin towers of September 11, 2001 in New York indicated a scene of masturbation (too much and you lose your sight) and castration (impotence, symbolic castration of the towers, mummy daddy, the old psychoanalytic staples are invoked, later it will be called a parallax). 2006 p15). Susan Buck-Morss, in her book
The point is that these theorists all agree on an absence of meaning that sets these acts apart. Badiou and Žižek’s claims about suicide bombings recall earlier comments by Buck-Morss on New York, where she suggests that the ‘staging of violence as a global spectacle separates September 11 from previous acts of terror’ and, as we should underscore, all three, dwell upon the absence of message: ‘They left no note behind … Or did they?’ (Buck-Morss 2003:23-4). More uncompromising and perhaps mischievous, Žižek in Welcome to the Desert of the Real, presents the event in his own peculiarly Lacanian perspective:
“The spectacular explosion of the WTC towers was not simply a symbolic act (in the sense of an act whose aim is to ‘deliver a message’): it was primarily an explosion of lethal jouissance, a perverse act of making oneself the instrument of the big Other’s jouissance” (Žižek 2002:141)
I for one am not satisfied with this. The task of a critical commentary is not just to stop and stare. It is also not just a matter of listing ever more details of the symptomatic eventuality that has to be pathologized. We might do more than read surfaces if we look closely at one such revealing detail, that has, curiously, been thus far ignored.
The scene of the July 7th tragedy is captured in widely circulated images of the wrecked bus in Tavistock Square, taken by US based photojournalist Mathew Rosenberg. One of his pictures, appearing in most newspapers the next day, showed the bus from a 45% frontal angle with a disturbingly ironic film advertising placard visible on its side. This was for the film The Descent, due to be released the next day (2005 dir. Neil Marshall). The Descent was a schlock horror-thriller about inhuman monsters in a cave visited by a group of friends who become lost and are subsequently killed off one by one. The cave is the least of the coincidences however, as Londoners read reports and looked at grainy mobile phone video footage from the dark underground. Could we even begin to understand this horror? And were we ready to absorb the irony that the portion of the film placard left on the side of the bus after the explosion clearly displayed a message for us all. Tangled metal and stunned commuters foregrounded by a torn but still legible placard. It says: “Outright Terror, Bold and Brilliant – total film”.
Hasib Mir Hussain was said to be the bus bomber (generally accepted as fact, although questioned by bus passenger and witness Daniel Obachike in his book The Fourth Bomb). Hussain detonated his bomb some 50 minutes after the three tube explosions. Speculation was that, having planned to also blow up a tube carriage, he had lost his nerve and was fleeing the scene, perhaps accidentally setting his bomb off while trying to diffuse it (there were reports of him fiddling with his rucksack). Because the bomber is dead, it is not possible to ascertain whether Hussain had intentionally targeted this particular bus. But some seem ready to decide, for example, my sociologist colleague Victor Seidler says the Tavistock Square bus bombing was ‘unplanned’ (Seidler 2007:10). Whatever the case about the bus – and I tend to think it is a gory coincidence – the thoughts and motives of a suicide bomber are never readily available even where the bombers leave messages and – in the case of Hussain’s co-conspirator, Mohammed Sidique Khan – bequeath us justificatory ‘confessional’ videos to be broadcast after the event. We have however to analyse these with something more than anxious fear. The interpretive work of reading the sign on the bus means refusing the broad brush that paints these bombers as merely mute and blind, even as we put names and faces to them – the very gesture which allows fear to proliferate. To profile and to silence is a double-play that only confirms the ‘bold and beautiful’ success of this terror, this atrocity.
Of course we can only watch those images for so long. Indeed, the image from the side of the bus seems to have been erased. It was not ‘Total Film’, despite the terrible irony, and it looks as if we cannot bear to discuss this much at all. Instead, we have a different mode of commentary, in which – I want to note this as irony too – we see a lot more Muslims on the news than ever before. Bombers Hussain and Khan are off-screen, but the frequent presence of Muslim community leaders as ‘spokesmen’ on British television news talkback is a part of a larger project, in part orchestrated by Government and its agencies (police, media) to manage the postcolonial nation in a context of war. Carefully selected ‘moderate Muslims’ must be identified, shaped and disciplined into a discursive non-fighting force – a class of persons of colour, compliant in taste, in opinion, in morals and in intellect (pace Macaulay’ minute) – while ‘extremist’, outspoken or otherwise non-compliant figures serve as characters fit for demonization, scaremongering and foreign policy justification. The good cop bad cop scenario is transmuted here into a management of appearances – the good community leader is set against the aggressive, often ridiculed, aberrant complainant. Brown skins are offered on screen in dual roles. Scratch the surface of appearance and what we have is a struggle over national identity, a contested arena of civil freedoms and a lost opportunity for real debate.
That the debate scenario of televisual news is a colour-coded fashion show is counterfactually reinforced by the continued parade of white models, white presenters, white authority – but I am no longer persuaded that the mere fact of having brown faces on television is a step towards equality. Visibility must mean something more – such that while we might now insist the skin tone of the speaker matters not so much as the speakers’ allegiance or not to a set of ideas, the degree that those ideas may more or less conform to a white supremacist agenda is itself reinforced again by skin. Rather than the contours of distraction and anxiety, the theoretical arabesques about jouissance, or of mute and blind violence, a louder and wide-eyed debate must be had now. Much has already been said, but the meaning is obscured and if we refuse to read the signs before our eyes. I think this is a part of a general obfuscation, a general avoidance. There are some that talk about war-on-terror fatigue – we are no longer capable of paying attention to the impact of this war on our day to day lives – but I think it amounts to a strangely deflected reaction to the suspicions that we know are everywhere present. In full face profile, the upfront discussion we need about everyday racism on screen and on the buses might then filter through our convoluted anxieties and point towards better understandings, and a more robust defense of those under attack. It is unacceptable to see brown faces accused and detained, having to deny wrongdoing over and over (as was 23 year old ‘lyrical terrorist’ Samina Malik, as well as so many other ‘suspects’). This war of terror as it plays out in the city means Muslims are subject to stop and search, special investigations, harassment and inconvenience, train stations and airports are an ordeal, suspicious looks are just a step away from violent attack and a rendition flight to Guantanamo. The face of racism renewed is that Muslims today are required to ‘get their house in order’, or they must ‘leave’: a spurious double play that sets a superficial tone for media commentary and excludes deeper perspectives. We cannot remain mute nor turn away blind to a racism that wreaks such pervasive destruction upon us all.
For publication in “Stimulus Respond”, issue four.
Badiou, Alain 2006 Polemics London: Verso.
Buck-Morss, Susan 2003 Thinking Past Terror: Islamism and Critical Theory on the Left, London: Verso.
Seidler, Victor Jeleniewski 2007 Urban Fears and Global Terrors, London: Routledge.
Žižek, Slavoj 2008 Violence, London: Profile Books.
Žižek, Slavoj, 2002 Welcome to the Desert of the Real, London: Verso.