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Waging war ‘in the name’ of the victims

‘Humanitarian War’ as it has evolved from Kosovo to Libya is underpinned by the increasingly sophisticated discourse that NATO acts in the name of the victims, who are unable to fend for themselves. According to sociologists Jean-Claude Paye and Tülay Umay such discourse reflects a profound shift in European mentalities for which the cult of suffering outweighs the grasp of political reality. This results in a form of law, national or international, which no longer seeks to halt the spiral of violence, but feeds it instead.

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The imperial structure knows of no third party. The war against Libya was waged with a UN mandate against which neither China nor Russia used their veto. In the US and Europe, opposition to this war was weak. The war was unleashed by Western powers in the name of defending victims, portrayed as a helpless population that would otherwise have been slaughtered by Gaddafi. The image of the victim is a source of unity. It acts as a fetish intended to occupy and supplant the position of the third party. It reduces the actual victims to the status of infans, of people who are deprived of the faculty of speech. That image is constantly projected by the rhetoric of power, which usurps the place of the victims themselves thus entering into the realm of the sacred. Politics merge with the symbolic, thereby removing all barriers against violence. As a result, violence becomes permanent and foundational. The imperial structure thus embodies the denial of the political sphere.

A war against language

Our leaders’ discourse is a key element for understanding the military intervention in Libya. While it does not in any way help to understand what is actually going on or indeed at stake, it makes it nonetheless possible to see that a "humanitarian war" is also a war against language. It focuses our attention on the images, thus stamping out any possibility of dissent. The joint op-ed by Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron published simultaneously in The Times, The International Herald Tribune, Al-Hayat and Le Figaro on 15 April 2011 stated that "[Our goal]is not to remove Gaddafi by force. But it is impossible to imagine a future for Libya with Gaddafi in power." [1] This statement brings together two contradictory notions: Gaddafi is not the target of the military campaign against Libya, yet it is unthinkable that he should remain in power.

Such a stance perfectly ties in with the oxymoron arising from the humanitarian war: the merging of two mutually exclusive terms. This procedure has the effect of reversing the meaning of each concept. War is peace and peace is war. Military intervention is identified with peace since it is carried for the sake of saving people’s lives. On the other hand, the humanitarian intention rules out any negotiations and can only be achieved through military means.

The stated humanitarian goal is disassociated from the military means deployed and their consequences for the local people. Decoding reality could only act as an obstacle to achieving the war objectives, namely the protection of a defenseless population. Facts are not repressed but their perception, as in Husserl’s Phenomenology époché [2], is suspended to make room for the assigned meaning. The meaning has to be detached from any factual observation, so as to bring out the core nature of the humanitarian war, its pure intentionality, namely the love of the victims.

The voice of the victims

The op-ed reiterates that the victims’ cry for help is what prompted the military intervention. But, by stating that "It is unthinkable that someone who has tried to massacre his own people can play a part in their future government. ," it introduces an additional element, that of our governments’ capacity to anticipate the cry of the people. Clearly, such premonition does not concern the real victims, but their image.

It is not material facts – repression or massacres – that designate the victims, but only the naked gaze, free from all perceived objects, through which the powers-that-be apprehend events. The inhabitants of the Kingdom of Bahrain, although violently repressed by their government with the help of a foreign power, Saudi Arabia, are not designated as victims. In contrast, the Libyan people can only be massacred by Gaddafi, despite the lack of any evidence, other than the intentions pronounced by the dictator himself.

The voice of the people bombed by Gaddafi is the induction of an image, of a primary signified concept that plunges us into psychosis. It creates a new actuality, devoid of any language constraints, which takes hold of us. Here, too, the perception of facts must be put in brackets. The voice of the victims is the cornerstone of an ex-nihilo creation. Husserl would use the words "original intuition." A new reality is created, a new international order is set up, one which is no longer structured by opposition and conflicting interests, but by the love we feel for the victims of tyrants.

A psychotic structure

The voice, conveyed by the image of the victims, beckons us from without yet it is mute. Its action is silent, yet it tells the truth. It emerges as meaning, as original signified. It replaces what Lacan, when working on the psychotic structure, called the "original signifier," the symbolically real, the part of the real that is immediately symbolized [3]. The logos, the symbolically real, as it makes the inscription of the real possible, opens onto a future, whereas the image of the victims’ voice cancels any inscription, any possibility to symbolize the real. It suppresses the function of speech and consequently any possibility of dissent. It encloses us in a traumatic silence.

The humanitarian war, summoned by the victim’s image, thus introduces us directly into the sacred realm. The massacres that were prevented by the military intervention exist thanks to the image of the victims’ voice that Western governments were able to hear ahead of time. The dictator’s violence, as exposed in Western discourse, does not need an object. As explained by René Girard in La Violence et le Sacré [4], it has an original nature.

It also takes on the form of vengeance, of two mimetic violences, one that is illegal, the massacres that Gaddafi is bound to carry out, and the other that lies beyond the law, that rests on a sacred foundation, the love for the victims. There is no third party left, the UN has been nullified. Its mandate to create a no-fly zone to protect the population, was not only immediately violated by the Western powers engaged on the side of the insurgents, but also denied in the joint statement that Gaddafi must go. The victims’ image places us outside of language. It inverts the Law and removes any backstop for preventing violence.

War on terror

The victim’s image is a paradigm that not only applies to "humanitarian war," but also to the "war on terror," where hostility and criminal deeds are amalgamated. The foregrounding of the victim in the war against terrorism is part of an overall mutation of the law. The whole legal order is realigned around this image. The alleged need to avenge the victim inverts the function of law, which is to erect safeguards against violence.

On 11 March, the EU and its member states organized a day of commemoration for the victims of terrorism. The "Day for Victims" fits into the context of the war on terror, and more widely of the law changes that have been recorded over the past decade. EU representatives also established a direct link between this commemoration and Europe’s attention to the "revolutions" in Arab countries [5]. European institutions being particularly sensitive to the voice of the oppressed, it goes without saying that they have the right to dispense advice on democracy to the new Tunisian or Egyptian governments and to introduce them to the "founding values" of the EU. The statements of European leaders on the "Day for Victims" tell us that it is again the cry of the victims that would justify the subsequent military intervention of EU member states in Libya, under US leadership

The "voices" we are supposed to hear, whether in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan or Côte d’Ivoire, legitimize interventions under the guise of helping the victims of the regimes to be defeated.

A reversal of the legal order

Today, the victim is emblematic of state discourse and is widely enlisted in the criminal process. This reorganization of the law is common to all Western countries. In Belgium, as already shown in 1998 by what is known as "le petit Franchimont" [6], it was used to weaken the position of the judicary and to concentrate powers in the hands of the executive [7]. France is not lagging behind in terms of victimhood ideology: enforcement judges are now required to notify the victims of the prisoner’s release on parole, of which there are fewer cases by virtue of a perverted precautionary principle.

Placing the victim before the law leads to the upheaval of the criminal justice system. More and more sentences now tend to take into account the victim’s possible desire for revenge. The role of the law has been dislocated. It’s primary purpose was to curb violence. Currently, this restraining device is called into question. We are caught up in an endless cycle of punishment and victimization. Also, victims are not allowed to put their grief behind. They are confined to a state of permanence, an essence which denies the pacifying function of the law. Victims become the iconic engraving that testifies to the protection and love that power bestows on us.

The legal solution of meeting the presumed desires of the victim generates a shift from responsibility for the act towards compensation. It thus results in the reversal of a legal system, organized around the rights and duties of the citizens towards the community, to one which prioritizes individuals and assets.

Power as victim of terror

The war on terror adds a further dimension. Irrespective of any objective analysis, the victims’ voice is regarded as the only standard for determining the true nature of terrorists, namely criminals who "kill and generate enormous suffering." Thus a cry, the expression of pain and grief project an image. The act is taken out of any political or social context. A series of unrelated events (the destruction of the WTC, attacks against US occupying forces in Iraq or Afganisthan, the Madrid bombing on 11 March 2004) are regarded as being identical. All those acts are said to be the manifestation of pure, pointless violence. The war on terror constructs an image that recalls the notion of original violence developed by René Girard in his theory of the emissary victim [8], a violence which, though inexplicable, is the foundation of social organization.

Similarly, terrorist violence is said to exist for its own sake, devoid of any meaning. In the absence of meaning, language regresses. What is said merely conjures up sights and sounds. Language becomes noise, a scream, a pure signifier. It is the construct of a unifying and globalizing image: the victim’s voice. The latter coalesces the spectators with the horror before their eyes. Any representation becomes impossible. Emotion has replaced analysis and reason.

Incriminations against terrorism occasion a second shift. The fight against terrorism is no longer organized on behalf of simply any victim. The government not only represents the victims, it also stands in for them. Indeed, what qualifies an act as terrorist is not so much what the action involves, but the fact that it is aimed against a government. Combating terrorism confers on the government the status of a victim.

Big Mother

The 11 March commemoration is part of the same pattern. Allegedly, the EU initiative was motivated by the responsibility felt by member states towards the victims, since terrorists "attack society as a whole." This would turn us all into potential victims. Fetichizing the real victim thus brings about a fusion/confusion between victim, population and government.

The war on terror is presented as the defense of all against this blind violence. To achieve this, it amalgamates state of war with the fight against crime. It does away with any distinction between outside and inside, war and peace. The state undermines its citizens’ Habeas corpus and enacts surveillance measures in a domestic context that used to be only applied to enemies of the country. The state of war becomes permanent and endless against an undefined and multi-faced enemy that can be any one of us since the US can charge any individual who is simply designated as a terrorist, i.e. defined as "illegal enemy combatant" by the executive power [9]. We are not just victims, we are also potential terrorists. The fusion between victim, terrorist and government is complete.

This psychotic political order based on love for the victim prompts us to give up our constitutional rights so as to be protected from the other and from ourselves. This maternal political structure cancels any separation between the State and citizens. The French law called LOPPSI 2, [10] in turning videosurveillance into videoprotection, effects a semantic mutation that is characteristic of the care lavished on us by Big Mother.

When speaking and acting in the name of the victims and by positioning itself as one of them, state power has entered the realm of the sacred. It merges political and symbolic orders. As expressed by George W. Bush, in its war of Good vs Evil, state power takes possession of the symbolic order. Basing its legitimacy on the victim-icon, it entraps us in a situation of endless violence. War on terror ushers us into the tragic sphere, as staged by Greek tragedy. It thrusts us into endless and renewed violence, for there is no life-protecting principle, no symbolic order articulated with political power. Psychoanalysis tells us that it is precisely this fantasy of unification with the imaginary mother - in this case, the State as the symbolic mother - which is at the root of this limitless and purposeless violence that the war on terror pretends to fight against.

Translated from French by Christine Pagnoulle.

[1] "Op-ed on Libya by Barack Obama, David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy", by Barack Obama, David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy, New York Times (United States), The Times (United Kingdom), Voltaire Network, 15 April 2011.

[2] Epochè is a Greek word meaning suspension. In Husserl’s phenomenology, épochè is a "bracketing out" of the external world. It refers to the distance separating the subject from discovering the nature of the intentionality that links consciousness to the world. Epochè thus consists of a deliberate bracketing of any opinion, belief or assumption... on any experience of consciousness, or better still, on anything beyond what can be experienced.

[3] Alain-Didier Weill, "Le symboliquement réel n’est pas le réellement symbolique", transcript of the seminar held on Monday 2 April 2007, Insistance.

[4] La Violence et le Sacré, by René Girard, Grasset, Paris 1972.

[5] "Les voix que l’on devrait entendre", La Libre Belgique, 11 March 2011.

[6] A law for the improvement of criminal procedure at the information and examination stages. Le Moniteur belge, 2 April 1998.

[7] Jean-Claude Paye, Vers un État policier en Belgique, EPO, Bruxelles 1999.

[8] Girard, op. cit.

[9] Military Commissions Act of 2006, read: Jean-Claude Paye, "Ennemis de l’Empire", Réseau Voltaire, 17 July 2008.

[10] Jean-Claude Paye, "La LOPPSI 2, un Patriot Act français", Réseau Voltaire, 2 March 2011.

Tülay Umay

Tülay Umay Sociologist. Born in Anatolia, she lives in Belgium. She works on postmodernity social and psychological structures. Underpinning this research is her in-depth study of the so-called "Islamic" veil issue, not as an object in itself but as a symptom of our society.

 
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