Mourning 'War on Terror's' ungrievable casualties

By Azeezah Kanji

Azeezah Kanji
Azeezah Kanji

On Thursday, May 15, U.S. President Barack Obama presided over the dedication of the National September 11 Memorial Museum, constructed at the site of the destroyed World Trade Center towers – a “sacred place of healing and of hope,” the president solemnly proclaimed.

A sacred place, indeed, in the secular religion of post-9/11 American nationalism. And the museum is a shrine to the saints and martyrs of that tragic, catastrophic day: “nearly 3,000 innocent souls … We can touch their names and hear their voices and glimpse the small items that speak to the beauty of their lives.”

On display: a pair of shoes still tainted with the smell of the day, a favourite sports jersey of a deceased son – mundane objects transformed into relics by their encounter with violence.

At the same time, the personal, individual nature of the objects exhibited reminds viewers that each life destroyed on Sept. 11 was irreplaceable, unique.

The museum projects an uncomplicated image of a righteous and heroic America, a shining city on a hill assailed by terroristic forces of darkness. The heroes of this Manichean narrative are those brave Americans who put their own lives at risk to rescue others: “Our men and women in uniform who rushed into an inferno.” They embody what Obama declared to be the “true spirit of 9/11 – love, compassion, sacrifice”, transmuting the bloody event which launched the bloody “war on terror” into an occasion of American salvific virtuousness.

The terror of 9/11 might have inspired empathy for all those around the world who experience violence, or the threat of violence, as a daily reality (rather than as a rare, discrete event which can be isolated and museum-ized).

Instead, it has served as the justification for the multiplication of violence, the casus belli for a war of pre-emptive invasions and lengthy occupations, of extrajudicial killings, indefinite detention, etc.

While the events of 9/11 were made hyper-visible – broadcast repeatedly, and now recounted in minute-by-minute, pictorialized detail on the museum’s website – so much of its brutal aftermath has been hidden from us, marginalized in the media or obscured under the veil of secrecy. (For example: the U.S. Senate recently scrapped a proposed legislative provision which would have required the president to publicly disclose information about drone strikes and their victims – at least 150,000 civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Yemen.)

First responders rushing to the scene of drone attacks – far from being hailed as “heroes” – have been targeted in “double-tap” strikes. We cannot “touch their names and hear their voices and glimpse the small items that speak to the beauty of their lives.”

And 9/11’s “true spirit” of love and compassion apparently does not extend to embrace their bereaved families and communities.

Consider the markedly discrepant treatments accorded Taliban assassination target MalalaYousafzai on the one hand, and the family of 67-year-old grandmother and drone casualty Momina Bibi on the other. When Malala visited the U.S., the Obama family received her in the Oval Office and hailed her courage in promoting girls’ rights to receive an education.

In starkly illuminating contrast, when Momina Bibi’s family – schoolteacher Rafiq ur Rehman and his children, Zubair, 13, and Nabila, 9 – travelled from North Waziristan to Washington, D.C. to testify before Congress about her killing by drone, only five out of 430 representatives bothered to show up.

Apprehension of the grievability of a death entails recognition that what has been destroyed was more than just a “bare life” – more than just a hollow figure merely breathing and occupying space, easily obliterated to “bug splat (the entomological epithet applied by drone operators to their kills).

While “our” dead and injured on 9/11 are humanized through display of their objects, “their” dead and injured are reduced to objects through their dehumanization – their lives and their deaths made virtually invisible to us whom the “War on Terror” claims to be protecting. The radical effacement of these casualties of the “War on Terror” permits their treatment as so much necessary collateral damage.

“When such lives are lost they are not grievable,” writes Prof. Butler, “since, in the twisted logic that rationalizes their death, the loss of such populations is deemed necessary to protect the lives of ‘the living.'”

There will be no museum for those rendered “bug splat.”

Azeezah Kanji, a recent graduate of U of T’s Faculty of Law, is programming co-ordinator at Noor Cultural Centre.