Ben Gidley: Who is Allowed to be Human? ‘Bare Life’ in Aleppo and on the Mediterranean

Syrian refugees at a clinic in Jordan
Syrian refugees at a clinic in Jordan. Photo credit: Russell Watkins/DID

The Muselmann
In Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith describes watching a film of a boat full of refugees being bombed by a helicopter “somewhere in the Mediterranean”. A “middleaged woman who might have been a jewess” sits in the bow with a little boy in her arms, screaming and hiding his face in her chest; she covers him with her body “as if she thought her arms could keep the bullets off him”. The party members cheer as the boat explodes.

Writing in the aftermath of World War II, Orwell and his readers would have seen, on newsreels in the cinema, the harrowing images of barely alive survivors of liberated camps such as Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald; of groups of stateless ‘Displaced Persons‘ drifting across Europe for years after the war ended; of boats full of Jews in the Mediterranean denied ports because of the fear of contagion or that they might be carrying terrorists, or sunk by British forces to prevent them reaching Palestine.

These camps and boats are the images invoked by the philosopher Giorgio Agamben in his concept of “bare life”: zoological life denuded of humanity through the state’s violence. He drew on Hannah Arendt, who had herself experienced internment as a refugee and had written in 1958 that “The chief characteristic of [the] specifically human life […] is that it is itself always full of events which ultimately can be told as a story, establish a biography […] bios, as distinguished from mere zoé”. Eric Santner names zoé stripped of bios as “creaturely life”, when human life “assumes the cringed posture of the creature”.

In the last few years, we have seen many – far too many – examples of such violently imposed creaturely life. Globally, well over 7,000 migrants – maybe as many as 10,000 – have died trying to cross borders in 2016, including nearly 5,000 in the Mediterranean. On the route from Libya to Italy, one migrant dies for every 47 that make it. We have grown used to seeing images of people crammed into boats, or bodies stranded on beaches, but we rarely hear their names.

In Syria, whence many of Europe’s refugees are fleeing, the government has besieged rebel communities for five years, using starvation as a form of warfare; residents have struggled to maintain a liveable, biographical life as barrel bombs fall from helicopters day and night. The UN long since gave up counting the dead – when the toll reached a quarter of a million in 2014. In the latest phase of the war, we have watched – or, more often, turned away from – families in an East Aleppo reduced to rubble, sleeping in the snow before being packed onto buses by their aggressors and transported to unknown destinations.

Exterminate all the brutes
Agamben, and Arendt before him, argued that the physical violence that produces bare life is always preceded by a form of political violence that strips away the humanity, and the human right to have rights, from bodies, in order to place them outside the law and legitimate their killing.

This political violence proceeds through language. People are named swarms, hoards, cockroaches: categories that demand extermination. And it proceeds through the law: Jews were de-naturalised, stripped of citizenship by the Nazi state, before they were transported to the camps.

Although not genocidal like the Nazis’ war on Jews, Bush’s war on terror created new legal categories of unlawful combatants, legitimate to kill or indefinitely detain or to render for torture in allied states such as Syria. The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer explains that Bashar al-Assad’s Syria was one of the most common destinations for America’s rendered suspects, held in a prison known as The Grave for its coffin-sized cells where they were subjected to a frame known as the German chair used to stretch their spines. “Not even animals could withstand it,” one torture victim said. “You just give up. You become like an animal.”

Assad’s regime has learnt the lessons of this, and the effectiveness of designating civilians and rebels as terrorists in order to justify killing on a massive scale. Its allies have repeated the same lines. In November, a senior Russian general, Sergei Rudskoi, said that “The entire male population [of Aleppo], including teenagers above 12 years of age, has been forcibly mobilized by militants.” This was a clear warning that Russian massacres of Aleppo’s population would be considered fully lawful.

Authoritarian rule requires the production of bestial enemies. The Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, summarising Hobbes, characterised the reason of the state as Protego ergo obligo – I protect, therefore I obligate. Much as GW Bush needed Osama bin Laden to justify the suspension of law to maintain homeland security, Assad needs Daesh to maintain his vastly more brutal form of homeland security.

The propaganda outriders of the Assad regime, including those in Russian state media and among the far right and substantial sections of the left in the West, have worked hard to amplify this message. The image of all rebels – sometimes all Sunni Muslims – as bestial jihadis circulates widely on pro-regime social media. Forms of slash porn – descriptions and real or fake images of decapitations, the more blood the better – are endlessly reproduced. The idea of Muslim bestiality, deeply sedimented in the European imaginary – which has for so long defined itself against its Moorish and Ottoman others – and virulently re-activated in the post-9/11 period, has created a receptive audience in the West for pro-Assad propaganda, even among those on the left who had previously rejected the narratives of the war on terror.

“Exterminate all the brutes!”, as Kurtz says in Heart of Darkness. Brutes are precisely those who can be exterminated: naming humans as animals without biographical life thrusts them outside the circle of our empathy, removing all restraint from their murder.

Say their names
When biographical life is restored to those forced to assume the cringed posture of the creature, solidarity begins. We saw the power of this in the summer of 2015, when the mass of boat refugees briefly resolved into one child, Aylan Kurdi, a child with a name, with parents – with a tragically short biographical story – sparking the #RefugeesWelcome movement across Europe.

We glimpse that solidarity too now, as the faces of individual people under bombardment in Aleppo, especially children such as seven-year-old Bana al-Abed, stir some of us in the West out of a half decade of apathy.

To block such solidarity, the pro-regime media and the regime’s social-media advocates devote considerable time to the denial of biographical life. As Bana’s tweets have called up solidarity from across the world, a sustained campaign has sought to deny her ability to tell her life as a story, and has even tried to deny her very existence. President Assad, in an interview with Danish TV, equated her with “the terrorists or their supporters”; Western internet activists have sought to “debunk” her, based on the idea that a child or her Syrian mother couldn’t be capable of tweeting in English, or have cruelly mocked her. Another white pro-regime blogger has attempted to show, falsely, that three different young girls photographed being rescued by the White Helmets are all the same girl, who must be an actor – relying on the fact that, to her audience, all Syrian girls would look alike.

The kind of humanitarian sympathy that focused on Aylan Kurdi’s death and on Bana’s life is only the beginning of solidarity. But the desperately fragile hope it offers is vitally necessary. We need to insist on seeing each of the dead and each of the living as a human with a unique story of their own. 15-year-old Ahmad Zaid al-Hawari, killed in Hama on 13th December under artillery fire. Maisam Abd al-Halim Bargouth, a baby killed in Kafr Dian near Aleppo during shelling on 16th December, whose story had barely begun. Seven-year-old girl Radhiye Abdul Baset Jnaid, killed in Hama by shelling on 18th December. We must say their names, see their faces, hear their voices.

Ben Gidley is a Senior Lecturer at Birkbeck’s Department of Psychosocial Studies.

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