National melancholia, understood as a disavowed mourning, follows upon the erasure from public representations of the names, images, and narratives of those the US has killed. On the other hand the US’s own losses are consecrated in public obituaries that constitutes so many acts of nation-building. Some lives are grievable, and others are not; the differential allocation of grievability that decides what kind of subject is and must be grieved, and what kind of subject must not, operates to produce and maintain certain exclusionary conceptions of who is normatively human: what counts as a livable life and a grievable death? – Judith Butler, Precarious Life.
Set aside, for a moment, the American context of the passage above, and the fact that it was written over ten years ago. It could have been written about the United Kingdom. It could have been written yesterday. The great paradox of the last fifteen years, since the declaration of perpetual war against a tactical abstraction is that for all the talk of everything having changed, a remarkable degree of continuity remains. As the government prepares the construction of a memorial to the British victims of terrorism over the past ten years (who number, including aid workers, less than 100), the perpetual acting-out of trauma through a narcissistic, inward looking grief culture inevitably precludes any way to properly work-through this trauma and develop appropriate responses.
“Our” dead are, once again, endowed with vivid inner lives and identities: they were fathers, mothers, football fans, teachers, students; they had aspirations, histories and connection to communities; their faces were our faces.
It is a crude arithmetic that would place the scores killed under the streets of London, the beaches of Tunisia or the Syrian desert alongside the tens of thousands killed in the various “operations” to “secure Britain at home” in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and perhaps many more (unofficial) locations. To create such a ledger would also be a category mistake, because the critique here is not that the innocence of people killed is produced by degree relative to their location, but rather is absolute. An Afghan farmer is no more responsible for his incineration at the hands of a drone operator than a holidaymaker is responsible for the deranged, gun wielding fanatic.
This is the heart of the problem, though. Through the ongoing presence of a culture of mourning -vis e vis terrorism-that valourises the innocence of the Western victim whilst not only remaining silent but often actively working to anonymise the Other when they suffer a similar fate, we have fail to develop an ethical imagination appropriate to the globalised world from which we benefit; if innocent life curtailed by violent death is a priori grievable, then this applies to all who suffer this fate.
The above point is not a new claim; indeed it is at he heart of what Butler, and other theorists of cosmopolitan ethics have been writing about since the late 1990’s. The tragedy of this is that we seem further, not closer, to incorporating the idea that all victims of violence, dispensed by states, armed groups or individuals had individual identities, lives and families; pasts and presents but, no longer, futures. To cultivate an ethical apparatus which is able to perceive in a way which refuses to create victim hierarchies, either explicitly (through the dehumanisation of the Other) or implicitly (by elevating proximate victims through grief-narratives) is more important than ever.