Boston: the terrorism of banality

by Sam Kriss

The State fixes, after the intervention, the term {X,{ex}} as the canonical form of the Event. What is at stake is clearly a Two (the site counted as one, and a multiple formed into one), but the problem is that between these two terms there is no relation.
Alain Badiou, Being and Event

 SPK- Turn Social Awkwardness Into A Weapon!

Lu Lingzi died on Monday. I didn’t know Lu Lingzi. She was a person: she had her passions and dreams and aspirations, and she had her neuroses as well, her buried furies, her paranoias. She was a human being, a speck of brightness in a dark and infinite universe, and there were people who loved her for that reason alone. But I didn’t know Lu Lingzi. The New York Times knew her, though. It knew her in the same way it knows just about every single person on this earth. Its giant roving eye found her, and fixed her, and then some hack wrote this:

Ms. Lu’s own final message on Weibo, the Chinese microblogging service, was posted on Monday and showed a picture of a bowl of Chinese fried bread, and said “My wonderful breakfast.” Ms. Lu, shown on her Weibo page as a petite woman with thick, shoulder-length hair, said there that she enjoyed food, music and finance.

Here is the summation of two thousand years of humanity’s struggle to distil Truth from mere events, the end-product of a line of heroes from Herodotus to Woodward and Bernstein. The final message: Woman Dead, Enjoyed Food. If you want to sell newspapers you have to make people care, and if you want to make people care about a tragedy in the real world you have to narrativise it, you have to give it the form of a fiction. You have to reduce human beings to atoms of emotion. Nobody is safe, it can happen to any of us. Sam Kriss was knocked down by a car while stumbling drunkenly across a road; in his last message to a grief-stricken planet he ironically retweeted the rapper Lil B talking about his tiny dick.

The crucial difference between what happened to Lu Lingzi and my hypothetical encounter with a Peugeot 305 at four in the morning is that, unlike me, Lu Lingzi died in the Boston marathon bombing. The terrorist bomb isn’t so much an object as a series of transformations: chemical substances into heat and light, banality into significance, life into death – with the last of these being only a corollary to the second. Death is tragic, but that’s almost subsidiary to the real horror of the bomb: a hand reaches out from the depths of the earth and assigns an aleatory significance, the Event intrudes on Being with the full force of its inexplicable violence. What we’re seeing is not the banality of terrorism but the latent terror of the banal. One day you’re a happily anonymous citizen; the next your neighbourhood is under undeclared martial law and History bursts your door open and rushes through your home, incarnated in a bunch of armed police wearing camouflage gear.

In the days after the bombing, as the investigation floundered with no group or individual claiming responsibility, I started to believe that the culprits would never be found. The attack would forever be an inexplicable anti-ontological rupture, a thorn pricking the side of a dying empire, a riddle never to be solved. In a way, I think that’s still true. In the absence of any concrete evidence, the observing masses played their favourite game: speculation. Maybe it was the Iranians, maybe North Korea, maybe a false flag attack by the Obama administration, whatever fits in best with the speculator’s prejudices. I’m not proud of it, but I played along too: it couldn’t be Islamists, I reasoned; any kid dumb enough to start talking about Jihad – and a quite a few who had learning difficulties or just needed money – had already been scooped up by some FBI sting operation. It was clearly a lone right-wing Bircher weirdo, a Tea Partier, a conspiracy theorist, holed up in his basement trying to kickstart the Rapture.

I was wrong. For a start, there were two of them. The suspects, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, were not only Caucasian but had been born among the Caucasus mountains, they had US citizenship and had lived in America for most of their lives, they had apparently acted independently of any larger organisation, they seemed to have some sympathy for 9/11 and Sandy Hook conspiracy theories – but at the same time they were Muslims from a region with a long history of armed Islamic radicalism. They sat at the swirling nexus of every theory and prejudice. Neither one thing nor the other, not both, not neither. Multiple zones of indistinction, tangled, whorled, their univocity inscribed only on the Plane of Ignorance. Hence the spectacle of newspaper pundits patiently explaining to their readers what a Chechnya is, and Twitter users assuming that war with Russia was imminent or demanding a nuclear strike on Czechoslovakia.

And yet the culprits still haven’t been found in any full sense. We have an answer, of sorts, but no Answer, nothing that can account for the shocking rupture of the attack. It’s impossible to draw a line of causality from whatever was inside the heads of the Tsarnaevs to what happened near the finish line of the Boston marathon. Where there should have been something conclusive there was only banality, banality assuming the horrific proportions of significance. On the day of the marathon bombing, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (under the handle @J_tsar) retweeted a novelty account for an Internet meme based on a TV advert:

Most Interesting Man @_DosEquisMan_
He once arm wrestled the Incredible Hulk. The loser had to paint himself green.

The day before he planted two bombs that killed three people, including an eight year old boy, he observed:

And here I thought nemo’s dad was about to get it with dory but apparently this man turned into a female #thatscray

Two days after the attack, he told the world:

I’m a stress free kind of guy

Something’s not right here, nothing adds up. This isn’t to say that there’s been a coverup and the Tsarnaevs are innocent of the bombing (although it should be kept in mind that they are, after all, only suspects). It’s something deeper and stranger, the void at the heart of the online representation of a real person. Dzokhar’s friends consistently voice their disbelief: they knew this guy, he was their boy, they smoked weed with him, he was a chill guy. The racist media is forced to dig deep through his Internet presence to find even a few mentions of going to mosque or faith in God; they parade these in front of us as if that explains anything.

Dzokhar also has a profile on the Russian social media site VKontakte. Since he was identified as a suspect, his page has been bombarded with thousands of messages of fury and hate, sometimes bizarrely undirected:

Ivan Skor
Никому, I’m your mother raped instead of with blacks
two hours ago to Nikomu

If your immediate reaction to this is ‘this looks like a great opportunity to publicise my brand,’ then you could find work at one of the footwear companies that spammed the thread with links to their stores. Really, I think they missed a trick there; they could have built up an entire campaign around it. A marathon, a terrorist attack, a culture of martyrdom: all the ingredients for a perfect ad strategy. Imagine it: under a darkening sky a group of figures are shown running heroically along a track. At the finish line, an immense conflagration, the fiery extinction of thought and reason and humanity. One man pulls ahead of the pack, his arms spread wide, the faint glow of a halo just visible over his head, ready to embrace the inferno. What’s given him this sudden burst of speed? His millennial passion, certainly, but that’s not all. The camera pans down, and we discover the truth: he’s wearing the retailer’s shoes. Fade to black. And then, in shining white letters, the tagline: Dare To Go Further.

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