How to politicise a tragedy
by Sam Kriss
I am writing this the morning after a series of violent attacks in Paris that left over one hundred and twenty people dead, and still it feels callous to even be writing about it. As much of the world reels, there’s something very brutal about the idea that now is a good time to demand that others listen to your very clever opinion. If it’s barbarism to write poetry after Auschwitz, then it’s also barbarism to write thinkpieces after Paris. Don’t politicise; don’t use mass murder to score rhetorical points against your enemies, don’t crow je te l’avais bien dit, don’t play tug-of-war with the bodies, don’t make this about yourself, don’t make this about politics.
Which on the face of it is odd: death is always political, and nothing is more political than a terrorist attack. These events happen for political reasons, and they have political consequences; to have an opinion is nice if frustrating in times of peace, but absolutely essential in times of crisis. And yet. A sense of disgust rises when people comment on France’s unprecedented measure of closing its borders by bleating that if they’d done that earlier, all this could have been avoided; when they start gurgling about the global threat of Islam and the foreigners in our midst; when they smugly declare that restrictive gun laws left the population defenceless. This isn’t a tendency limited to the political right: there are plenty on the soi-disant left also using the massacre as a pristine stage on which to exhibit their one-person morality plays. What if the attackers had been white; wouldn’t we all be talking about mental health? Don’t you know that non-Muslims commit atrocities too? Why do you care about this, and not about all the other tragedies going on elsewhere in the world? Can’t you see that all these bodies only exist to prove that I was right about everything all along?
Normally the duty to not opine would only apply to a very small sector of the population, but for the last few years we’ve all been at it. Most of this take-mongering is happening online, and it feels absolutely and entirely wrong to be worthily prognosticating about hundreds of personal apocalypses on the same platforms and in the same forms that are used to sound off about TV shows and and football matches. A lot of this has to do with the demands of the format itself: you’re endlessly encouraged to Have Your Say and Join The Conversation, to constantly be filling white boxes with words, because what you think about any given topic is now incredibly important, and before you know it, in the stampede to have your say and join the conversation you’re trampling over the dead. We scrawl our thoughts in blood. To express anything other than sorrow is monstrous.
But then look at what’s being said. Last night, President Hollande stood outside the Bataclan concert hall, where many dozens had died, to say that ‘we are going to fight, and this fight will be merciless.’ There will be more war, more death, and more tragedy. The TV stations are bringing in experts to insist that this is all the fault of the migrants and the foreigners, as if refugees were carrying the violence they fled along with them. More repression, more cruelty, more pogroms. Terrorist attacks, as we all know, are carried out with the intent of setting the people against each other and sparking an intensification of the violence of the State, and so the people are duly set against each other, and the State announces its determination to do violence. This is already a politicisation of the tragedy, and to loudly speak out against it is yet another: is that also unacceptable? The day before the attacks in Paris, two suicide bombers blew themselves up in Bourj el-Barajneh, a predominately Shia suburb of Beirut, murdering 43 innocent people as they went about their lives. Wire agencies such as Reuters reported an attack against a ‘Hezbollah stronghold.’ The humanity of the victims disappeared, they were brutally synecdochised into a political party that some of them may or may not have supported, they weren’t people, they were Hezbollah, as if what had been attacked were a castle sharp with battlements rather than a neighbourhood full of families. Many people very loudly voiced their horror at this – but that was also the politicisation of tragedy: was that also unacceptable?
When it’s deployed honestly, the command to not politicise means to not make someone’s death about something else: it’s not about the issue you’ve always cared about; it’s not about you. To do this is one type of politics. But there’s another. Insisting on the humanity of the victims is also a political act, and as tragedy is spun into civilisational conflict or an excuse to victimise those who are already victims, it’s a very necessary one. There is the politicisation that seizes on death for limited political aims, and then there is the politicisation that would refuse any predetermined script other than the call for liberation. It insists on the political nature of tragedy, not to shunt it towards one or another narrative pit, or to put a left-ish or right-ish filter over the images of bloodshed, but because politics is a way out of all this. Atrocity demands solidarity. Absolute sympathy for the victims; for all victims. To insist on having an opinion, not the knowing sneer of someone who was right all along, but undiminished solidarity in the face of devastation. To fight against those who attack concerts and cafes, those who bomb cities with fighter jets and with their own bodies, those who abandon migrants to the cold outside their borders, and those sent them fleeing. To struggle: the common struggle of all who suffer, against suffering.
Thanks for this piece, Sam.
[…] Don’t get me wrong: I do see most postings about this as a social effort to reach out to each other, to share fears, connect, to reassure each other, which is all fine and good. In the face of such things we need to reassure each other. But today it still made me feel like being supposed to post or like something, too. Felt as if I was expected to join a chorus while I felt like standing back, making room. Facebook asking to change avatars to the French national colours was a nauseating peak. I was thankful when Sam Kriss (whom I often appreciate for what I’d call constructive provocation) posted his thoughts on his blog because they made me feel less lost: Sam Kriss – How to politicise a tragedy […]
[…] One response that seems at least partially right-minded is from a man with whom I rarely agree. Sam Kris wrote on how to the politicize a tragedy […]
Summed up my thoughts pretty well. Even as things were unfolding people were blaming our new government among other things. I was drawn into some of these online discussions but rather than make me feel better, I felt worse. It just felt so hopeless. Provocation, retaliation, and on and on.
Your post makes me think ” maybe there is some hope”.
Yesterday someone linked me to your thing about the committee to abolish outer space, and while it was presented as something to hate for its stupidity (I also thought it was stupid) I couldn’t deny that it was very cogently and intelligently written, so I looked up your other stuff, including the thing about the DSM-V, and then found your wordpress. I have nothing useful to contribute, since this comment is by nature masturbatory and tangential to the post, but I feel like I had to make it: I think that, when you write words, it is good, to me,
This puts to shame any and all opinions written or about to be written on the Paris tragedy. Articulately argued and written. Thank you for taking the time to force us fallible humans to think about our politics and values, while also forcing us to re-examine the falsehood of the terrorism narrative.
Thank you for this.
Kudos. I agree re. everyone’s having to post their take on something and sometimes annoy myself when I do it. As a rule, one’s disgust at the politicization of tragedy is reserved for those politics one doesn’t agree with. At the end of the day, we are about communication, ever better if it can spread comfort to the many as far and wide as possible. Maybe even use our take-skills to change a mind for the better.
[…] a blog post titled “How to Politicise a Tragedy” that was re-published by Slate, writer Sam Kriss had this to […]
I love your article “How to politicise a tragedy”. Thank you for writing in a very understandable way and with great humanity. I wish politicians who are deciding which country attack now, could read it and reflect if another war is the best way to stop this war. Many thanx. Gabriella.
I agree with you in everything you said. I wish that I could see more people out there thinking in the same way as you do… Sadly as I see there are a lot of people who enjoy violence
Let the world read and understand
This piece is quite interesting and true, all the same. It speaks on reverse terrorism in the form of counter-attacks.
Sometimes I wonder if the world is really civilised. How does killing other people (including innocent women and children in those areas where you suspect ‘terrorits’ are from) in return and as way of placating your grieving citizens?
It is not humanitarian when western countries, who make war in other peoples countries and touch off a flood of fleeing refugees, now use terror attacks at home to deny those fleeing spiralling violence in their countries refuge by sealing off their borders.
It follows naturally that when you launch air strikes on other people they will find innovative way to hit you at home where it hurts. Violence breeds violence.
Well written. I am following you.
This is a very good article. We should see the bigger picture not just the attacks alone to come to a sound conclusion.
Thought provoking read. I guess people try to make sense of tragedy in their own way and in so doing perspective is lost when grief and anger overide rational thinking
You were able to say what I’ve been thinking. ‘It’s not about you’ and that’s it exactly.
This was an interesting read.
thanks for your sharing
Here in Nigeria, Boko Haram kills innocent civilians on a daily bases.The latest bomb blast which occurred yesterday killed 32 people.The western media doesn’t report these happenings. Over 200 people were killed 2 months ago yet the attention it received was not up to one -one hundredth of that of Paris.Posting about these tragedies is my way of letting people know about our plight,our experiences.We are all in this together.
“Insisting on the humanity of the victims is also a political act.” This reminds me so much of the only Ai WeiWei exhibit I had the opportunity to see.
According to the artist, the Chinese government had tried to cover up an earthquake in 2008, and in response Ai WeiWei added the names of 1,000’s of children who were killed to his exhibit. He thought that by naming them, they could be memorialized rather than swept under the rug by a government eager to hide their lack of school building oversight. To connect back to your quote: to have a name makes one human.
I enjoy your views. Thanks for writing.
“death is always political..and nothing is more political than terrorist attack” loved your views :)
I’m very happy to have read this piece.
This puts to shame any and all opinions written or about to be written on the Paris tragedy.
Very well written piece.
You have written nice piece.Humanity is indifferent to creed,culture,colour or race.
boom. this is brilliant. kudos. I wrote something and deleted my post because this was much more poignant and correct.
Time to mourn is the appropriate response.
I agree with your main point, which is that it is hypocritical for people to on the one hand shake their fingers and say “don’t politicize tragedy” while on the other hand using the tragedy to attack immigrants or gun control laws.
I really like your broader point that not politicizing a person’s death means not “making it about something else.”
Fundamentally though I would go further than you. I think a person’s death is always about something else. We all exist in a network of relationships so anytime someone dies it affects other people. Maybe I’m quibbling over language and that’s what you meant when you said “death is always political.” What I’m trying to emphasize is that we really have no say in the matter, it’s not a choice to make it political. If someone I love dies, I’m going to experience grief, anger, sadness, etc, there’s no choice there, it just happens.
For me this fact doesn’t humanize the dead, it humanizes politics.
I really enjoyed this article I think you raise some very valid issues! Part of the problem is that sometimes these events needed to be politicised in order to create a plan which will prevent them reoccurring, and tackle the source of the issue. I understand that there is many ‘sources’ of discontent in the world that had led to this tragedy, but I think framing it politically sometimes can work towards resolving the problem.
I completely agree, however, how when these events are politicised they can become part of an agenda. You get tit-for-tat politics and people critising the government security for example, to suit their agenda as an opposition party. Donald Trumps comment that the French people should own guns which would prevent terror attacks is an example of this.
Anyhow, it was a really interesting read!
Great writing, thank you
Very good article
Nice and thought provoking
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I agree with you. Congratulations on being freshly pressed. The world did show solidarity after the tragedy.
[…] wish to caution those too hastily drawing lessons in policy from this. In his must-read blog post, ‘How to politicise a tragedy’, written the morning after the attacks on the Bataclan, Sam Kriss asks rhetorically, “Can’t you […]
[…] you’re trampling over the dead. We scrawl our thoughts in blood,” Sam Kriss write is How to politicise a tragedy, after the Paris bombing in 2015. Here lies the necessity to ignore the nudge of that issue […]