is the author of American Dionysia: Violence, Tragedy, and Democratic Politics.
In issuing calls for action, Republicans act like the good patriots they believe themselves to be. When their country is in trouble, when the nation is under attack, something must be done. It is time to act. Patriots can, do, and must act—where action is defined exclusively in security and military terms. They cannot do otherwise. What they usually want to do when faced with external danger is unleash the nation’s awesome military arsenal. They want to launch strikes. They want to punish enemies. They want to kill those who kill us. They are willing to kill—and have many die—to defend their country and its principles, burdens unduly assigned according to class.
Republican apparatchiks know that when they advocate for war neither they nor their families will be put in harm’s way. This testosterone-driven response presumes, among other things, that the world is susceptible to American intervention and control—of just the right kind. If danger persists, it is because those who exercise power lack the competence to wield it properly and effectively. America creates its own reality and the world falls into place. Predictably, this ontologically narcissistic neoconservative approach to international politics helped create the conditions that led to the rise of the Islamic State in the first place. More of the same cannot eliminate it. To defeat the Islamic State means redressing those conditions, but the coalition of forces America and France would like to assemble to escalate the war on terrorism would see that approach as a threat to their power and interests (unlike perpetual war).
Those who oppose a foreign policy rooted in hyper-aggressive state violence open themselves to criticism, ridicule, and worse. To question strong action when the country is threatened supposedly separates true patriots from the rest. It means that you are not prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, namely, life, to defend your country, its principles, and way of life. This is the political slander of choice during wartime. It is designed to silence and marginalize, even humiliate those who do not worship at the grave of military zeal.
Is there only one way to understand what it means to take decisive action as a citizen when the polity is under lethal threat? How might a democratic people with a tragic sensibility approach the political dilemmas foregrounded by the Paris slaughter? For one thing, they might take some cues from Parisians. On the Sunday following the attacks the people of Paris were back in public drinking wine at cafes, eating at restaurants, watching films, listening to music, walking in the streets. They did not ask what new steps, what enhanced security measures, the government might take to protect them as they did these things. They took it upon themselves to resume a way of life they prized not just despite but also because of the dangers involved. These citizens were in effect risking their lives for the sake of their country and what it represents at its best. They were enacting and defending their freedoms. They chose to take a different kind of risk, but it too was a defense of their way of life. In doing so, they converted everyday spaces into new nonviolent, nonpatriotic monuments and memorials—to life.
Citizens who refuse to sacrifice liberty for security do not take the politically easy way out, panic, and identify themselves with state power and its violent manifestations. It’s not just that the specter of terrorism is cultivated by constituencies that exploit it for political gain and ambition. It’s that freedom entails conditions one of which, in these times, is the responsibility to discipline what Hobbes called a continual fear of violent death. This kind of citizen action is every bit as valuable (and brave) as soldiers willing to don a uniform, strap on a gun, and head to front lines that, ironically, no longer actually exist. Military personnel have no monopoly on courage. If anything, unarmed civilians willing to affirm their way of life given the contingencies of wholesale slaughter might be more admirable. William James once wrote that it did not take any particular bravery for young men to rush into battle, even if they might well be killed, as long as there were plenty of other young men willing to do likewise accompanying them. James’s claim was not meant to denigrate military service, but to give it some much needed perspective and reduce its status and standing in democracy.
In the aftermath of a deadly attack, there is always temptation to demand that the state do more to protect its citizens. This is perhaps an understandable reaction, but it should not be the default position from which decisions flow. There seems to be a sense that the French state failed in its fundamental duty to guarantee the lives of its people. Even if the French state did fail, the first question to ask is not what greater powers can be given to the government’s intelligence and security services. The focus of inquiry should be to determine whether or not the state utilized the powers it already possessed to their fullest extent. Given what is known, for example, about inter-agency cooperation in every government, the answer is likely to be no. Aggrandizing government power and militarizing the state do not simply translate into greater security.
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The state is more than willing to “ask” its citizens to assume the dangers inherent in military service. It will honor and salute soldiers who die for the state. It will build monuments and memorials, write songs, and conduct rites for them. Why, then, isn’t the state willing to ask citizens to accept that there are risks inherent in the daily living of a democratic life? Perhaps because it does not feel like we would be doing anything, or that drinking a glass of wine at a café does not amount to a heroic act. As Parisians have taught us, nothing could be further from the truth. Contrary to legend, the military does not make the democratic freedoms we enjoy possible. The people themselves do.