On that which follows terror.
Nothing in his fucked-up study of black history had ever hipped him to this: The long life of a people can use their fugitivity, their grief, their history for good. This isn’t magic, this is how it was, and how it will always be. This is how we keep our doors open.
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, “A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylann Roof” (2017)
But maybe when we undergo what we do, something about who we are is revealed, something that delineates the ties we have to others, that shows us that these ties constitute what we are, ties or bonds that compose us.
Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (2004)
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s recent GQ feature article on the making of Dylann Roof proceeds from the question of what led Roof to murder nine people during a prayer meeting at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015. As Ghansah’s journey in the essay develops, the responses to that question shift from an isolated focus on Roof himself and toward the shedding of a little light on the social forces that play roles in the emergence of such an act. Moreover, as Ghansah follows Roof’s story, her own winding narrative spreads to include other faces, other names, and other figures shackled within an American history that has worked so insidiously to deny them faces and names.
What becomes clear is that Dylann Roof’s act of terrorism, while harrowing and absurd, must be understood as a fundamentally American violence. Roof was the first person in all of American history to receive a death sentence as the penalty for a federal hate crime, and yet his act bears within its substance an engine constituted by all the hate and terror that has defined the American world since its birth. We are a society whose origins consist in the systematic terrorization of entire people groups, from chattel slavery to the deportation of Latino/a children from their homes, and no matter how much time or reform goes on, there’s a blood like the biblical Abel’s blood—an originary violence, an original sin—that remains upon our doorposts, our monuments, and in our participation in this unfinished history. Ghansah describes Roof’s boyhood habit of compulsively using hand sanitizer “[a]s if he were aware of some stain or some filth that others did not see.” However Roof himself might have identified that stain, I believe it might be understood in some way as the terrorism bound up in our social practices of negating others in order to secure a life for ourselves, those who we allow to belong to our own blood and soil.
Ghansah’s writing in the essay exhibits the strength of a critical act of mourning that resonates for me—insofar as it functions as a reflection on terror—with two critical theorists whose work has revealed the functions of terrorism that are often obscured in our discourse of it. The first of these is Hannah Arendt, whose work in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) defines terror not according to violence perpetrated by lone-wolf actors or minority cells but according to the violence that allows terroristic state regimes to secure their dominance. The second is Judith Butler, whose book Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (2004) reflects on the conditions of possibility for the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the ways in which our response to terror may simply perpetuate the violence perpetrated in the first place. In thinking these writings together—particularly on this anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and considering the hate-fueled will-to-terror that came vividly to the fore in Charlottesville recently—we may better understand the nature of our lives together and what makes such life impossible.
Arendt was a Jewish refugee and political theorist who fled to America from the Nazi regime. In the academic work she undertook here in the States, she wrote provocatively and insightfully on a number of political subjects relevant to our lives in the world, including democratic performance, positive freedom, the construction of public realms, and the violence that plays itself out in law and governance. In The Origins of Totalitarians she reveals the ways in which fascist and totalitarian regimes, as well as the nation-state itself as a political-force, both displace certain people, turning citizens into the stateless, and control their own populations through a unifying political identity and narrative. It is in this latter discussion that her definition of terror arises.
For Arendt, terror does not consist in the spectacular violent acts of uniquely depraved or psycho-pathological actors. Rather terror consists in ideology—the ideological narrative that functions as the motor of totalitarian state power. It is a condition of and the central active ingredient in the administration of a certain type of state. Terror describes the totalitarian state’s practice of inscribing its subjected population into a single, unified political body whose purpose is to serve the ends of the state. Alternatively, against the notion that terror exhibits a fundamentally lawless relationship to a public, she describes terror instead as itself a certain type of law—not a law enforced to limit the actions of political subjects, but rather a law to motivate them toward acting so as to construct a particular arrangement of reality. She writes, “Terror is lawfulness, if law is the law of the movement of some suprahuman force, Nature or History.” Additionally, totalitarian terror produces an “identification of man and law.” Seen from this angle, terror constructs the world that totalitarian subjects occupy by making them construct that world for themselves, according to a single plan or the force of a single narrative agent. (For the Nazis, it was Nature and Nature’s expression through the proliferation of ethnic nationalisms; for the Stalinists, it was History and History’s predetermined end.) Therefore, following Arendt’s definition of terror, we might say that terrorism is expressed more essentially through the identity it enforces upon the actor, rather than the particular acts it pushes the actor to commit.
I like Arendt’s definition of terrorism because it allows us to step back from the momentary spectacles of terroristic violence and to see what actually drives the whole infernal machine. By thinking of terrorism as a type of and practice of identity, we can see Dylann Roof’s terrorism as consisting primarily in his white nationalism, even more so than in the shots he fired. White nationalism is itself a terroristic identity, in that it represents an ideological understanding of a history that is headed somewhere in particular—namely, a white ethno-state. The valorization of white identity as a closed group within the evolution of history is, from its origin, a murderous ideal. Abstractly, it constructs its reality around a strictly defined set of people and thereby negates the reality of others. On the ground, it calls for ethnic cleansing and genocide. Roof hoped that the nine murdered people in Charleston would represent a bloodbath to come, as was written in his identifying ideology.
As is clear in Roof’s case, the terror that Arendt pointed out as existing in the structure of totalitarian states can be seen as well in the actions of individuals for the very reason that the identity those individuals claim can represent many—though as soon as the identity is claimed, the many washes into the monolithic One. Looking in this way at the violence that occurs on the ground, we can use Butler’s ideas about violence and mourning to see how terror functions interpersonally, and how the act of mourning either affirms or complicates our will-to-violence.
In Butler’s account, violence is a revelatory phenomenon. When violence occurs, even in the most vulgar sense of a gunshot in a church, that violence reveals the state of relations that exist at the point between the people involved, and between people more generally. Grief and mourning allows for the practice of reflecting on those relations that come through. Roof fires shots and reveals two levels of extant relations: on the first level, he reveals his own negation of the others in that room, his attempted negation of his ties to them; on the second level, he reveals the ongoing and proliferative dependency we all have upon one another. If one can end the life of another, this shows that one’s life depends on the life of that other and how they choose to relate to us. We are bound to each other; we exist through each other and depend on a certain condition of general care in order for our lives to be possible at all. When we mourn an act of violence, we are compelled to acknowledge the precariousness of our lives, and we are left with a decision as to what to do with that knowledge regarding others.
After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon occurred sixteen years ago, the United States as a people were confronted with a decision in response to that violence. While the attacks revealed the United States’ state of relations to peoples and actors from across the globe—the mutual way global societies rely on the good faith and care of others to continue to exist—what the United States chose was to respond with an exaggerated reactive violence that has continued until today, with no signs of stopping. On domestic ground after the attacks, Muslim and Middle Eastern communities across the country faced harassment, bigotry, and violence on the part of the those who defined their national identity in opposition to them.
With regard to the world stage, three days after September 11, 2001, Congress and the Senate passed with near unanimity the Authorization for Use of Military Force bill that granted the President the authorization to use military force against anyone involved in the attacks or associated in some way with those involved. The violence of this response, largely due to the vague and infinitely applicable language of the bill, has proliferated and metastasized since the response was initiated with the start of the War on Terror. Business Insider points out that, under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the AUMF was used to justify militant violence in Afghanistan, the Philippines, Georgia, Yemen, Djibouti, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iraq, and Somalia. We had a chance to curb such bloodshed when, recently, Rep. Barbara Lee from California—the only one to vote against the AUMF back in 2001—introduced an amendment to a defense spending bill that would repeal the AUMF. However, as things so often seem to go here in America, this gesture toward reaffirming care of and dependency on others with whom we share the world was refused, stripped from the final bill. Currently, President Trump is escalating this perpetual “War on Terror,” and we might say that he does so by using the very mechanisms of terrorism: the negation of the other, the instantiation of a unified identity against all possible difference, the denial of our precarious dependence on each other.
When I consider this cancerous terror that seems to infiltrate every sphere of our political and social activity, I find two particular moments in Ghansah’s writing on Roof especially poignant. Upon the end of her awkward visit to Roof’s church, in which she felt outed and side-eyed for being a black stranger, she stumbles upon the security procedures the church provides in a manual: “I flipped through all of it, but the St. Paul’s safety binder had no instructions for what to do if the shooter was one of their own.” We fail so often to see the terror that functions in our own communities, our own interactions with other individuals. We wind up so often blind to the ways our enclosed senses of self make it impossible to consider the care others require of us, our dependency on them. And in this blindness that proceeds from our finished, closed selves, violence strikes in all directions. Ultimately, this violence we do against others whom we depend on becomes a violence against ourselves.
When Ghansah writes of the Mother Emanuel AME church, she remarks on their ceaselessly opened doors, their welcoming attitude and willingness to invite the stranger, in a manner so unlike the white church that Roof regularly attended. Ghansah identifies this openness as a crucial element in black survival throughout a history of American terrorism that has acted upon those communities. She writes that they used their grief, their suffering, and their experience of being cast out while yet within in order to survive. Perhaps survival requires suffering. We feel that security comes through violence toward our opposition, but in the experience of grief, as Butler shows, we realize that violence toward opposition is always already a violence against ourselves—a cutting off of the life support we have in the care of others. In the place on the beach where Roof once inscribed Nazi symbols—symbols of negation—Ghansah returned to affirm the lives of the dead by writing each of their names in the sand. To affirm life and presence: this is the cure to terrorism, the only response to violence that does not aggravate violence at the same time. We keep our doors open, our selves open, our life proliferative, and only through our care for each other, we live.