Changing the “War on Terror” script

Jessica West Featured, News

Two events brought the ‘War on Terror’ to our attention in recent weeks: the attack on Westminster bridge and Parliament in London on March 22, and the ban on large electronics imposed on a selection of airlines flying from several countries in the Middle East and North Africa to the United States and the United Kingdom. Although unrelated, both events revealed traces of weariness and resistance to the standard, scripted performance that takes place in the aftermath of terror. Now we have a chance to consider new responses that break down the current stalemate of fear.

A stale script

When I learned that someone had ploughed a car through pedestrians on the iconic Westminster Bridge before stabbing an unarmed police officer outside the British Parliament, I knew that I was expected to react. The news and my social media feeds were filled with commentary. I thought about how I should add my own comments on Twitter—or at least retweet. Post something on Facebook. Show that I care. Show that I know something. Show that I participate in the world. Show something. Say something.

But I did nothing then. Not because I didn’t know what to do, or what to say. But because I knew all too well what to do and what to say—what was expected. I’d been here before. I’d asked the same questions. Made the same pleas. I was intimately familiar with my role in the aftermath of terror.

The link between terror and performance is not new. Terrorism is highly dependent on reaction—on the ability to invoke fear, to stimulate outrage, to harden identities. To do this, it leans not only on shock and surprise, but on symbolism and stories. In other words, it is highly theatrical. Mark Juergensmeyer calls it “performance violence.”

Its success also depends on the reactive performance of counter-terrorism. Some roles are taken by security professionals tasked with responding to and containing violent attacks. Sometimes their actions are highly staged (practising scenarios and ‘wargames’); at other times, they engage in live actions. The links between staged and live were highlighted at Westminster bridge, as those credited with limiting the loss of life performed actions they had practised only three days earlier.

But the rest of us are also part of this counter-terrorism performance. Writing in Vice, Sam Kriss described the standard plot that unfolded: “Without anything to report on beyond the sparse, brutal facts, the TV newsreaders fell back on their scripts. If you were particularly cynical, you could map out everything that Sky and the BBC would say right from the first moment, without even needing to watch.” The standard declarations from world leaders quickly followed. And above all of this echoed what has been described as the typical ‘tribal’ responses to issues of identity and migration.

But the performance faded quickly. Social expressions of unity and strength and displays of the Union Jack emerged briefly. But the day after the Westminster attack, #InternationalPuppyDay was trending higher than #LondonisOpen.

In part, this is because terrorism is failing to terrorize us to the same degree. It’s the new normal. But it also seems that some of the performers are tired of their roles.

Questioning the theatre of counter-terrorism

The War on Terror requires not only acts of terrorism, but state-manufactured fear to support counter-terrorism measures. Performances that promise (however falsely) improved security have been labelled “security theatre.” The role of citizens is to acquiesce in playing our assigned parts. We are to go along with the growing number of restrictions put in place to make us secure: ban on liquids and what has become a near strip-down at the airport. But last week’s announcement of an electronics ban on certain flights didn’t go according to script.

The public did not immediately acquiesce. There was incredulous outrage. How were we to entertain children during long flights? How were business travelers to meet their deadlines? There was a barrage of both reasonable and cynical questions: Why those countries? Why those airlines? Why not any American airlines? Why the differences between the U.K. and U.S. bans? Why can’t airlines tell the difference between a bomb and laptop? And we questioned the link between performance and security, noting how easy it would be for someone to get a bomb onboard despite the ban; noting how much more dangerous it is to store laptops and their potentially combustible batteries deep in the belly of the plane.

This questioning has not changed the policy. And for the most part we have slipped into our roles, accepting yet another round of restrictions with a “weary shrug” and sarcasm:

How to break the impasse?

We seem trapped between well-rehearsed attacks on civilians and counter-terrorism reactions by authorities. We fear both sides and trust neither. How do we act? Is it time to change our roles?

Performance is important. We use it to celebrate, to mourn, to bond, to build trust, and to wage war. But it’s also important to be aware of our performances, to question them, in order to consciously and deliberately reaffirm or change them. Thoughtful pieces such as this one by Elizabeth Benzetti, which  probe at the inequality of our mourning and solidarity, are helpful, in part because they highlight our roles in the performance of terror.

We should welcome the growing tiredness, the cracks, and the signs of resistance to various counter-terrorism scripts and enactments. Perhaps the stalemate caused by fear is slowly eroding.

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