Cities and War

Posted by Craig Willse

As I pieced together the news from Boston that began flowing across my screen last Monday afternoon, I found my thoughts turning to Saskia Sassen’s essay, “When the City Itself Becomes a Technology of War.” Sassen argues that in an era of transnational governance, cities become concentrated sites of speculation and conflict:

This unsettling of the urban order and its differences with the order of national states is part of a larger disassembling of existing territorial logics. It is happening even as national states and cities continue to be major markers of the geopolitical landscape and the material organization of territory. The type of urban order that gave us the open city is still there, but increasingly as mere visual order, and less so as social order.

For Sassen, this configuration of city space reconfigures war, as the frontlines of battle shift from expansive fields or oceans (where large national militaries could meet) to dense urban streets and the infrastructures of governance and economy embedded within. Thus Sassen draws our attention to the ways in which cities, like the forms of late capital circulating through them, enter a mundane state of instability. Sassen points to the occupation of Gaza as a paradigmatic case of the destabilizations of urbanized warfare. Eyal Weizman formulates this as the politics of verticality, what we might think of as a set of tactical strategies conjoining synchronous projects of apartheid, settler colonialism, and military occupation. Achille Mbembe, also considering the case of the Israeli Defense Force, designates this “terror formation” necropolitics:

Freedom is given to local military commanders to use their discretion as to when and whom to shoot. Movement between the territorial cells requires formal permits. Local civil institutions are systematically destroyed. The besieged population is deprived of their means of income. Invisible killing is added to outright executions.

Paying particular attention to the prevalence of modern asymmetric war, as in the occupation of Gaza or the U.S. war on Iraq, Sassen argues that the pursuit of national security actually produces urban insecurity. Sassen’s brief essay might be elaborated to unpack the work of “national security” a bit more. It seems important to emphasize that, viewed from the perspective of global, militarized capital’s forcible opening up of markets and seizing of resources, “national security” looks mostly like a cover story and an industry, and not so much a project to be achieved. Naomi Klein uses  “disaster capitalism” to describe this simultaneous production of and investment in disorder. I draw this out to emphasize how, in the case of the U.S. for example, the logics of the security state (today operating under the rubrics of the war on terror and the war on crime) demand that “security” be always deferred and never complete.

To think about the bombing at the Boston Marathon does not simply verify Sassen’s thesis. Of course, Sassen’s argument is too easily confirmed at endless sites around the globe: in Iraq, on the same day as the Boston Marathon, at least 55 people died in coordinated bombings across four cities; two years of civil war in Syria have left incomprehensible destruction behind; in New York City, the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program has intensified the militarization of public space—the program stopped over 1.2 million New Yorkers in 2011 and 2012 (87% of whom were African American and Latino) and its stated purpose is to “instill fear.” But more than the bare fact of the city as a technology of war, the Boston Marathon forcefully reminds those who need it that the United States is in a permanent state of war.

This of course was one of the key political interventions of the Black Panther Party, whose model of armed resistance recognized that the U.S. engaged undeclared war against its internally colonized populations. The Black Panthers, and the prison abolition movement that extends their work, recognized police and prisons as instantiations of state terror; the criminalization of their radical dissent and resistance only confirmed this. One legacy of this work is a refusal of tepid, liberal frameworks of “equality” through an insistence that the U.S. in its very existence is a state of war. Today this war manifests in the domestic borders as the ongoing pacification attempts of settler colonialism through the slow deaths of appropriation, containment, and contamination; in the “overseas” reaches of empire, as the military occupation of Hawaii and the use of territories as weapons test sites; and beyond our borders and territories, the U.S. war machine is evidenced in our over 1,000 military bases operating across the globe (the exact number and cost of their maintenance, it turns out, is hard to pin down). Thus, while the surviving accused Boston Marathon bomber apparently has made links to the on-going wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we do not need a direct correspondence to understand that this would happen; it is merely an expression of an already permanent state of war. If we wanted any further confirmation of this fact, we must look no further than the post-bombing manhunt that shut down Boston. (I believe this used to be called martial law.) This is to say that both the bombing and the response are of the same milieu of permanent urban war.

In the days following the bombing, commentators scrambled to make sense of it; the expected racism of this was immediate. Andrea Smith has argued that Orientalism justifies the perpetual wars of empire in the name of security. And so we are not surprised by the efforts to racialize the accused bombers through anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia. These responses cast the events in the familiar terms of the war on terror while simultaneously normalizing and validating that war by inscribing the bombing in the delegitimized realm of so-called terrorism: “immorality,” “illogic,” “hatred.”

Post-bombing commentary also leaned on standard jingoistic tropes of American freedom and exceptionalism, or universal claims of “human spirit” (which of course are actually always particular; the deaths of Iraqis that day, it turns out, most U.S. commentators found spirit-less). But if we actually want to make some sense of these events, we must remember their political economic context. The Boston Marathon participates in the staging of urban spectacle that David Harvey has identified as fundamental to the inter-urban competition driving post-industrial consumer economies; the 2012 marathon brought $137.5 million to Boston (primarily through hotels, meals, and tourist activities of runners and spectators). Capitalist spectacle operated through the broadcast media as well: CNN’s uninterrupted coverage of the manhunt earned it among its highest ratings in a decade. So finally, just as the bombing unfolds in what is already a state of war, it operates in the terrain of that spectacle as well. Here, the daily precarity of urban life among the violent flows of capital, militarism, and imperialism meets its dramatic expression. While every single death of every single day is exceptional—it is the one end of that one human life—the fact of this is not exceptional when urban space becomes produced through siege and war. The bombing is not an interruption or departure, but a speeding up. To see the spectacle across these registers—the marathon, the media, the bombing—is to remember the historical circumstances in which we find ourselves and to recognize the futility of frames (freedom/terrorism/evil) that not only do not make sense of these events but obscure the conditions of their production: permanent war remakes urban space into always potential zones of battle.

One of the important interventions of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement has been the stance of anti-normalization; in the context of Palestinian resistance, anti-normalization rejects “peace process” narratives that pretend the Israeli occupation takes place on a level playing field in which equal exchange is even possible. So I offer the above thoughts to de-normalize perpetual, urban war. Here I follow the lead of journalist Amina Ismail, who also sought de-normalization when she questioned White House Press Secretary Jay Carney after the bombing:

President Obama said that what happened in Boston was an act of terrorism. I would like to ask, do you consider the U.S. bombing on civilians in Afghanistan earlier this month that killed — that left 11 children and a woman killed a form of terrorism? Why or why not?

And I write this remembering how I started the morning of April 15, 2013: reading an op-ed by Guantánamo Bay prisoner Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel. Held without charges since 2002, the now 35-year-old prisoner has been on hunger strike since February 10, 2013, and is currently being subjected to force-feeding.

Two times a day they tie me to a chair in my cell. My arms, legs and head are strapped down. I never know when they will come. Sometimes they come during the night, as late as 11 p.m., when I’m sleeping.

There are so many of us on hunger strike now that there aren’t enough qualified medical staff members to carry out the force-feedings; nothing is happening at regular intervals. They are feeding people around the clock just to keep up.

He concludes his letter:

And there is no end in sight to our imprisonment. Denying ourselves food and risking death every day is the choice we have made.

I just hope that because of the pain we are suffering, the eyes of the world will once again look to Guantánamo before it is too late.

The piling up of horror is hard to process. Starting from the frame of war may help sort this piling up, so we can de-exceptionalize Boston and ask how empire constitutes itself across territories and space, through cities of consumption and prison camps of exile. This is to ask how the space of Guantánamo sustains the space of the city and its illusions of security and stability, how the disappeared co-exist alongside the spectacular.