Monday, 16 November 2015


Last night, France launched airstrikes on Raqqa, the Islamic State's stronghold in northern Syria.  Officials say that 'command and control centres' and arms dumps were hit by Mirage attack aircraft flying from a base in Jordan.   Because reporting from Syria has become so dangerous, we have no way of confirming that only such centres and dumps were actually hit: there is no way to ascertain whether civilians were hurt or killed.

It's quite likely, however, that they were.  It's not clear to me what kind of weapons systems were used against Raqqa, but even modern guided munitions - air-to-ground missiles such as the American Hellfire or the French Exocet, or laser-guided bombs - are dependent on the presence of persons on the ground or planes or drones in the air to 'illuminate' targets.  Dropping  bombs from high altitude, which has been NATO practice for some time (even though the French, Americans, Russians would have overall air superiority over Syria) is a recipe for missing targets.

In any case, we cannot know what the result of these bombing missions has been.  Defenders of notionally 'resolute' French action would say that if civilians were hurt, there was no 'intention' to hurt them.  This is a mealy-mouthed theoretically weak answer.  Western powers, including Israel, deploy air-power, and make cynical calculations about the level of collateral damage that will be or could be incurred.  Lawyers balance the 'value' of the military target to be hit against the number of civilians casualties that may be affected.  When Israel drops 2000lb laser-guided bombs on a building in Gaza, it rationalises its action by saying that a militant Hamas leader was killed, and that is enough to 'balance' the fact that members of his family were killed along with him.  If 2 family members die (say), that can be presented as a success, whereas if 8 family members die, it's not a (propaganda) success.  The point, though, is that the attack is mounted in the knowledge that civilians are put at great risk.  In this light, the argument that Islamists are savagely and 'intentionally' indiscriminate in their attacks, whereas Western countries try to maintain what Israel used to call 'purity of arms' by 'intending' the avoidance of civilian losses, loses any moral or philosophical force it might ever have had.

Behind such thinking lies the matter of the 'otherness' of France's victims, and the fact that the (cultural, political, ultimately inhuman) Other can be treated as one wishes, without compunction.   The suffering or victimhood of the Other can never match our own, the implication runs, and so only our casualties are worthy of grief.  The pre-eminent thinker on this topic - as on many other topics these days - is the redoubtable Judith Butler.  Here she is on the 'massacre at Paris', as Christopher Marlowe would have called it.  Taken from the Verso website:

Judith Butler: Precariousness and Grievability—When Is Life Grievable?


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