Have you heard about the killings?


Have you heard about the killings?

Have you heard about the killings? There have been many now. I won’t be naming the place of murder. I won’t the naming the victims. I won’t be naming the perpetrators.

I shall remain mute (in this important sense) throughout this piece and yet let my thoughts flow freely. Let me see what it’s like to write about something while not daring to name it.

I want to practice and internalise the silence that is being imposed on many far away.

People are being killed for their thoughts. People are being killed for thinking about justice. People are being killed for their faith. People are being killed for expressing an opinion about religion.

People are being killed for writing about freedom of thought and action. People are being killed for even saying the word ‘freedom’.

People are being killed for loving music. People are being killed for loving the ‘wrong’ gender.

People are being killed for engaging in debate and discussion. People are being killed for teaching and education.

Have you heard about the killings?

With frightening regularity over the last several years you would have found an item or two on these killings in Western media.

They keep coming, and you can be sure that the worst is yet to come. Every time you see it, you think disdainfully of the ‘fanatic fringe’ accused of the crime, and feel pity for the victim. Yet another tragedy.

But then a little more probing will lead you into a vortex of unspeakable horror. For every case that was reported somewhat prominently in Western media, ten were not reported at all.

Then comes the realisation – this is carnage on an industrial scale.

And it is anything but self-contained.

But, for now, those of us who have some connection to that political context but who are outside of it, however temporarily, will remain mute spectators from afar, reading the news to get a sense (or to make sense) of it all.

The status quo

So, how do we, as distant receivers of news of carnage, view these murders?

Quite simply, we see them as threats; as attempts to quash ‘free-thinking’ and to prevent anyone from questioning the status quo because the status quo is beneficial to the perpetrators. This status quo is characterised by de facto impunity for murderers. It is characterised by widespread capitulation to religious totalitarians – as much through the everyday validation of their thinking as through the maintenance and invocation of unjust laws that insidiously offer justification for the actions of the perpetrators. The status quo is characterised by deeply-entrenched fear of political actors who demand unquestioning fealty, threaten retribution for the slightest ‘offences’, and kill and maim at will to propagate their politics. The status quo is characterised by the state explicitly conceding that it can no longer protect its citizens; by the state arresting free-thinkers ‘for causing offence’ instead of apprehending their murderers who roam scot-free.

We must remember that those responsible for these killings are, after all, political actors. Theirs is not a personal vendetta but a political one. Their victims are deliberately selected for what they represent – the voice of reason and liberalism in some instances, and the voices of inconvenient oppressed groups in other. Each target comes to be viewed exclusively as an enemy of faith, who then deserves to be murdered. An accusation is enough. Accusation morphs seamlessly into condemnation. Condemnation leads seamlessly to murder. Once condemned, the ‘dissident’ forfeits their humanity. There is no defence, no argument. No need to rationalise the condemnation.

The perpetrators claim to represent an ideology, and we should take their claim seriously. Let’s not misjudge the severity of the threat they pose as ideological political actors – let’s not dismiss them as mere ‘miscreants’. They are not ‘fringe’ elements. They are an organised social force thriving and metastasising at the very heart of society, demonstrating little regard for the state and constitutional law, and complete and utter disregard for the lives of others.

Each of their victims so far has been a convenient target; a defenceless ‘free-thinker’—someone merely expressing an opinion—upon whom they could enact their political agenda of annihilation of dissent, of difference, of disagreement. Any questioning of their ideology—or any demonstration at all of the courage to think and act freely—is perceived as an attack on their political power – on their stranglehold on people’s lives through both ideological and repressive means.

For their political power to remain intact, nobody should dare to question their thinking. Reason, logic, human rights – these are all anathema to them. Why? Because once people start questioning what they’ve been trained not to question, there is very little guarantee that the fear which serves as a guarantor of their power will not diminish or dissipate over time. And what better way to maintain fear than through the relentless slaughter of defenceless individuals who have the temerity—the sheer audacity—to express a contrary opinion?

Big picture analysis in a small mind

Murder. Death for thoughts. Death for love of music. Death for daring to love. Death for difference.

As a school student, I used to read the newspaper everyday. Where I lived and grew up, terrorism in the name of secessionism and inter-ethnic violence were still big in the 1990s (after peaking in the 70s and 80s), but I was mostly unaware of it because I was still a kid in 90s. Whenever I heard and read about murder and carnage, I had an impressionistic sense that there was something savage around us that was wrecking society. In the 2000s, terrorism subsided but ethnic conflict remained a huge problem. As I moved through my teens in the 2000s—reading the news, becoming aware of the world, and becoming political in that sense—I began to intuit the nexus that exists between power and violence. I came to understand that violence is never ‘senseless’. There is always a ‘rationale’ for it in the minds of those who have chosen to enact it: there is much to be gained from violence.

Now, a little bit older and wiser, I understand that while violence can be calculated, behind it does indeed also lie a senselessness and savagery that cannot really be described, or even comprehended. That amorphous fear of savagery that had filled a child’s mind seems now so proximate and apposite. Yes, I can offer cold, rational analysis of the violence, but it seems completely inadequate. What use is naming the crime, the criminals and the victims? What use are dates and timelines? Something indescribable, something unspeakable rears its ugly head every time mere words—inadequate words—are used to describe, categorise and explain this violence. And this thing—whatever it is—defies rational explanation.

On the tyranny of closeness in the networked society

Unhindered access to one’s thoughts and beliefs is virtually a sine qua non of the networked society. While the age of instantaneous communication has witnessed the rise and proliferation of different kinds of emancipatory intellectual-political activity, it has also facilitated the rise of a surveillance culture that has proven conducive to reactionary violence and hate. This surveillance culture-infused communications environment makes individuals vulnerable because—amidst widespread complacency about the inherent safety of communicative acts—it promotes openness and freedom of thought, while simultaneously allowing violent reactionaries to monitor and then actively persecute those whom they seek to suppress. It enables and encourages the identification of ‘targets’, and the violent ‘punishing’ of targets.

So, on the one hand, the networked society promotes ‘free-thinking’, while on the other, it facilitates murder. Of course, any statement of this kind—where one draws an equivalence between what something is and how people use it—is simplistic and fallacious, but I am nevertheless struck by the stark contradictions at the heart of this phenomenon.

The mere act of communicating one’s thoughts leads to mortal danger. As long as you are thinking aloud, you’re transgressing their limits. Mere thoughts are the instigation here. Think and thou shalt be marked.

Towards apolitical space

I have been thinking about the desirability of ‘apolitical’ space, a space absenting or transcending politics. How can one attain ‘apolitical’ nirvana? But, perhaps, I should first spell out why. If thinking about politics, being political or even being politically aware (in whatever sense you wish to understand it) puts you in danger or causes you suffering, is it worth it? If the political context you’re in or thinking about is inherently toxic and not amenable to change, is it worth it? If thinking about politics is a hindrance to the pursuit of work and personal wellbeing, is it worth it? If the political context is characterised by deceit, hypocrisy and active suppression of alternative views, is it worth it? If thinking about politics entails putting yourself at risk of being marginalised, ostracised or persecuted, is it worth it? And, ultimately, if the political context is one in which the result of political work is not increased harmony, wellbeing and liveability, is it worth it?

The virtue of an expedient selfishness is that it forces you to recognise when your actions are harming you. Even if that harm is the result of broader social injustice, you must act to protect yourself. And when being political entails putting yourself in harm’s way, becoming ‘apolitical’ becomes, for many, not a choice but almost a necessity.

The question is: how? And is this worth it?
Have you heard about the killings? There have been many now.

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Arjun Rajkhowa

Author: Arjun Rajkhowa

Dr. Arjun Rajkhowa works in tertiary education in Melbourne. His research interests include policy; public health; media, culture and society; and human rights. He has volunteered in the community sector in Melbourne for several years. He can be contacted on Twitter at @ArjunRajkhowa.