The thing about violence is that it is very hard and very easy to talk about. Describing it is simple, empirical, instinctive. There are facts, logistical details to hide behind. Motives to be ascribed, an “incident” to be explained. Mohammad Akhlaq. Dadri. A mob. A(nother) Muslim (dalit/trans/worker/woman’s) body. Meat that is not beef. A murder. A lynching.
Facts are useful. But they also hide things from us. They make violence about its incidence. It’s not. The act is banal. Ordinary. Expected.
Mohammad began to die a long time ago. When violence against particular bodies becomes legitimate, becomes a series of “misunderstandings,” it is not violence at all. It is the order of things. It is not prejudice but probability. Beef, property, a panchayat election, love jihad, a job, an argument, a WhatsApp message – these are not causes, they are just modes. The last circuits in a motherboard whose pattern is set in place.
Mohammad began to die at least as early in 1992. When we speak of his death in September 2015, it is already too late. The violence is not his death. The violence is that his body lost its right to be murdered because it has slowly been stripped of its life, bit by bit, for years.
I happen to write this on the road; in a train station in an America that is reeling from the deaths of young black men. Here, it is the same. A scramble to reduce violence to its acts as a last defence to believe something about our selves, to hide from from how ordinary this violence is, how much we are a part of it. So we speak of impunity rather than inevitability; deflect to the important but also helpless questions of which act, which law, which court can punish as if punishment were closure, as if punishment could speak back to the violence of having a body that is stripped to bare life, stripped of its right to have enough dignity to be violated.
I write this reading the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, a young, black father writing to his 15-year old son, as if he speaks of Dadri: “I write to you in your fifteenth year. I am writing to you because this year you see Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes; Renisha McBride show for seeking help; John Crawford shot down for browsing in a department store … You know now that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate over-reaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if destruction springs from foolish policy …. All this is common for Black People. All of this is old to Black People. No one is held responsible. There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers or even in this moment. These destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country … You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.”
I wonder what a Muslim father will say to his child today.
I wonder what we must say to ourselves and each other today.
And however weary we feel now, talk we must. But not just about murder or lynchings, about the NSA Act or the investigation. Because then we will hide in our parentheses. In piece after piece I read, I see these parentheses that answer the unasked question, betraying our own anxieties. The parentheses that describe the incident and, while amazed that it should matter whether the meat was beef or not, will still say: “this meat (which wasn’t beef)” because we are still fighting for the right of Mohammad to have enough dignity in life for his death to have meaning. To say that he didn’t make a mistake, as if a mistake and death can sit so easily in one story. As if his killers would not have killed him if the empirics were clear. As if they considered his life, his body, of value. As if this political moment was not doing everything in its power to give those men the power to destroy that body.
We must talk instead about what violence makes us, compels us, forces us to talk about. What its narratives force our discourses into. We must fight against the denigration of the bodies of others around us, and accept that in this moment and this time that denigration seems emboldened, quickened, louder. We must begin to fight earlier, louder and more insistently and not wait for a Beef Ban to give one more mode to an overfull arsenal. To call out every move, every utterance, every policy, every law, every textbook, every rental agreement, every novel, every moment that denigrates the bodies of “others,” so often in our names or the parts of us that belong to majorities, to privilege.
We have to do so recognising that in different moments, different forms of violence become more legitimate than others. Patterns of durable and inter-connected inequalities are still marked by moments when one particular strand becomes more visible, more powerfully marked. In this moment, the gauntlet has been thrown. One line of violence, of otherness, has become raw. We must put our finger on it.
We must then flood our everyday lives with other words, other imaginations – ones that assert other ways of reading, encountering and seeing these bodies. We must not be defensive. We must not hide in our parentheses. We must not seek to behave, to assert that we should be not subjects of legitimate violence because then we will only debate what the lines of legitimacy are and they will always be loaded against us. We must assert our words so that the violence slowly, painfully becomes less banal, less ordinary and we are horrified again. We must not just seek punishment for Mohammad’s killers. We must insist, again and again, for his right to live in the first place. As we do so, we must know that there are already many among us – killers and killed – who will not believe us, who have lost faith or never sought it. And, in their name, more than anyone else, we must endure.