Welcome to Liberal Terrorism

(On How John Locke Murdered Juan Carlos de Menezes)

The United Kingdom is the cradle of liberalism and, indeed, one of the places in which Western civilization was born. Britons often take pride in the fact that the protection of individual rights and liberties does not even need a Constitution in the UK – such is the strength of liberal culture and values in the British Isles. Moreover, unlike the situation in the US, British society has the reputation of being fairly tolerant and multicultural.

But then Scotland Yard executes Juan Carlos de Menezes – a Brazilian immigrant mistakenly assumed to be a terrorist – according to a brand new principle of the police: first murder, then ask. The logic of this principle is impeccable: if a Muslim fundamentalist is ready to become a human bomb and kill himself alongside thousands of people, we might as well kill him before he can trigger the bomb he carries. But, of course, as there is no time to arrest that person so as to check if he is really a terrorist – and not, say, a Brazilian worker on his way to his job – we must be ready to accept some “collateral damage.”

Jack Straw made it very clear when he apologized before the Menezes family while supporting the behavior of the policemen involved; the first-murder-then-ask policy, he announced, is still applicable, which means that we all need to accept the fact that the police now have the right to murder without any motive or proof (not to mention a fair trial).

We are in a war against terrorism, you see. Without knowing it, that morning Juan Carlos de Menezes had lost his right to have his life protected from the state. It seems that the dozens of laws, the division of powers, the traditional system of checks and balances, the accountability of state officials and other liberal devices are not as useful when it comes to defending the life of the weak, as they are when it comes to protecting private property. Indeed, Juan Carlos had no security for his life, but, ironically, the Menezes family seems to have retained the right to financial compensation for the “tragic mistake” – as if it was a car accident or some other incident that damaged their “property”.

Is it the end of liberalism, as some analysts argued? Are we in the brink of loosing the values of Western civilization and sinking again into barbarism, as some journalists fear? As seen from the periphery of the world, there is nothing really new in the rapid extinction of the right to life in Britain. In the unstable and violent peripheries that capitalist expansion created, individual rights are more often the exception than the rule. Perhaps the only novelty in these affairs is the fact that globalization is indeed blurring some (and only some) of the distinctions between the core and the periphery of the capitalist world-system. As in Franz Fanon’s dreadful prophecy, the violence of capitalist expansion, initially imposed upon the “wretched of the earth”, is finally reaching the whole of humankind. Yes, we are talking about state terrorism, but now in the heart of the Empire.

What we are witnessing in the Scotland Yard murder, and in Abu Ghraib or the Guantánamo prison tortures, is not the end of liberalism, but rather the revelation of its dark side. In the margins of Western “civilization”, liberal politics and liberal terrorism have always revealed themselves as twin brothers.

Centuries ago, in the formative period of liberalism, John Locke argued that human beings only become part of civil/political society after having been properly “educated”. Children, idiots, and those who do not display “reason” in general cannot give their “rational” consent to a political authority. Therefore, they need to be excluded from social/political life, and to live under someone else’s authority (that is, they enjoy less or no rights). The problem arises: Who is to decide that somebody is not “rational” enough?

In the lack of definition for this question lies the ideological core of liberalism: where theory does not decide, (liberal) social conventions govern. The history of the idea of civilization betrays this ideological “second life” of liberalism. In the liberal ideology and in the narrative of civilization, the key to each person’s place in the gradient of inclusion-exclusion lies, precisely, in his or her degree of “civilization”. As we have all learned at school, the civilizing process originally expanded from the city to the countryside, from the upper to the lower classes, and from Western Europe to the periphery. Indeed, “civilization” still refers to the manners and customs of the upper class – as Norbert Elias has argued – to a “rational” and politically acceptable (“civil”) behavior, and to a high degree of economic and cultural “progress”, all at the same time.

In the unacknowledged logic of ideology, by default, all three meanings are supposed to come together. If all three elements – Western/white/bourgeois customs, political rationality, and wealth – are not evidently present in the appropriate measure, our place in the gradient of inclusion-exclusion will depend on the degree of civilization we are able to demonstrate. And the burden of proof is always on those who do not seem civilized in the eyes of those who obviously are. Failure to show an “anthropological minimum” in the eyes of the civilized may result in partial or total social/political exclusion.

Translated into social practices, the “script” of civilization implicit in liberal politics gives the civilized the right to claim control over some or all of the aspects of the life of those who have “failed”, including their autonomy, political sovereignty, economic way of life, and freedom. The war on Iraq is a good example: as the Iraqi could not live according to Western-capitalist expectations, they needed to be “helped” (and/or bombed, if they put up any obstacle). Before the war started, the honest working people in Europe or the US did not actually know if the Iraqi were “rational” enough or not; but as their country was poor and backward”, and their customs were not quite “white”, many of them assumed that some degree of (forcible) “help” was acceptable. And if any of them refused to be helped, well, that was still another proof of “irrationality”. Enter the bombs.

Something similar happened in the case of Juan Carlos de Menezes: Scotland Yard agents did not know whether or nor he was an “irrational” fundamentalist; but the fact that Menezes was not quite white or rich induced them to think that they could overlook his rights for the sake of national security. Juan Carlos carried the burden of the proof, and he had no time to prove that, despite being dark-skinned, foreigner and poor, he was not an “irrational” terrorist.

The problem is not just one of reactionary Texans or a traitor New Labor in power. Capitalism (and its ideology, liberalism) are taking away our rights, including the right not to be killed by the state for no reason. In times of a permanent global war, liberal (state) terrorism is here to stay. As a Latin American, there is one thing I can tell you: We should fear state terrorism more than anything a bunch of fundamentalist bombers might do.

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