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About killer narratives


August 20, 2019

People do not just wake up and attack their life-long neighbours and friends because of insanity. Rather, they act within a shared story, emphasising a threat to their values or existence.

Like cyborgs (or monsters in old fairy tales), the neighbours become part of a bigger story of aliens threatening our very existence. They take on the role of “invaders” threatening Europe’s (or America’s, India’s etc) cultural identity. It is interesting that Al-Qaeda and ISIL fighters also peddle similar narratives about “Crusaders” threatening Muslim land and even Islam itself.

All will be lost unless urgent action is taken. Anyone “possessed” by such narratives of a clear and present danger will feel compelled to act, or at least demand action. This is especially true if this picture is embedded within a wider narrative of a “conspiracy” of elite inaction, even complicity. In such a scenario “direct action” would be called for, and actors that promise it hailed.

Again, as the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek remarks, some fictional narratives, such as Fox’s hit TV series 24, illustrate this by showing how “ticking bomb scenarios” tend to justify extreme action, including the arrest and torture of key security agents. Even the son of the secretary of defence was arrested in one episode in the context of tackling a threatened mass terror attack. In the series, even the victims themselves accept this as justified, and go back to work immediately after their release!

Security analysts use the term “securitisation” to refer to moves aimed at shifting routine administrative matters such as migration or health to major national threats. We can see this in the way Trump has classified Muslim and Latin American immigration, and trade with China, and even with Canada, Mexico and Europe as national threats. In such cases, securitisation permits policymakers to take exceptional measures that would not otherwise be permissible, such as suspending human rights, building walls or engaging in trade sanctions, military mobilisation, etc. I have coined the term “hyper-securitisation” to refer to cases where fear-mongering rhetoric is used to incite mass panic and incite genocide and similar atrocities.

These narratives are often contested; rival versions gain currency according to how skilfully and convincingly they are presented, and which influential narrators chip in. It is different when the head of the state and mainstream media, rather than fringe actors, peddle the stories, thus enhancing the plausibility of threat narratives.

Political mood shifts helped bring extremist right-wing parties from the fringe to centre in India, Israel, the US and Europe. The Brexit debate in Britain also shifted the political topography. However, in Canada, Germany and France, more centrist forces prevailed.

To sum up, perpetrators of mass violence act within a narratively-constructed and validated context. They are “possessed” by narratives of intense insecurity, usually wrapped up in conspiracy narratives about betrayal and sinister evils lurking in the dark. These narratives are self-reinforcing since their believers would treat every refutation as corroboration, every revelation to the contrary as “fake news” from the same suspect sources. It is a virtual death trap that often ends in mass murder unless some courageous voices rise up and win the contest.

Excerted from: ‘Killer narratives: The real culpritof mass shootings in the US’.