On a hot day in July 2016, four policemen walked onto a beach in Nice, France, ordered a Muslim woman to take off part of her hijab dress, in full view of dozens of other tourists, and fined her for violations of the local decency regulations. The incident was captured by a photographer (which makes the public undressing even more disconcerting) and the images went viral. They triggered a fierce international debate on the why and how of such interventions, in which Muslim female dress is seen as a direct index of a deeper threat – that of jihadism.
How could these four policemen see their intervention as “normal”? After all, one can question, on grounds of common sense, quite a few aspects of a situation in which four armed men order a woman to publicly undress, and sanction her “over-dressedness” on a beach as an act of indecency. The answer can be found elsewhere, in a feature of public debate which has become pervasive whenever Islam and its (real or imagined) characteristics are the theme. There is a highly peculiar use of identity in such arguments, and I shall attempt to sketch it in what follows.
As I said, the incident triggered a massive debate in mass and social media, in which broadly two camps could be discerned. One camp saw the police action as normal and argued that hijab does not belong in our society, since it is an emblem of Islamic backwardness regarding male-female equality. The other camp saw it as a transgression of civil liberties – the freedom of religion – and as an illustration of the absurdities to which the War on Terror (read: the West versus Islam) had led. Both camps overlap to some extent (but certainly not in absolute terms, as we shall see) with the traditional Right-Left distinctions in the political field.
In Belgium, too, this debate raged, and the Belgian-Flemish Social-democrats took a position which largely sided with the first camp. For this, evidently, they were attacked by fractions of the Left. And on 15 August, a member of the Social Democratic party posted the following update on Facebook (Dutch original, my translation).
There is, in se, nothing remarkable about the text, other than that it combines several arguments found in hundreds of other interventions in these discussion. I summarize them as follows:
The “us” party is characterized by epistemic superiority: we know how wrong “they” are, and we know what “they” should do in response to that.
The “they” party is described as a situated entity in the “here-and-now” chronotope. Their actual and concrete behavior is the focus of discussion.
The “we” party, in contrast, is described as absolute and timeless, in a “here-always” chronotope, by invoking “our” history (Enlightenment) and “our” values.
“Their” behavior is political: concrete forms of behavior are seen as an immediate and distinct threat to “democracy”. Our reaction to this, in contrast, is explicitly depoliticized and presented as a simple factual, rational, observation.
This neat (and recurrent) separation of different universes for “us” and “them” enables the author to conclude that the Social-Democratic emphasis on law and order has nothing to do with traditional political Left-Right distinctions. It is a matter of rational reasoning – a simple statement of “problems” – which refers not to specific really-existing political directions, but to our fundamental identity. Thus, it wasn’t President Hollande’s socialism that motivated the four policemen’s action, it was the values of Enlightenment.
We see here how identity is used as a very powerful argument, suggested to transcend everyday politics and to be played out at an existential and timeless level of essential identity. Small features of “their” behavior can now be seen as absolute challenges to who we are, and as in need of responses that protect that fundamental identity. Such responses can – or must – be given by political actors of all shades and colors: actual political positions (and traditions) do not matter here, for our very essence is at stake. And just like in economic matters, addressing the threat of Islam is captured in the TINA frame – there is only one way to respond to it, and that is to defend the absolute status of “our way” and accept no compromise, let alone an alternative strategy, in that battle. Since there is just one way, this way must be “rational”.
Decades ago, scholars such as Manuel Castells, Immanuel Wallerstein and Eric Hobsbawm warned us that identity would become the battlefield of the globalized political world. They were right, and we begin to see how this battlefield is organized: by a politics of identity which denies its political – contestable and debatable – nature, and instead offers itself as an absolute feature.
So Britain voted on June 23, 2016 to leave the European Union. It did so by a narrow margin, which means that the polity has been broken up, probably for a while, into highly antagonized factions. Most observers focus on the Scottish demand to hold an independence referendum, and on Sinn Fein’s call to reunite Ireland. But with an almost 50-50 vote, one can assume that divisions now run through any town, factory, pub and street in Britain – including in the heartland of the “Leave” campaign, England, where London (to name just one) voted overwhelmingly in favor or remaining in the EU. The United Kingdom appears quite disunited today, and the stiff upper lip appears to have been replaced by a trembling lower lip.
Here are some reflections.
The British referendum is just the last in a very long sequence of referenda, held in different member states since the Maastricht Treaty, in which whatever “pro-EU” camp was defeated. The EU seems to always lose as soon as the opinion of the masses is sought. The EU has a systematic, chronic and increasingly painful problem of legitimacy with its inhabitants.
This problem is not caused by the resistance of national chauvinisms and xenophobic totemism alone, even if the media invariably reach consensus over that factor, sometimes even before people have voted. There are now several branches of anti-EU politics. One is the Farage-Wilders in principle opposition to any form of control which is not dominated by national chauvinism. Another, increasingly widespread now, is Euro-criticism on social and ideological grounds. The latter remains badly underexposed in media commentary and prima facie analysis. But it is resistance against the concrete neoliberal-and-austerity orthodoxy imposed by the EU on member states (with varying degrees of brutality) that animates the demonstrations and strikes in France, Spain, Greece, Belgium and other member states, and that has pushed anti-austerity parties such as Podemos and Syriza into electoral prominence. Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the Labour leadership must also be seen in that light.
While the framing in media reports and analyses of such modes of protests is overwhelmingly national – Podemos is a Spanish problem, the general strikes a French one – the nature of these protests is transnational. It is protest against the EU, by many millions of its citizens. People in Madrid, Paris, Athens, London and Brussels protest against precisely the same measures, taken, each time in similar ways, by their national governments (who often defend themselves by pointing upwards to the EU as the bully).
So when Farage wins an election, this is presented as a European issue, while a Podemos victory is presented as a Spanish one. This framing is called “erasure”.
Undoubtedly, the rejection of the EU by more than half of the British electorate will partly be motivated by national chauvinism and xenophobia; but in all likelihood more and more complex reasons must have prompted people to reject the EU. Voters who rejected the EU also include those who resented the EU-enforced neoliberal austerity – an issue that already dominated the last general election in the UK.
Typical in this respect was Farage’s pledge that leaving the EU would release many millions of Pounds to be invested in the NHS. Farage played into an apprently widely shared feeling in the electorate (and not just in Britain) that the current economic crisis demands a strengthening of welfare-state systems, rather than its continued restriction. The fact that the first thing Farage did after his “victory” was to qualify this pledge as somewhat of a joke will be a hangover for many Leave-voters.
I put scare quotes around “victory”, because the question as to who actually won is hard to answer. David Cameron obviously lost, and will probably go down in British history as a PM of exceptional incompetence, arrogance and poor judgment (in a highly competitive field, I add). Nigel Farage’s political future is precarious for the simple reason that he has achieved the one political goal he had set for himself and his party. That achievement, alas, involves now relinquishing the exceedingly generously remunerated European mandates he currently holds. And Boris Johnson? After months of exuberant expressions of his most extreme disgust of the EU and what it stood for, he had to tone down as soon as the results became known, and now mumbles that Britain is not in a hurry to implement his glorious Brexit.
Johnson probably has come to understand now that the Brexit victory has placed him – the next PM, no doubt – in a very weak and vulnerable position negotiating the modalities of the UK’s exit with the EU. One important chip – EU membership itself – is off the table now. It would have been much easier for him if his camp had been narrowly defeated. Cameron could then make journey upon journey to Brussels demanding even more privileges and opt-outs for the UK while the country remained a member state. And while Boris could quietly prepare his campaign to succeed Cameron in Downing Street number 10.
In addition, his party has been split, his country is deeply divided by an issue which has proven to be acutely emotional, and Scotland might demand (or declare) independence when the coming referendum demands it (followed by EU membership for Scotland). And the entire political and media field has found a big new issue that may make or break careers and win or lose elections: the way the UK manages its relationship with the EU. Johnson likes Churchill (in fact, he probably believes he is Churchill). The Brexit referendum might be Johnson’s own little Second World War, concluded with a resounding victory and later converted into several eloquent chapters in his autobiography. And followed by the end of his political career, and of the Britain he stood for. If politics is waged at such elevated levels of destructive populism, politicians can’t possibly be winners.
Yet there are winners, for in the meantime, it’s business as usual. The Pound has dropped quite badly against the Dollar, and the financial markets are in turmoil worldwide. That means that smart speculators somewhere are making mega-bucks. Apart from wars or 9/11-type attacks, nothing is better for financial high-risk players than a major political upset in an important country. In that sense, at least some people may be very happy and grateful to Johnson and Farage.
(Belgian Prime Minister Michel and Interior Minister Jambon after the capture of terror suspect Salah Abdeslam, Brussels, 18 March 2016.)
In early 2002, I published an article co-written, in Dutch, with my MA class of that time. The article offered an analysis of international media reporting of the events of September 11, 2001 – the attacks on the WTC towers in Manhattan and the Pentagon near Washington. This analysis had been done upon the students’ request. My class that year was scheduled to address different topics, but the 9/11 crisis was so dominant that we decided to sink our teeth into the media coverage of it – and into the ways it had affected all of our minds.
The 9/11 format
The conclusions of our analysis can be summarized as follows. First, there was uniformity: the same images, explanations and arguments, and the same expert voices, “went viral” straight after the events in a perplexing show of global media uniformity. Within hours after the planes hit the Twin Towers, a worldwide “script” was circulating in all major media outlets.
Two, this script was manufactured before any clear and decisive factual evidence was available. News media all over the world interrupted their programs and went for a nonstop “breaking news” format (a constant element since then). For many hours, such “open studio” programs offered little else than an endlessly recycled loop of the same images, repeated over and over again, interlarded with every possible rumor that could be passed on by – literally – anyone. Confusion reigned, of course, and journalists knew as little and were as disoriented as we, humble spectators. And so every speculation, fantasy and fear could be offered as “unconfirmed reports” to the audiences around the world – runors of more suspect planes flying over the US, of planes being downed by US Air Force jets, of Palestinians in the West Bank cheering at the news, and so forth. “News”, that day, acquired a weird and seemingly unrestricted semantic elasticity.
In spite of the absence of a flow of hard facts, certain “facts” emerged very soon. The name Osama Bin Laden, for instance, was mentioned (and, consequently, consistently repeated) long before any clear indications were discovered about Al Qaeda’s involvement. To Bin Laden, the Afghan Taliban-regime was instantly added, as well as, more peripherally, the Palestinians, Muslims in general, and the “rogue states” that made up Reagan’s infamous “Axis of Evil” – think of Irak and Iran in particular. As soon as those names appeared, the quest for other possible perpetrators ceased. The bad guys in the script, thus, were known in the first few hours after the attacks, long before any evidence tied them to the attacks. And by whom? by “analysts” from the FBI, the CIA, and “experts” such as the former Israeli Prime Minister Barak.
Three, the reporting was – and this sounds wrong of course – arrestingly aesthetic. The images that went around the world were extraordinarily beautiful. Longshots of the tip of Manhattan, with the miles-long smoke colums drifing over the water, fantastically framed images of the collapsing towers, and even this superbly composed picture of Pulitzer-winning war photographer Jim Nachtwey:
In the days following the drama, more estheticized images circulated, sometimes overtly referring to US political propaganda. Consider, for instance, this famous picture of New York firefighters raising the flag on the WTC rubble, and compare it to the legendary Iwo Jima photo (which was, in turn, converted in the Marines Monument in Washington DC):
The visual power of the media reporting, thus, was stunning and unprecedented in scale of distribution. And it contained a grammar of visual design which was not politically neutral – Nachtwey’s picture opposes the collapsing WTC towers – an attack by Islam – to an embattled Christianity, and the reference to Iwo Jima puts the Twin Towers in a lineage with US war efforts and their heroes.
For this is point four. Three roles were highlighted throughout the media reporting: victims, perpetrators and heroes. We have seen who the perpetrators were and how quickly they were identified. The heroes were the firefighters, the police and secutity forces, the Mayor of New York Giuliani, members of the Bush administration such as Rumsfeld (reported to have personally assisted in search-and-rescue operations after the Pentagon attack), and numbers of “small” heroes. The heroes filled many hours of human interest reporting. As did, of course, the victims – not just the direct victims (those who perished or got injured in the attacks) but also the panicking public, the shocked and dazed witnesses and the thousands of ordinary Americans all over the country who cried on camera and decorated themselves, their cars and houses with US nationalist emblems.
To the extent that “rational” actors appeared – the experts, politicians and analysts – they all rode on emotions. Statements such as “I have no words to express my horror”, “our first thoughts are to the victims” or “we should take time to heal our nation” prefaced political statements suggested to be “of secondary importance at presence”; the statements themselves remained – once more – at the level of general emotional appeal: we learned the phrases “an attack against freedom”, “against democracy”, “against our way of life” then and there. Such statements, even if emotive, had enormous effects. Bush, tears in his eyes, divided the world into “those wo are for us and those who are against us”, and unleashed a “war on terror” which, fifteen years onwards, still causes immense suffering around the world (and whose innocent victims, let it be added, see “those who are for us” and “those who defend freedom” as simple terrorists). They turned the US into a Patriot Act society, in which “terror suspects” have been unlawfully detained and abused in places such as Guantanamo for 15 years now.
Summarizing these points, the news reporting was outspokenly – almost exclsuvely – emotive. It showed emotions, it constructed and played into emotions of shock, distress, fear, anger and pride. The 9/11 format was a format of emotive mass-response. In terms of facts, the main fact we received was, precisely, emotional: we should all be upset, sad, enraged and proud about 9/11 – regardless of what exactly happened then. The mass emotional response was the way in which 9/11 was reported.
Stop thinking, let’s cry
I have seen this format, down to its details, re-occur since 2001 in almost any reporting of similar events – the London and Madrid bombings, the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan in Paris, and of course yesterday after the bombings in Brussels. September 11, 2001, let me note, preceded the advent of social media. And what we have seen since the breaktrough of Facebook and Twitter is a colossal “echo chamber effect” in which this very scenario acquires even more strength and impact, and … even more uniformity. It creates, to put it bluntly, a form of political correctness in which one particular, complex, moralized behavior script is seen as the only adequate public response to such events. And that behavioral script can be summarized as “stop thinking, let’s cry”.
The response to the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, January 2015, was an emotional tsunami, with millions of people (most of whom, of course, had never even seen a copy of Charlie Hebdo magazine) posted “Je Suis Charlie” as their banner or profile picture on social media, and took it to the streets in mass mournings.
The same happened after the November 2015 attacks in France: French flags were posted and “mourning” (preferably in public and on social media) was the only acceptable response. Observe that the French government issued a prohibition on public manifestations soon after the attacks, and announced that it might have to suspend the European Charter of Human Rights for a while, in the name of security.
The Brussels attacks were no exception: while confusion reigned about the what-who-why of the attacks, “mourning” again became the framework of response, and people deviating from that political correctness (I plead guilty) were bitterly reprimanded: “have you no heart?” “this is no time for politics”, “you have no respect for the victims”, “can’t you wait until tomorrow before you start analyzing?” and so forth. So public mourning was what had to be done, it was the only adequate public action to be taken yesterday. Compare, by the way, the picture above (Paris, November 2015) and below (Brussels, March 2016) and observe how both events have an almost identical architecture. We live in and by formatted rituals, it seems.
There is nothing wrong with emotions, naturally, and I too was profoundly shocked and grieved by what had happened. Friends of mine were at Brussels Airport when the bombs detonated, and I couldn’t stop wondering what would have happened if the attackers had chosen to execute their plan a few days earlier, late last week, when I was passing through that Airport. Yes, emotions are part of it.
It becomes highly problematic, however, when only emotions dominate the response, when there is nothing else besides the emotional response. For – remember the structure of the 9/11 format – this direction of response zooms in on one range of phenomena, even suggests that those are the only phenomena that matter. While much more is happening, and much bigger things are at stake. The structure of the news reporting, for instance, is of critical importance, for it is the only window through which most people “know” such phenomena. News reporting, therefore, needs to be carefully monitored. Political responses as well, for even if they are (as we saw earlier) prefaced by solemn expressions of deep emotional solidarity, and even if they are qualified as “of minor importance” compared to the suffering of the victims and the pain and grief of the public, they change our societies.
In Belgium, but I suspect in France as well, the overwhelmingly emotional political correctness has covered and obscured a strengthened political undercurrent of increasing racism and Islamophobia, and (unsurprisingly) a tendency to extra-parliamentary and totalitarian “special powers” governance in the fields of security and policing. This undercurrent has been clearly noticeable since the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, and gained force, of course, in November 2015 when suspects of the Paris attacks were proven to be residents of Brussels.
Since the attacks in Brussels yesterday, the chokingly whispered expressions of emotional upset by leading Belgian right-wing politicians have been blended with bold (and highly questionable) statements in which immigration – think of the refugee crisis – was directly linked to the attacks; with accusations of guilt-by-association against the entire Muslim population of the Brussels district of Molenbeek; with cursory remarks that “evidently”, privacy rules should not stand in the way of security demands; and with calls to speed-vote repressive and surveillance measures previously dismissed by the parliamentary majority. All of this has happened within 36 hours after the events, while most of the public looks away, refuses or dismisses rational and critical reflection and diverts its attention to candle marches and silent wakes for peace. Again, there is nothing wrong with such activities – I organized them myself in November 2015 – but one should also remain a cool, vigilant and carefully thinking citizen. Let’s cry, but don’t stop thinking.
This morning’s Belgian national radio brough vox pop fragments from the streets of Brussels. I heard people say things such as “it’s a pity, but we’ll have to change our lifestyles” – meaning: learn to live with increased surveillance and aggressive random police controls. Totalitarian and repressive policing has been accepted as an inevitability, one day after a terror attack. Or more precisely, after a day of deep and total immersion in a see of emotive response in which we let others do the thinking for us.
And so we find ourselves in a void now, in which those who govern us have been given, apparently by unspoken consensus, the monopoly of rational debate, analysis and conclusion. Our vital role as free citizens in a democracy – to distrust government and to be critical, reasonable and vigilant at all times – has been surrendered, because in the crucial hours of debate and decision-making, we preferred not to pay attention to such details – “wait until tomorrow”.
That is sad and potentially very endangering, for there are several rational questions that must be asked.
For example: all European states adopted since 9/11 what can be called the “Patriot Act” model of the “war on terror”. The recipes deployed by the Bush administration were globalized, so to speak, as a panacea for the fight against Muslim radicalism. I believe that the attacks of the past year in Paris and Brussels serve as pretty conclusive empirical evidence of the fact that this approach to security – repressive, based on totalized surveillance, and never free of racist and Islamophobic dimensions – does not work. I have trouble seeing the Brussels attacks as proof of successful security policy (and I hope I’m not alone). So: where is the alternative? Are there alternatives being considered? If so, which ones? And if not, why not – knowing that it’s hard to solve a problem with the techniques that caused it?
Or again: given that attacks such as the Paris and Brussels ones are exceptional phenomena – even extremely exceptional phenomena (thank heavens) – why would we organize our societies with such exceptions as benchmarks? Why would we allow the exception to become the rule, the “normal state” of a society, when it comes to crime, security and internal peace? Why would we make the murderer into the template of the citizen?
Concretely: the Brussels attacks happened while Belgian society, since more than a year, was already in a state of high alert, with armed soldiers patrolling the streets of the major cities. Now that such measures have proved to be grotesquely inadequate, how much more of the same can we accept? What, in other words, are we ready to accept as a “normal” society?
And so on. The attacks have raised a very large number of such big questions, not just worthy of reflection but in dramatic need of reflection. Because when I look around me, I see people wondering why machine guns are pointed at them at the entrance of the railway station, but quietly moving on towards their platforms – the abnormal has been normalized. When citizens stop reflecting about the distinction between these two dimensions of social organization, or believe that such reflection is best left to others who are not necessarily smarter or more democratically minded than themselves, our society is in great danger.
After the attacks at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, January 2015, security was tightened all over Europe. It was announced that the security and intelligence agencies of the member states would intensify their collaboration, specifically in the domain of data compatibility and exchange, in an attempt to tighten security to such an extent that new terrorist attacks would become impossible – intelligence would ensure that plans would be known long ahead of the moment they were planned to be executed.
Evidently, the Paris attacks on Friday 13th of November 2015 demonstrated the opposite. A relatively large group of terrorists infiltrated Paris in a coordinated shoot-out, bombing and hostage operation causing death and injuries to a large random group of victims.
What is more, the surviving terrorists escaped. One member of the terrorist team – Salah Abdeslam – made his way back across a heavily patrolled border into Belgium; his car was stopped but he was not recognized by the patrolling police officers. In the days that followed, Belgian security and intelligence forces believed that he was hiding in the Brussels district of Molenbeek. The Belgian government declared the highest level of terror alert, and an enormous police action in Molenbeek was launched on 22 November. Armed soldiers patrolled the streets of Brussels (and were deployed in other cities as well), the Brussels Metro was closed, and schools would remain closed until further notice.
The massive raid of 22 November didn’t yield any results. A large handful of people were arrested, but all but one of them were released the next day. No weapons, bombs or other terrorist equipment were found. And, humiliatingly, Abdeslam was not captured. He had escaped. When he was eventually captured, four months later in March 2016, he was found in a house almost adjacent to the one raided in November 2015. And a few days after his widely publicized arrest – “we got him!!”, yelled our Ministers – several bomb attacks devastated Brussels Airport and the Brussels Metro, killing dozens of citizens.
The surveillance structure now put in place, in which the privacy of all citizens is sacrificed to the priorities of a safe public space, and in which all communication traffic is stored as “data” enabling security forces to achieve an unprecedented level of accuracy in identifying possible and effective criminals, to anticipate their plans and to locate their whereabouts – this structure appears to have failed, both in Paris and in Molenbeek, and probably in every other search currently being conducted across Europe. It has failed systematically throughout the entire episode.
The reason for this is quite simple for those who are interested in human behavior: the focus on electronic systems of communication narrows human behavior to just a segment of what we do, believing that this segment suffices to capture the totality of behavior. Empirically, we now see, this assumption is wrong. Abdeslam and his colleagues, at several points in the past months, operated outside of the structures of electronic surveillance, and they did so in a way that kept them adequately informed and alert to the moves of the security forces. Talking face-to-face, or through a network of face-to-face relays, for instance, still exists as a mode of communication, and it cannot possibly be traced by surveillance systems.
Increasing the capacity of this surveillance system will not, for reasons too clear to warrant much explanation, improve its accuracy. It will still cover just a fraction of the social environment in which real people deploy real social behavior and leave the rest unchecked. While, in return, the privacy of an entire population has been surrendered, and might be invaded whenever – for reasons never disclosed to the target – one becomes a “suspect” in the eyes of the surveillance operators.
There is a tendency, when people become desperate, to do more of the same but do it harder, faster and more intensive. In the field of security, the failure of the present system of surveillance should result in a profound revision of its assumptions and methodology. Because while it is definitely totalitarian in scope and pervasiveness, it does not offer total security. In fact, whenever it has to live up to its promises, it appears to fail miserably. It is time to recognize this failure.
Bayern München, one of Europe’s greatest and most distinguished football clubs, today announced that it will donate one million Euro to initiatives assisting refugees with shelter and support.
The news hardly makes headlines, in spite of the fact that it is actually quite spectacular. Organizations such as Bayern München are not normally known for generosity towards people other than their players, VIPs and sponsors; the fact that they now jump the bandwagon of grassroots support for (mostly) Syrian refugees tells us that it is, indeed, quite a bandwagon. And that bandwagon races ahead at an amazing speed and carries a rapidly increasing volume of cargo, in spite of European governments’ overwhelmingly discouraging response to calls for increased support and empathy towards those who seek refuge within the safe boundaries of the Union.
Undoubtedly, historians will later write about the summer of 2015 as a moment in which the EU all but completely lost control over its own public image. The summer started with the brutal suppression of whatever attempt towards regaining sovereignty and democracy was made by the Syriza government of Greece. The results of a referendum were brushed aside without much ado, and barking “austerity!!” became the default mode of communication of the European institutions towards anyone raising even mildly critical questions about it. The EU emerged from the Greek budget conflicts bruised and scarred but with a stiff upper lip; large segments of the European population, in the meantime, had turned their backs on the EU, and probably forever.
Greece was equally the scenery for the second wave of extraordinarily damaging events for the EU when hundreds of small and unstable boats, packed with refugees from the crisis areas in the Middle East, started arriving on the shores of the Greek Islands in the Aegean, often in dramatic conditions. I should be more precise, though. The damage to the EU, and to individual member states’ governments, was done when images of such arrivals were splashed on the front pages of almost any medium in the world.
The “refugee crisis” (as it is now dubbed) started in April 2015. Sure, there were boat refugees prior to that date (Lampedusa, recall), but when hundreds of dead bodies (including those of women and children) were discovered by patrolling ships in the Mediterranean in mid-April, Pandora’s Box was opened. The EU’s “Mare Nostrum” policy was instantly blamed for this tragedy – a repressive policy of “keeping immigrants out” as part of what is now dubbed “Fort Europe”. The outcry was tremendous, and the EU leadership rapidly changed tactics, sending navy vessels on search-and-rescue missions and bringing, thus, thousands of refugees safely ashore. The “refugee crisis” started as soon as the ideological angle of debates on immigration shifted from the immigrants themselves to the political institutions refusing assistance or support to them. Until then, and for a couple of decades already, the political consensus (and its propaganda, of course) had defined immigrants in negative terms, as “adventurers” and “fortune seekers” who have no good cause to seek asylum in the EU and were basically here to take advantage of the wealth accumulated by hard-working EU citizens. Since good numbers of immigrants were Muslims, suggestions of terrorist “fifth column” threats were whispered, and the heavy metal of moralizing condemnation of such “irresponsible” people by European politicians blasted through every TV and radio speaker. A very large chorus of journalists, opinion makers and citizens on social media joined in.
From mid-April 2015, the tone changed entirely. And the cause of that change was visual. The bandwagon started rolling as soon as extraordinarily sad and painful pictures appeared from refugees who did not look like the “adventurers” of European anti-immigrant propaganda. They looked like innocent victims, and the visual confrontation with such “real” refugees was what caused an opinion shift in favor of supporting refugees, and increasingly critical of governments’ stubborn refusal to do so. The burden of “guilt” for what happened thus shifted from the shoulders of the immigrants towards those of governments who had been busy designing repressive anti-immigration policies and had, while doing so, also neglected the administrative and material infrastructures required for offering support to those who applied for it under the terms of international conventions. The real “crisis”, in that sense, became less a crisis of huge numbers of people entering the Union, than a crisis of the perplexing inadequacy of the systems necessary to cope with such numbers. The crisis became political.
Before taking this argument further, a general point is in order. We live in a media-saturated society in which the supply of graphic images is virtually unlimited, certainly in an information market in which traditional mass media are complemented by vast volumes of social media broadcasting, in which citizen journalism, crowd-sourced information and virality are rapidly changing the rules of classical mass media propaganda. When Herman and Chomsky wrote their “Manufacturing Consent” (1988), they described a world in which the Murdoch empire could make or break governments as long as one applied the rules of propaganda. This propaganda model is in need of drastic revision at present: sure, Mr. Murdoch can still make or break governments, but he must keep track of a broad range of unpredictable (and uncontrollable) forces – true “mass (social) media” not within his control. The “light” communities of the social media age are still not taken too seriously by analysts of power and social structure; that is to their own peril, because we are seeing with increasing frequency and intensity how such “light” communities start behaving very much like the “thick” communities of classical social and political analysis. They abandon the quick-and-easy “clicktivism” often ascribed to them, move offline, get organized and start citizen movements and action groups, engage in new forms of economic transaction, and win elections.
Politics, in that sense, has become considerably less predictable, for the rules of public opinion formation have been pluralized and dispersed over vastly more voices and actors, many of whom cannot be brought under control that easily. What happens to the EU now, consequently, came as a surprise to many of its leading politicians – the summer months are traditionally a period of political insignificance, in which the media and their publics get upset about trivial things. In 2015, if politicians switched off their monitoring tools in June and switched them back on in September, they found themselves in an almost unrecognizable world.
I must get back to the images that triggered that change. The refugee crisis of mid-2915 was documented by means of millions of pictures, several of which caused considerable impact. There were shocking pictures, of course, of the drowned victims floating in the Mediterranean; of refugees trying to enter the Channel Tunnel in Calais; of refugees storming trains in Macedonia and Hungary; of seventy-odd dead bodies of refugees in a truck somewhere in Austria; of police brutalities committed against refugees; of makeshift or formal “concentration” camps for refugees, and of barbed-wire fences being raised along the borders of countries so as to keep the immigrants out.
Of these millions of images, however, three specific ones have made a massive impact – they went viral, were shared millions of times on social media platforms, and triggered avalanches of angry and committed commentary both in mass and social media. There is little intrinsically exceptional to the pictures themselves – those who have followed reporting over the summer have seen better and worse ones, to be sure. Semiotically, the sequence of three photos represents an escalation from bad to worse, but that is all. So the question as to why these specific pictures were “chosen”, so to speak, to become the emblematic ones punctuating the rhythm of mass grassroots mobilization among EU citizens cannot be answered by merely looking at them or by dissecting the semiotic structures they represent. There is a greater randomness to the actual image than to its context – if we wish to understand the impact of these pictures, it is the context that should concern us, and it is the context that I shall try to address in a moment. Let us first consider the three iconic images of the “refugee crisis” of the summer of 2015.
The first picture started circulating towards the end of April 2015. We see a confused scene on a Greek island in the Aegean in which a woman is dragged out of the sea onto the cliffs by a man. The man is a Greek citizen, and the woman an Eritrean refugee, whose boat had crashed into the cliffs just minutes earlier. The woman was pregnant and gave birth shortly afterwards.
This image was widely shared and intensely commented and discussed; the protagonists were interviewed and became modest celebrities for a short while. The supposed “danger” of immigration was here represented by a pregnant woman from Africa – not someone who corresponds to the propaganda stereotype of the young masculine fortune seeker, but a person embodying extreme vulnerability. The woman is a victim, not a perpetrator, and her face tells a terrifying story. Saving someone in that situation from an almost certain death is morally unchallengeable: it is something good, something we all have a duty to. Discussions on social media fora, consequently, quickly struck an outspokenly moral tone: the refugee crisis had become a question of good versus evil, and if governments remained hesitant or reluctant to welcome such people, the governments were a rotten bunch.
The impact of this picture was considerable for a while, until the headlines gradually started focusing on the Greek Syriza-Trojka drama which occupied most of public opinion in June and July. But then the second photo started circulating.
The second picture appeared in August; the scene and setting are almost identical to the first one. We again get a “landing” scene, of refugees on the rough shores of a Greek island, at dawn. An adult man, crying, holds a child in his arms and hugs another, while victims and rescue workers fill the background.
This picture suggests a parent-child frame: a father in deep distress holding that radically vulnerable type of human in his arms – his children. Again, these are victims, and it is impossible to read anything else into this image. It is equally impossible not to imagine, and sympathize with, the misery experienced by the man, or his emotion at the moment he knows that his children are safe and alive. As a footnote we can add here that, semiotically, children connect the three photos – from a pregnant woman to a father with his kids, and soon towards the lone child: there is a line. But this is a footnote.
This picture went viral; memes were developed on the basis of this image, and it circulated with angry captions directed at the insensitivity and incompetence of governments turning such innocent people away from their borders. The picture revived the theme of refugees after some weeks of relative quiet, and it circulated in an expanded range of audiences. Its mobilizing force was obvious, and citizen movements started forming in several places in the EU.
In the first days of September, the third picture was released and hit the public like a nuclear bomb. That radically vulnerable type of human being, a child, was still alive and with his father in the second photo. In the third one it is dead and abandoned, lying as if asleep on a beach near Bodrum in Turkey, fully dressed and very, very small. If ever there was an image of an innocent victim, this is it.
Not much more needs to be said about this photo because whatever can be said is utterly distressing. But the picture went viral in a global community, it instantly gave rise to memes and caricature replicas (see the image on top of this essay and the postscript below), it provoked hundreds of opinion and editorial articles in the mass media, and forced politicians to speak out. Even David Cameron, adamant until then about the UK’s refusal to accept more than a token number of new refugees, sounded mellow when he announced his willingness to accept a significantly higher number of refugees. The photo of Aylan (the boy’s name) had become a public opinion B-52..
The publication of this third photo generated a mass of active solidarity across Europe; it is this photo that persuaded Bayern München to donate one million Euro for such purposes. In The Netherlands, over one hundred celebrities published an announcement in newspapers stating their willingness to personally host refugees, given their government’s extreme reluctance to take appropriate action in this direction. Similar actions were noted in France and Belgium. In Finland, the Prime Minister (not someone known for left-wing sympathies) announced that he would host asylum seekers in his private residence. In Belgium, an entirely spontaneous movement had formed, started by one individual on Facebook, collecting clothes, foods and other crucial items for the benefit of the thousands of refugees camping out in an informal settlement in Calais. In a couple of weeks, the movement grew spectacularly and acquired an amazing level of organization and effectiveness. The massive public impact of the third picture made today’s convoy of this movement to Calais suddenly headline news.
Three photos, thus, shifted the balance of public opinion on refugees in a matter of months. They became emblematic, not just as images of the crisis but also as pointers to the moral positions people can assume in relation to it. And morally, the debate is polarized: inactive or hesitant government personnel, PEGIDA and other racist actors are now the target of moral stigmatization, while support for and empathy with refugees is morally qualified as a self-evident instance of “good”. This moral polarization shows us, perhaps, one of the engines pushing the “light” communities of social media offline and into the realm of social and political action traditionally reserved for “thick” communities. Moral causes have become the fuel for a new type of formal-informal voluntarist politics.
There are historical precedents to this, of course. Many of us remember this picture of a girl dreadfully burned by a US napalm attack in Vietnam:
There, too, the focus of moral outrage was a child, terribly hurt by military actions officially targeting an “enemy”. And the picture had a seismic effect on US public opinion on the Vietnam War. This phenomenon was, however, quite exceptional. Given the tremendous affordances of the new media environment in which we now live, much more of this is to be expected. There is no predicting whether any instance of it (let alone which instances) will have the mobilizing effects of the three photos discussed here. But what may be predictable is that governments can, and will, be confronted with mass grassroots moral opposition whenever it happens; and that they have very little control over what will cause such trouble, and when.
They will leave such conflicts badly injured if they fail to appreciate that such forms of moral opposition have a more “absolute” character, and are therefore far more “popular”, more compelling and less liable to compromise, than the good old ideological conflicts and disagreements that structured the field of politics for so long. Some will call it populism, no doubt. But it is a grassroots populism – like it or not – that is rapidly changing the rules of politics.
POSTSCRIPT: “Aylan” as a viral motif
Within 24 hours after the publication of the third picture, the internet was ablaze with hundreds of popular-cultural uptakes of Aylan. Here is a small sample of them. See also