Thursday, May 23, 2013

Murdered Soldiers & the Mythology of Terrorism

Wednesday 22nd 2013, 1421
  - Woolwich, South London.

That’s when the call was placed to police - that’s when the authorities became aware that two men were hacking another to death with machetes. But there were witnesses to this act - it happened in broad daylight. Bloodstained hands were caught on camera-phones, tweets going viral while the perpetrators explained why they had done it, to passers by.

They didn’t run, they waited for police. Fourteen minutes later, armed police showed up, and were charged by at least one of the perpetrators. They promptly shot him. Both perpetrators are now in hospital, under guard.

The dead man was a serving soldier. The perpetrators were young black men, who were Muslims. Media makes much of them shouting ‘God is Great’ in Arabic, and their statements that the reason for this is Western troops in Muslim countries.

There will be countless other editorials on this act, and terrorism in general, for many years to come, but as a Briton of a certain age, I grew up with mainland terrorism. Irish Republican paramilitary groups were making threats and blowing things up and killing people throughout my childhood. It’s nothing particularly new, because ultimately, yesterday’s act was an ideological murder.

And those have been going on for hundreds of years - just look at the work of violent political messages throughout the years.

Here at Modern Mythology, ideas and myths are our speciality - and though ‘Terrorism’ has entered the mind of many across the world, if we break things down to their most fundamental level, ideological attacks - indeed any kind of violence are ultimately designed to effect some kind of change.

The techniques grouped together under the moniker of ‘Terrorism’ are asymmetric warfare designed to maximise their affect by influencing whole populations. The efficiency of a suicide bomber is that, until detonation, that person may be indistinguishable from any other person on the street. Threat may thus come from any direction - the entire population becomes weaponised, in a sense. Equally, with the Woolwich attack, the weapons used were easily obtainable - and the perpetrators did not resemble the traditional post-2001 image of terrorists.

They were not of Asian or Middle-Eastern appearance. They do not appear to have been part of a larger network - rather individuals only connected by the ideology of radical Islam, of which it is simply impossible to monitor every subscriber.

But let’s break things down even further, even beyond the murderer’s message or ideology. Let’s get down into the guts, to the action itself.

Any action performed by any agent is taken because a certain effect is desired. We act in certain ways to accomplish certain things - we arrange movements of our limbs in certain ways so as to travel from A to B. I move my fingers and apply pressure to the keys in order that letters are displayed on the screen, which I can arrange in certain ways to transmit ideas to you.

You read those words on this site to discover and evaluate what I’m talking about, and then you react (even by not reacting) to them. You flick between web-pages, click links, to do things, to discover things and change what you are perceiving.

Given all that, it seems obvious to say that actions are taken in order to affect things. That in fact violence is simply the attempt at maximal deployment of change. Trying to kill somebody - to change their state from living to dead, is a big change. Even if you’re in a non-lethal fight - the object is to end the fight as quickly as possible, with minimum effort and damage to yourself, while changing the state of the world (which includes your opponent) into something approximating your desire.

And if we boil that down further, then we’re confronted with the notion that change happens all the time -the world is a dynamic system, as are you. Even if you sit on your arse doing nothing, the world keeps moving.

Plus, even if you are sat on your arse, you are changing; your organs are bubbling away, you’re processing these words and neurons are lighting up in your brain.

Bearing that in mind, it seems that the principle of affect which drives terrorism, and indeed most of human endeavour, is a little odd. After all, if actions are taken, even if to maintain the appearance of stability, then everything we believe about power is more than a little cock-eyed.

Because, if power is the ability to direct change, to focus affect the way you want it, then surely it has to deal with all the other change going on at the same time?

And any mathematician will tell you that factoring in all those variables is damn hard - unless you have models which make certain assumptions. Assumptions like the idea that stability exists, that there is anything approaching safety in the world, and that a Black Swan event won’t have the potential to turn your world upside down.

So in fact, the notion of power and attendant weakness is precisely what Terrorism does. The mythology of Terrorism is the mythology of disruption and of breaking down of the particular normal arrangement of circumstances, the order by which why live our lives.

That is a primal fear - that things will happen which we cannot control, a helplessness which we strive against. It is precisely why human culture develops narrative. As author Terry Pratchett puts it in his novel Wintersmith:

“And humans loved stories, because once you’d turned things into stories, you could change the stories.”

Terrorism only works, in a sense, because it attacks the narrative of order and control, it provides us with a mythologised focus for that helplessness. It as if we have built a house against the wild world and terrorism is a door. It is, in and of itself, inextricably part of the house - part of the culture. Without the notion of order, there could be no disorder. Without the house, no door.

Rather than a simple murder then, a brutal slaying, a change of state for a person at the hands of others, it becomes something more - emblematic of the thing locked outside the house. The house is a place of stability, while the wild world is unpredictable and chaotic, or so it is thought. But in fact that stability is an illusion, things are just as subject to change inside.

And if all action is designed to engender change, then why should we act, as opposed to not acting? Terrorism requires and desires a particular change - that is why it is enacted. But change is already happening anyway - with or without acts of terrorism. Action is demanded because change is demanded, because there is this illusion of stasis.

So ask yourself, why on one hand, are you so afraid of change, and yet desire it so on the other, in the form of action?

Be seeing you.
- VI
Craig 'VI' Slee is a Consultant & Theorist dealing with Mythology, Folklore, Storytelling & Culture.

Currently, he serves as Writer and Content Developer for FoolishPeople, an internationally acclaimed immersive theatre company who create ritual experiences, books and films. Their latest work is STRANGE FACTORIES, which will be released to worldwide distribution late 2013.

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