Friday, 10 January 2014

What does this tell us about the State?

The killing of Mark Duggan has been found legal. The anger around this case is legitimate as were the first sparks of protest and unrest in Tottenham (though what came later is another matter) in which locals mobilised around the police station. It is only middle-class white people who feel an instinctive sense of being on the side of the police. Ordinary people know what it is like to be stopped and searched by the police, especially if they're black or if they fit the profile of a 'terrorist'. It's not a testament to the character of individual officers - who may be awful or munificent - it's about the structural role of the police as a repressive institution with a dismal collective unconscious.

By the way I think the content of the ruling is not expressly problematic. What did we expect of the justice system? Even if the ruling had found that the killing was unlawful it would only serve to reaffirm the sovereignty of the state in its authoritative claims to legality and justice. For this reason I don't think there could by any just result as I question the authority of the state, and that is the fundamental question here. It's hypocritical to suggest that the jury finding the police killing illegal would serve anything other than reasserting the sovereignty. That may be understandable given the high emotions around the death of this man. But it is not the political issue at hand. Andrew Robinson produced an excellent couple of articles on Agamben's work on the area of exceptions in law:

“Homo” means human/man, and “sacer” has the double meaning of “sacred” and “taboo”. Homo sacer is defined as someone who can be killed, but not sacrificed. They can’t be sacrificed to the gods because they’re defined as outside the recognised terrain of valued life (there’s nothing left in them worth sacrificing; to sacrifice them would be sacrilege), but for the same reason, they can be killed with impunity.

I have deployed this concept before in the past with regard to the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of the US army. On that occasion I was prompted to write by the incessant gurgling of Douglas Murray, who took the predictable position that it was fine for the US to violate Pakistan's sovereignty and commit an assassination. I think it can be said that Mark Duggan is a 'homo sacer' in that he is excluded from the sphere of rights and liberties (because he's a violent gangster, to quote the BBC) who can be legitimately killed by the police. Not even in controlled circumstances, not a public execution that has been legally ratified. Instead the killing is legalised by the very system which excluded Duggan in the first place. Thus, the departed was included insofar as he was excluded. It is in this process that the sovereignty claims its basic authority, the authority to make 'exceptions'.

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