North Africa, West Asia

Opting out: why my decision to not vote has everything to do with the attacks at Atatürk Airport

By choosing not to vote, I am opting out of choosing whose life, whose community, I view as expendable. I cannot stop the next attack, or the one after that.

Janine Rich
5 July 2016
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Relatives of victims of the Turkish airport blasts, June 30,2016. Lefteris Pitarakis /Press Association. All rights reserved.I am conflicted about a pattern developing in my writing. Lately, it seems I only write after a tragedy, a bombing or an attack. I am afraid of contributing to the type of phantasmagorical, fear-mongering, “Turkey is a dangerous place full of scary Muslims” genre of news and opinion pieces that I find deeply problematic. That said, at the moment this is the best I’ve got, and I will do the best I can with the limitations in my own thoughts.

I will not write directly about the attack on Atatürk Airport last Tuesday. There is nothing I can say that has not already been said, and to try to do so would be to minimize and cheapen the pain and shock of those who lost friends and family members that night.

News of the attack spread quickly, as it always does, and in the hours following I received many calls and messages from family members and friends. I am endlessly grateful for their love and concern, and their directness when asking me some variation of the question, “Aren’t you scared?”

The answer is “yes”, but it is a complicated yes. I am not scared of what is happening now. I am scared of what came before, and what will happen next.

There is a tendency at times like this, when we (and our elected leaders) are scared, to describe those who commit evil acts of violence and horror as being lone psychopaths, individual actors who sprung from the earth unbidden, driven only by bloodthirst and religious fury. We tell ourselves that these people, usually men but not always, exist so far outside the norm as to be unintelligible to our minds and to our collective ethos. We tell ourselves this because it is easier than turning the mirror on ourselves, than asking in which complex yet tangible ways each of us has brought these people into being.

In the part of the world in which I currently live, it is rare to find a state that was not colonized by Britain, France, or Italy. And it is impossible to find a state that does not have a long history of western intervention, both direct and indirect. To believe that a history of corrupt governments, whether western or western-backed, of stagnant economies, of systematic policies of cultural/historical desecration and humiliation, and of religious organizations often offering the only social services available to the marginalized has had no impact on the present is dangerously naïve.

And for those who still, inexplicably, argue that all of this is in the past and thus irrelevant; in 2001 and 2003 the US invaded Afghanistan and Iraq respectively, killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people and rupturing the region in a way that may, in reality, be irreparable. And, despite all of the domestic hysteria in the US over the threat of ISIL attacks, the current reality is that we are not the ones paying the price for our mistakes. Despite all of the domestic hysteria in the US over the threat of ISIL attacks, the current reality is that we are not the ones paying the price for our mistakes.

At this point, I run the risk of insinuating that all people in the region experienced American violence in the same way during this period, and further, reacted in the same way. This could not be further from reality – the majority of people whose lives were, and are still, brutalized by violence have not themselves become killers.

Yet the liberal idea of humans as individual, rational actors making informed decisions from the same set of options is simply wrong. We are not all given the same choices to make. It is crucial that we stop looking at those we label “terrorists” as outside the scope of our norms. They are a product of our norms, of our rhetoric, and of our actions. When those men arrived at Atatürk Airport, the heinous acts they committed were the ultimate outcome of the long history of violence that brought them there. 

This is not to suggest, as some postcolonial scholars have, that the problems of the Middle East and North Africa come solely from western oppression. This is a line of thought that is overly simplistic, and is often co-opted by corrupt politicians and leaders within the Middle East to justify their own abuses of power. “Western agents made me do it” must not be allowed to stand as a legitimate defense for corruption and/or inaction.

In the case of Turkey, Erdogan’s regime has done more than enough on its own to cause the violence that came to a boiling point at Atatürk Airport by allowing Turkey to serve as an area of safe passage for militants flowing in and out of Syria and by, allegedly, providing weapons and funding to ISIL-associated groups.  

It’s been a long week. I am tired and angry and, like everyone else, afraid. Which, finally, brings us to the upcoming US election. As a friend and I were recently bemoaning our lack of viable choices of electoral candidates, I was struck by how normalized a chilling idea has become – that, at the core of choosing who to vote for lies the decision of choosing who it is okay to kill.

A Donald Trump victory would be a legitimization of xenophobic, racist, violent rhetoric in the public sphere. It would further normalize structures of racialized inequality and poverty, of police violence and the criminalization/incarceration of racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities. It would see a continuance of the virtually uninhibited flow of guns into the hands of anyone who wants them.

It would give legitimacy to white nationalist violence, which is already disturbingly on the rise. It would directly endanger the lives of immigrants, ethnic minorities, and anyone who cannot “pass” as a white American. As for his foreign policy, we essentially know nothing beyond his loudly asserted desire to make the world respect “us” again. Clinton’s past and present foreign policy is hawkish and neoliberal to the point where there is nothing, no concept of humanity or limitation, that will get in the way of liberal, capitalist empire building.

A Hillary Clinton victory would, domestically, mean business as usual. Things will likely remain good for those for whom things are already good, and vice versa. Internationally, it would be a terrifyingly efficient disaster. Clinton’s past and present foreign policy is hawkish and neoliberal to the point where there is nothing, no concept of humanity or limitation, that will get in the way of liberal, capitalist empire building. To say nothing of her actions with regard to other regions of the world, she enthusiastically supported the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and continues to offer verbal and financial support to regimes such as those in Israel, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia, at the direct expense of their own citizens and of the rest of the region.

Her foreign policy is, as always, couched in the narratives of “equality”, “stability”, and “human rights,” yet her political track record suggests she is capable of justifying, supporting, and executing a degree of violence that is astonishing. After all, the business of exploitation is a profitable one. There is more than enough reason to believe she will be the architect of the next US incursion into the Middle East, and thus perpetuate a cycle that will see more civilians killed in international arrivals terminals throughout the world, more lives and communities torn apart.

When I have told friends I will not be voting this year, I am often chided for taking my right to vote for granted – after all, it is a right people have died for. In my opinion, this is a very reasonable argument, and one that I have used myself in the past. Yet for me (and, I believe, for everyone), the political is personal. According to my understanding of my faith, the greatest responsibility upon each human is to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

In simplistic terms, I find that this means I have a responsibility to do no harm. By choosing not to vote, I am opting out of choosing whose life, whose community, I view as expendable. I cannot stop the next attack, or the one after that. The world has reached a breaking point that is beyond the power of an individual, even a US president, to control. But, in my own laughably insignificant way, I am trying to break the cycle. 

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