Radical Reference
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Radical Reference

Aesthetics of Violence: The “Apolitical” Bomb and Other Fictions

This article contains explicit references to specific violent incidents, types of violence, and themes in violence rooted in racist, transphobic, misogynist, and other political motives.

There is a predictable and largely bad-faith debate underway about whether Mark Anthony Conditt can be properly called a terrorist after creating seven bombs, killing a Black adult and a Black child, and injuring five others, including the Black child’s mother, a Latina woman, and three white people. Conditt initially targeted prominent Black and non-Black people of color, leading to an initial assumption that his motive was essentially racist. His fifth bomb injured a white package handler — probably not the intended target — but his fourth bomb injured two white people who activated a tripwire in a predominantly white neighborhood, leaving the press and police questioning their initial assumption.

This doubt is predicated on two major errors: first, that white supremacists won’t hurt white people on purpose (assuming that the two injured were the bomber’s actual target in the first place), and second, that bombings are just as likely to be apolitical as political.

The first of these is perhaps easier to dispel. Throughout the history of white supremacist violence in the US, we see evidence that white supremacists are primarily invested in other white supremacists. While the passive spoils of whiteness are distributed to racists and antiracists alike, explicit and mobilized racism has a narrower ingroup and “race traitors” might be marked for violence — perhaps more often, white supremacists are simply willing to accept collateral damage to other whites in the process of harming Black people.

A clear example is found in James Fields Jr’s killing of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville last year. Heyer was white — but white supremacists didn’t mourn her killing. Heyer was killed when Fields drove his truck into a mixed-race group of antiracist protesters. The attack was one in a growing series of vehicle strikes on antiracist protesters characterizing the rising alt right. This type of attack has a specific meaning and salience within this group, and it is directed specifically at antiracists, especially Black antiracists. Heyer happened to be the one to die in the attack, but the attack was essentially racist in character. Afterward, white supremacists in alt right spaces online commented that her death was inevitable, because white women shouldn’t have sex with Black men. Her antiracist activism was explicitly interpreted as a sexual violation of whiteness, and death was judged a fitting outcome.

The consistent employment of vehicle attacks on Black antiracists and their allies also illustrates that violence has particular signatures and meanings. Just as the alt right has a signature haircut and fashion style, there are signature features of violence. The alt right is invested in guns, often turning up to demonstrations open-carrying — with a preference for weapons invoking police and military aesthetics. “Patriot Militias” turn up in camouflage, with modern rifles and ear protection, while neo-Nazis like Lugers and Walther P38s. A unifying feature of the alt right is an affinity with state authority, and the use of military and police weapons (modern and historical) communicates that. They view the state as essentially white and frequently present themselves as metaphorical agents of the state. Using military weaponry helps communicate affiliations to the US military or to Nazi Germany. (It also references historic and ongoing bonds between these informal but pro-state movements and actual state agents.)

In contrast, anarchists don’t tend to open carry (some carry concealed firearms but these guns are not an aesthetic feature), and they don’t tend to use weapons that have strong associations with state authority — again, there’s an ideological parallel to the aesthetic choice. The aesthetic-ideological ties are so strong that they can pretty effectively predict who will do what kinds of violence and who won’t. An anarchist might punch someone, hit them with a pole, throw a tear gas canister back at cops, even toss a molotov — but when you hear stories about anarchists pepper spraying people, they usually turn out to be fabricated. Pepper spray is a police weapon — a weapon of the state. Anarchist violence takes a shape that is anarchist — it’s improvised, it’s anti-state, and it references a history of anti-state actions and working-class toolsets, just as fascist violence is formalized, open, and references the state and earlier fascist movements.

Throughout history, forms of violence are assigned not just political meanings but many other meanings as well. Certain forms of violence are coded as masculine (punching, shooting) or feminine (poisoning, cutting). They are coded Christian (self-flagellation, ritual burning, ritual drowning) or unchristian (crucifixion, beheading). White (shooting, hanging, gas chambers) or otherwise racialized (cannibalism, punitive amputation). There is nothing inherently masculine about guns, but they have such a strong cultural attachment to masculinity that their use strongly predicts the gender of the user.

With religion and race, intergroup violence troubles the patterns — in some cases, dominant groups develop stereotypes associating violence with marginalized groups and then use that type of violence against others along the same axis of power. Over the last two decades, acid attacks have been strongly associated with Islam, but anti-Muslim neofascists have begun to encourage acid attacks against Muslims. Similarly, white Europeans and Americans associate punitive amputation with the Middle East, but historically this practice has consistently been a feature of European colonization, considerably predating this stereotype. Although it is less common in the modern Anglophone world, there is a long history of white associations between Blackness and cannibalism, but cases of cannibalism in US history show a stark pattern of white people consuming Black people (e.g. the Essex disaster, the Donner party).

These inversions, whether associating victims with the crime already committed or committing the same type of violence in symbolic revenge, nevertheless reference the association. Going back to the murder of Heather Heyer and similar killings, we can confidently interpret these as terrorist attacks not only because of the context of the attack (a clash between two opposed political demonstrations) but also because of the investment in the alt right in monitoring vehicle attacks by Muslims. The preoccupation with this form of violence as terrorism within the alt right indicates that when the alt right does this form of violence, it references terrorism and is intended as terrorism.

The histories of specific methods of violence imbue violence with additional meaning, visible not just to the victims but to many others. When a Black man is found hung from a tree, it is not just a murder. It is a message to all Black people in that city and beyond. The motive informs the method — even if there is another motive in addition to racism, the reference to historic lynching positions the murder within a broader pattern of race-based killing and indicates clearly that racism was a factor. Every lynching or mock-lynching is terrorism, because every performance of lynching intentionally invokes the threat of white supremacist violence as a political tool.

The connection between motive and method also invites exculpatory meaning. Some patterns are associated with established defenses and assumptions that protect perpetrators from blame. Police killings are a very obvious example, but another is domestic violence. Violence against women and children that follows established patterns of male dominance is treated as less serious than forms of violence that confound expectations about maleness.

Police (and others) are often hesitant to name something a hate crime without an explicit statement by the perpetrator that motive was linked to bias, even when a perpetrator is clearly involved with relevant hate groups. The details of the crime itself are frequently not considered, or at least not cited as evidence in public discussions. Over the last few years, there have been multiple murders of transgender women of color where the woman’s genitals were mutilated and/or her body burned and left in a public place, often near or in trash — only to have the murder declared to be not a hate crime, not responsive to her transgender status.

Though all murders in some sense destroy the body in that they destroy the functioning of the body, the burning of bodies references histories of mass disposal, of genocide. Leaving a body with the trash does likewise. Mutilation of the genitals locates the specific objection to the body, referencing not other murders of women (which, when they incorporate mutilation, tend to destroy the face — depersonalizing the body) but attacks of sexually violent men. Assaults on the genitals are typical of sexual revenge — most often retribution for rape or infidelity, but sometimes other specifically sexual slights. When a trans woman is killed and her genitals mutilated, the killer is expressing in clear and very traditional language that she is a sexually violent man, that the presence of her penis (or the site of an imagined penis she does not have) is a sexual slight against another person.

This connects very clearly to devaluing narratives about trans women, from Janice Raymond’s interpretation of feminizing transition itself as metaphorical rape of all cisgender women to straight male anxieties about trans women “deceiving” them into homosexuality. While it is completely possible that a transgender woman could be murdered for all the same reasons as a cisgender woman — something that also happens far too often — a transgender woman killed without specific transphobic motives would not center an objection to genitals. As in the case of the hanging mentioned earlier, the method belies the motive in a very clear way — even if other motives are also present, this form of violence is oriented toward the destruction and intimidation of trans women in general, not just the victim.

What does this have to do with bombs?

Plenty.

Letterbombs use a government agency (the mail) to deliver a shocking and destructive attack. Unsurprisingly, they generally indicate an attack on power, often connected with challenges to state power. This is not just a method of murder but a method of assassination. Letterbombs have been sent to heads of state, federal judges, military recruitment centers, financial powerhouses, and transnational corporations. They’ve also been sent to challengers of state power, sometimes by state agents (official and unofficial).

Bombs in general are a weapon of state power, of war — and improvised bombs have historically been used to either make a bid for greater political agency (as by independence movements in a number of former European colonies) or to deny a bid for greater political agency (as in the bombing of civil rights leaders’ homes and churches).

Bombing is an unusual murder method. Someone has to choose it for a reason. The most probable reason is the same reason most people choose violence that conforms to their cultural context — because bombs have a meaning that matches their specific project. When someone sends bombs to the homes of prominent Black folks and also other places, we should ask how the other bombings connect — but we shouldn’t stop suspecting that racial terrorism was the central goal.

[5/31/2020: this article has been updated to improve language around race and racism and to add information about white cannibalism of Black victims.]

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Han Koehle

Han Koehle

health equity activist, researcher, educator; background in sociology & social work, critical race & gender, content analysis, conversation analysis

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