The Politics of Spectacular Violence

The masked gunmen who stormed Nairobi’s Westgate Mall on Saturday did one thing right. In targeting a site at the epicenter of elite consumerism in the upscale neighborhood of Westlands, they galvanized worldwide attention. As the mainstream media offers us a play by play of the unfolding hostage crisis, and as my Twitter and Facebook newsfeeds are flooded with declarations of anger and sorrow–sentiments I of course share–two things are apparent.

First, the extent to which the more privileged and educated segments of our world community find certain forms of violence in certain locales to be horrifying and objectionable. Second, the classed and racialized framings that shape our understandings of the issue at hand. Together, these notions work to differentiate between human lives that are worthy of grief, and those that are not.

What is it about the targeting of innocents on islands of privatized leisure like Westgate that strikes such a strong emotional chord across the world? Is it not that the majority of us who (have the ability to) log in every hour for updates see ourselves in the victims, knowing that we regularly occupy these very spaces?

Perhaps it is in this vein that we can make sense of the deafening silence in the context of the transnational plundering of neighboring Somalia—a country that readers of the New York Times and Kenya’s Daily Nation have been conditioned to see as representing the antithesis of liberal cosmopolitanism, as requiring external tutelage in the name of ‘peace and stability’, and whose ongoing destruction is more commonly understood as the work of Somalis themselves rather than the product of a complex assemblage of internal and external actors with competing political and economic interests.

How is it that the presence and violence of certain actors in the region–whether the Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) and its African Union ‘peacekeeping’ (AMISOM) partners in Somalia, or US and Israeli forces ‘advising’ the KDF in Nairobi–is normalized in our collective imaginaries as legitimate, while exceptional violence by non-state actors against upper-class Kenyans and expatriates triggers such immediate outcry?

Just three months after its invasion of Somalia in October 2011, the Kenyan military reportedly claimed the lives of at least 700 Somali ‘militants’. UN reports have documented black market sales by peacekeeping troops of arms intended for the Somali government to oppositional groups including Al-Shabaab, and Human Rights Watch reports of indiscriminate mortar and rocket attacks by AMISOM in civilian areas, leading not only to loss of life but also repeated displacement.

If up to 3,000 AMISOM forces have died since the peacekeeping operation was launched in 2007, one can only imagine what the number of Somali casualties might be. Our implicit acceptance of the ostensible humanitarian logic underlying such destruction amounts to what Talal Asad has referred to as the ‘etiquette of death dealing’, characterized by nods of regret for such ‘unfortunate’ loss of life.

Witnesses to yesterday’s attack in Nairobi reported that the suspects ‘looked like Somalis’ and ‘chanted Allahu Akbar as they entered the building.’ The spectral and racialized image of the terrifying Muslim (and explicitly non-Kenyan) Somali is here conjured once again to capture liberal anxieties, while the security apparatuses of Kenya, Israel and the United States are visually and rhetorically incorporated into cosmopolitan imaginaries of peace-keeping and secular diplomacy.

If we are to believe that the Westgate attack was the work of Al-Shabaab as the organization itself claims, does this not demand consideration that this weekend’s tragedy might be a political response to a transnational project of state-sanctioned violence in neighboring Somalia? Is it not Somalia that has been the epicenter of a ‘war zone’ and not Westgate mall, as the New York Times claims?

Given the amplified surveillance and suspicion of Kenya’s Muslim minorities since 9/11, one can’t help but dread how widely the tentacles of this war zone will extend, whether onto the streets of Mombasa or into the homes of Eastleigh. The targets of ‘just’ violence deemed so integral to secular modernity will be lucky to garner an ounce of the empathy we have all expressed in response to the tragedy at Westgate.



  1. Hmm, you’ve raised some provocative arguments for sure, only thing is they are rather threadbare. By looking at what happened at Westgate first then casting a glance at what AU and Kenyan forces are doing in Somalia, you’ve conveniently forgotten to address the reasons why KDF and AMISOM forces are in Somalia in the first place! These combined forces did not go into a peaceful with itself and the region Somalia which then triggered this brutally calculated retributive action. Rather, the Somalia the forces went in to secure was one that was sponsoring regional and international political and economic terrorism, including piracy. That’s the starting point – THEIR aggression!

    The ‘terrifying Muslim’, it may surprise you to learn, is not a modern invention. The hostile temperament of the Muslim is well articulated and predicted in the Old Testament of the Bible, written five or six thousands years ago …. “Behold, you are with child, And you will bear a son; And you shall call his name Ishmael, Because the LORD has given heed to your affliction. 12″He will be a wild donkey of a man, His hand will be against everyone, And everyone’s hand will be against him; And he will live to the east of all his brothers.” Gen 16:11-12

    1. Totally agree! KDF’s occupation of Somalia was not unprovoked and Al Shabab we’re not innocently minding their own business prior to that! They were conducting kidnappings in Mombassa and smuggling weapons into Kenya. This article completely overlooks that and tries to simplify/justify this tragedy

      1. PS please get an education on Muslims, only 10% make a bad name for the rest. Same in America, right-wing extremists make up a similar number. Everyone is divided This world needs change.

  2. Following on from QuickDraw McDraw (although her reading of the history of terrifying muslim is questionable, given how tolerant medieval and earlier Islamic kingdoms were to Jews and other faith groups), it seems that if you take another recent example, intervention in Syria, that public opinion about good and bad forms of violence is much more nuanced and complex than this article lets on…

  3. An important argument, but I have a bit of trouble with the equivalency being drawn here (even if it is just for provocation). You ask: “What is it about the targeting of innocents on islands of privatized leisure like Westgate that strikes such a strong emotional chord across the world? Is it not that the majority of us who (have the ability to) log in every hour for updates see ourselves in the victims, knowing that we regularly occupy these very spaces?” Yes, indeed, it is that. But it is also that we have trouble seeing an equivalency between the ostensibly unintentional killing of civilians in war and the shooting of pregnant women and young children at point blank range. And really, what is wrong with that? For one whose family members have become ‘collateral damage’, perhaps there is an equivalency. But for anyone else, it is a stretch. And while I think it is important to understand this attack as a response to KDF/AU action in southern Somalia, from an ethical standpoint I see nothing particularly problematic about meeting it with a special kind of outrage. The invasion of Somalia may be misguided, even immoral. But is this ‘response’ not inhuman? Is there something fundamentally wrong with seeing it that way? Clearly, spectacle is being used as a weapon. But don’t the perpetrators necessarily pay a price in using that weapon (i.e. the forfeiture of their humanity)?

  4. We here in California were horrified before we knew where the event was.we don’t even know the history of this place and whether it is up scale or not. It was the fact that families were out on a Saturday and we going about their business when they were attacked. They had no knowledge and were innocent. For all we knew, it might have been a market or something else. We don’t wanna be caught up in your race baiting. Come visit us here in Oakland if you really want to see daily gun slinging drug violence. You would be shocked and scared!

  5. Could you please clarify what exactly is problematic with survivors reporting that “they looked like somalis” if the people shooting at them looked like somalis? additionally, whats wrong with survivors reporting “they started chanting Allah hu Akbar” if the people who had just tried to murder them started chanting God is Great is arabic? or “they were speaking either somali or arabic” if the people who they just escaped from were speaking either somali or arabic?

    please, in the name of God and the good, clarify how is this is related to discourses of racial domination and the vilification of muslims? and how its not just the inconvenient, unsanitised truth out of the mouths of traumatised people who almost just died because a group of self-identified Muslim Somalis entered a mall in Nairobi and started shooting at them.

    lets problematise the right behavior shall we?

    1. Agreed! Stating facts is not making judgement. I myself am a muslim, but had i escaped from a man shooting at me while screaming “allahuakbar”… Well, i’d talk about it and surely wouldn’t forget that detail…

    2. Thank you! The fact that the author says these facts were “conjured,” rather than, you know, reported speaks volumes.

      Also, it’s a little strange to crap on the Times’s coverage then rip off their image without attribution…Just saying.

  6. @HSMPress have said exactly the same thing as the author said and they said it more clearly without all the big words. IMHO if you want to write an article on an event you should at least offer some new insights and not just repeating and endorsing Al-Shabaab’s party line which anyone can check out from any of their media outlets.

  7. Al-Bulushi, you raise a crucial point about the difference between “human lives that are worthy of grief, and those that are not.” It’s unfortunate that the other commenters have completely overlooked it. But with respect, you need to read your Judith Butler again. When she writes about “ungrievable” lives she writes with care and compassion. Your argument is hasty and angry; in fact despite your protestations of sympathy you come very close to saying that the people killed in Westgate had it coming. You forget, too, that previous attacks by al-Shabaab in Nairobi were directed against lower-middle-class areas of town, and were prominently covered in the international media. You draw too clean a binary between Somali deaths and the Westgate deaths. It leads you to make uncareful use of a powerful argument.

  8. In my humble opinion a few corrections:

    1. KDF only made the incursion into somalia in retaliation for unprovoked attacks by the Shabaab on our commercial and military interests in NEP and CP so was not unjustified.
    2. The war in Somalia has been waged on conventional terms of warfare, i.e. announce your entry, target militants and military installations while minimizing civilian deaths; What Al Shabaab did was to target an unarmed civilian installation, sneak up on them, take hostages, kill and maim indiscriminately at unarmed and fleeing civilians for purposes of terror alone. So it is false equivalence to say this was justified retaliation.
    3. Al shabaab is a non-state actor, therefore your claims that we invaded “their” territory are inaccurate, they are an insurgent terror group, not the legitimate government of Somalia, if anything, our incursion was done along-side Somalian government forces to subdue an internal enemy.
    4. The true reason Al Shabaab meted out this attack was because AMISOM forces captured the cash-cow town of Kismayo. THe attempt was to terrorise the Kenyan public in the hope that our spirit is broken and we pressure our politicians to withdraw. If they were truly manly, they should have attacked AMISOM forces in Kismayo to get back the town they once controlled. But like the evil cowards they are, they go and shoot at unarmed old people, women and children.

    Please don’t buy into the propaganda of the purveyors of evil. What is needed is a firm moral and military stand against the face of evil incarnate. These are expansionist militants who want to establish a regional caliphate where they can practice their brutal version of Sharia and get rich of their ill gained possessions. We need to help build a larger international military coalition to finally liberate the Somali people of this menace that now threatens to destabilise the region, not withdraw and let them retake towns to milk for profit and aggrandisement. Kenya will only know peace if Somalia is free, peaceful and prosperous. Let’s not appease terrorists and show them that their tactics work by withdrawing.

  9. I agree with many aspects of this article, but there is an aspect of this issue that is being totally neglected in this conversation. The conflict in Somalia has been going on “donkey’s years” now over thousand of square miles of territory. Given the cost cutting in the media, one can’t expect that they will give very heavy coverage to the details of the situation in such a physically (and culturally) remote area as Somalia. On the other hand, the terror in Nairobi is a made for TV event: it was of short duration, all in one location, viewers could identify with the victims, etc.

  10. This article reflects a sham temperament in anthropology: play it cool, don’t get any emotional, spread the blame out thinly to cover everybody, including the victims (a dirty word soon to be expunged from the lexicon) and those of us who peep and eavesdrop on the scene via media technology. What else can account for the accusation levelled against witnesses for testifying that the terrorists ‘looked like Somalis’ and ‘chanted Allahu Akbar’? What else inspires the charge that the rest of us are guilty by association simply because we recognize ourselves in the victims? The attempt by the author to justify—yes, the article is framed in a manner that conceals the fact that it tries to justify—the killings suffers a pratfall once it is revealed that the author tells his story by means of an emplotment that pays no respect to the historical sequence of events. The only thing that the terrorists did right for people like the author of this article is that they have provided grist for that particularly desensitized, indeed, insensate anthropological mill manned by Samar Al-Bulushi and his ilk in academia. Terrorists are heroes because they inflict death on the gaudy elite culture of consumerism? Sham analysis!!!! Murder visited on people milling around very visible and televised elite locales are unworthy of grieving? What a thesis!!!! Grieve and let grieve. Human life wasted so terribly is grievable; whether it is the lives of villagers who become cannon fodder in the bombardment and crossfire between state and non-state killers or the lives of elite shoppers at upscale malls in the centre of the city. ‘Sorrow’s springs are the same,’ wrote the poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins. But what is sorrow to the unemotional anthropologist?

  11. Al Shabab should be, deserves to be and must be defeated militarily.
    All good muslims should agree to that.
    It is in our own interest more than anyone elses’.

  12. The argument advanced here about the equivalence of human life is of course a compelling and important one. However, this does not and should not translate into an moral or political equivalence between military action against al-Shabab and the actions of al-Shabab itself, which is what the piece reads as implying. It is more than possible to register outrage that the former has often sometimes carelessly led to civilian deaths, intensified a regional culture of militarization, and generally not followed democratic norms, without insinuating that it should be understood to be as “exceptional” as al-Shabab’s deliberate efforts to massacre civilians and explicitly differentiate between the value of Muslim and non-Muslim lives. Here the piece conflates the words “exceptional” and “normalized” with “just” and “unjust,” and comes across – as previous commenters have noted – as sloppy, callous, and dangerously close to legitimating some of the stated positions of al-Shabab itself. The broader analysis presented in the piece stops short of fully acknowledging and confronting the complicated, messy history of the political situation in and around Somalia, and thus conceals the layers of violence – the cycle of violence if you will – that have fed into the mall attack. If one is going to make an argument about viewing the mall attack in context – which is what it seems the author was initially trying to do – then one should fully flesh out that context. Otherwise, the reader is left sliding down an ethical slippery slope only to land on the conclusion that all violence, no matter its nature or motivation, is the same.

  13. Some people believe that the Kenyian army get involved with Somalia by the kidnapping of the foreign tourists in Kenya. That’s not true. Kenya planned at least a year before the invasion. That’s because they want to create jubaland on Somalian territory. Further they want a oilpipeline trough Somalia. Kenya talked this plans of invassion with the USA, France and Ethiopia. We all know that the USA and the western world uses Kenya and Ethiopia as their dogs.

    Just check the facts.

  14. An attack last week by the Islamist rebel group Boko Haram on a highway in northeastern Nigeria left at least 142 people dead.

    THIS, perhaps, would have been a more suitable counter case for the argument made by the author (i.e. some lives are more grievable than others and the fact that the atrocious shooting in Kenya occurred in a shopping mall renders the horror somehow closer to home for an international FB/Twitter/BBC spectating populous than northeastern Nigeria where a shooting passed almost unannounced by the very same media sources).

  15. Jesus. I sincerely hope that other young Muslim Americans don’t adopt this line of thinking. Wouldn’t be surprised if the author wound up fighting with Al-Shabaab in a few years.

    1. Yes, let’s pay Al-Bulushi back in his own blood-stained coin. He is pachyderm enough to receive it without flinching, given the tone of his pseudo-analysis. So here goes: Al-Bulushi must see himself in the terrorists just as he says we see ourselves in their/his victims. Nuff said.

  16. Al-Shebaab have been responsible for many more deaths of their own people than have been inflicted by the KDF and AMISOM. It is so convenient to blame and use this rhetoric for justifying this highly public act, but this group is the reason why so many in Somalia suffer. During the 2010 famine, they stole food aid meant for the starving, they controlled border crossing and main travel links to prevent people form accessing aid, countless died. The insecurtiy has stunted the country, strangling their ability to live freely and provide for themselves.

    We will never know the death toll caused by the actions of Al-Shebaab in Somalia.

    The opening statement: “…they galvanized worldwide attention.” is pointless and meaningless. The world’s attention was on Somalia, its new government, the massive returns of diaspora and the vigorous investment that is flooding into the country. But by their very actions, Somalia’s identity has again reverted to a terror pit of terrorists, militant Islamic fundamentalists and pirates.

    There will never be any justification for such actions, not the cold-blooded executions, nor the scale of horror that they inflicted on those who were held for days, tortured and mutilated. This article by Samar Al-Bulushi is baseless, insulting and offensive.

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