What the Duggan Inquest Teaches us about Fear and Sovereignty

The Duggan verdict casts light on how a state constructs its sovereign identity and how that identity is maintained through a politics of fear.

Crowds hurl abuse at Assistant Commissioner Rowley after a jury ruled that Mark Duggan was lawfully killed.

8 Jan 2014: Crowd hurls abuse at Assistant Commissioner Rowley during his press statement after a jury ruled that Mark Duggan was lawfully killed.

After the Met Police killed Mark Duggan in 2011 it had felt like London took a collective breath and had been waiting to exhale, hoping that the inquest into his fatal shooting would uphold some sense of justice. This hope was sadly extinguished this week. When I read the news of the jury’s verdict I was struck by two things: a profound confusion over how they could reach the decision that his killing was lawful and a (surprisingly) complete lack of shock at their verdict. It is this second response that I had which I would like to think about here. I could read this verdict as just another example of systematic racism in London (the immigration manhunts being the most visible example) and the growing schism between legality and justice, but I believe that, aside from issues of race and racism, this verdict casts light on how states construct their sovereign identities and how that identity is maintained through a politics of fear.

In a magnificent feat of mental acrobatics the jury ruled that Mark Duggan was unarmed when the Met Police fatally shot and killed him. This means that the police report of him firing at the officers first was an unequivocal lie (indeed the bullet recovered from the officer’s radio was proven to have been fired from the other police officer). That ruling established that the officers in question falsified their report in what must have been an attempt to avoid an inquest (or at least punishment) for his killing. However, despite all of that, the jury also ruled 8–2 that his killing was lawful. Given these facts, I believe that the jury’s verdict has less to do with the particularities of this case and more to do with the maintenance of state sovereignty, how power can be exercised and who has the right to be protected by the sovereign.

It bears remembering the classic definition of state sovereignty as having an absolute monopoly on the use of violence. The state exercises that power and partially defines itself by deciding whom it will protect, and whom it must by protected from. That is to say, the basic premise of liberal democracies is that the population surrenders their sovereignty to the state in return for (hopefully) the state’s protection. Those excluded from the state’s protection become the potentially threatening outside “Other” for the state to instrumentally use in the oppositional construction of its identity.

This leads us back to the Schmittian notion that national iden­tity is neg­at­ively con­struc­ted in terms of what it isn’t, or rather what it must be pro­tec­ted from. However this Other does not necessarily have to reside outside the national boundaries. I’ve previously noted how the manhunts for illegal immigrants function in the formation of a particular postcolonial British identity, but it’s important to note that the Manhunt Doctrine as elaborated by Grégoire Chamayou explicitly applies to all 21st century wars that are fought by governments against existential threats that do not have a national allegiance and, as such, may be located anywhere and everywhere around the world, including (and especially) within the national territory (the wars on drugs, crime, terrorism, etc.).

The state affirms and asserts its sovereign identity in hunting down and pre-emptively eliminating those it constructs as existential threats. This is a modality that became solidified with the war in Iraq. The US and the UK pre-emptively went to war due to the perceived threat of WMDs, the actual existence of weapons of mass destruction was completely irrelevant. All that matters is that a threat has to be possible to justify a pre-emptive strike. Ushering in a dis­course of pre­vent­at­ive safety, the gov­ern­ment not only cre­ates its iden­tity in rela­tion to the “sub­hu­man, scary and ultimately evil” hunted, but also stra­tegic­ally use the man­hunt­ doc­trine to deflect and silence cri­ti­cism from its own pop­u­la­tion since the rationale is that “we are doing this for your own good.”

To paraphrase the philosopher Brian Massumi, the pre-emptive doctrine utilized by state sponsored manhunts works because the non-existence of what has not actually happened, but might one day happen becomes more real than reality due to the affective nature of fear. The felt reality of threat legitimates preemptive action, once and for all. “Any action taken to preempt a threat from emerging into a clear and present danger is legitimated by the affective fact of fear, actual facts aside” (54, 2010). This is what Massumi has dubbed the “politics of everyday fear”, the way in which fear is harnessed in order to create docile subjects who are willing to surrender sovereignty and control.

Part and parcel of this condition however is the willingness to accept a certain amount of “collateral damage”. This was again explicit after it became apparent that Iraq was not in possession of any WMDs, a fact evident by the lack of serious reproductions for Bush and Blaire. In fact Massumi notes that they were,

right even though Saddam did not have the capacity [to build WMDs], because Saddam ‘would have if he could have.’ The case remains open. At any moment in the future, he could have acquired the means, and as soon as he could, he would. Would have, could have: double conditional” (57, 2010).

So the so-called collateral damage — the lose of life in Iraq, the political instability, the new foothold of al-Qaeda have in Iraq — are not only the “necessary evils” of a “just war” but to a certain degree they are the desired evils (desired insofar as they retroactively “prove” the original fear) in order to ensure protection from a non-existent but affectively real fear.

In fact even after the target of a pre-emptive action has been found innocent of all wrongdoing the retroactive nature of this politics, the taint of fear, refuses to grant any clemency to the wrongly accused.

An alarm may determine the generic identity of a potential threat, without specifically determining the actual identity of the objects involved. This declares what will later prove actually to have been innocent objects (or in other circumstances, persons) as officially threatening for the duration of the alert, based on their displaying material qualities answering to the generic description. Afterward, they remain tainted by their affective involvement in the incident, for they really always will have been associated with the fear produced by the alert, and fear feeds threat forward. (58, 2010 my emphases)

This is exactly what happened in the case of Mark Duggan. Mark Duggan had already been constructed by the state as an internal threat (he was under investigation for gang activities, including the sale and possession of hand guns). Despite never having been convicted of any criminal offenses he has been retroactively constructed by the state as a hardened criminal — one of the 48 most dangerous criminals in Europe — who (in the logic of the double conditional) would have shot and killed innocent people if he could have. This position is made crystal clear by the post-verdict comments of Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley. When defending the actions of his armed officers he insisted that their priority was always to protect the public from the threat of gun crime. He said:

No officer sets out at the start of the day to run an operation that results in someone dying. So our sympathy today is with Mark Duggan’s family. They have lost a loved one. But the task our officers face in making split-second decisions when confronting armed criminals means there is a risk — a very small risk — that this will happen. Armed criminals have shot dead more than 50 people in London in the last 3 and a half years” (quoted in Evans, Rowley and Perry, 2014).

Mark Duggan did not shoot and kill more than 50 people in London in the last three and a half years, but the implication is clear. Rowley is saying that if he could have, he would have. He has been tainted with the fear of gun crime and retroactively constructed by the state as an internal Other who could have posed a threat to Britain and as such had to be pre-emptively hunted.

The goal of the hunt is not necessarily to kill or cap­ture the hunted, but to devalue him and to let the chase des­troy his “human­ity” while the state then asserts their own iden­tity vis-​à-​vis their dehu­man­ized prey. We saw this happen with the accounts reiterated over and over again of the car chase that led to the fatal shooting. In every report Mark Duggan is narrated as a scared gangster armed with a handgun in the back of a minicab, an almost literal “caged animal” who would surely resort to the flight or flight instinct. Conversely, the police officers are narrated as the courageous men, risking their lives in hunt down this dangerous (potential) threat to society.

Beyond any ruling of legality and the possible schism that exists between justice and the law, the jury’s decision is an implicit ruling on state sovereignty, who has the right to the state’s protection, and whom must the British population be protected from.

Anthony Fara­melli is a PhD stu­dent at The Lon­don Gradu­ate School and part-​time lec­turer in Media and Cul­ture Stud­ies at King­ston University

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