The Disaster of the Century

by | 28 Mar 2023

In Lieu of a Beginning… On February 5, 2023, we experienced two earthquakes in Turkey that were massive and their consequences extremely severe. The government officials called it “the disaster of the century”. The earthquake we experienced was itself destructive but we confronted it with possibly the most prominent necropolitical government of the century in command, which maximized the disaster’s impact. Even if it was the “disaster of the century”, if things were different, many people could have been saved by a prompt and comprehensive intervention of the search and rescue teams, or so many buildings might not have collapsed. 

In the meantime, we are now faced with a series of distortions of the truth, not to mention threats and scapegoating. The Turkish Government wants to silence the victims of the earthquake, the relatives of the dead, the mourners, and those trying to voice their plight and put it on the agenda. The president of the republic himself said that those who react and oppose the government policies were registered in the ledger.

            The Survival of the State

The earthquake, whose epicenter was in Maraş, was severe, yes, but the ruling power’s efforts to survive are even worse. Despite all this truth, “Truth” is imposed with great cold-bloodedness. People who live in the region, who are currently trying to live in the region, have asked and are still asking: “Where is the state”, the state which said “We have solved the problems of our citizens” during the “construction amnesty”. Since the first day, people have been saying “they left us to die”. “Where is this state when many are dying due to the earthquake, when death is rampant?” the people have been crying out. Consequently, fear and insecurity prevail, while the government, anxious to maintain its authority, resorts to a witch hunt to attack and settle scores.

Apart from a few minor, obligatory, and belated “We had shortcomings, too” kind of statements, it is obvious that the state officials are concerned only with their image. The remarks about the magnitude of the earthquake, the phrase “the disaster of the century”, and the related discourse of “fate” are pillars of this vision. Another pillar of saving the image was a blatant lie. From the first minutes of the earthquake, state officials tried to spread the narrative that the rescue teams and aid had been delivered to the entire earthquake zone.[2] In reality, the state authorities were not able to deliver either search and rescue equipment or teams to the earthquake zone during the critical hours (not to mention the preliminary preparations) or, more precisely, did not deliver them. However, they engaged in self-advertisement: “Our industrialists are sending nearly 1 million blankets, showing that Turkey is a productive country”[3], “We are on the ground as the People’s Alliance”[4]… Thus, once again, it became painfully clear that for those in power, the protection of themselves is much more important than the protection of the lives of living beings.

Unsurprisingly, an important part of this discourse consists of statements targeting people and segments on social media that try to voice the truth and post dissident opinions. The cries of the earthquake victims themselves were being silenced with the help of the mainstream media.[5] It was even said that the only problem in this politics of death and persecution was the news circulating on social media, dissident discourses, i.e., statements reflecting the truth. Of course, as in the Middle Ages and other similar precedents, the government has resorted to criminalization, and it seems that this will continue and exacerbate. The president himself stated that “crimes” will be recorded and that the blacklist will be used when the day comes.[6] Those who are not in favor of the political authority, those who think differently, in other words, the witches of today, have already been marked and will continue to be marked. Even in the case of a disaster like an earthquake, the state operates a state of emergency rather than administering “disaster management”. Immediately after the earthquake, the government discussed the possibility of the appointment of trustees (kayyum) to replace the crisis desks within solidarity networks. This has been in operation and even institutionalized as an act of the state of emergency in the municipalities held by the HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) in the Kurdish-majority regions for a long time. The state tried to appoint trustees for the crisis coordination centers in the Pazarcık district of Maraş.[7]

The process of criminalization and scapegoating has not stopped there. We are already facing serious consequences that go beyond hateful rhetoric and threats. The groups that can be targeted most easily and quickly, such as refugees, had already been declared “criminals” by many people and groups, including those who call themselves the opposition. Since the earthquake occurred in areas with a large number of refugees, the additional layer of hierarchy of human life of rationality of expendability became clear after the earthquake between other victims of the earthquake and refugees. With explicit or implicit support of the state that has abandoned the earthquake zone to its fate, “foreigners,” some of whom are not even registered, were not even considered earthquake victims but were coded as ultimate scapegoats.

With regard to the chaotic situation in the region and the security problem among the inhabitants, the “foreigners,” those who do not look like “us” were immediately declared guilty. The question of how the omnipotent state was unable to ensure the safety of those who lost their lives under the rubble was thus being removed from the agenda. Group criminalization immediately comes into play. Especially if the subject is a foreigneryabancıxenos, uncanny and indifferent, insufficiently civilized (!)… In other words, the rationality of criminalizability and, based on it, of disposability.

Necropolitics or Beyond

Douzinas describes racism and xenophobia, as follows:

“The original separation from other people and societies, the break that lies at the foundation of the modern nation-state, cannot be fully represented or managed but keeps coming back as social sickness and personal malady. The unnamable other returns in xenophobia and racism, in hatred and discrimination and remains intractable to politics. Politics becomes a ‘politics of forgetting’, a forgetting of past injustices and current symptoms, a considered strategy which tries to ban what questions the legitimacy of institutions by turning the threatening imponderable powers into memory and myth or into a celebration of fictitious unity.”[8]

It is precisely on this ground of legitimacy and forgetting that legal and/or legitimate violence comes into play. Yes, this is based on a rationality like all cases of state violence or state-sponsored violence during the earthquake, both before and after.  Which resources are transferred from where and to where, for example to AFAD (The Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency); the “construction amnesty” (imar affı); the fact that living beings are left to die under the rubble; the fact that the “security” weakness in the region is blamed on some earthquake victims – everything is quite rational for some people. These are rational states of violence. The beating and killing without anger, just like the Nazis… The imprudence and cold-bloodedness of looking at the phone while an earthquake victim is screaming with all their pain and anger,[9] of blatantly lying to our faces while real accounts come in from people waiting for their relatives there. Very rational series of practices… A state of ice-cold violence, as opposed to a state of insanity or an emotional charge… As in the camp… Levi asks the person in charge, who pulled out of Levi’s hand the piece of icicle, which he had picked up because he was thirsty: “Warum/Why?” The answer is both very simple and inconceivably complex: “Hier ist kein warum/ Here there is no why.”[10]

In this framework, a person can be beaten without anger. The Holocaust, wars, and colonial occupations have happened and are happening within this framework. In this framework, thousands of earthquake victims can be left under the rubble with great indifference and violence. Even in a situation where there can never be any peace of mind, where the earthquake victims are wailing and wailing, those who say, “Let our nation be at peace” had complacently made a “construction amnesty” for all the illegal and unsafe constructions. Then they left the living under the rubble and said: “We will bring back better than all our losses except for the loss of life.”[11] Such rigidness can only happen when you are only worried about your own survival. The powers-that-be are now trying to settle scores in a very complacent way: A multi-layered politics of forgetting, abandonment, repression, a politics of killing in every sense of the word.

What has been taking place in the earthquake process in Turkey, before and after, the real distster, is what Mbembe calls necropolitics. Mbembe defines biopower as the power authorized to draw the necessary boundary between those who must die and others. This compartmentalization, as the name suggests, creates upper and lower grounds relative to each other, and who gets how many shares in the distribution of death depends on which ground they are on. For instance, “poor areas suffered 3.5 times more damage in Turkey’s earthquake.”[12] This is how the death economy of biopower, necroeconomics, works. Talking about how good the country is in the realm of production while thousands of people are under the rubble, and trying to dig out bank vaults while earthquake victims are waiting for their relatives and loved ones[13] are all in line with the necropolitical and economic norms. 

According to the hegemonic mindset, neither life is life nor death is death for the refugees, but also the poor, LGBTI+ people, and political dissidents who are “recorded in blacklist,” in other words, the xenós. Today, the political organization within the framework of the earthquake also threatens the dead of those whose lives are not counted as life. The relatives of so many people who were left to die are forced to bury their dead without even being able to bury them in a named grave; their graves are not registered, without even being given a number.[14] The death of those who are not assumed to be alive, or who are barely assumed to be alive, is also ignored. 

In Lieu of a Conclusion: Trace of an Earthquake

Yes, we are mortal and we are aware of it. We know life due to death and death due to life. We do not fall prey to the temptation of the “politics of forgetting” of those in power. We must not. Even if our voices are silenced, even if our clocks are stopped, the howling of ghosts and our demand for justice do not stop. No one can erase the trace; the trace remains of what has already (not) been erased. Xenós also means traveler. And we have known since 1848 that specters are wandering all around us. Their hands are on us, their hands are on you.

As one earthquake survivor said, “What kind of world is this!” It must change.

Ezgi Duman is a PhD student at Ankara University Graduate School of Social Sciences and member of The Community of Critical Legal Studies. [1]


[1] An analogue of this text was published in Birikim Magazine. (https://birikimdergisi.com/guncel/11263/depremin-siddeti-degil-depremde-sidde )

I would like to thank Erkal Ünal and Beja Protner for his translation support.

[2] https://www.gazeteduvar.com.tr/nebati-urfada-her-sey-kontrol-altinda-burada-sikinti-yanlis-haberler-haber-1602036; https://www.veryansintv.com/afad-muduru-orhan-tatar-her-yere-ulasilmis-durumda/

[3] https://t24.com.tr/haber/bakan-varank-sanayicilerimiz-1-milyona-yakin-battaniye-gonderiyor-turkiye-nin-ureten-bir-ulke-oldugunun-gostergesi,1090599

[4] https://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/siyaset/akpli-omer-celikten-deprem-bolgesinde-ittifak-propagandasi-2048952

[5] For example, see https://www.gazeteduvar.com.tr/trt-canli-yayininda-sansur-depremzedenin-sesini-kestiler-haber-1602893 and https://m.bianet.org/bianet/yasam/274063-polisten-sorunlari-anlatan-depremzedeye-kamerayi-kapatin-devlet-burada.

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9b72ZJg7Qt4

[7] https://www.diken.com.tr/hdpnin-deprem-kriz-merkezine-kayyim-atama-girisimi/

[8] Costas Douzinas, “The Many Faces Of Humanitarianism”, Parrhesia, Vol. 2, p. 23.

[9] The vice chairman of the AKP Nurettin Canikli looks at the phone, while an earthquake victim is screaming behind with all his pain and anger. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7pRNDEddB10

[10] Primo Levi, Bunlar da mı İnsan, çev. Zeyyat Selimoğlu, Can Yayınları, İstanbul, 2013, p. 35 [Turkish translation of Se questo è un uomo].

[11] https://t24.com.tr/haber/bakan-karaismailoglu-vatandaslarin-musterih-olmasini-istedi-can-kayiplarimiz-disindaki-butun-kayiplarimizin-daha-iyisini-geri-getirecegiz,1091077

[12] https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2023/02/16/poor-areas-suffered-35-times-more-damage-in-

turkeys-earthquake

[13] https://haber.sol.org.tr/haber/depremzedeler-yakinlarini-beklerken-enkazdan-banka-kasasi-cikardilar-365622

[14] https://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/turkiye/garo-paylan-cenazelerin-ciddi-bolumu-kayda-girmeden-defnediliyor-2050736

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