It’s been nearly three years since the fateful attacks upon college students in Iguala, Guerrero state, Mexico. Following a coordinated assault by unidentified gunmen upon five coaches, the violence left six dead, 40 wounded, and 43 forcibly disappeared. Their whereabouts still remains unknown; though with the each passing day and the continual finding of mass graves in the region, most inevitably fear the worse for the innocent young men from Raul Isidro Burgos Rural College in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero. So as mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends, loved ones continue to live in a cruel limbo of hope and despair, it is important we remember the “43” and in the fight for justice and all too human dignity ask searching questions in their names.
Despite my historical interest in the region, like many academics, I first became aware of this event following an email circular from one of my Mexican students. It was a powerful call for solidarity, yet written with an emotional desperation and urgency coming from the heart. It was full of typos and often capitalized, no doubt as it was hastily put together through a stream of tears. And yet the day after its occurrence, despite what we might have expected to be global outrage and condemnation, the incident was notably absent from mainstream media headlines. This must have only added to the sense of helplessness. The United Kingdom in particular was more interested in the launch of airstrikes and the legitimate use of violence in new offensive against ISIS in Iraq, along with the glitzy wedding of George and Amal Clooney in Venice, and Chelsea giving birth to next in the Clinton dynasty.
The fact the victims of this horrifying event were students immediately resonated. Those who endured what the New York Times called a “Night of Terror” were most likely full of the same radical idealism the world could be changed for the better as those who I have the privilege of speaking and debating with on a daily basis. This was Saturday. On Monday the voices of the disappeared further appeared to me in the presence of those who I was now giving my first lecture for the new semester on the theme “What is Political Violence”? I briefly mentioned the event in order to try at least to impress the political and the personal stakes. The study of violence for me has never been about abstract theorizing. It must begin with the raw realities of suffering.
I was outraged, angry and deeply saddened by this incident. Maybe it was because I could find some relationship in the eyes of my new cohort of students. Trying to compose myself, at the time I simply asked my students to reflect upon the realization that for many people outside of zones of relative affluence, politics truly is a matter of life and death. I was in fact thinking more about the harrowing fate of Julio Cesar Mondragon, whose tortured and dumped body was found like a throwaway object the morning after the attacks. His facial skin and muscles were torn from his fractured skull and his internal organs severely ruptured. There were invariably limits to what I could achieve in this moment. How could I possibly do justice to this ongoing atrocity in the safety of a classroom environment, trying to get students to emphasize and relate to other students, who born in a different part of the world were visible in our thoughts and hopes only by their absence and the “mystery” that surrounded their fate?
Critical narratives that followed invariably focused on state corruption, the influence and power of narco-trafficking in the one of Mexico’s poorest and most violent states, how local elected leaders operated more like mafia organizations controlling their fiefdoms with violence and intimidation with the help of the state apparatus, along with the blurred lines between the authorities of the state and private guns for hire, revealing the complicated lines between those who are seen to have some legitimacy in enforcing the law and the violence of a more clandestine and extra-juridical nature. I am not questioning any of this. Such developments are important in terms of identifying responsibility and holding people to account for their actions. Nor would I wish to cast doubt on the fact some state authorities have consciously tried to do everything possible to hide the truth of what happened. There is nothing but admiration for those family members, journalists, human rights advocate and activists who insist upon finding out the truth of what happened. Without these continued efforts, nothing can possibly change.
There is also an important qualification to mention here. I do not claim to be an “expert” in Mexican politics, even though I have spent some time in the country and have taken a vested interest in its revolutionary movements. It is not my place to speak on behalf of Mexicans about their struggles and demands of justice. There are many brilliant authors from that country already doing tireless work in ways far exceeding my understanding, and to do so would also be disingenuous. As an educator on violence, invariably influenced by Mexican students and friends, my concern is to try to ask alternative political and philosophical questions about the nature of the violence without appropriating the victims or generalizing the real horror of the atrocity.
But I am not only a political-philosopher who has spent far too long reading about the worst of the human condition. I am a father and concerned citizen of the world. And whilst I am admittedly overprotective of my daughter, I would still hope to instill in her the ideas and ethical beliefs that it is important to stand up for deeply held principles, it is dignified to fight against injustice, it is honorable to put the plight others ahead of yourself, and it is important to recognize the rights and equality of all the worlds peoples. The very ideas the students of Ayotzinapa paid the ultimate price, with their lives.
So how can we begin to do justice to the memory of the “43” on the third anniversary of their absence? I would like to begin by dealing with the question of memorialization. We know a sinister hallmark of all great tyrannies is what Henry A. Giroux calls the violence of organized forgetting. Disappearance is the most potent and devastating example of this as it quite literally denies access to the truth. And yet politics is all about a battle for memory. This especially includes open contestation concerning truths about the violence of the past. Such memories do not exist in time capsules neatly placed in some historical archive. The way we narrate the past is integral to how we imagine the present and how we come to perceive the future. But how do we memorialize the tragic loss of lives, which are now absent? How can we resurrect the memory of a life whose actual state has vanished without a trace?
Memorialization takes many different forms. It is just as complex as life itself and open to various interpretations. Indeed, unlike the familiar memorialization of military generals and political elites who are often immortalized in cast iron form across every capital city of the world, the memorialization of the expendable, the downtrodden and forgotten of history necessarily takes a more human form. It is often loved ones who bring their otherwise absent memory back to life through candle lit vigils and intimate stories about their lives, idiosyncrasies, hopes and brutally shattered dreams. There is a human dimension to memorialization, which speak to the human in all of us. And so the human in all of us should be compelled to listen.
Absent of any public recognition of the importance of the disappeared lives, it is common to try to coalesce and mobilize around alternative symbols, which focus the attention. Often we see this in the form of a numerical symbolism — “43” — as if to both emphasize the scale of the atrocity and serve as a potent symbolic reminder. But such numerical concentration also has its limitations. Not only can it lead to some of the most remiss comparisons (as in the work of Steven Pinker) between different atrocities as the quantitative number of victims becomes more important than the uniqueness of each horrifying act. It is all too easy to lose sight of the fact we are not dealing with 43 victims. What happened in Iguala was the violation and wanton destruction of a wonderful life full of promise and ambition, 43 times over.
Another question we need to invariably ask concerns global media interest or lack of when dealing with these disappeared students. Again this is not incidental. While the impact of media events has a significant political bearing in terms of influencing the demands for justice and political response, it is also fully revealing of the politics of disposability and the ways some lives and seen as more valuable — hence more worthy of living — than others. As I was delivering the lecture to my students on that Monday afternoon, I couldn’t help imagine how differently they might have reacted if I was discussing a violent and forced disappearance of British or American students. This is not a commentary on the evident levels of compassion, dignity and empathy many of my students showed when hearing about the atrocity. It is however to acknowledge much broader questions of power when it comes to the politics of mourning and what Judith Butler calls a grievable life.
For Judith Butler, to ask the question of what life is publicly grieved is to also ask about the importance and value attributed to a life. Grief or its denial is therefore a political act, which opens us to various hierarchies of suffering. Furthermore, it is a point of entry into the logics of power as it exposes more fully what a society is willing to protect at all costs, against those elements of society, which as we know in this case, can vanish without any consequence. The Ayotzinapa students were already inserted into a diminished hierarchy of importance within a country that should have been nurturing their potential instead of seeing them as something altogether meaningless. Within global power structures, built upon the colonial architectures of which Mexico has historically been an integral part, their relative value in relation to the white Anglo-Saxon of European descent is painfully reductive.
Defenders of the corporate media might argue the reason why such violence doesn’t register is due to its unexceptional and all too familiar quality of its occurrence. As Eduardo Galeano pointed out, Latin America is so soaked in the blood of history it even looks like an ailing and weeping heart on a map. The media certainly has a fixation with what is deemed to be the exceptional. And what passes for the exceptional often revels in a certain fetishized aesthetics with the spectacular. Images of exploding towers capture the attention. Disappeared bodies are less compatible with the format of “image conscious” societies. It seems we would rather confront the realism of the spectacle, which also removes the body from actual depictions of violence, than dwell on the horrors of a problem that demands more sustained reflection.
But there are a number of points that we do need to address here. What passes for an “exceptional” event is filtered through racialized filters. Now of course some events are so spectacular they cannot be possibly ignored. Nevertheless, we cannot deny the media can often take two very comparable events in terms of aesthetic qualities and the scale of its devastation (often of a lesser scale in terms of “our” relatable suffering), and mediate its importance. Furthermore, this fixation with the politics of the exception is dubious. From the perspective of the victims, Ayotzinapa was a truly exceptional and unique event in a state in which violence has become normalized. Hence the reduction of this event to the vocabulary of the normal is also part of a politics of memorialization and its hierarchies of grief. After all it is far more difficult to critique something that appears to be normal than exceptional.
History teaches us time and time again that political violence is not simply carried out by irrational monsters. It is rationalized, reasoned and calculated. It is also purely subjective. I am not simply referring to the fact that some forms of violence are seen as necessary, tolerable and righteous, while others truly abhorrent, intolerable and the personification of evil. Violence is all about inscribing upon the desecrated body markers of identity. The subject of violence in the act of violation cuts away at the existing qualities of a life in order to undermine and negate its very existence. So what were the subjective dimensions to the violence in Ayotzinapa? What in other-words was put on trial, found guilty and executed without any concern for the rights, dignity and value of those lives consciously destroyed?
We know rural colleges have a long history of radical political activism and socialist sympathies. The temerity to question can often be the source of a great deal of endangerment. This is actually revealing of the logics of violence. Violence is not the excessive abuse of power. Violence occurs when power is impotent. The recourse to violence shows the persecutor can no longer rely upon the power of ideas and the possibility of their persuasion. Those armed with historical memory thus become dangerous in this setting because they offer sustained reflection on the abuse of power, along with memories of resistance, collective struggles, and a legacy of troubling knowledge. Education is crucial to any viable notion of justice and peaceful cohabitation. The conscious targeting of students is therefore precisely an assault on the very idea that society should be actively producing critically informed subjects, who having the confidence to question authority represent a beacon of hope in a situation that appears naturally fated.
Given the importance and centrality of the subjective dimensions to violence, invariably what follows is the inevitable “character assassination” of the victims. This represents a double wounding of their existence. For if they are to be remembered, they must reappear as recalcitrant, even though they are now unable to defend themselves. In other words, the victims must share some responsibility and partial guilt for the violence that inevitably finds them. Their activism as such is recast as the original confrontational moment, which leads to the violence that follows. Such claims are often banal, as in the case of the students of Ayotzinapa and the alleged issue of stealing local buses for a trip to Mexico City. Had they have not followed this ritualistic tradition, none of this would have happened! We know such claims are preposterous. You do not take the decision to willfully slaughter so many lives in such a calculated and organized way on account of some minor felony. Violence didn’t simply find them. It sought them out and executed its plans.
It is often tempting to make comparisons with different forms of violence in order to try and identify logical commonalities and similarities in its performativity. Whilst it is important to insist upon the uniqueness of each atrocity committed so that we don’t fall into the dubious ethical quagmire of gauging acts of violence of more or lesser importance (i.e. each should be condemned on its own terms), there is nevertheless the need to situate all violence in a broader historical and systemic context. Very little violence is randomly carried out. It is part of a longer historical process, which reaches into the depths of radicalized and class based forms of oppression and persecution. All political violence has a historical temporality that needs to be acknowledged.
But such temporalities are also politically fraught and subject to interpretation. How far back in history for instance do we begin to date the assault? Do we go back to recent history or should we demand a broader even colonial assessment? Often what stands out here are important historical events, which are fully loaded with their own symbolic memory and resonance. That the students were planning a trip to Mexico City to mark the anniversary of the Tlatelolco Massacre in which a large number of students were also killed by the state has evident if tragic poignancy in this case. “68” hold special meaning in the calendar of radical politics. Aside from the student massacre during the increasingly corporatized Olympic Games, the year also witnessed the assassination of Martin Luther King; the brutalities of Tet offensive in Vietnam that resulted in serious self-reflection about the imperialism of the West; along with widespread protests in Paris and on many University campuses such as Columbia University and University of California, Berkley. Hence to connect to “68” is not simply about paying respects to another groups of fallen idealists who put their bodies on the lines. It is also to connect with a global spirit of revolution and the possibility to challenge inequality and injustice, both in Mexico and elsewhere.
Returning to the violence, there is something truly terrifying about the act of disappearance. Such abductions are not in anyway new and have often been favored by authoritarian regimes, notably by military juntas and their paramilitary attaches in Latin America. But it is wrong to see the act of disappearance as some anti-spectacle or even as a form of violence devoid of communication. The spectacle of potential absence is projected onto the bodies of the living, those who now live in fear of their lives, just as the message speaks in a haunting language through the silent screams, which can be deafening. That anybody could disappear at any given moment just for believing in a certain set of principles, for reading troublesome books, or even just having a friendly relationship with somebody who happens to be politically active points to a genuine ecology of violence — a true climate of fear — which is both physically real and has a life independent of its actual occurrence. The act of disappearance takes us into the realm of the unknown: a mental space of anguish, torment and imagined possibilities. It is part of the psychic life of violence, which turns imagination into an enemy of the self.
This is why disappearance is much more than simply the denial of a persons right to be on the earth. The memory that such people once walked amongst us serves as a warning to others they might be suffer a similar fate and forgotten without a trace. It is therefore not only the denial of life, but also an assault on the very idea that a meaningful life eventually finds dignity in death and it’s passing. Disappearance then is a form of violence against the future. It immobilizes. Through the negation of life, it openly recruits the haunting memory of ghosts in order to impose a tyranny about the will of the living. And in doing so, the bodies of the disappeared reappear in the very act of denial, miscommunications, sense of injustice and the contraction of some nightmare resolution that eventually the deceased might at least be located.
So where does this leave us? Countering all forms of political violence demands both short-term action in terms of establishing responsibility and longer-term processes of instigating genuine political transformation. Short-term strategies must focus on bringing the perpetrators of this crime against humanity to justice. It is important that people are held accountable for their actions, and the violence must be condemned internationally in the strongest terms. But there are no simple solutions to the complexities of systemic violence, whose tangled global lines connect to histories of political persecution. This is not a problem that can be “solved” by any single individual. It demands a new radical conception of justice, which is not simply about bringing perpetrators of the most heinous crimes of account. It is about engaging in a shared conversation at local and global levels so the question of justice is realized in the dignity afforded to every human life. Such a call is not about doing away with the raw emotions many still feel. It is however to ensure that such anger, outrage, sadness and despair becomes the catalyst for attesting the cycle of violence and steering history in a different direction.
I cannot possibly imagine what it must be like to go to bed every evening and wake every morning wondering what happened to your child whose only crime was to believe in a better future. I just know it must be all consuming and the pain beyond any meaningful comprehension to those who thankfully don’t have to live with the disappearance of someone held so dear and close. How do you even begin to cope when turning on the television or opening the daily newspaper, deeply conflicted by the wish to find the missing so a serious investigation can finally begin, all the while knowing that well meaning claims about the need for closure will never bring any comfort or happiness? So if solidarity means anything surely it is for others to carry some of this burden and take up what must be a truly exhausting fight?
I’d like to conclude by offering a personal reflection on the problems faced when writing about such atrocities. I sent an earlier draft of this essay to someone born and living in the country whose opinion I deeply respect. Whilst they were appreciative of the fact I had decided to write this piece and show my solidarity, they were nevertheless critical of its focus and direction. Such criticisms were not about what the essay actually said, which they largely agreed with; rather they were concerned with what was being left out of the narrative. There is just as much to learn from the unsaid as there is the spoken word. Initially taken aback, what they were invariably asking me to consider was my own privileged status and relative comforts and security from which I could engage. I cannot deny any of this. But rather than focus on the way they politely highlighted “limitations of the narrative,” what I have further come to realize in dealing with these critiques is such limits are ultimately self-imposed. Or to put it another way, instead of talking about permissible boundaries and restrictions in which we necessary operate, there is always a need to be mindful of our own shameful compromises with power, which can diminish the message we seek to communicate. The violence suffered by the 43 shames us all. And since they cannot speak, it is up to us to give them voice, to hear their silent cries, to demand justice in their name, and to insist upon the need for a new radical imagination. This is not simply about pushing back against forces of injustice. It is to break out from the image of the world that continuously annihilates human lives.
Header image: Chantal Meza (2017) Devils of the Night. Mixed Media. (70×50)