Radical History Review 85 (2003) 58-73
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Reflections and Reports
Political Terror and the Technologies of Memory:
Excuse, Sacrifice, Commodification, and Actuarial Moralities
Violence and the Crisis of Memory
I was driving with a republican ex-paramilitary, "Sean," on a battlefield tour of Belfast. He was showing me the sites of INLA (Irish National Liberation Army) operations he had participated in or possessed logistical knowledge of in order to explain how urban guerrilla operations were planned and carried out. Sean discussed these issues with a mixture of professionalism and dry, ironic understatement characteristic of Belfast's working class. We drove by a security checkpoint where, five years earlier, he had "given the message" to a policeman: shot him point-blank in the head and then made his escape or "runback" in a waiting car. As we sat contemplating the scene of past violence, he started recounting to me a complex series of altercations in his housing estate that had recently taken place between his wife and a local "hood" (a petty criminal) who had slapped Sean's wife. Sean, aided by other "retired members" of various Republican paramilitary organizations, had retaliated with hurly (hockey) sticks that put the hood into the hospital. Sean was consulting with me: did I think further action was required now that the man had been released from the hospital? The conversation continued as we drove through a secretive cartography of clandestine war masked by the banal urban surfaces of postindustrial decay. The "further measure" he contemplated was "doing" the hood—homicide. [End Page 58] Sean was going to borrow a "short" (a revolver) from one of his organization's arms dumps—he knew their hidden locations—and get permission for the act from the local IRA unit, whose members he viewed as colleagues. The IRA was currently engaging in a controversial campaign against petty criminals in which hurly-stick beatings were common. The killing was to be structured like an "official" paramilitary punishment operation, which was politic if it became known that the local IRA had given permission for the execution, or at least looked the other way. As the conversation progressed, I became drawn into the planning of a premeditated murder. In simply giving advice, no matter how pacifist, I was complicit. I had met with Sean ostensibly to discuss the planning and implementation of past guerrilla operations and now, in a highly ironic moment of self-reflexivity, we were considering the viability of an impending act of violence. I felt ensnared by a dialogical nexus where acts of violence had an everyday coherence and banality—an understandable by-product of my submersion in fieldwork and the commonsensical culture of working-class Belfast in the mid-1980s. This conversation resulted from the Diltheyian emphasis that ethnographic research places on empathy and the point of view of the other. For even my highly logical counterarguments against the killing, given my ethnographic socialization, were effective only to the extent that they were skillfully attuned to Sean's paramilitary rationality. The urban geography beyond the car concretized his reasoning. In a militarized and "surveilled" city—where death by unofficial state execution and mutilation and execution by vigilante acts have supplanted judicial process, the common rules of law, and human rights—there exist only one-way streets and cul-de-sacs. It is difficult to reverse gears, to back away from violent situations and solutions. Oscillating between logistics, morality, and personal consequence, our dialogue echoed the debates, so I had learned, that take place in paramilitary military councils prior to an operation. This particular dialogue represented the fruition of several months of empathic listening, nonverbal phatic responses, and the absence of explicit moral condemnation on my part. Have you ever advocated against or even discussed a particular murder of a concrete individual with a person who had every capability for committing the act? Sean, the ex-paramilitary, used this dialogue to explore his own past relationship to killing, his personal and political boundaries. At the same time, I was being deliberately tested; Sean...