The film World War Z includes several scenes in which soldiers kill large numbers of zombies; not surprisingly, the movie comes to an end with a graphic image that symbolizes the victory of the global security forces over the planetary zombie epidemic: massive piles of corpses, so large that they form steep hills. This detritus of zombie corpses epitomizes the trope of the killable horde, made up of bodies that are so dangerous, uncontrollable, and devoid of humanity that they have to be murdered “in self-defense.” The idea of calling this violence “a crime” is unthinkable. This is the one moment when Agamben’s ideas about “the state of exception” become tangibly real: when self-proclaimed civilized people condemn murder except when it involves a scary, dehumanized, hostile horde.
The zombies that the film industry presents as killable are the fictionalized embodiment of the actual human multitudes that are deemed killable all over the world, from Gaza to Ferguson, Missouri. The powerful have long marked oppressed populations as savage, frightening, and killable without guilt. The recent popularity of tropes about human rights does not seem to have undermined the power of this visceral disposition toward life and death. Conservative pundit Ben Stein, for instance, justified the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson on the grounds that, in his words, “he wasn’t unarmed,” because “he was armed with his incredibly strong, scary self” and the officer, therefore, was justified in feeling threatened and shooting six times. Defenders of the indiscriminate massacre of civilians by Israeli violence in Gaza made similarly perplexing arguments on the grounds that Palestinians are, by definition, scary. Mentioning the word “Hamas” seems for them enough to justify doing anything to those living in the Gaza ghetto, despite the overwhelming evidence that the vast majority of the victims were (like Michel Brown in Ferguson) unarmed. But material evidence and rational arguments are never enough to persuade those who feel fear in their guts. What is terrifying about Palestinians, as Ben Stein put it in the case of Missouri, is their mere existence, their “scary selves,” which “arms” them with an “incredible” power: the power to instill fear on the powerful. Just like zombies; or “Indians.”
Decades ago, Deleuze used the apt phrase “The Indians of Palestine” to name the colonial situation imposed by the Israeli state on the people native to Palestine. Yet Palestinians became the “Indians” of Israel not simply because they were dispossessed by settlers but also because, in the process (as with the “Indians” of the Americas), they became the ultimate killable savages. In the eyes of the majority of the Israeli public, “the Arabs” (as Palestinians are reified and exoticized) have been positioned as irrational Indians threatening a shinning outpost of civilization. They are therefore killable with impunity and without guilt. As if they were zombies. After all, as I argued in a previous post (World Revolution Z), the zombie horde that on World War Z charges against the Israeli Wall of Separation (and that Israeli troops unsuccessfully try to massacre) is a Palestinian zombie horde that comes from the occupied territories. African-American men in the United States, likewise, are increasingly treated as if the were zombies (or savage Indians). When white demonstrators in Ferguson rallied in defense of the police officer who executed Michael Brown, they were confronted by a counter demonstration that chanted “Hands up, don’t shoot!” The pro-police crowd, which minutes earlier had vociferously denied it was racist, responded with a disarmingly transparent “Shoot, shoot!” David Gershon wrote (here) about this incident: “Sometimes, there are moments so stark that they have the power to encapsulate an ugly truth in a single frame. This is one such moment.” The ugly truth encapsulated by that crowd is also made transparent by those who disregard or justify the murder of hundreds of children in Gaza. Despite their obvious differences, these events of violence teach us something worth reflecting on about the affective force-fields that define our capitalist and imperial present: that otherwise law-abiding people can readily and indignantly condemn murder, except when it involves those unruly, scary bodies that deserve to be killed —like those zombies shred to pieces in World War Z.