Disabling Wounds: Genocidal Violence, Paradoxical Indigeneity, and the Logic of Elimination of the Native

Building on the analytics she advanced in Terrorist Assemblages, Jasbir Puar brings her pathbreaking work on the liberal state, sexuality, and biopolitics to bear on our understanding of disability. In The Right to Maim, we see the tenuous inclusion of some disabled subjects as their addition depends on the production of select indigenous peoples and racialized populations targeted for one form of elimination or another. Puar shows how debility, disability, and capacity together constitute an “assemblage” that both the state of Israel and the US state use to control various groups. Resonating with her earlier work showing the problems with a progressive politics of inclusion, Puar theorizes the paradoxical nature of the ways in which disability politics are taken up within liberal frameworks; while enabling recognition and care for some disabled, that same structure debilitates others who find themselves subject to the brutality of neoliberal regimes. Puar’s book culminates in a close, critical examination of Israel’s policies that bring Palestinians into biopolitical being by designating them accessible for injury. Supplementing its “right to kill” with what Puar calls “the right to maim,” the Israeli state relies on liberal frameworks of disability to obscure and enable the mass debilitation of Palestinian bodies.

Puar documents how maiming and stunting force bodily change, which Israeli forces then weaponize, deliberately transforming Palestinian bodies. These calculations are rationalized in the service of a liberal yet violent and sadistic humanism and disturbing “humanitarianism”—a form of biopolitical management that Puar terms “weaponized epigenetics.” Moreover, we see the targeting of youth, “not for death but for stunting…that seeks to render impotent any future resistance” (152). Puar argues that this modality is not merely a byproduct of war, as in collateral damage; instead, it is used to achieve the tactical aims of settler colonialism. As she shows, maiming functions as “will not let die” posing as “let live.” This, as we learn, is “genocide in slow motion.”

And yet, it is the claim to maim that has prompted Zionist vitriol about this work. The question of genocide is indeed threatening when the project of Israel itself rests on the justification to create an ethnocracy as a response to the genocide of Jewish people in the Holocaust. One question that emerges is whether slow death constitutes genocide. Puar documents and analyzes Israel’s practice of deliberately shooting or threatening to shoot Palestinians to disable them. She identifies “the fear for Palestinians’ bodily integrity that animates every interaction with the Israeli state.” (See Puar’s response to her critics, “Speaking of Palestine: Solidarity and Its Censors.”) Yet, keeping Palestinians alive—refusing to let die—is crucial to this militarized economy while also crucial to this equation of which population is identifiably subject to genocide. If Palestinians were entirely genocided, Israel could no longer rationalize their victimhood, let alone their need for military funding from the US government. As Puar explains, while rounding up people for mass executions would be obvious evidence of genocide, here genocide can take place in ways that are subtler–making it palatable for the masses, and even seemingly defensible at times.

Here we see analytical linkages to Patrick Wolfe’s theory of structural genocide (published in his well-cited piece). Wolfe distinguished settler colonialism from genocide proper, asserting that it is “inherently eliminatory but not invariably genocidal.” He was careful to point out that settler colonialism is not simply a form of genocide, since there are cases of genocide without settler colonialism (like the Holocaust), and because “elimination refers to more than the summary liquidation of Indigenous peoples, though it includes that” (388). Wolfe’s theory of structural genocide avoids the question of degree and enables an understanding of the relationships between spatial removal, mass killings, and biocultural assimilation. In other words, “the logic of elimination of the Native” can also entail eliminating the Native as native. Some scholars have referred to Israel’s approach to Palestinians as “incremental genocide” instead of an overt, blatant attempt to eradicate them as a people. In this formulation, incremental genocide involves actions and policies that are designed to slowly erode, break up, and destroy a specific population. But Wolfe’s theory of structural genocide is capacious, while also being more specific in relation to the ways in which settler colonialism works via land expropriation.

The normalization of this sadistic violence also illuminates how Puar exposes the politics and function of “normality” and its function in relation to visibility and invisibility—the paradoxes of “maiming” as well as “pinkwashing.” In her work, we learn the function of pinkwashing in relation to disability. As she writes, “Palestinians are the debilitated bodies in contrast to the rehabilitated bodies protected by the Israeli state. Israel reasserts the project of rehabilitation through the disavowal of disability onto Palestine” (108). In pinkwashing, Israelis get to assert their own modernity and civilized progress as a nation in contrast to Arab nations’ supposed backwardness and Palestinians’ presumed primitiveness. And yet, Israelis want to have it both ways—to assert that they are the “true Natives,” the indigenous, while also claiming they are modern.

So how do Israelis claim they are advanced and progressive on the one hand, and still indigenous on the other? This is the neoliberal state at play within liberal politics, which parallels the problems and limits of the recognition of disability rights Puar exposes through her sustained critical analysis of neoliberal economics and the liberal state regarding the terms of “inclusion.” We might understand this as a paradox that also works with the right to maim—Israelis having it both ways: subjecting structural genocide on Palestinians as indigenous while also asserting that they are not killing them in calculated cold blood (genocide proper). In this twisted logic, actual killings are then justifiable by claiming that massacres enacted to stop “terrorists” (i.e., any Palestinians resisting their own genocide). So, we see a bid for settler innocence while eliminating the Native, one way or another. As Puar puts it, “couched within a narrative about the liability of the disability that is worse than death itself, the occupation, indeed, has created intense forms of disability” (108).

Paradoxically, Israel recognizes the Palestinian indigeneity it disavows by trying to usurp it–via a settler bid to indigenize through expropriation of land and appropriation of identity. Zionists Jews claim that they themselves are indigenous, while actively subordinating Palestinians as indigenous. This includes: ethnically cleansing villages to create Israel ’48, breaking up land contiguity for Palestinians between villages in the West Bank by fragmenting them and closing them off from each other, flooding the West Bank with settlements and effectively creating a de facto reservation system for Palestinians. These are settler-colonial modes of domination used to debilitate the wellbeing of indigenous peoples as polities.

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J. Kēhaulani Kauanui

J. Kēhaulani Kauanui is professor of American studies, affiliated with anthropology at Wesleyan University. She is the currently the chair of American Studies and the director of the Center for the Americas. Her first book is Hawaiian Blood: Colonialism and the Politics of Sovereignty and Indigeneity (2008). Her second book is Paradoxes of Hawaiian Sovereignty: Land, Sex, and the Colonial Politics of State Nationalism (forthcoming). She also has a new edited book, Speaking of Indigenous Politics: Conversations with Activists, Scholars, and Tribal Leaders (2018), which features select interviews from her radio program, “Indigenous Politics; From Native New England and Beyond,” which she produced and hosted solo for seven years.