Weaponizing Disability

The above image shows a Palestinian man who is a double leg amputee (as a result of being shot by the Israeli Defense Forces) who is sitting on the ground in a sandy area with barbed wire behind him. His body is facing the camera while his face is turned to the side. He is aiming a stone at an identified target in the distance. The image was taken during protests in the Israel/Palestine border in Gaza on May 11 and went viral days later. (He was first identified as Fadi Abu Salah, who was killed by IDF during border protests in May 2018, and later identified as Saber al-Ashqar).

In many ways, the subject in the photo is the subject matter of Puar’s The Right To Maim, as the book is about the biopolitics of debilitation and state violence at the level of populations. There, Puar moves us from discussions of disability pride, rights, or even disablement to centering the biopolitics of debility, in which debilitation (much like Patrick Wolfe said regarding settler colonialism itself) is not an event (‘becoming disabled’) but instead “the slow wearing down of populations” of “…the tension between targeting the disabled and targeting to debilitate…” (xii).1

In more Foucauldian terms, some are folded into life while others (like the man in the picture) are targeted for premature death (Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s definition of racism) or slow death (Lauren Berlant). And this is especially evident in regard to war and occupation (through US imperialism and state violence).

In the book’s last chapter, Puar offers a compelling and important analysis of biopolitics in Palestine, especially Gaza. I want to emphasize here that the information that Puar provides regarding Israeli policies is mostly common knowledge in Israel. These policies are presented in Israeli news, discussed by ministers in open cabinet debates, and written about in Hebrew academic articles, etc. Therefore, recent criticism of Puar–mostly coming from American audiences, to whom this information is unfamiliar and seems outrageous–accusing her of making this up or revealing government secrets is ludicrous. In other words, the justification of these policies should be debated and is already discussed in Israel and elsewhere–but the existence of the policies is a matter of fact.

Expanding on Foucault’s and Mbembe’s theorizations of biopolitics and necropolitics, Puar discusses practices grounded in the sovereign’s (Israel’s) attempts to (in Foucauldian terms) take life (by killing, war) and let live (for example the practice of roof-knocking performed by the IDF before air raids or bombing), to make live (prevent death), or let die (slow death through lack of health care infrastructure, for example). To these technologies Puar introduces a third vector: will not let live nor make die (shoot to maim). For her, the right to maim is not a byproduct of war but its very goal. It makes Israel seem humanitarian while justifying occupation and settler colonialism; while the death toll is lower, the human and other costs of war rise. For example, in the protests in May 2018, one of which is captured by the photo, over sixty Palestinians were killed and over 2700 injured.

This is also where the connection between The Right to Maim and Terrorist Assemblages is clearest, as a critique of American exceptionalism, the framework of rights, and the workings of empire and whiteness in liberation movements reverberate in both. If in Terrorist Assemblages the analysis focuses on the production of the homo (and/as queer) subject via nationalism and empire (i.e., the terrorist subject and the subject of terrorism post-9/11), in The Right to Maim Puar shows how the disabled subject is produced through nationalist biopolitical processes. These productions are essential to the formation of the nation as such (i.e., American exceptionalism).

In both books, one of the central questions is—what happens when the disavowed and perverse are not denied nationhood but become emblematic of it? In The Right to Maim, Puar provides a scathing and politically essential critique of celebration of gay, trans (even as the new shiny disavowed gay), and disabled identities and rights under neoliberal progress narratives. She shows how such projects are part of specific biopolitical regulation regimes tied to settler-colonial nation-building goals.

But Puar’s work can also be read as one interpretation of why such images as the one above circulate, how and why they travel (or not), and what they lose in their journey. Can we account (analytically, theoretically, or ethically) for what is transpiring in this photo through current formulations of queer and disability studies? Why or why not?

The pride framework (love yourself, flaunt it) within LGBT/queer and disability movements and studies is both powerful and a reversal of power differentials. But there is no denying that it is not a framework rooted in intersectionality (theoretically or embodied) as Puar suggests here. Who does not and, in fact, cannot participate in disability rights and pride? Who essentially “rains on” the pride parade?

The lack of intersectionality reflected in much of disability studies and its accounts of activism is not only about a lack of familiarity with disability culture. Puar provocatively shows that it is also about the incompatibility of the disability pride framework with the experience of poor people of color (in the US and globally), especially those who acquired their disabilities by violence, most often due to state violence or negligence (which is also violence). As Puar suggests, following Helen Meekosha, the disability studies framework resisting prevention of disability lacks the nuance to talk about these complex experiences, especially in relation to the Global South.

Beyond calls against “white disability studies,” Puar suggests that disability “is about bodily exclusion that is endemic rather than epidemic” (xvii) and is not an exceptional accident, at least not to most. Disability and debility in this formulation are not counter to each other but are in fact interdependent–the discourse of rights and empowerment relies on the same economy (i.e., neoliberalism, colonialism, and racial capitalism) that capacitates certain bodies (makes them available for identification) and makes other bodies available for injury.

This analysis is necessary and timely. But the circulation of the above image (as it went viral all over the world) and its interpretation also merit analysis. Specifically, I worry that calls to end war and occupation because they are disabling can also be taken up as a biopolitical tool. An effective/affective strategy to demonstrate the futility of war is putting the disabled body and mind and forces of debilitation on display. This often reproduces a zero sum game of two nodes of disability exceptionalism–disability as assimilation (rehabilitation, rights, as Puar masterfully critiques) or prevention (in this case, as prevention of the conditions of debilitation). The issue is that we still can’t account for ways of effectively living with disability. Disability studies and culture offer the counter narrative of disability and illness as enabling, productive. Not everything disability produces is beautiful but as a productive force, in the Foucauldian sense, disability produces specific sensibilities and discourses.

What then can be offered to the disability already here? If people of color are pathologized a priori in the US and disability and debilitation are a matter of course in Palestine, as Puar suggests, what of those who are both disabled and targeted for (further) debilitation? While we struggle for an end to occupation, I wonder–what of those who are already debilitated, some of whom desire to “walk again” or regain capacity? What else can we offer them? What other things are available or can be remade as objects of desire, under colonialism, racial capitalism, in Palestine–as the struggle for liberation wages on?

Image: Wissam Nassar via Instagram

  1. See also J. Kēhaulani Kauanui’s essay here for further discussion.

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Liat Ben-Moshe

Liat Ben-Moshe is an assistant professor of disability studies at the University of Toledo. Beginning in 2019, she will be joining the Department of Criminology, Law, and Justice at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Her forthcoming book Politics of (En)Closure examines the connections between prison abolition, disability, and deinstitutionalization in the US. Dr. Ben-Moshe is the co-editor (with Allison Carey and Chris Chapman) of Disability Incarcerated: Imprisonment and Disability in the United States and Canada (2014).