Quite recently, a colleague of mine kindly brought to my attention a book called ‘The Right to Maim’, written by Jasbir Puar, published only last month by Duke University Press. I have ordered the book and read a couple of reviews about it. It seems fascinating. However, before reading anything about the book, I immediately started speculating what its thesis could be. The right to maim, I wondered. Of course, this must be another argument about coloniality, violence and human life. It surely must have some affinity with Judith Butler’s work on the un-liveability, and subsequent un-grievability, of those human lives which are out there, in places too far away, in the periphery.
The book, which I have not read yet, throws into question our common liberal understanding of disability and its associated rights. It makes a distinction between disability and what it calls debility. Debility disrupts the concept of disability understood as merely an individual state or identity that can be socially included and accommodated within liberal frameworks through disability rights (access, recognition, empowerment, pride etc.) Debility however refers to a concept central to biopolitical control (the control of bodies and populations) at the heart of colonial regimes; it refers to the racializing of an entire collectivity (population) through their designation as available for debilitation (the ‘right to maim’ which is linked to ‘the right to kill’), so it is part of a war tactic central to settler colonial regimes and to imperialism more broadly.
Of course, the book’s argument is much more complicated and nuanced that this, and the above is an extremely lame attempt at summarizing it. However, what makes the book interesting for me is that Puar carefully examines Israel’s practices in Gaza and its practice of deliberate maiming, otherwise referred to as the ‘shoot to cripple’ phenomenon. Having previously worked as a human rights NGO worker in Gaza, this is something that I have always thought about and, occasionally, discussed during informal conversations in Gaza during wars and in their aftermath. In particular, there is always a glaring disparity between the number of deaths and that of injuries, and while the former was the subject of ample commentary and coverage, the latter was only assigned secondary importance and discussed only in passe (for example, this Reuters news story, published just a few hours ago, carries the title: Israeli forces kill four Palestinians, wound 160 in protests over Jerusalem)
Puar explains, “The might of Israel’s military—one of the most powerful in the world—is built upon the claim of an unchanging ontological vulnerability and precarity, driven by history, geopolitics, and geography. Alongside the “right to kill,” I noted a complementary logic long present in Israeli tactical calculations of settler colonial rule—that of creating injury and maintaining Palestinian populations as perpetually debilitated, and yet alive, in order to control them. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have shown a demonstrable pattern over decades of sparing life, of shooting to maim rather than to kill. This is ostensibly a humanitarian practice, leaving many civilians “permanently disabled” in an occupied territory of destroyed hospitals, rationed medical supplies, and scarce resources. This pattern appeared again during Operation Protective Edge; the number of civilian casualties was reported daily and justified through the logic of collateral damage, while the number of injuries was rarely commented upon and never included in reflections of the daily toll of the siege.”
Why I am writing this now is not only to emphasize an all too urgent need to highlight Israel’s deliberate colonial strategy of maiming and controlling Gazans but also because, only yesterday, we witnessed the murder of one wheelchair-bound, or debilitated, Palestinian protester Ibrahim Abu Thuraya, 29 years, who was waving a Palestinian flag and speaking out, in front of cameras, against Israel’s colonial regime. During an Israeli airstrike some nine years ago in Gaza, Abu Thuraya lost both his legs. Puar’s thesis is crystallized in the figure of Abu Thuraya, who embodies the ultimate object of this biopolitical control central to the colonial practices of the Israel state. Abu Thuraya is the object of Israel’s two most cherished rights, the right to kill, and prior to it, the right to maim. It is hardly a matter of speculation that Abu Thurayah was deliberately shot dead by Israeli troops. In its direct encounter with Abu Thuraya, and having already exercised its right to maim, Israel had only one choice at its disposal, to exercise its other right, to kill him. The regular presence of Abu Thurayah at protests, despite his debility, ostensibly demonstrated that Israel’s maiming of his body had utterly failed of bodily controlling him, stopping him from protesting physically. Finally, Abu Thurayyah’s murder is a manifestation of a powerful and rather long-established form of anti-colonial resistance, mass protest at points of friction with the Israeli army. Abu Thurayyah lived in dignity and died in dignity– dignity being a concept which, contrary to what many seem to think, is far from being merely sentimental, but is of paramount political significance for people who lack it.