Closed Borders, Open Doors

By: Dr. Leigh M. Johnson
This post originally appeared in the blog readmorewritemorethinkmorebemore

Paris was ambushed by seven separate terrorist actions last Friday, a horrific set of events eerily reminiscent of both the Charlie Hebdo massacre less than a year ago and the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Any one of them-- the mass shootings in various restaurants and bars, the suicide bombing outside of a soccer match at the Stade de France, the hostage-taking and massacre at the Bataclan concert venue-- would have been sufficient to frighten and horrify, but it was the simultaneity of their occurrence that truly terrorized.

Today, with so many non-state actors and organizations effectively in control of the world's state of affairs, coordinated attacks on civilians may shock and sadden nation-states, but it does not paralyze them. President Hollande almost immediately declared a state of emergency, closed France's borders, and mobilized 1,500 troops to send into Paris..Such responses are, regrettably, "textbook" now. As were the responses of various world leaders, including U.S. President Obama, each of whom ventriloquized the judgments and avowals of some unknown, unnamed security analyst who wrote that script 14 years ago, has been rewriting it with slight, situation-specific modifications since, and who passes it up the chain of command to be repeated by some Authority each time. 

As I wrote this last Saturday, President Hollande had just promised "to lead a war which will be pitiless" in retaliation for Friday night's terror. And, for reasons both admirable and condemnable, the Western world has emblazoned its support-- by, quite literally, enlightening the monuments, halls, and houses of democratic sovereign power-- of Hollande and of France, its endorsement of a war without pity, doubling-down its three-century-year-long bet on the nation-state as the Archimedean point of the modern moral, political and social world.

Vox Populi

While events were still unfolding Friday night, another set of responsive "events" were happening.  Far from the loci of concentrated power and influence, the people were speaking. They were speaking to, for, against and at one another in that incredible milieu we too-glibly refer to (and too easily dismiss) as "social media."  Some spoke with sadness, others with vengefulness. Some with compassion, others with rage. Some with the conviction of certainty about what happened and who is to be called to account for it, but far more with the sort of vertiginous uncertainty that vexes, unsettles and bedevils those who find themselves coerced to act as agents in a unscripted situation, compelled to navigate a maze that is still being completed as one attempts to escape it.

The response of the people was nowhere to be found on social media over the last few days, of course. Vox populi-- both in its digital articulation and its "meatspace" articulation-- is as multivocal today as it ever has been.  Social media enables us to "hear" the plurivocality of the people's voice(s), perhaps in a manner that is unique to our particular moment in human history, but it has always been dissonant, messy and noisy. That voice is more deafening now, more disorienting now, than it has ever been before. Nevertheless, two relatively distinctive "voices" emerged from the noise last night, both of which were equally indicative of not only the values of modern, liberal democratic sensibility, but also the fundamentally aporetic nature of the same. 

On the one hand, there was the voice of the hostage: We are under attack by someone hostile to us and to our values, someone who has invaded our space, exploited our trust and our good will, who has turned our civic generosity against us. The foreigners are antigens to our body politic, they have shown themselves to be our enemy. We must close the borders! 

On the other hand, there was the voice of the hospitable: We are, all of us, in the midst of a violent, indescribable and unknowable crisis. Innocent, non-combatant, non-state actors are being attacked.  In the absence of a means for determining friend from enemy, in this "state of exception," my door is open to anyone in need of safe haven.  #PorteOuverte.

"Close our borders" and "Open your doors" are both messages spoken in the name of democracy, for democracy and, as such, are spoken in the name of and for the people.  The simultaneity of their articulation in response to what happened last night in Paris is, or ought to be, as terrifying for anyone committed to modern, liberal democratic values as the events of the Paris attacks themselves.

The Aporia of Hospitality

How do we make sense of this democratic double-command: close your borders, open your doors? The commands are impossible to satisfy simultaneously in the "real world".... and/yet/but they are no less equally requisite, morally and politically, in the name of and for democracy.Of course, the concept of hospitality is essential to and inseparable from the concept of democracy, but it is also the case that hospitality is "impossible" as it is so conceived vis-á-vis democracy, that is to say, as unconditional.  In other words, democracy's conception of itself is necessarily dependent upon its being unconditionally hospitable; no democracy qua (modern, nation-state) democracy can achieve its ideal of itself as such without opening itself, in principle if not also in reality, to the needs of anyone and everyone who find themselves otherwise powerless and thus most in need of democracy's proxy (representative) power-structure.  Borrowing from the inscription at the base of (France's gift to America) the Statue of Liberty, democracies as such are obliged thusly:

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she

With silent lips, "Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send those, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

And/yet/but, any extant democracy that opens its "golden door" to anyone and everyone who is tired, poor or yearning to breathe free at once puts itself at risk of its hospitality being exploited, of becoming the (figurative or literal) hostage of its putative guests. For Derrida, that is no more and no less than the structurally necessary risk that democracy takes qua democracy, that is to say, the possibility of any real-world democracy (i.e., a nation-state with borders that distinguish between an identifiable, protected citizenry and an identifiable, foreign and protected-against non-citizenry) is possible only via a concept of democracy that is, in reality, impossible (i.e., #PorteOuverte, an unconditionally "open door"). 

What Would I Risk For That Child?

The real world, for better or worse, is and has always been thus: just because making a decision is impossible does not mean a decision must not still be made.  Last night in Paris, and every other day and night in every other place in this time when democracy trembles, indeed buckles, under the weight of its own demands, is just more evidence of this impossibly insistent, terrible, terrifying, and terrorizing question, which demands decision: 

Ought we insist on closed borders or open doors?

It's far too simple, and far too naive, to think that this dilemma can be resolved via the age-old, inadequately structured and increasingly ineffective distinction between the so-called "public" and "private" domains. We cannot any longer say, qua citizens, "close the borders," and simultaneously insist in moments of crisis, qua persons, "open the door," at least not without committing ourselves to an ultimately irresolvable conceptual dissonance.  The distinction between the border and the door is increasingly, insistently indecipherable as our world grows smaller, more connected, more immanently impactful, and of which the strangeness (if not also the actual strangers) become more difficult to ignore. 

That picture of "that child" lying dead and alone, washed up on the shore of a beach in Turkey last month, which we all saw, managed to galvanize the universally-humanistic sentiments of otherwise indifferent and willfully-uninformed citizens in the United States.  That child had a name, Aylan Kurdi.  He had a life and a family. He was a of a particular nationality (Syrian). He had a particular age (3 years old). He and his family were, quite literally, "huddled masses... yearning to breathe free." And, because he was a child and he was dead and alone, everyone opened their metphorical door for Aylan, too late, even as no one opened their literal door to him in time.

Aylan's body is the material instance of democracy's aporia with regard to its hospitable obligations.   

We'll likely never know for sure whether the particular conflict from which Aylan Kurdi's family was trying escape was a material or efficient cause in last night's attacks on Paris, though we can be certain that it was both a formal (and perhaps also a final) cause.  What we ought ask ourselves now, especially those of us who want to speak in the name of democracy, in the name of and on behalf of the kratos of the demos, is whether or not our voice is best directed toward one or the other of democracy's mutually necessary, and in this instance, perhaps mutually exclusive moral necessities: hospitality or risk-aversion?

Unconditional hospitality is risky,  Risk-aversion is, and by definition cannot be, unconditionally hospitable.

In the cacophony that is social media, that is the vox populi, who speaks for the powerless people, the stateless, the nameless, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free? Even and despite the risk, who can be relied upon to open their door (or their border)? Who invites in those who very well might intend to exploit hospitality? Who is willing to risk literally being taken hostage by "enemies" of democratic hospitality? 

Open Doors

Whether we are aware of it or not, all of us who enjoy the benefits of democratic citizenship take that risk every day. We ought to choose that risk, decide to take that risk, commit to that risk and commit to opening our doors (#PorteOuverte) if we think it is worthwhile, which inevitably means that we ought decide to stake our enjoyment of democratic freedom (which is only one iteration, and not the only possible iteration, of "freedom") on the risks that democratic freedom necessarily entails.

The threat to liberal democratic freedom today is not the refugee, the stateless person, the immigrant or the stranger.  Neither is it, in a simple sense, the "terrorist," who is always also, given a slight shift in the frame of reference, a freedom fighter. Rather, the greatest threat to freedom, s'il en y a, is quite simply those who are unwilling to commit to the entire battery of risks that freedom always entails. Which is, of course, almost everyone.

There is no freedom that does not entail risk. No risk without freedom.

And so, when we find ourselves in these moments of necessary decision, as Parisians found themselves last night, and as all of us will no doubt find ourselves in the coming days, months and years, I contend we are infinitely better off erring on the side of risk, on the side of #PorteOurverte, on the side of impossible and indeterminately risky hospitality, rather than on the side of state power, on the side of border restrictions or closures, on the side of "pitiless war," on the side of indifference to the least among us, and on the side of the sort of self-righteous indifference that allows the bodies of dead children to wash up on our well-protected shores.

In the name of democracy, for democracy, which may not be the best name for what is best, but what is the name we have now for what is best, I say: #PorteOuverte.

Dr. Leigh M. Johnson is a Philosophy professor in and from Memphis, Tennessee. Her primary research/teaching focuses on moral and political philosophy, broadly speaking. She also writes about politics, philosophy, film, technology, music and pop culture at her blog ReadMoreWriteMoreThinkMoreBeMore
Posted by Josh Colfer at 12:57 PM

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