Names That Kill

I have been talking all week with journalist friends, national and foreign, to try to explain to them why at this moment in Colombia it is important, I would even say crucial, not to collaborate with the narrative of “vandalism” and “urban terrorism” that the government has set in motion to justify the repression. And not because there has not been any damage, not because there has not been looting, chaos, confusion, fires, small groups of criminals taking over gas stations and more. All this is happening in the streets, of course, but why attribute it to “vandals?” Or better yet, what is the effect of explaining that damage by resorting to this signifier? What concrete reality does it respond to? Who would these vandals be?

First of all, let us consider the linguistic and, therefore, cognitive effect: we say “vandals” and we immediately imagine someone faceless, preferably young, an agent of chaos driven by irrational appetites who wants to pulverize order and normality, the proper functioning of a society where private property has an almost sacred character. The vandal is, in this sense, a close relative of the religious iconoclast, the destroyer of images, someone who commits sacrilege against the property of the citizens located on the right side of the faith (goods, as we know, have replaced in our societies the objects of worship). And the vandal is, for this very reason, an avatar of the terrorist who, as has been pointed out by the philosophical thought produced at the beginning of this century, was the metaphysical scarecrow on which all the justifications for the War on Terror, including Guantanamo, were based on. The terrorist, the iconoclast and the vandal are figures that help to prevent any possibility of our seeing the flesh and blood people behind the word, people with a biography and a collective history. They are abstractions that, by dehumanizing the object they name, provide a moral alibi to the possibility of their physical extermination.

In the case of Colombia, this dehumanization is, if possible, more critical and more dangerous. During the last decades, which coincided precisely with the beginning of the War on Terror, security policies here have been based on the fabrication of abstractions to make acceptable the idea that certain people deserve to die, that there are, as former President Uribe once said with his peculiar poetic talent, good “deads.” And it is this same linguistic process that we must analyze if we really want to understand the so-called false positives and all the other forms of extrajudicial execution that the paramilitary culture helped to normalize in our society. The “vandal”—as it happened at the time with the “narco-terrorist guerrilla”—is then presented as a threat to our entire legal order, someone who has crossed a border outside of citizenship, humanity and civility and is, in that sense, irretrievable, that is, susceptible of being annihilated. And in spite of not contemplating the death penalty legally, we have already verified that in Colombia this legal order is willing to admit the blind spot of the annihilation of this radical other as a necessary evil for its supposed preservation.

That is why every time a well-meaning journalist, following an ideological impulse or by simple mental laziness, repeats the narrative of the “vandals” as responsible for the destruction, he is actively participating in that necropolitical scheme and is being useful to the war strategy that at this time fills our streets with the dead and wounded. The fact that the police are offering rewards worth millions for the capture of each “vandal” is illustrative of this linguistic production of the sacrificial body.

As for me fellow journalists, fellow wordsmiths, I do not see “vandals” anywhere. At most I see desperate people, hungry people, I see boys who, without any other opportunity, joined a gang of thieves and now fish in the troubled waters of the protests and the permissiveness of state forces, I see people who have been denied any other way of life since their childhood, without access to the most basic rights in one of the most unequal countries on the planet, systematically excluded from any state benefit, accustomed to living on the margins of what we, standing on the right side of the economic divide, call the social rule of law. And above all, I see infiltrated policemen in civilian clothes, lots and lots of security agents disguising themselves as demonstrators with “vandalistic” intentions, as attested by the hundreds of videos circulating on the networks.

It seems unbelievable that we have to repeat it, but the words we use have material effects on reality. And it is essential in these moments of great danger, while the state indiscriminately murders its citizens, to find the right way to tell and narrate. Those of us who work telling the world in writing have this ethical duty. Names help us to organize the chaos of life, that is true, but a misplaced name can kill.

Juan Cárdenas (Popayán, 1978). Colombian writer and translator. He studied philosophy at the Javeriana University of Bogotá before moving to Madrid in 1998, where he continued his studies at Complutense University and worked for several publishing houses. He has published half a dozen works of fiction. In 2017, he was named as one of the Bogota39, a selection of the best young writers in Latin America.


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