Collateral Damage

By: Matthew Battles
November 18, 2011

When it comes to the fate of the OWS Library, New Statesmen blogger Laurie Penny has got it right:

It occurs to me that the impounding of books is a subtler and more appropriate metaphor for how culture is policed in modern times than the burning or destruction of books. Across the developed world, as austerity programmes kick in to finance the cataclysmic self-indulgence of the super-rich, it is libraries, schools and universities that are being priced out of the reach of ordinary people.

The day after the occupiers were forcibly evicted from Zuccotti Park, I chatted with someone I respect about the outrage perpetrated on the OWS Library. “It’s important to note that the books were collateral damage,” she pointed out. “This was not a book burning.” And I thought, yes, how true —and how disturbing. This uncanny un-book-burning is a symptom of the same security paradigm that demands a violent police action in the name of health and safety (putting the health and safety of citizens and police at risk in the process) while remaining mute about the titanic greed and wrongful incompetence that created the economic disaster.

The sickness of health-and-security theatre runs deep; its effects are striking and weird. Its post-cold-war avatars are the drug war and the global war on terror. It has brought about the thorough paramilitarization of the police; it leads us to swab the arms of condemned prisoners prior to euthanization. It has created a malignant shadow judiciary in our prison system, condemning inmates — most often the developmentally disabled and mentally ill — to the monstrous torture of solitary confinement. For the sake of their mental and spiritual health, prisoners held at Gitmo under George W. Bush who refused the Qu’rans offered by authorities were forced to accept them: a team would rush in and pin the prisoner to the ground while a holy book was placed in the cell by another guard whose hands were gloved in recognition that they were haram. It’s notable that in such cases the nastiness isn’t postulated as an end in itself, but as a measure undertaken for the sake of health and security — not infrequently, the health and security of the victim.

Alongside such malignancies, the trashing of the OWS Library may seem trivial. It’s easy to trot out the old Heinrich Heine quote: “where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings.” Here we have the opposite move: first the people are tossed out, and then the books disappear.