The Real Body Politic

24 August 2011-08-24

While rebels shoot victory bullets at artwork in Gadafffi’s compound, an exhausted doctor in Libya’s state hospital stitches a man’s head back together.

In America, Dominique Strauss Kahn’s lawyer reminds the world that the distinction between “inappropriate behaviour” and “crime” lies in the employment of physical force.

In London and its environs, the post-riot cleanup continues.

For all the pen-pushing, market speculating, fashion-conscious, nasal-gazing tendencies of modern politics, the source of power lies – and always has – in physical force. From the uprisings in the middle-east and the rioting in London, we recognise the cycle of destruction and re-construction that seems to be the driving force behind progress and reform.

In a civilised society, it’s easy to underestimate the extent to which stability relies on a combination of physical restraint and the threat of physical force. When things are running smoothly, the majority isn’t motivated to engage in violence, and those that are must consider that the authorities outnumber them in physical strength. The thief who underwent a citizen’s arrest in Grafton Street last Friday, had weighed up the options, and decided he would try to outrun his enemies. When they caught up with him, and employed considerable force to pin him down, he remembered that respect for physical boundaries is enshrined in our society’s moral make-up. With this in mind, he took his chances and yelled “ASSAULT, ASSAULT, ASSAULT”.

Some time ago I was researching phobias online. I stumbled across a forum of people who shared a fear of being physically attacked. Most of the advice pooled on the forum was rational but unhelpful: the chances of being the victim of an assault are slimmer than you imagine, always carry your keys in your hand and pretend to be on your mobile phone when walking home late etc One piece of advice struck a chord though. It said that no matter how terrifying your ordeal and no matter how bad the prospect of physical pain and psychological scarring, the chances are that you will survive it and the mere knowledge that you will prevail will alleviate the fear.

In Libya, with tanks and shells pelting through the streets, the prospects of survival are not so great. The wounded rebels, with blood streaming down their faces believe so much in a society ultimately governed by physical restraint and the threat of force that they are willing to sacrifice their own body for its cause.

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