Molecular Civil War

by Hans Magnus Enzensberger

We look at a map of the world. We pinpoint wars in distant lands, preferably in the Third World. We talk of underdevelopment, differences in cultural maturity, fundamentalism. We tell ourselves that this unintelligible struggle is happening far away. But we are deluding ourselves when we reason that we are at peace simply because we can still collect our bread from the bakers without being blown away by sniper fire. The reality is that civil war has long since moved into the metropolis. Its mutations are part of everyday life in our cities, not just in Lima and in Johannesburg, in Bombay and in Rio, but in Paris and Berlin, in Detroit and Birmingham, in Milan and Hamburg. The combatants are no longer just terrorists and secret police, Mafiosi and skinheads, drug dealers and death squads, neo-Nazis and cowboy security guards. Even ordinary members of the public are transformed overnight into hooligans, arsonists, rioters and serial killers. And as in the African wars, the combatants are becoming younger by the day.

Civil war isn't something we've imported from abroad. It's not some virus we have allowed to infect us. It comes from within, and it always starts with a minority: It is probably enough if one person in every hundred wants to make civilized coexistence impossible. In the industrialized countries the overwhelming majority still prefer peace. Civil wars have not yet infected the mass of the population; they are still molecular. But, as events in Los Angeles show, they can escalate at any time to epidemic proportions.

The beginning is bloodless, the evidence circumstantial. Molecular civil war starts unnoticed; there is no general mobilization. The amount of rubbish on the side of the streets increases gradually. Piles of syringes and broken bottles appear in the park. Monotonous graffiti is daubed on the walls, its only message one of autism. Classroom furniture is smashed up, front gardens stink of shit and urine--tiny, muted declarations of war which any experienced city-dweller can interpret. Soon the signs become clearer. Tires are slashed, emergency telephones have their cables cut, cars are set on fire. In one spontaneous incident after another, rage is vented on anything undamaged, hate turns on anything that works, and forms an insoluble amalgam with self-hate.

Youth is the vanguard of civil war. The reasons for this lie not only in the normal pent- up physical and emotional energies of adolescence, but in the incomprehensible legacy young people inherit: the irreconcilable problem of wealth that brings no joy. But everything they get up to has its origins, albeit in latent form, in their parents, a destructive mania that dares not express itself except in socially tolerated forms--an obsession with cars, with work and with gluttony, alcoholism, greed, litigiousness, racism and violence in the home.

It is difficult to say which party in this cauldron of aggression is most dangerous. One's perception changes. A man who doesn't drive a car tells his story: ``This is what happens when I catch the late evening train home. The carriage is almost empty and badly lit. An old man is sleeping in a corner; two fellows who have had a few drinks are talking at the other end of the compartment. The pair next to me have probably just finished their overtime. The train stops and four guys in their twenties get in, wearing the usual leather jackets and boots. They're making quite a lot of noise and talking in a language I don't understand, Arabic perhaps. Their behavior seems provocative, and, as they move through the carriage, they appear to be looking for someone to pick on. They come closer and I immediately feel threatened. They stare at me. I sense I'm going to be attacked. Then they move on and my gaze falls on the other passengers. Their faces are embittered, seething, distorted with a peculiarly ugly rage. The phrases they spit out I recognize only too well. Even the old man has woken up and murmurs something about hanging them up and shooting them down. And now it's not the foreigners I'm afraid of, but my own people.''

``My daughter's school trip has had to be canceled,'' says another, ``because there are three Turkish girls in her class; the other parents won't let their children go because they think it would be taking too big a risk.'' This proves that certain public spaces are simply off limits; you can't go there without endangering yourself. This is not new. Years ago the Kreuzberg district of Berlin was ruled by 200 people who called themselves autonoms, which in this context meant: Human society does not exist for us. Their aim was to silence the rest of the population, and they were at the time generally successful in this. They created an area in which there were no rights, and where censorship, fear and blackmail ruled. The institutions retreated; what was left of the civilian population was gradually driven out.

There are similar areas in Eastern Europe and in what used to be East Germany. Isn't it ironic that what was once the Zone has in this way become a Zone again? Might rules in many parts of the cities. The police feel outnumbered and are scared to go in, so becoming silent accomplices. There is talk of ``liberated'' areas, as the perpetrators succeed in liberating themselves from civilization and its burdens.

These circumstances lead to a double migration: on one side, the immigration of gangs of thugs in neo-Nazi costume and, on the other, the flight of those they threaten, in the first instance foreigners and ideological opponents, but, in the end, anyone who refuses to submit to the state. The outlook for the future is the complete disintegration of territory. As we have seen in the United States, de-industrialization is a significant factor in this process. Normal living conditions dissolve, to be replaced either by protected residential areas with their own security guards, or by slums and ghettos. The mandate of authority, police patrols and the court of law does not hold in the parts of the cities surrendered to the mobs. They become uncontrollable.

The border zones also play by their own turbulent rules. Smuggling, trafficking and criminality have radically altered the standards of these neighborhoods. The illegal immigrants don't help matters; in most cases they are accustomed to different social norms and can summon up the enthusiasm for the traditional way of doing things. But even among the locals, standards of civilized behavior fall off sharply. They are replaced by the elementary rules of force. Just as Saddam Hussein revoked the rights of the Iraqi people, here all internal commitments, written and unwritten, are being extinguished. In the end only a gun counts for anything.

Those who are threatened have only two options: flight or self-defense. A privileged minority finds its own form of escape; it can retreat to a hideaway in the sun, take cover in asecond, or retirement, home, start a commune in the country, or join some remote sect. For the penniless millions, escape takes the miserable form of forced emigration and asylum-seeking.

Those who don't flee wall themselves in. Everywhere in the world international frontiers are being fortified to keep the barbarians out. But even in the inner cities archipelagos of safety are being constructed, and these will be defended to the last. There have long been bunkers for the fortunate in the great cities of America, Africa and Asia, guarded by high walls topped with barbed wire. Sometimes whole city districts can only be entered with a special pass. Barriers, electronic cameras and trained dogs control access, machine-gun installations on watch-towers secure the surroundings. The parallel with the concentration camp is obvious, only here it is the outside world that is regarded by the inmates as a potential extermination zone. The privileged few pay a high price for the luxury of total isolation: They have become prisoners of their own safety.

More and more people are beginning to arm themselves in the vicious circle that is part of the dynamic of civil war. Where the state can no longer enforce its monopoly on violence then everyone must defend himself. Even Hobbes, who concedes almost unlimited executive authority to the state, says of this situation that: ``The subject's duty toward their sovereign lasts only as long as he is able to protect them through his power. Man's natural right to protect himself when no one else is in a position to do so cannot be withheld by any treaty.'' The reasons behind the retreat of the state vary enormously. In the beginning it is often out of cowardice or some tactical calculation, as in the Weimar Republic and latterly in the reunited Germany. At a more advanced stage of the molecular civil war it might be because the police and judiciary are no longer masters of the situation; the overfilled prisons have become training camps for the combatants. In other cases it is because the state has lost all legitimacy, as in the former Soviet Union. One step further---viz the former Yugoslavia---and it is the regime itself that is organizing the armed bands.

Those who can will waste no time in hiring mercenaries to take the place of the police. A sign of this is the growth of the so-called security industry. The bodyguard has become a status symbol. Security firms are even hired by state-owned concerns to protect the infrastructure. Wherever the local citizenry are unable to pay for hired guards they form neighborhood watch or vigilante groups. Where this isn't possible, people will sooner or later buy themselves handguns; this is already evident in the US, where an individual's right to carry arms has become a national ideology.

Civil wars, from the molecular to the full scale, are infectious. As the number of people untouched by war steadily falls, because they have died or fled or attached themselves to one side or the other, the participants become more and more difficult to tell apart. They begin to resemble each other both in their behavior and in their moral attitudes. In the war zones of the cities, the police and the army act like any other armed gang. Antiterrorist units operate preventative shoot-to-kill policies, and drug addicts and small-time criminals find themselves facing death squads who are the mirror image of their supposed opponents. The lumpenproletariat gives rise to a corresponding lumpenbourgeoisie, which in its choice of means copies its enemy. It is the same with the epidemic of wars. Aggression and defense become indistinguishable. The mechanism resembles that of the blood feud. More and more people are pulled into the whirlpool of fear and hate until the situation becomes quintessentially antisocial.

``We don't know what has happened to us.'' That is the most common phrase we hear from the survivors of Sarajevo. When all other explanations fail, self-experimentation presents one of the few remaining possibilities of getting to the bottom of the matter---Bill Buford, an American writer, thought he would try it out. In his book Among the Thugs he tells how he became part of the mob. This is a report from the latency phase of the civil war. It is set in a football stadium:

``While I couldn't say that I have developed a rapport with any one of `them' yet, I did find that I was developing a taste for the game... It was, I see now on reflection, not unlike alcohol or tobacco: disgusting, at first; pleasurable, with effort; addictive, over time. And perhaps, in the end, a little self-destroying.''

In the following scene, the accommodation with violence reaches its climax:

``There were now six of them, and they all started kicking the boy on the ground. The boy covered his face. I was surprised that I could tell, from the sound, when someone's shoe missed, or when it struck the fingers and not the forehead or the nose. I was transfixed. I suppose, thinking about this incident now, I was close enough to have stopped the kicking... But I didn't. I don't think the thought occurred to me. It was as if time had dramatically slowed down, and each second had a distinct beginning and end, like asequence of images on a roll of film, and I was mesmerized by each image I saw.

With that first exchange, some kind of threshold had been crossed, some notional boundary; on one side of that boundary had been a sense of limits, an ordinary understanding--even among this lot--of what you didn't do; we were now someplace where there would be few limits, where the sense that there were things you didn't do had ceased to exist... It was an excitement that verged on being something greater, an emotion more transcendent than joy at the very least, but more like ecstasy. There was an immense energy about it; it was impossible not to feel some of the thrill. Somebody near me said that he was happy, very happy, that he could not ever remember being so happy.''

Molecular and regional civil wars have more than just the combatants' autism in common. Their participants must also be selfless. In 1951, Hannah Arendt wrote:
``I suspect there has never been a shortage of hate in the world; but...[by now] it had grown to become a deciding political factor in all public affairs.... This hate could not be targeted at any one person or thing. No one could be made responsible--neither the government, nor the bourgeoisie, nor the foreign powers of the time. And so it seeped into the pores of everyday life and spread out in all directions, taking on the most fantastical, unimaginable forms.... Here it was everyone against everyone else, and above all against his neighbor....

``What distinguishes the masses today from the mob is their selflessness, their complete disinterest in their own well-being.... Selflessness not as a positive attribute, but as a lack: the feeling that you yourself are not affected by events, that you can be replaced at any time, anywhere, by someone else.... This phenomenon of a radical loss of self, this cynical or bored indifference with which the masses approached their own destruction, was completely unexpected... People were beginning to lose their normal common sense and their powers of discrimination, and at the same time were suffering from a no less radical failure of the most elementary survival instinct.''

Arendt was writing of the period between the two world wars, describing the situation which led to the establishment of the totalitarian regimes. The relevance of her analysis to today's situation is plain. But in contrast to the 1930s, today's protagonists have no need for rituals, marches and uniforms, nor for agendas and oaths of loyalty. They can survive without a Fuehrer. Hatred on its own is enough. If in those days terror was the monopoly of totalitarian regimes, today it has reappeared in de-nationalized form. The Gestapo and the OGPU are superfluous when their infantile clones can do their work for them. Every car on the subway can become a miniature Bosnia. You don't need Jews to have a pogrom; counter-revolutionaries aren't the only elements that need cleansing. It's enough to know that someone supports a different football club; that his greengrocer's shop is doing better than the one next door; that he dresses differently; that he speaks a different language; that he wears a headscarf or needs a wheelchair. Not to conform is to risk death.

Their aggression is not directed only at others, but at themselves. It is as if it were all the same to them not only whether they live or die, but whether they had ever been born, or had never seen the light of day. However huge the genetic pool of stupidity might be, it is not big enough to explain this urge to violent self-destructiveness. And the nexus of cause and effect is so obvious that any child could understand it.

Howls of protest at the loss of jobs are accompanied by pogroms which make it obvious to any thinking capitalist that it would be senseless to invest in a place where people go in fear of their lives. The most idiotic Serbian president knows as well as the most idiotic Rambo that his civil war will turn his country into an economic wasteland. The only conclusion one can draw is that this collective self-mutilation is not simply a side-effect of the conflict, a risk the protagonists are prepared to run, it is what they are actually aiming to achieve.

The fighters know very well that there will be no victory. They know that, eventually, they will lose. And yet they do everything in their power to up the stakes. Their aim is to debase everybody--not only their opponents, but also themselves. A French social worker reports from a housing estate in the suburbs of Paris:

``They have destroyed everything: letter-boxes, doors, stairways. The health center, where their younger brothers and sisters receive free medical treatment, has been demolished and looted. They recognize no rules of any sort. They smash doctors' and dentists' surgeries to pieces and tear down their schools. When they are given a new football pitch, they saw down the goalposts.''

This picture of molecular civil war resembles the full-scale event down to the last detail. A reporter tells how he witnessed an armed band smashing up a hospital in Mogadishu. This was no military operation. No one was threatening the men, and no shots had been heard in the city. The hospital was already badly damaged, equipped only with the bare essentials. The perpetrators went about their business with a fierce thoroughness. Beds were slit open, bottles containing blood serum and medicine were shattered. Then the men, in torn and dirty camouflage uniform, set about destroying the few remaining pieces of apparatus. They did not leave until they had made sure that the single X-ray machine, the sterilizer and the oxygen generator were no longer usable. Each one of these zombies knew that there was no end to the war in sight. They all realized that within hours their lives might depend on whether there was a doctor around to patch them up. And still their obvious intent was to eliminate even the smallest chance of survival.

One is tempted to call this the reductio ad insanitatem. In the collective running amok, the concept of "future" disappears. Only the present matters. Consequences do not exist. The instinct for self-preservation, with the restraining influence it brings to bear, is knocked out of action.

One is reminded of Freud, who after much speculation felt he had no alternative but to postulate the existence of a death drive, whose primary goal was the destruction of the individual's own life, with the destruction of the lives of others as a secondary aim. His hypothesis could never be tested empirically and has remained vague. But even the concept of the survival instinct is problematic, even naive. It might govern the behavior of bacteria and plants, but it fails in the higher animals, and there isn't a lot in history to support it. After all, millions have died as saints and martyrs, heroes and fanatics, ignoring the dictates of self-preservation. Pessimistic thinkers like de Maistre have always recognized the central significance of sacrifice, and made a virtue of repression. It is possible that all religions have their origins in personal sacrifice; ever since the gods were banished from the world, men have never been short of some higher purpose in whose name they would kill and die. We might even wonder whether "culture" is dependent on this ability to put causes before ourselves.

There are still people around who, in the old-fashioned sense of the word, act selflessly: Aid workers who take personal risks; opponents of regimes, such as Jan Palach, or the nameless Buddhist monks of Indochina, who burned themselves alive for their convictions; but also cult leaders and fanatical priests who believe they will be rewarded in heaven for the extinction of their own lives.

In war, however, the reins are held not by these few, but by those who have lost everything they might have had to sacrifice. What gives today's civil wars a new and terrifying slant is the fact that they are waged without stakes on either side, that they are wars about nothing at all. This gives them the characteristics of a political retrovirus. We have always regarded politics as a struggle between opposing interests, not only for power, for resources and for better opportunities, but also in pursuit of wishes, plans and ideas. And although this power play invariably results in bloodshed and is often unpredictable, at least the intentions of those involved are usually obvious. But where no value is attributed to life--either to one's own life or to the lives of one's opponents--this becomes impossible, and all political thought, from Aristotle and Machiavelli to Marx and Weber, is turned upside down. All that remains is the Hobbesian ur-myth of the war of everyone against everyone else.

[This is an adaptation from his latest book, Civil Wars: From LA to Bosnia, which appeared in New Perspectives Quarterly (12:1). The book is one of the most unsettling I know; I recommend it highly. --- CRS]