As if overnight, words associated with security grew a second meaning. Security, a wide-reaching term associated with the everyday systems that “fence in” homes and create boundaries—be those through surveillance or physical walls—often covers over other more violent tactics implicit in this action from racial profiling to ethnic cleansing to settler colonialism. This act is always predicated against an exterior threat, which can be human, nonhuman, or today just a mental state in the face of infection and disease, present and moving slowly past.
Risikogebiet (risk zone), Notbremse (necessary break [TECH]), Sicherheitsdienst (security office), Gesundheitsdienst (health office), Bleiben Sie Gesund (stay healthy [imperative]), Schutz (protection), Schutzen Sie [verb, imperative].
These words have proliferated in the zone in which I have been situated, across language barriers of German via English. In my third tongue, I read fragments of the terms as parts detached from their more militarized counterparts that get broken down into phrases that abstract the terms further.
Sicher (certain) Risko (risk) bremse (break) Sicherheit (safety)
Reads as: Certain risks break safety.
Though we entered into an imperative state in the midst of an outbreak, we are left with these disguised militant vocabularies and their lived connotations.
In the height of the pandemic #Verschwörungstheorie (conspiracy theory) was trending on German speaking twitter, as lives lost were also rendered on maps and graphs, and protests against the restrictions raged, denying the lethality of the corona virus and the measures taken by the European Union and the German government. I was reminded of another use of this term in Cyrillic characters [Image 3], I found when peering into media from Soviet archives on propaganda from the war in Afghanistan in the 80s, a war that even when publicized was made invisible by state censorship. The war, like the title of a famous article by Baudrillard, never took place, not because it was over-televised as the author comments was a feature of the Gulf Wars (1), but because the war and its brutality were secret. As Svetlana Alexievich writes: “The censors saw to it that reports of the war did not mention our fatalities” (2).
When one disavows reality or the tragedy of mounting death rates due to infection, something strange happens to consciousness where a phenomenon is both invisible and visible at the same time. One can see this interplay in the discourse that proliferated in the early days of the novel virus, in the trending of a phrase that meant to sow disbelief in reality everybody knew to be true.
“A war” against a singular “enemy?” This phrase has mutated along with the hordes of information, propaganda, and conspiracies that have become commonplace.
Today, enemies are amorphous, multiple, pathogens, your neighbor, a seasonal economic worker, crowds, an ethnic minority, an anti-vaxer, and a whole other subset of signs depending on where you are located. This list is banal, far reaching, and once again representative of the amorphous nature of war today, linguistically proclaimed, though fought on uncertain grounds and zones.
(1) Jean Baudrillard. The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, trans. by Paul Patton (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995).
(2) Svetlana Alexievich, “Boys in Zinc,” trans. by Arch Tait, Granta (1990).