Death of a Citizen | Erica X Eisen | The Hypocrite Reader


Erica X Eisen

Death of a Citizen


ISSUE 99 | WHERE YOU STAY | JAN 2022


Defenceless, 2008, by Lawrence Lemaoana

Let us begin with an execution. Of all the lurid scenes that compose the fragmentary novel Satyricon, perhaps the most disturbing comes at the very end: the poet Eumolpus, sensing his last days drawing near, announces to those around him that he will bequeath his earthly belongings to anyone who promises to eat his dead body. Even for the gluttons and lechers of Petronius’s novel, this proves too much of an insult to whatever meager scrap of dignity they still cling to; they kill Eumolpus, our narrator tells us, “in the Massilian1 fashion,” explaining

that whenever the Massilians were visited by the Plague, one of the poorer inhabitants would volunteer himself as an expiatory victim, on condition of being maintained a full year at the public cost and fed on choice food. Later on, the unhappy man, bedecked with festal wreaths and sacred robes, was carried in procession through the whole city, and made the butt of general execration, to the end that all the calamities of all the State might be concentrated on his devoted head. This done, he was hurled headlong from a Rock.

What is this strange custom that Petronius describes, and is it merely a punishment of his own devising? The Roman writer was a native of Massilia and must have heard something of the days when his hometown was still a lonely Ionian settlement on the shores of what is now southern France—that is to say, he doubtless knew about the Ancient Greek ritual of the pharmakos.

The pharmakos, simply put, was a scapegoat, one whose death was believed to cleanse the community from which they were expelled. Aristophanes used the term as an insult in several of his plays, indicating that selection was a mark of aberration rather than a means of ennoblement via self-sacrifice for the greater good. When they were not, as in the Massilian example, volunteers, they were conscripted from among the poor, the disabled, the ranks of criminals and slaves—non-citizens who were at society’s periphery already and whose lives seemed a small price to pay for the renewed prosperity of those positioned securely at its center. The Byzantine writer John Tzetzes claimed that “the ugliest man of all” was generally chosen for the role. A city could not simply name a pharmakos whenever it liked; rather, the pharmakos was called forth by the great force of a moment of crisis. Storm, famine, pestilence—there was a sickness in the state, a deep sickness. This was the blood-medicine.

* * *

In February of 2015, London native Shamima Begum boarded a plane from Gatwick Airport bound for Turkey along with two of her friends. She was 15; like the girls she was traveling with, her ultimate destination was the Syrian city of Raqqa, which was then serving as the capital for the Islamic State. A few weeks prior, Begum had reached out to Aqsa Mahmood, an ISIS recruiter whose Twitter account gave instructions to Muslims in the West on how they could prepare for a journey to the Caliphate; now, grainy CCTV stills of the girls’ fateful passage through airport security blanketed the news. Journalists wrung their hands over what the Bethnal Green trio’s defection signaled for the fate of British multiculturalism. Article after article shuffled together symbols of Islam and blushing teenagerdom, attempting to pull some emotion from what the writers apparently thought were startling contradictions: bismillahs and text speak, bras and hijabs.

At the time of her departure, Begum was almost a footnote in the group: her two friends,2 who had left a longer social media trail and whose families seemed more willing to talk to the press, attracted the lion’s share of the media attention. That all changed in 2019, when a journalist for The Times heard a niqabi speaking with a British accent as he was walking through the refugee camp of al-Hawl. Details from the intervening four years began to fall into place: Begum had been married off to a 23-year-old ISIS recruit from the Netherlands three weeks after her arrival; she’d had two children, both of whom had died; she was heavily pregnant with a third; she’d arrived at the refugee camp after fleeing Baghuz, where the last stand of ISIS fighters had collapsed.

And the last, most important point: she wanted to return to the UK. Except that there was one problem—Home Secretary Sajid Javid had moved to strip Begum of her citizenship, barring her from reentering the country. In doing so, the state had leapfrogged its legal obligations to try and convict—and had left Begum stateless, in violation of international treaties to which the UK is a signatory: no citizenship anywhere, no rights, no place where she could legally live out the rest of her days except for the tent rows of a refugee camp, a temporary shelter made permanent.

* * *

How did the pharmakos die? Petronius’s account of Massilian victims being thrown from a cliff differs from versions that have come down to us from other authors in other places. In Chiliades it is recorded that the pharmakos was fed a ritual meal of cheese and bread, after which the townspeople beat his genitals with leeks and fig branches before burning him alive. Lactantius Placidus writes that he would be stoned to death beyond the city limits. Others say that before being murdered the pharmakos would be paraded through the streets and whipped with squill, a plant with purgative effects believed by the Ancient Greeks to ward away evil. Leading the pharmakos out of the gates was important—all the better to cordon off the abject contagion from the community it threatened to infect.

Public lashings, public stonings: the punishments were meted out collectively, the will of the state as exercised through its many citizen-bodies. In this, we can find a parallel with the more well-known ritual of ostracism, which targeted for exclusion not outsiders but high-born men whose political ambitions were considered a threat to the stability of the polis. Ostracism proceedings were not set in motion by any one person; rather, consideration of whether to ostracize someone that year was a fixed item on the Athenian political calendar, slotted in at a particular point in the term and continuing pro forma even long after the practice had fallen out of use. If ostracism discussions were initiated by no one, it followed that their results were no one’s fault in particular. And we can see too in the mounds of broken potsherds—the ostraka from which the practice gets its name—upon which the names of the banished were scratched by voters in jagged, almost childlike writing a kind of analogue to the rocks that would have been hurled at the pharmakos's cowering body once he had been brought far enough away from the walls of the city that his death would not pollute it.

* * *

It’s hard to overstate how virulent the hate for Begum is in many corners of British society. Interview clips that don’t have their comments turned off feature an endless stream of calls to block her return that rake in upwards of a thousand likes. During a current events discussion in a Hebrew course I was taking in Hampstead around the time when Begum resurfaced in the news, I was one of only two people in the room who believed she should be allowed back in. When our teacher paused the grammar lesson to argue the point, I found myself stopping every few seconds and asking my opponent to lend me her word for “citizenship,” “duty,” “prosecution,” “trial,” “revoke,” “justice,” “naturalization,” “international law,” “ethics,” “morality,” “precedent,” “obligation,” “violation,” “nationality,” “minor,” “hearing,” “evidence,” “appellate,” “habeas corpus,” “burden of proof,” etc. etc. etc. etc.

Watching the interviews with Begum from 2019, it’s difficult not to feel that when it comes to the court of public opinion she is digging a serious hole for herself. Her voice and face are flat and expressionless no matter the topic (she recounts glimpsing a severed head in a trashcan as though she were talking about the weather). She gives long, often circuitous answers that double back on themselves and would prove easy for conservative outlets to trim and replay shorn of context or clarification. To the extent that she addresses her family at all, it is almost always to ask them to keep lobbying the Home Office on her behalf and not, as her interviewers seem to expect, to apologize for the ordeal her decision has put them through.

She is also clearly ill. In an interview with Sky News, she supports herself with one arm in order to sit upright. She’s just given birth, she explains to the journalist, and she’s exhausted. She’s pale; she coughs and sniffles, possibly from the same respiratory infection that would kill her baby son not long after the footage was taken. She’s not a PR professional and probably didn’t have time to practice power poses or rehearse her answers in a mirror or think how her words might sound to a skeptical audience back home.

Except that none of this should matter—not the unsympathetic part and not the sympathetic part. She isn’t less deserving of her citizenship because she (correctly) pointed out coalition forces’ bombing of civilians in Baghuz when asked about an ISIS attack on an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, nor is she more deserving of it because she can be spun as a traumatized young woman who has cleansed herself in the waters of her tears and might yet repent. In this respect, the liberal calls to extend Begum leniency out of pity are as grave a misstep as the conservative attempts to bar her entry because they implicitly cede the very ground they should be contesting. A citizen might be wicked or wonderful or apathetic or confused or mendacious or sullen or awash in the warmth of fellow feeling. And none of that is relevant to the bare fact of their access to rights.

* * *

Pharmakoi were doubly banished: denied a proper burial, their bodies were instead left for the crows to eat or else burned and scattered to the winds and waters. Without a permanent resting place, their souls could never find peace in the underworld nor receive the succor of grave libations offered up by their surviving relatives. Their shades could not be spoken to via necromancers; they could not cast curses upon the living through inscribed tablets placed inside their graves. All connection to the mortal realm was severed. Even suicides, even wartime foes, even strangers whose corpses were found on the roadside were accorded funerals under penalty of divine retribution. Pharmakoi therefore found themselves classed alongside criminals, who if executed would be flung unceremoniously down a well or into a gravel pit. Pharmakoi's bodies, their ashes, were disposed of outside of the city limits, serving to define the boundary between the polis and all that lay outside of the force of its laws.

* * *

Begum’s case has become sensational, but her story is far from unique. The Home Office’s campaign to strip her of her citizenship—which was upheld by the UK’s Supreme Court in February 2021—is the culmination of a wave of legislation aimed at eroding citizenship rights in the wake of 9/11 and the inauguration of the global War on Terror. In 2002, parliament amended the British Nationality Act to allow for denationalization (including of birthright citizens) on the grounds of activities “seriously prejudicial to the [country’s] vital interests,” though such a power could not be exercised in cases where doing so would render an individual stateless.

In 2006, after an effort to revoke Guantanamo detainee David Hicks’s citizenship was frustrated by the judiciary, parliament retaliated by downgrading the legal standard that needed to be met for citizens to be denationalized—now the Home Secretary had only to believe that it would be “conducive to the public good.” Up to this point, the Home Office had couched discussions of citizenship revocation in the comforting language of the anomaly: terrorism was an exceptional act, committed by individuals of an exceptional nature, requiring exceptional measures to combat. Now, the types of criminals who could theoretically be stripped of their citizenship were greatly expanded. In practice, however, this measure continued to be wielded almost exclusively against South Asian Muslims, who already fell under the penumbra of suspicion for terrorism anyway. When sex abuse scandals involving British-Pakistani perpetrators were uncovered in the communities of Rochdale and Rotherham, calls went up to strip the offenders of their British citizenship. (We might note in passing that the Home Secretary has announced no such plans to denationalize Ghislaine Maxwell—or indeed Prince Andrew—for their roles in the Epstein sex ring.)

In 2014, the Home Office went a step further and functionally opened the door to rendering people stateless: as long as the government had “reasonable belief” that the person in question could obtain citizenship elsewhere, there was no longer any obstacle. A recent study by The New Statesman estimated that this provision has put the citizenship of six million residents of England and Wales in theoretical jeopardy, including almost half of South Asians and roughly 40% of Black people. This is the provision that has entrapped Begum: as the daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants, the Home Office argues, Begum is entitled to Bangladeshi citizenship. (Bangladesh itself denies this and has stated that if tried for terrorism there she would face the death penalty). In other words, so they contend, if Begum is currently stateless—if she has yet to actually obtain the citizenship she is supposedly eligible for—it is no one’s fault but her own.

The newest expansion of these powers of citizenship revocation is currently being sparred over in the House of Lords: an amendment to the Nationality and Borders Bill that would grant the government the ability to revoke citizenship without giving notice, making mounting an appeal even more difficult. In an interview with The New Statesman, an anonymous Home Office official waved away criticism with the put-upon air of someone who can’t quite believe they have to respond to such trifling concerns: “Removing British citizenship has been possible for over a century and is always a last resort against the most dangerous people to protect our national security and public safety. It is rare, cannot leave anyone stateless, and always comes with a right to appeal.”

It’s certainly true that citizenship stripping has been possible in the UK for over a century. But since this peevish spokesperson has cast it as some kind of hallowed tradition in line with Morris dancing and Sunday roasts, let us indeed take a look at the kinds of “dangerous people” who have been stripped of their British citizenship in the name of “national security and public safety.”

* * *

It’s fair to say that the rise of citizenship stripping as a legal tool looks a lot like the reinstitution of banishment, a fairly common punishment throughout Europe into the 19th century. In different polities and at different times, banishment was the sentence meted out to punish such varying offenses as murder and incest, vagabondage and treason. The historian Matthew J. Gibney writes that

[i]n seventeenth century Ulm, for example, adulterers were banished for a specified period of time, though normally only if their partner refused to take them back after their transgression…. In Leiden in the 1650s, a textile worker “convicted of singing scandalous songs” was banished for 12 years.

The justness of banishment as a punishment was largely seen as commonsensical, with copious antecedents to be found in both the classical past and the Bible. Importantly, while to modern readers a sentence of exile for a capital offense might seem like getting off easy, the scholar Paul Friedland argues that many in premodern and early modern Europe viewed permanent expulsion as in some sense a harsher sentence than death itself. Those condemned to death could expect to be conducted along a regimented program of spiritual purification prior to their eventual execution; should they prove sufficiently contrite, they could be buried in the churchyard with their kin, and their soul would be God’s to judge. Those sentenced to a life of exile, by contrast, could never be reincorporated into their community and were provided with no structured means by which to make amends. Often mutilated before their expulsion, they would be left with nowhere to go where they were not alien, where the fact of their rejection was not immediately perceptible to all who met them. It is probably because of this perception that exile and execution constituted two of the gravest possible punishments that we find identical ceremonies attendant upon both sentences. In parts of Germany, for example, the same bell was rung when a criminal was being killed and when he was being led to the city gates for the final time. “The citizen dies,” the Italian jurist Cesare Beccaria wrote of banishment. “The man only remains.”3

* * *

And if the pharmakos was cremated, it was stipulated that his corpse should be burned on a pile of “wild wood”—what the Romans called arbores infelices, trees of ill fortune, which produced black fruit or no fruit at all and owed their allegiance to the gods of the underworld. These trees had not submitted to the domesticating touch and as such could find no proper use in human society except in the creation of implements of torture and death: gibbets, gallows, pyres. The pharmakos was an outcast even in death; not even his lifeless body was fit to be touched.

* * *

But banishment relies either on the fiction of a terra nullius to which inconvenient bodies might be shipped or on neighbors willing to take in cast-off citizens. As European nationalisms coalesced in the 19th century, states became less and less willing to accommodate the whims of nearby sovereigns. And citizens, meanwhile, felt increasingly that they had both individual freedoms that at least in some respect trumped the desires of the state and ties not just to their community or their town but to their country as a whole, ties too deep to be abrogated.

The other side of this coin is that as normative citizens became more insulated from banishment, those at a greater remove from the center of society became much more vulnerable to forced expulsion. The Naturalization Act of 1870 made a woman’s citizenship dependent upon the citizenship of her spouse from the time of her marriage onwards,4 a provision not reversed until 1948; in this respect, being a wife was legally classed as a “disability” on par with being “an infant, lunatic, [or] idiot.” Women (but not men) who married foreigners forfeited their claim to British nationality even if they’d held it since birth, and women whose husbands were stripped of their citizenship for whatever reason were expatriated along with them. Widows were required to pay a fee to apply for repatriation, a process that proved slow and difficult to navigate. The fact that only women were singled out for marrying foreigners demonstrates not only the general sexism of the period but also eugenicists’ particular concern with policing the sexual and reproductive capacities of white women as stewards of their race’s purity.

Another group made newly vulnerable by changing ideas around citizenship were naturalized citizens, who now faced increasing obstacles not only to gaining citizenship but to keeping it. Such individuals could face denaturalization if convicted of a crime within five years of receiving British citizenship (a condition that of course had no analogue when it came to birthright citizens). Laws passed in 1907 and 1918 respectively made returning to live in one’s homeland or spending too much time abroad grounds for citizenship revocation. Also included in the 1914 statute was a vague provision—defined neither in the text of the law nor in any secondary literature I can find—allowing naturalization to be revoked if an individual was “not of good character at the date of the grant of the certificate.” The lack of clarity here is likely deliberate—at a time when many Dominions were agitating to be allowed to bar all except white settlers, such provisions could be used as a thinly veiled code for race and class. Addressing the 1897 Colonial Conference, Joseph Chamberlain suggested that an individual might be excluded “because he is dirty, or he is immoral, or he is a pauper, or he has some other objection.”

In premodern and early modern Europe, banishment was seen as a punishment whose main force lay in the humiliation, dispossession, and social deracination attendant upon it. By the 20th century, however, banishment (which by this point had been repackaged using different terms) was beginning to be conceived of differently: as a means of defense against foreigners and their imperfect loyalties. Now grounds of expulsion were less about what one did and more about who one was and what one thought. Put another way: the antisocial or criminal act itself was less and less what merited banishment. Rather, the offense was a fatal indication of a treacherous or impure element who had to be cut out to preserve the precious body of the state.

* * *

Did pharmakoi go willingly? Petronius’s account in Satyricon tells of a volunteer—but one whom hunger has chased to his decision. Other writers tell of destitute scapegoats induced to death by the promise of silver. The classicist Jan N. Bremmer writes of Achaean religious sacrifices that

people pretended the victim went up to the altar of its own accord, and even asked for its consent. Whenever the animal did not shake its head in agreement, wine or milk was poured over its head. When, subsequently, the animal tried to shake this off its head, this was interpreted as a sign of its consent! In myth or legend such a trick was not necessary and it was often said that animals went up to the altar voluntarily. Sometimes it was pretended that the animal had committed a crime, but in that case its death was its own fault!

The charade of consent, in other words, was vital to the function of Ancient Greek ritual. Coaxed, coerced, or given freely, this “yes” was nevertheless what allowed the death blow to be dealt without guilt.

* * *

It is strange that in all the accounts of Yaser Hamdi’s detainment I have read I can find no definitive answer as to when exactly his captors became aware that he was an American citizen, merely that at some point while Hamdi was in Guantanamo Bay the guards somehow realized this fact. Shortly after 9/11, Hamdi had been handed over to the US military in northern Afghanistan, part of a round-up of suspected Taliban and al-Qaeda members by Northern Alliance Forces, who were paid thousands of dollars for each captive. He was of Saudi background and had spent most of his life in Saudi Arabia. But crucially for his legal situation, Hamdi had been born in Louisiana, where his father had worked for several years in the oil industry. As such, it seemed clear that the Constitution guaranteed him the due process rights that the Bush Administration was refusing its other Guantanamo prisoners: to be charged with a crime or released, to be given access to an attorney, to be granted a fair and speedy trial.

But neither the media nor the government attorneys charged with contesting Hamdi’s habeas corpus claim at the Supreme Court saw it that way. In news articles, in court documents, the veracity of Hamdi’s citizenship claim was constantly called into question without any evidence. Hamdi “was apparently born in Baton Rouge”; he apparently holds dual US and Saudi citizenship”; he may not have renounced his American citizenship.” Even Justices Scalia and Stevens, who ultimately ruled in Hamdi’s favor, refer to the petitioner as a presumed American citizen.” Yet Hamdi’s birth certificate is a matter of record. What exactly was there to be doubtful about?

There was another, more pernicious strain of discourse that emerged surrounding the Hamdi case: that of “nominal” or “accidental” citizenship. Hamdi was an American only on paper, the logic went: he had left the country at a young age, never to return, and he had no real attachment to the place. That he happened to be born in Louisiana was a simple twist of fate that should garner him no extra legal protections. For these skeptics, citizenship was like a measure of wine that could fill a single vessel or be divided into scant servings between cups. The veracity of Hamdi’s citizenship did not even need to be questioned; the mere fact that he had an elsewhere was enough.

This division between “nominal” and “real” citizens, between “accidental” and “deliberate” (but who is deliberately born?) citizens, it should be noted, has no basis in the Constitution. I make this detour into the American context to point out two opposite ways in which the citizenship of Others can be devalued and dismissed. If they happen to have been born in the nation in question, then it is merely an accident, of no consequence, hardly evidence of true attachment to a place. But on the other hand, if they have immigrated, stayed, jumped through decades of bureaucratic hoops to obtain naturalization, then the place of their birth is something they (and perhaps their children) trail behind them even if they disavow it.

Traditional legal frameworks have generally tended to fall into one of two camps: jus soli, which apportions citizenship according to one’s place of birth, and jus sanguinis, which is based on one’s parentage. The citizenship skeptics’ response to the Hamdi case seems to indicate a gut feeling among many in the American public (rooted in racism and Islamophobia, no doubt) that, law notwithstanding, blood should take precedence over birthplace. But it also seems to point towards a third factor in citizenship: emotion. Affective citizenship is sometimes framed as emancipatory, embracing the fuzzy, hard-to-pinpoint things about belonging that black-and-white concepts can’t account for. Where does one belong? Where one feels one belongs! Liberals often talk about immigration in these terms (while at the same time, it may be noted, happily accepting the existence of draconian border restrictions): so-and-so should be allowed to stay because they love this country. But affect—or at any rate, spurious claims about affect—can be used just as easily to police citizenship. The YouTube comments supporting Begum’s depatriation cite her dry eyes as justification as often as they do her affiliation with ISIS. This emotional dimension to citizenship, surely, is what is meant when Hamdi is called a “nominal citizen”—that he shouldn’t get the protections afforded to Americans by the Constitution because he couldn’t possibly feel American. It’s also why, historically, membership in the Communist Party (in Canada) and dodging the draft (in the US) were seen as valid grounds for stripping citizenship: because the state viewed these things as signs of a spirit antithetical to the community. Perhaps this is the reason terrorism has become so tied to denaturalization: if citizenship is viewed as affective, how can an act which takes aim at the affective economy be seen as anything other than an abrogation of one’s citizenship? What seems at first most capacious, most grand as a notion of belonging in the end becomes merely another prison, perhaps the strictest kind. Love is the passport; the passport is death.

* * *

From where does the word pharmakos derive? Some have suggested that it is related to the Turkish word vurmak, meaning to hit, owing to the public whipping that pharmakoi in certain city-states were forced to endure before their execution. The more obvious explanation, however, is that it comes from pharmakon, a Greek word that means medicine but also poison. (The word could also refer to magic—pharmakos is used in the Septuagint to refer to sorcerers, and Plato said that those who practiced magic should, like pharmakoi, have their bodies cast outside of the city with strict penalties for anyone who tried to bury them.) In a similar turn of ambiguity, the sacer of homo sacer—a Roman version of outlawhood in which the normal protections of citizenship were dissolved and one could be killed with impunity—means both cursed and consecrated, holy and damned. So was the pharmakos expelled because he was a sickening agent or because his expulsion brought about a type of cure? Was the evil within him or external? Perhaps, side-stepping these questions, we might simply say that whatever the answer, the need for this blood-medicine only further proved the sickness of the state that imbibed it.

* * *

If modern viewers are unlikely to feel, as Europeans centuries before us may have, that banishment and execution parallel each other in terms of severity, modern states understand this equivalence very well. Begum’s baby son, whose British citizenship was affirmed by the Home Office regardless of his mother’s fate, died in a Syrian refugee camp with seemingly no attempt to remove him to safety despite his mother’s entreaties. One widely noted aspect of the Home Office’s post-9/11 embrace of citizenship stripping—which has overwhelmingly targeted Muslim men—is that the government has adopted the habit of revoking people’s citizenship while they are abroad, thereby blocking their return and creating a massive barrier to mounting a successful legal defense. Shut out of the country on the basis of accusations they in all likelihood never had the opportunity to contest in court, these exiles are then left to their own fate. Sometimes, however, fate must be helped along a little bit. In 2009, the UK government revoked the citizenship of Bilal el-Berjawi, who was under suspicion of working with al-Qaeda affiliates in East Africa. Absolved of all responsibility for him, British security services could then pass intelligence to the US, who killed the man they referred to as “Objective Peckham” in a drone attack in 2012. The official euphemism used in the Pentagon files was “eliminated via kinetic strike.”

* * *

There are some who doubt that human sacrifices actually took place in connection with the pharmakos ritual, who contend that the bloody accounts of the custom that have come down to us are merely legend or poetic fancy and that in reality the chosen were merely chased from the polis. Even if that were so, this ceremonial banishment is best seen as an attenuated kind of killing. Indeed, there was a sort of interchangeability about the two: it was common for citizens accused of capital crimes to slip away after opening arguments, choosing self-imposed exile over the execution that awaited them in the event of a guilty verdict, whereas those who violated the terms of their banishment could be killed. “At the very least,” writes classicist Todd Compton, “the reports of the pharmakos’ death show society’s desire for it; expulsion itself is a kind of symbolic death.”

* * *

All of the following is true: I am a citizen of the United States. I am a citizen of Ireland. I was born and have lived most of my life up to this point (but do not currently reside) in the United States. I have never lived in Ireland. I have lived in the UK, exercising my right to do so as granted by my Irish citizenship. I have voted in the United States. I have never voted in Ireland. I have voted in the UK, exercising my right to do so as granted by my Irish citizenship. I have paid taxes in the United States. I have never paid taxes in Ireland. I don’t know the words to the national anthem of Ireland, but I could probably hum the tune. I do know the words to the national anthem of the United States, but I would never willingly sing it. My knowledge of the Irish language is above average. I feel closer to my family in Ireland than I do to my family in the United States. I communicate with my family in Ireland more frequently than I do with my family in the United States. I have never served on a jury in either country; I have never served in the army in either country; I have never launched or been the subject of a legal suit in either country; while abroad, I have never sought the aid of the embassy of either country.

Does none of this matter? Does some of it? If so, what part(s)? What about the fact that I’ve done citizen-flavored things in the UK, a country of which I am not, have never been, and have no intention of becoming a citizen? Would I be labeled a “nominal” citizen of Ireland because I have never lived there? Or perhaps a nominal citizen of the United States, as I have zero sentimental attachment to the country? Am I perhaps merely a nominal citizen of both? If so, does that make me nominally stateless?5

The more you poke and prod the concept of what it means to be a citizen, the more it retreats like a snail’s eyes into its head, like its head into its shell. Thinking through what it means to denaturalize someone, one arrives naturally at the question of what makes a citizen in the first place; those who fail to accept open borders are left with no definition of the term that is not ultimately capricious, cruel, or both. In the words of the political scientist Peter Nyers, “The accident reveals that the substantive is also arbitrary, and that so-called real, essential citizenship is allocated arbitrarily and in defiance of global justice.”

There’s one video of Begum from 2019 in particular that rubs me the wrong way: an interview with BBC correspondent Quentin Sommerville in which the latter takes on the dual posture of hectoring parent and prosecutor cross-examining a hostile witness.

“Do you want to raise him as a British boy?” Sommerville asks Begum towards the end of their conversation, in reference to her newborn son. She says yes. “What does that mean for you, to be British?”

“You know, British values, going to school, working for the UK, having a family there…”

“Democracy?” Sommerville cuts in. “ Freedom of speech? Rights for women? Rights for homosexuals?”

Sommerville is evidently proud of the child-simple picture of “British values” he has painted here. Sitting across from someone trying to find their way back into English society, he’s in a position to call the shots, to define the ideals an outsider must hold in order to be eligible for entry. This is the balm the pharmakos has given him. As for the nature of the disease it is supposed to be curing, this the journalist clearly has yet to understand.


1 Massilia is modern-day Marseille.

2 One of these girls, Kadiza Sultana, was killed in an airstrike; the whereabouts of the other, Amira Abase, are unknown.

3 Interestingly, Hobbes viewed the practice of banishing traitors as a bizarre kind of reward, unyoking them from any remaining duties or obligations towards the sovereign they so despised. “The mere change of air,” he wrote, “is no punishment.”

4 Deriving from the legal fiction that a husband and a wife constituted a single person.

5 Obviously, the answer to all of these questions is irrelevant because I am a white non-Muslim woman whose belonging would go unquestioned.