Banshee and the Political Philosophy of Carl Schmitt
By Beau Mullen
Banshee is one of the most violent shows in television history. Not an episode passes without a bloody shoot-out or a bone crushing fist fight. The protagonist is an ex-con who assumes the identity of the newly arrived sheriff. He intends to use the position to realize his own ends—primarily reuniting with his lost lover who is hiding from her Ukrainian gangster father in the small town of Banshee. Perhaps surprisingly, Lucas Hood (the unnamed protagonist’s assumed name) develops a sense of duty to his adopted community, putting its interests ahead of his own.
In its violent portrayal of a wild world in which order is under constant threat, Banshee illustrates two of the tenets of the political philosophy of Carl Schmitt, namely the primacy of the friend/enemy distinction and the need for a strong sovereign who is prepared to act decisively (and violently) in the face of emergency. If the world of Banshee seems completely unappealing, and it should, this too is in keeping with much of Schmitt’s philosophy. Schmitt, who was, at least for a time, a Nazi, saw man as essentially evil in nature and saw violence lurking just behind all political action.
Friend/ Enemy Distinction
One of the most striking features of the show is just how divided the fictional county of Banshee is. All the demarcations are drawn along cultural lines, and territorial boundaries are taken very seriously by all. The townspeople are mostly white and bourgeois. Meanwhile, the Kinahoe Native Americans reside outside the city, as do the members of the Amish community. For the residents of Banshee county there is rarely any question of where an individual’s loyalties lie or who one’s enemies are.
In The Concept of the Political, Schmitt describes the enemy as follows: “The political enemy need not be morally evil or aesthetically ugly; he need not appear as an economic competitor, and it may even be advantageous to engage with him in business transaction. But he is, nevertheless, the other, the stranger; and it is sufficient for his nature that he is, in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in the extreme case conflicts with him are possible” (The Concept of the Political, 27). Who “we” are not politically is just as important who “we” are as a political group.
The concept of “the other” and the ever present possibility of combat are, in Schmitt’s view, essential to the formation of a political body and to the concept of the political itself. The political arena has always been, essentially, this type of Hobbesian struggle, and it will never truly settle down to peace and order. Schmitt writes “A world in which the possibility of war is ultimately eliminated, a completely pacified globe, would be a world without the distinction of friend and enemy and hence a world without politics” (Schmitt, 35). What’s more, failure to recognize the primacy of the friend/enemy distinction or, worse, to attempt to deny it spells doom for the political body. Thus the pluriverse of Banshee, with its cultural divisions and mutual distrust constantly teeters on violence.
The Need for a Strongman in Times of Crisis
The hallmark of Lucas Hood’s law enforcement is his willingness to act unilaterally, to disregard procedure, and to act extrajudicially if necessary. Hood is, in these respects, a prototypical Schmittian sovereign acting during a state of exception. If one discounts the criminal activities of Sheriff Hood (which include an armored car robbery and an attempted art heist) as secondary activities not related to his role as sheriff, we see a leader who is willing to do whatever the crisis facing the community calls for, regulations and statutorily defined laws be damned.
As Schmitt states famously in Political Theology, “All law is Situational Law” (Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, 13). To be truly effective in averting anarchy and disorder an effective sovereign cannot be bound to strict procedure and formalistic rules—it is impossible for prescribed law to take into account every contingent circumstance. It is the sovereign’s duty to act outside the law when emergency calls for such extreme action. Additionally, it is the sovereign’s prerogative to decide when the circumstances call for such measures.
In the case of policing Banshee County, it is hard to imagine a leader facing as many and as frequent emergency circumstances as Hood. A myriad of crises confronts the impostor sheriff including an outlaw biker onslaught, a hostage situation, the constant and viciously violent machinations of the local crime lord Kia Proctor (who himself was a sort of Hobbesian sovereign prior to the arrival of Hood), heightened tensions between the Amish and Native American groups, and the machine gun murders of one of his deputies and his bride by white supremacists. Facing these crises, Hood ignores the protocols that ordinary sheriffs rely on and are expected to follow, such as state and federal law and the civil liberties guaranteed by the US Constitution.
In the fifth episode of the first season, “Kindred,” the panicked town holds an impromptu meeting following an attack by the biker gang that disrupted the annual town festival. This is one of the few times we see the different factions of Banshee come together, and notably it is as a result of a violent attack by their common enemy, a barbaric group of outsiders. Once the town’s mayor is shown to be incapable of dealing with the situation, the meeting reduces to a public forum for the power struggle between the town’s two strongmen—Hood and Proctor. Hood relies on the authority of his position to qualify him to deal with the situation while Proctor attempts to portray himself as a sort of benevolent but unofficial and extra-legal guardian of the community.
When his ability to effectively protect the town is questioned during the meeting by one of the citizens, Hood asks the man’s name, waits for the reply, and promptly tells the man “Shut your mouth.” With this exchange, Hood asserts his leadership and authority and makes it known that he intends to act decisively and anti-democratically. The presumption of legitimacy regarding his authority seems to carry the townspeople. Hood apparently has the mandate to do what it takes to protect the town, its inhabitants, and their property.
Hood’s solution to the problem, which he undertakes unilaterally and without any deliberation between himself and the mayor or his deputies, goes far beyond measures the law allows for. He tacitly endorses the torture of one of the bikers (whose ultimate fate is left unknown) by Proctor and his henchmen and strikes a bargain with Proctor for information on the Kindred’s whereabouts that allows Proctor to avoid prosecution for a previous homicide. Hood then ambushes the Kindred at their hideout, brutally beats them all nearly to death, and then arranges for them to be hauled to another jurisdiction where they are wanted.
Hood’s actions to resolve the crisis facing the town explicitly break the law and dispense with procedure and constitutional guarantees because resolution of the crisis would be hindered by adherence to them. Part of the allure of shows such as Banshee is vicarious enjoyment of watching a state actor take extreme, extralegal, measures to combat formidable threats that could not be stopped otherwise. The fact that Hood is himself a criminal is a new twist on the long tradition that includes shows such as 24 and films such as the Dirty Harry series. The criminal twist is significant, however, because it actually negates the authority that Hood projects. This sentiment is also what in the past has made some choose or at least accept authoritarianism and dictatorship over parliamentary rule. The fact that the inhabitants of Banshee come to be led and protected by a master criminal (one who is, admittedly, often righteously motivated), and accept his break with legal and procedural norms as well as his secrecy, can be seen as a cartoonish illustration of the way dictators and strongmen rise to power in the real world.
Schmitt, Carl. Political Theology; Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. Trans. George Schwab. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.
Schmitt, Carl. The Concept of the Political. Trans. George Schwab. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
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