Border Violence

Radiohead: Burn the Witch

In Resident Foreigners: A Philosophy of Migration, Donatella Di Cesare (2020) offers an insightful exploration on the history of, and the gaps within political philosophy on the matter of migration. Crucially, she poses that migration elucidates the inherent irreconcilability that exists between human rights and state sovereignty (Di Cesare 2020, 10). In particular, she argues that Western countries – i.e., liberal democracies – see immigration as a threat to the stability of the (welfare) state. As such, the immigrant becomes a scapegoat, a criminal, a danger to be cautious of (Ibid., 61-63, 69). Similarly, Harsha Wallia argues that “familiar narratives of danger and disaster” stigmatise immigrants, thereby justifying the use of excessive violence to keep them from entering the confines of the state (2021, 137). Elsewhere, I have argued this scapegoating to be part of a biopolitical governmentality, employed by the state to safeguard its own homogeneity and cohesion (Prins 2022, 21-22). It is precisely this governmentality that is the target of Radiohead’s Burn the Witch (2016).

Burn the Witch (Radiohead, 2016) tells the story of what can be presumed to be a political leader instilling a climate of fear, thereby prompting its people to rally and punish the dissident who, supposedly, is the cause of the induced moral panic. The speaker urges its people to stay ignorant and “abandon all reason” (Ibid.). Instead, people must “stay in the shadows” – a clear nod to Plato’s allegorical cave – and “sing the song on the jukebox that goes: Burn the witch” (Ibid.). The witch in the song refers to the figure of the immigrant, who becomes the victim of omnipresent stigmatisation, racism, and islamophobia. The point made by the band is similar to that of Di Cesare and Wallia: the criminalisation of immigrants – either officially or by constructnig a climate of fear – justifies the use of excessive violence against asylum seekers beyond the confines of the borders. It allows us to subject the immigrant to inhumane living conditions – as exemplified by Wallia’s (2021, 144-145) inquiry into the Moria refugee camp. More importantly, however, it allows us to reinforce the idea that the immigrant is at fault for its own suffering.

It is important to note here that the construction of the ‘criminal-immigrant’ and the consequent witch hunt is a purposefully orchestrated strategy. Indeed, as Luca Mavelli and myself have argued, it must be seen as biopolitical governmentality that aims to signal supposed threats to the cohesion of the state in order to eliminate them (Mavelli 2017, 818-819; Prins 2022, 21-22). For instance, the UK – which is Radiohead’s target as well – distinguishes between ‘good’ and ‘worthy’ immigrants that can be beneficial for the British population on the one hand, and ‘unworthy’ or ‘valueless’ immigrants on the other. Thus, the UK seeks to construct an image of the immigrant as an outlaw, a dissident, and, most importantly, an inferior that is dangerous to the population in order to justify certain migration policies deemed beneficial (Prins, 2022, 21-22).

A similar notion can be found in both Di Cesare’s and Wallia’s works, as well as in Radiohead’s Burn the Witch. All three showcase the intentionality of Europe to create an all-encompassing paranoia in order to justify the violent punishment of the criminal-immigrant – a point forcefully brought home in Burn the Witch when Thom Yorke proclaims ‘this is a round-up, this is a low-flying panic attack’ (Radiohead 2016). However, even more so than the literary works mentioned here, Burn the Witch accentuates the reality of this moral panic by affectively recreating a sense of mass hysteria. Throughout the song, Yorke’s vocals heighten considerably in both pitch and volume, the strings grow progressively distorted and off-key, and the bass tones become increasingly impressive, instilling a feeling of discomfort and unrest (Ibid.). Additionally, Burn the Witch is dominated by horror imagery – perfectly illustrated by the videoclip that accompanies the song: a stop-motion parody of the 70’s horror film The Wicker Man. Through this imagery, Radiohead seeks to liken the reality of the criminal-immigrant to that of a horror scenario. The band wants us not only to know about, but to feel both the ubiquitous hysteria of an indoctrinated population, as well as the fear of the immigrant who is under its yoke.

As becomes clear through a closer exploration of the works by Di Cesare, Wallia, and Radiohead, we must move away from narratives that criminalise immigrants. While a lot of work remains to be done in order to resolve the contradiction that Di Cesare points out between human rights and state sovereignty, any attempt at this must begin with putting an end to the portrayal and treatment of immigrants as outcasts, as outlaws, as witches to be burned at the stake.

Giovanni Prins


Di Cesare, Donatella. 2020. “Migrants and the State.” In Resident Foreigners: A Philosophy of Migration, translated by David Broder, 5-77. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Mavelli, Luca. 2017. “Governing Populations through the Humanitarian Government of Refugees: Biopolitical Care and Racism in the European Refugee Crisis.” Review of International Studies, 43, no. 5: 809-832.

Prins, Giovanni. 2022. “Generating Two Modes of Life: a Biopolitical Reading of Asylum Seekers and Refugees.” Erasmus Student Journal of Philosophy 2, no. 1: 17-27.

Walia, Harsha. 2021. “Fortress Europe.” In Border & Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism and the Rise of Racist Nationalism, 135-160. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

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