Safe States: Safe for Whom?

It’s Halloween. And the political climate is terrifying. Democrats try to assuage their increasing anxieties over Matt Stoller’s, David Sirota’s, and even Lawrence O’Donnell’s challenge (brief as it ever was) to the Democratic voting hegemony.  It’s hard to know how many liberals have noticed Margaret Kimberley’s, Bruce Dixon’s or Glen Ford’s numerous challenges.  And I keep hearing the term “safe state” bandied about. Apparently, the term “safe” is a code for “blue”…or “most people are voting for Democrats, so the rest of you can do whatever you want.”

News flash: Apparently, the term “safe” is not meant to be ironic.

The “safe” state in which liberals have taken refuge induces another soul-searching moment for me. What does it mean to wake up and feel that one is in a safe state?

I don’t mean “my house has 17 locks and multiple metal gates” safe. Or “Friday the 13th and Texas Chainsaw Massacre are only horror movies” safe.  I mean “Those who are anxious to vote for a Democrat and his party who are committed to an extensive top-secret kill list of countless names of people deemed threatening without public evidence,” safe.  What–who–is safe in a state—any state—that has already fallen in line with Fusion Centers—those regional data-gathering centers that record just about everything and anything that is traceable about you? These are the same data warehouses that have enabled the current Administration to decide whose disposition is a threat to the state.  That would be the same “disposition matrix” that the Administration is so excited to use in its never-ending war on random brown people that they don’t like, especially since it justifies the use of pre-emptive policing, decreasing privacy safeguards that used to require warrants, subpoenas and evidence before persons and possessions were spied on, surveilled, searched. Of course, decreasing privacy safeguards for you and me is inversely correlated with increasing privacy and immunity for the state, to protect it from having to share its evidence—with the defense, with the courts, or the public. Not that any of that influenced last week’s findings by a Senate Investigative committee, despite its conclusion that Fusion Centers were an enormous waste of money. Apparently, the upending of privacy was not so much an issue; it was fairly low on the list of objections to the program.

Many of the same folks who rush to vote for Democrats at the national level, and accuse various folks of “racism” and white privilege are conspicuously indifferent about the fact that our liberal Massachusetts Democratic governor Deval Patrick just signed into law a MANDATORY MINIMUM Sentencing law—18 (EIGHTEEN) years after Big Dem Bill Clinton signed it into law. 18 years later, with countless stories about the increasing harassment of many black men and women for “felony” convictions for crimes like having stolen a slice of pizza, and after an increasing drug war–the good people of my “safe” state have barely noticed. As early as 2001–11 years ago–the ACLU issued a statement showing the horrific implications of mandatory sentencing:

“Restrictive sentencing guidelines and statutory mandatory minimum sentences have taken away the discretion of judges to tailor sentences to fit the individual circumstances of particular crimes and offenders. Thus the traditional requirement mandated by the Eighth Amendment that punishment maintain some proportion to the crime committed has been abandoned in the name of the ‘war on drugs.’
The result is the sentencing of many non-violent drug offenders to unjustly harsh prison terms where they crowd prisons already filled above capacity….Adding to this problem is the fact that mandatory minimums, designed with the noble intention of reducing the racial inequalities too often resulting from judicial sentencing discretion, in practice simply shifts discretion from the judge to the prosecutor. Prosecutors retain the power to plea bargain by offering defendants plea agreements that avoid the mandatory penalty. Studies have shown that this discretion results in a disparity in sentencing outcomes based largely on race and quality of defense attorney….
These harsher sentencing guidelines, and the billions of dollars poured into enforcement efforts, the incarceration of offenders, and the building of new prisons each year, have failed to curb drug use, which is still on the rise.”

Eight years later–in 2009, the American Bar Association objected to mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent offenders and pointed to some of the severe ramifications: length of sentences has increased three-fold. The US incarceration rate is 5 to 8 times higher than Europe. 25% of the world’s population was incarcerated in US prisons (this number most likely excludes prisoners in “detention centers” like immigrants and “suspected terrorists,” who haven’t been charged with any crimes).  As well, people of color were disproportionately targeted under mandatory sentencing for drug laws—noting that crack was the only drug that induces it.

And yet, the outcry against the MA legislature’s passing of this bill this year—in 2012– was muted. Mostly silence even after our Democratic MA governor signed it. And yet, we’re worried that racism and misogyny only occurs under Republicans?  What about the increasing state-led targeting of people of color in one of the most “liberal” states of the Union?  Feeling safe? I’m betting they aren’t.

In addition to fusion centers and mandatory sentencing laws, we also have a “Secure Communities” (S.Comm) program to profile and cross-check the immigration status of anyone—ANYONE (so clearly it must be race-neutral, right? Um, that was sarcasm) who attracts the notice of law enforcement in the course of their duties: migrant women who might be in situations of domestic violence, migrants who have information about crime in someone’s neighborhood, a brown person who’s stopped for a traffic violation. Terrifying undocumented migrants into NOT reporting to the police only facilitates the break-up of communities. The destruction of trust between neighbors. The increased sense of danger among residents.  To his credit, Gov. Deval Patrick tried to resist the implementation of this policy in Massachusetts, only to be strong-armed into a mandatory enforcement by ICE commissioner Janet Napolitano, who works for…a Democratic President under whose watch a more stringent policy resulted in the deportation of 1.4 million migrants in the last 3.5 years. More—MANY—more than under the combined terms of the Bush Administration. Having to compromise with Republicans was the problem, I’m told. News flash #2: ICE deportation policy is independent of Repubican wishes. It is, however, decided in conjunction with POTUS and WH.

Upshot: Latinos and dark-skinned Muslims–especially if they appear remotely suspicious–should expect to have their residences, existence, morality questioned legally. Constantly. Daily. And white people? No worries. Just go on. Get your double skinny latte and be careful not to spill it on the leather seats of your Lexus SUV on your way to work.

Here’s another example of the “safety” of Massachusetts: We are “safe” from the crazy free speech terrorist Tarek Mehanna. Mehanna is a Pakistani-American. YES, he is a US citizen, born and bred. Educated in the US public schools, Mehanna was a pharmacist.  Charged with terrorism, Mehanna was alleged to have trained with a terrorist camp in Yemen for 2 weeks. On his return from Yemen, he began posting writings and fairly critical dissent online. The ONLY thing we have as proof of his terrorist leanings are evidence of his writings and dissent. And those were deemed threatening enough to lose first Amendment protections.  Apparently the first Amendment applies only to people who write things that the US state likes, like swooning propaganda about POTUS’ kill list and uncritical journalism (I’m tempted to put about 20 links. But I’ll resist).

How about Rezwan Ferdaus? Another Massachusetts resident, a U.S. citizen of Bangladeshi descent, who was convicted of terrorism by making IED detonators per request of undercover FBI agents. He pled—i.e. there was NO trial and so NO public evidence—to charges of attempting to destroy a federal building and “attempts to provide material support” to terrorists.” He was also a drummer in a rock band “Goosepimp Orchestra,” and went by the name “Bollywood.” Until 2010—when he was 25 years old—not 16, 18, or 20—he suddenly evinced an urge to kill Americans—at the prompting of undercover FBI agents. Really? At the age of 25, he undergoes a shift from drummer to terrorist? Clearly, young South Asian musicians need to watch out—they might find themselves overwhelmed by “terrorist leanings.”  Prior to 2010, Ferdaus’ only evidence of “terrorist” behavior was a high school prank—pouring cement on the doors of his high school as a senior, and smoking pot. Yes—such evidence of “terrorist behavior…just imagine. By this rubric, every male white high school senior is well on his way to being a terrorist. Wait. Except of course that they’re white. And Ferdaus is not.

This—notion of skin-color—of race—is not random or shrill. It’s not just a distinction of fact. It is a key conceptual distinction. Of a long-standing cultural-racial bias, which has been long-directed against men with black and brown skins. The assumption of guilt, of evil, of terror, of sexual violence has been a ubiquitous, historically evidenced, implicit charge directed against Black men. As Ida B. Wells and Angela Davis, among others have discussed, these assumptions are among the causes behind the shackling, whipping, and close oversight of thousands of young Black men under slavery—to protect the “virtue” of white women. It was the source of the lynching of thousands of men post-slavery, under Jim Crow.  The source of incarceration of thousands of Black men.

It was extended to thousands of brown men—Latino—and now Muslim: Young Muslim men are assumed to be beholden to the culture of terrorism. The argument is basically as follows: young Muslim men, in places like Palestine, Saudi, Egypt—are raised to understand “terror” as a valid form of expression. “Experts” never bother to illustrate how exactly a “culture” of terror always seems to be associated with brown men raised in Muslim or Arab (and Muslim-American) households, but never in white households like those of Ted Kaczynski, Timothy McVeigh, Terri Nichols, James Holmes or myriad of other perpetrators of mass violence.

It is nonsensical to ascribe a culture of terrorism to any of these shooters–white or brown.* As philosopher Uma Narayan argues convincingly, “culture” is difficult to ascribe to anyone without overgeneralizing, without overdetermining. In fact, we are all very much enveloped in different forms of culture—patriarchal culture, political culture, telenovela culture, fast food culture, exercise culture, yoga culture, sports culture. We pick and choose pieces of it, and many of those pieces overlap with segments of other cultures.  And yet, culture—however we want to understand it—is often deployed to assign either guilt (or praise) by association to someone by virtue of their family/ethnic/religious background. The mainstream media love to discuss domestic violence by brown Muslim men as part of “Muslim culture” and “honor killings,” but I rarely—make that NEVER—hear them discussing rape and domestic violence as part of “patriarchal culture.” In fact, by the same logic, we could argue that beating women and killing men is part of “white culture.” Spurious aspersions, methinks.

Similarly, the FBI, the CIA, the NYPD, the US DOJ have no problems doing the fallacious—the unthinkable: ascribing the most racist, most heinous motives to young men by virtue of their race, religion, or ethnic backgrounds (Black, Brown, Muslim, Bangladeshi, Pakistani—the list is endless)—through the flimsiest associations. In large part, this is because the U.S. has legitimated this way of thinking by building it into the legalized, pre-emptive, hunt for terrorists. Into legal bills such as the USA Patriot Act. NSEERS. The Military Commissions Act. FISA. H.R. 347. NDAA. No-Fly lists. TSA search policies. NYPD Surveillance Operations.  All of these, while ostensibly having a different function–legalize, proceduralize, and reiterate guilt by association: If you look like a terrorist—how often have we heard that?–then there is reason to search you.

Safe state. Indeed.

We know how keen the FBI is to surveil and entrap young Muslim men. In fact, it’s their new talent: find young men, preferably somewhat lost and finding their way in the world—and by all means they should be black or brown and Muslim—and lure them into feeling self-important for a cause other—bigger–than themselves. Hell, when I was 20, radical feminists could have easily lured me into damaging Laura Ashley stores in the hopes of turning young women away from grotesque, high-necked, badly designed frocks.

Is there a difference between the Democrats and the Republicans? Perhaps so. For a very small subset of folks who are still “safe” and can vote “safely” for their Democrat in their “safe” state. That difference is nearly nonexistent and/or rapidly waning when it comes to the quotidian existence of the poor, migrants, and brown and black men and women in every state—who must wake every day to check and see which side of the law they are on—and whose side they must curry favor to, in order to avoid the wrath of the law. Safe states. Safe for whom? Certainly not for young black and brown and Muslim men and women and their families.


*An older version of this post mistakenly had the following sentence: It is nonsensical to ascribe a culture of terrorism to any of these white shooters.

Author: Falguni A. Sheth

I'm a philosopher and political analyst who writes about all kinds of things, from national security, US politics, race, terrorism, miscegenation, feminism, philosophy, and whatever else captivates my attention. My views are idiosyncratic. I'd like to believe they're carefully considered, and I'm not particularly interested in following crowds.

9 thoughts on “Safe States: Safe for Whom?”

  1. Safe…? When a child comes home from school announcing they learned people with dark hair are evil… When one gets harrassed, email blasted and repeatedly baited for arguments in a class for appearing to be Liberal, etc etc… Where are we headed??

  2. I just discovered this blog. Thank you for lucid prose, clear feminist thought, and a dedication to using evidence for your statements.

  3. to Falguni: I found your writing thoughtful and an attempt to right the wrongs of American society. I especially liked your keen perceptions about democrats obsessing about “safety”…I’ve often thought this too (see below) but never voiced it.
    Probably, many people who enjoy the safety provided by others, often don’t realize the difficulty of providing that safety-or the personal sacrifices made by many safety providers. I do object though to your misunderstanding of American ‘white” society, it’s cultural origins and the fact that (you would agree) perceptions rule… and unfortunately, when any group repeatedly creates a public perception, the “public” will react to their ‘reputation”. As flawed as American Society may be, ‘rape and domestic violence” is NOT a culturally accepted ‘flaw” and is actively prosecuted. Rape and domestic violence are SINS in Christian religions, as opposed to ‘just punishments” for ‘women’s behavior”. The common denominator in all domestic violence seems to be more of ‘power” imbalances–but the United States justice system spends millions of dollars to promote justice. An affluent country can do that.

    I have older Muslim friends who don’t convey your same anger and sense of injustice. They are models of tolerance and appreciation for the opportunities and yes, ‘relative safety’ they enjoy here. Furthermore, because they are wise to cultivate American ‘white” friends, they have an added layer of safety–white educated and courageous Americans who will fight for them personally (me) and categorically (my military family). Advice: start appreciating the huge amount of safety you enjoy here in the United States…. but don’t tempt fate, don’t look for ways to offend Americans…don’t add to the negative stereotypes of Muslim men by attacking the people who offer Muslim women the most safety possible for them in the entire world.

    1. Thank you for your erudite wisdom, SchoolBoardLady. Others might construe your comments as patronizing and racist, but I will strive to be more tolerant and appreciate your wisdom as an American who will fight for Muslims personally…as long as I am not critical of you. I momentarily forgot that my rights and privileges depend upon obeisance to “American” men and women like you. I thought I was an American, too–at least that is what my passport says–but clearly, you must know better. I will try to reconcile your thoughts about the magnanimous safety of the United States with strange news items having to do with disposition matrices, “kill lists,” racial profiling, and detention centers.

    2. Dear SchoolBoardLady:

      If you haven’t been off-planet the past few years, you would know what happens to Muslim (and other dark-skinned people) in this now wonderfully Christianized country – that is, now that the natives have been largely removed to “safety” on reservations. Yes, “thankfully”, Muslims who do convey a sense of anger and injustice are made to find safety in the U.S. gulags called SuperMax prisons. Why can’t they see the safety of our non-caped crusaders in the FBI, CIA, and other Secret Police? I mean, how many heads must the NYPD break open before morale improves?

      But I wonder: Would any of your family members who’ve served in the military to keep our country safe still fight to keep the safety of good Americans, veterans even, who don’t want any more people serving in a standing Federal military? (My experience has been just the opposite; in that scenario, people wearing the uniform generally don’t want to keep good Americans like that safe anymore.)

      Anyway, I do appreciate the safety that the military provides; I only wish the military weren’t so focussed on keeping the U.S. Oiligarchy safe. (Thank Heaven for Operational Iraqi Liberation: we would never have understood just what kind of safety the U.S. military is regularly sent to procure.)

      Kevin Mc

  4. I most often agree with Professor Sheth, but I’m afraid there’s a point in this article with which I must take exception: with regard to a “culture of terror”, she points to certain Caucasian Americans who have proved their dedication to it. It’s more systemic than that. [As a non-veteran, she can be forgiven for this oversight.]

    Now that the U.S. military is considered “volunteer” (much the same way in which Irish living in bogs “volunteered” to fight for the King of England), we the American public tend to reflexively ascribe the highest virtues to all those serving in uniform. Many doubtless deserve such praise; others have proved their culpability: they have shot civilians often; ordered the dropping of a napalm-like substance in Fallujah; dropped bombs on Iraqi soldiers retreating from the front lines; participated in the humiliation and torture of prisoners; etc. The list goes on depressingly long. All in our name.

    And yet, the American public never seems to question the culture of terror inculcated in the armed forces’ basic training. As any veteran can know, this inculcation of the culture of terror is the true precondition needed by an imperial military that continually seeks to aid policy-makers in dominating other peoples. [Justifies an effectively unlimited “defense” budget, no?] Once people in uniform begin to see that they, too, spread terror, they tend to revolt. The movie “Sir, No Sir!” makes clear that many U.S. service personnel have rejected this culture, but that’s simply not enough: the American public must begin rejecting it. National defense is one thing; empire-building another. And it is the latter that rests on a culture of terror, as every frightened recruit in boot camp begins to understand from day one.

    1. Kevin, please tell me you are in fact a Veteran–a combat Veteran–and I will forgive you for the egregious ‘general with a rhetorically dishonest qualified” attack on our military. The professor has found a infrequently (perhaps never voiced) paradox of the refined and educated residents of Massachusetts (or similar liberal community)… and obsession with their political ‘SAFETY” which tracks closely with their personal security; while at the same time disdaining and criticizing the people who provide security (military or local police) while also expending huge amounts of ink and breath on arguing against gun ownership etc. (God knows they don’t want to be part of the problem–but let the police take care of the dirty business of keeping criminals off the streets… to provide ‘my” SECURITY AND SAFETY. This huge cognitive dissonance is what keeps liberals up at night.

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