The Deaths of Innocents: How to Understand “Collateral Damage”

Today, TransEx guest blogger Robert Prasch weighs in on the moral debate over the ethics of  US-led drone strikes and “unintended” casualties. He offers a provocative analogy that sheds some insight on the rhetoric of collateral damage.

 

Robert E. Prasch

By Robert E. Prasch

The devastating massacre that took place a few short weeks ago in Newtown moved hearts across the world.  It also rekindled several debates, one of which had  to do with the contrast between the West’s – fully understandable — horror at the mass death of children in Newtown, and the striking absence of an emotional response to the deaths of children “mistakenly” killed in U.S.-directed drone strikes.  This debate has received a significant amount of attention in the blogosphere, and less attention in the overseas press.  It has not been taken up at all by the United States mainstream press.  Moreover, in contrast to gun control, no major political party is interested in curtailing the United States’ several drone wars, despite its highly dubious ethical and legal foundations.

This debate turns, then, on how we in the West perceive the violent deaths of these non-Western children.  Two possible answers emerge.  The first is to maintain that “their” children simply aren’t worth that much anyway.  Hence, their deaths are insufficient grounds for concern.  It is a racist perspective, but it is consistent.  The second answer agrees that the violent death of any child, anywhere, is an equally terrible tragedy, as Falguni Sheth and Glenn Greenwald have argued.  Yet, many holding this view also contend that while they would agree that a tragedy occurred in Newtown, a similar moral status should not be ascribed to the many children who are the “accidental” casualties—even when these are the routine and predictable consequence of drone strikes.  To this line of thinking, the perception that a tragedy has occurred must turn upon the context of the death of the child and the motivation behind the killing.  The mere fact that one or more children have died by violence is insufficient to establish that a tragedy has occurred.  Consequently, the name ‘Adam Lanza’ is reviled for being the perpetrator of the Newtown massacre, but to suggest anything even remotely like a similar condemnation of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate is to associate oneself with a “lunatic fringe.”  Why is that?

The oft-repeated answer is that Adam Lanza intended to massacre children, whereas the approximately 200 children killed by President Barack Obama’s predator drone strikes were inadvertent.  In the military parlance that has been all-too-willingly adopted in this country, the latter were collateral damage (even when the term does not legally describe CIA-led drone strikes).  This answer suggests that the mere fact of a child’s death should have little relevance in our evaluation of the ethics of an action taken if killing a child was not the set priority of the person taking that action.  It just happened.  Bummer.

As an aside, I would, like to believe that even those who support the predator drone program might want the president to apologize, or at least offer condolences, to the families who have lost children in these strikes (Please do not tell me that he has not done so because the program is “secret.” Most people living outside the US know exactly which government is organizing and executing these attacks).

Let’s return to the ethical calculation implicit in the ascription of the deaths of 200 children to collateral damage:  To highlight the salient characteristics, I will draw upon an analogy:  the decision to use a pharmaceutical drug.  We have all been exposed to the advertising of drugs that – we are told — can cure one or more ailments.  We are also aware that each drug advertisement concludes with a list of warnings about known “side-effects.”  However, as a matter of simple biology, drugs do not have “side-effects.”  They only have “effects.”  Calling the positive outcomes “effects,” and the bad outcomes “side effects,” is simply a spin by the drug manufacturer’s marketing department that is designed to appeal to our hopes of a positive result.

In an organism as complex as the human body, the effects of a drug are probabilistic.  That is to say that, after an adequate number of clinical trials, researchers can acquire a defensible estimate that a given drug–let us call it N–will have the effects A, B, and C, with the probabilities x, y, and z.  Let us suppose that effect A, which occurs with probability x, is a highly desirable outcome.  Perhaps it can save a patient from death by heart disease.  However, as mature and informed adults, we also understand that if drug N is used often enough, by enough people, the undesirable effects B and C will occur with probabilities y and z.  This latter reality is the basis for the government-mandated warnings on TV (Obviously, any given person using N might be “lucky” and only experience A, or they might be “unlucky” and only experience B and C without the benefit of A occurring).

Every society and adult considering the use of N must weigh the benefit of A, subject to the probability of it occurring, against the risk-adjusted damage to society and ourselves that may be anticipated in the event that B and/or C occurs.  In some cases, such as curing a heart condition, we may calculate that the risk is worth taking.  But what if A is simply a cure for teenage acne?  We may decide that the risks outweigh the benefits, although we can be sure that teenagers, famously known for undervaluing risks, will protest.

Drawing upon the above, let us return to the matter of missiles launched by predator drones into someone else’s country.  Even if we assume (although we have little reason to do so) that such strikes support good outcomes, it’s still the case that – as with the drug described above – the destruction wreaked by these missiles cannot be nicely codified into intended targets (good) and collateral damage (bad).  On the contrary, they destroy everything and everyone around them upon detonation.  Period.  In a manner parallel to a drug company’s sales pitch, the U.S. government classifies some deaths as “good” if it exclusively kills “targeted terrorists” (how this term has come to encompass all military age males has been much discussed by others).  Anyone else killed, whether a group en route to a wedding party or children who happened to be nearby, are subject to a cover-up or labeled “collateral damage.”

The difficulty with this naïve classification is that we now – for better or worse — have observed an enormous number of missile strikes, so we have a good idea of the likely distribution of effects.  Even if we accept the government’s own classification which, as we know, is overwhelmingly biased against concluding that innocents died (again, assuming that the government has legitimate grounds to conduct these attacks), then we must acknowledge that those ordering further attacks have found the death rate of innocent persons and other people’s children to be within the zone of predictable but tolerable outcomes.  Why tolerable?  Because we have enough information to estimate the rate of innocent deaths to be expected per-missile-launched and the program is still continuing.  It follows that such a calculation has been made, if only implicitly, and the calculus – at least to those making the decision – has been found to be within an acceptable range.

I also want to highlight an important disanalogy with the pharmacological example given above.  If I decide to ingest drug N in the hopes of effect A, but end up suffering from results B and C, the decision and its consequences all accrue to me and those who care about me.  A most notable quality of the drone program is that its benefits (if any) accrue almost exclusively to Americans, while the associated costs and risks (which are known to be substantial) are being borne almost exclusively by “Foreign Others.”  Moreover, it is not a stretch to suppose that these latter persons may not wish to live every minute of every day worrying about the chances that someone very far away – oops! – mistook the “disposition” of themselves or their loved ones to be correlated with actual or potential hostility towards a faraway nation. (Also neglected by the Administration and the mainstream media is any consideration that the hostility of the communities being bombed may grow in tandem with the size and duration of this missile program).

In light of the above, American citizens have a right to know the explicit or implicit formula that validates the “costs” of killing a certain number of other people’s children per-missile-launched as weighed against the (presumptive) “benefits” of killing a certain number of persons who have exhibited a subset of the as-yet-still-secret “dispositions.”  The contours of this calculus are something that should be, at a minimum, the subject of a substantial public discussion and full accounting by the highest echelons of our government.  Are four persons of “bad disposition” worth the life of one innocent child?  Is the break-even number six?  Perhaps it is ten?   We are entitled to this answer and its underlying logic.

School Massacres and Collateral Damage: Why the Double Standards?

Revised Version.

Updated 12/29/12 (below).

One of the predominant responses to my piece–about the amplified coverage of children killed by a lone shooter in contrast to the barely-existent coverage of those killed by US-led drone and missile strikes—was that these events were not “comparable.”  I am informed by journalists with a superior moral compass to mine that this is because events like the Newtown, CT massacre are the result of a deliberate shooting of children, whereas others—like the December 2009 US-led missile strike in Yemen, which killed 21 children who were part of a wedding party–are accidental, unintentional, and part of the collateral damage of war. Therefore, it is wrong—even infantile–to compare the events.

Those who share this position include Brendan O’Neill, a London Telegraph blogger, who besides accusing me of infantilism, attributed a position to me that I never suggested (“An American professor says it’s dumb to feel emotional about Sandy Hook but not about drone strikes”). Several journalists agreed that the two are incomparable, including Rosamund Urwin, an Evening Standard columnist who responded to my interview on BBC’s Weekend Radio Program(me). (32:30)

Urwin, responding to my position that it is horrific to have children die regardless of whether they die at the hands of a shooter or as the consequence of a missile strike, said: “I don’t think it quite sits well as a comparison simply because what you’re talking about is somebody setting out to do something versus unintended consequences.”

Let’s unpack that misconception, shall we?

Over the last twelve years, there have been more than 320 drone strikes. Over 300 of those strikes were conducted under the auspices of the Obama Administration (the most recent 2 strikes in Yemen over Christmas not included). They have killed between 2600-3300 people, of which over 800 were civilians (these numbers require us to believe that 2600 people were terrorists). Around 176 were children.*

These are hardly “unintended” consequences. If 1 or 3—ok, 5–drone strikes are launched, and others besides the “intended” targets are killed, it is more plausible to believe that the consequences are “unintended.”  It is easier to believe the position of former US Air Force drone pilot, Brandon Bryant, that by droning, he and his colleagues “were saving lives.” In fact, Bryant and his fellow drone pilots knew what they were trained to do: they were trained to kill—to “target” human beings, who were supposedly “terrorists.”

This is the story Bryant lived by until he could no longer hide behind the falsity. One day, Bryant launched a strike towards a site in Afghanistan, even as he saw a child walking around a corner. He and his co-drone pilot tried to convince themselves that they had killed a dog. But a dog has 4 legs, whereas this small figure had 2.  Bryant may have unintentionally killed that child. But there were many others who died at his hands.  Whether they were terrorists or unwitting victims—he, and we, will never learn.

As to the Obama Administration and the US Air Force—it is their business to know how precise their tools are. They are completely familiar with the consequences of imprecise “targeted” killings. The murders of hundreds—perhaps thousands– may not have been the “purpose” of these US cruise missiles and drone strikes, but they were hardly “unintended.” When 180 (or more) children die because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time—through no fault other than that they had the chutzpah to be born to Pakistani, Afghan, Yemeni, Somali, Filipino parents who live in the same vicinity as “suspected” terrorists—this is hardly unintended. POTUS, his advisers, and the US Air Force, are well aware that the consequences of remote drone strikes is widespread “collateral damage.”

Indeed, that is the point of using the term “collateral damage”:  it allows the US government to sterilize and transform into a technical, impersonal statistic the macabre, bloody, material effects of an imperial war to “root out” terrorists indiscriminately.  What makes the obfuscation even more predictable and still as heinous is that the hunt for terrorists is conducted in parts of the world where, as Larry Summers, former Treasury Secretary and head of the National Economic Council understood, 3rd world residents are worth less than 1st world lives.

The “collateral damage” is much more widespread than the approximately 3000 who were killed through “targeted drone strikes.” The damage is reflected in the children who die in raids, women who are raped, families who are shot by US soldiers in Afghanistan. The damage is evidenced by the children who are fatherless, the women whose husbands and brothers and fathers are taken away–for “good cause”–since, as we know, according to the Obama Administration, all men over the age of 16 “are potential militants.”

As the Der Spiegel profile on Bryant describes:

Many Afghans sleep on the roof in the summer, because of the heat. “I saw them having sex with their wives. It’s two infrared spots becoming one,” he recalls.

[Bryant] observed people for weeks, including Taliban fighters hiding weapons, and people who were on lists because the military, the intelligence agencies or local informants knew something about them.

“I got to know them. Until someone higher up in the chain of command gave me the order to shoot.” He felt remorse because of the children, whose fathers he was taking away. “They were good daddies,” he says.

If the Obama Administration tells us that the unfortunate deaths of civilians and children are “accidental” and yet necessary in their hunt for terrorists/militants, then apparently we are supposed to accept these deaths as part of the “costs of war.”  Never mind that we haven’t declared war in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Philippines, or Mali even as the US is directing tens, even hundreds, of drone strikes towards people living in these countries.

Never mind that the mainstream American media is uninterested in covering the human impact of drone and missile strikes on the families whose relatives are maimed and killed by those drones. Never mind that we never learn the names of the children who died, unless someone like Julian Abagond spends hours trying to recover them.

Never mind that these strikes are uncompromisingly illegal according to international law—and being used in place of due process, where suspected “militants” or “terrorists” should be brought to a courtroom to see if there is enough evidence for an indictment, let alone a trial. Never mind that the “war” in question is informal, undeclared, and unilaterally pursued by a Democratic President (who was just re-elected for his remarkable human rights sensibilities, as evidenced through his multiple awards, such as the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, and the 2008 and 2012 Time Person of the Year Award).

Remember, once upon a time, the most visible distinction between the two US political parties was that the Democrats were supposed to be the stronger observers and advocates of human rights and international law. Once upon a time.

It is an interesting spectacle to observe as mainstream journalists and US politicians become remarkably earnest and forgiving about excuses that come from governments and elites.  They insist that it is untoward, indeed impolite–the concept of unethical isn’t even on the table–to ask for 1) journalistic coverage of the casualties material consequences of US foreign policy and 2) governmental accountability when it comes to the deaths of civilians in the course of a unilateral attack on a population in the name of “security.” How shocking it is—shocking!—to suggest that after more than 300 drone strikes that have killed more than 3000 people, including many civilians and children, perhaps the U.S. is not completely unaware of the widespread death and havoc they are causing through the constant use of drones that “target” alleged terrorists.

On the other hand, Urwin suggests that “Western media” has a tendency to “fixate on people like them [Americans?].” She cites the case of Hurricane Sandy, which had passed through Haiti before waging a path of destruction in New Jersey, noting that media coverage of Sandy on Haiti was non-existent, whereas the focus on New Jersey dominated the media.

But if we abide by Urwin’s standard for media coverage—namely that even accidental deaths should be covered by Western media—then there is even less reason to exculpate American media from covering drone/missile strikes which resulted in hundreds—thousands– of “accidental” deaths.

Perhaps the unspoken assumption here is that I, like O’Neill and Urwin, should spend little to no time considering the immorality of deaths when caused by Western governments—because that would force us into a discussion of whether illegal drone strikes are ethical or even legitimate. It might force us into a discussion of American imperialism, and its ever-voracious appetite to invade, conquer, terroritorialize, and ‘civilize’ ‘backwards’ countries by exploiting the rhetorical goals of “national security,” “saving Afghan women,” “democratizing” other countries (some of which have a higher standard of due process than even the US). In the meantime, O’Neill and Urwin might have to explain the increasing hatred and contempt that Pakistanis, Yemenis, Afghans, Iraqis have for the US—proliferated by the continual invasion and destruction of their communities, children, spouses, fathers, uncles, brothers, lives, livelihoods, infrastructures, and knowing full well that the US has no intention or capacity to compensate them for the devastation of their lives.

When did the standard of accountability drop so low, such that—even after slavery and colonialism are supposedly atrocities of the past–Americans easily forgive their government when it wages an ever-expanding unilateral assault on countries that have never officially been declared enemies of the US–never even declared to be at war with them?

It is indeed a double ethical standard to insist that individuals who use assault rifles to shoot children are evil, heinous, mentally ill, and should be locked up, surveilled, tracked, and pre-emptively policed via an FBI database, while simultaneously exculpating the American government from addressing the “unintended” consequences of US foreign policy.

As we know, the Obama administration has killed–unaccidentally–multiple US citizens, some of them under the age of legal consent, as in the case of Abdulrahman Al-Aulaqi.  Al-Aulaqi was a 16 year old US citizen who was killed in a drone strike in Yemen. He was killed 2 weeks after a US-led drone strike killed his father, Anwar Al-Aulaqi, considered to the “no. 2” leader of Al-Qaeda in Yemen.

Shouldn’t the Obama Administration explain the circumstances that led to young Abdulrahman’s death? Some civil rights lawyers think so, strangely enough.  As Hina Shamsi and Vincent Warren, of the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights, respectively, wrote several days ago:

In court, government officials provided no explanation at all. Their response boiled down to an assertion that the government has the authority to kill Americans without having to account to any court for its actions.

Is a US federal court is also misguided to agree that the US must show evidence for Abdulrahman’s death, even if, as one unnamed Obama official suggests, it was accidental?  Again as Shamsi and Warren argue:

 But the U.S. Constitution requires due process when life is at stake. The government cannot be permitted to deprive an American child of his life without any judicial review, even after the fact. More broadly, thousands of people have been killed by U.S. drones in a program that began in 2002 and has expanded dramatically under the Obama administration.

The Obama Administration disagrees that it should be accountable for any such activity—before or after the murder of Abdulrahman Al-Aulaqi. But perhaps if American media were to cover this consequence of US foreign policy as aggressively as they did the Newtown massacre, the Obama Administration might eventually feel compelled to give some answers.

As it stands now, it is acceptable to ask for accountability only from lone individuals who are not part of the US political elite. To the latter—whether Republican or Democrat—we give Peace Prizes, consultancies, and their own shows on MSNBC. No accountability needed, because the thousands of deaths by drones—as the President’s men and women tell us—are accidental. Nothing else need be said.

Forgive, forget, and address only those facts that serve power well and are convenient.

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*In Pakistan. The number of children who died in Yemeni and Somali drone strikes under Obama Administration: 28-36. No data on children killed in Philippines or Mali.

Update: Col. Morris Davis, former Guantanamo chief prosecutor, pointed out in response to this column that “collateral damage” legally excludes CIA drone strikes. Also, interestingly, “collateral damage” would include legitimate military targets in the U.S.:

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Statelessness, Renditions and Making Examples of Muslims: The Case of Mahdi Hashi

The world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human.

–Hannah Arendt (1951)

When President Obama famously signed the executive order to end torture, he did not also sign an order to end the practice of renditions that had also become popular during the Bush Era.  I suppose it is one of the many consistencies of the current Administration on which we can rely: drones, kill lists, renditions.

Perhaps that explains why we have a report of the mysterious appearance of 3 men of Somali descent in a Federal court in NY Friday morning, where they were charged with material support and arms violations in conjunction with Al-Shabaab, an Islamic group deemed a terrorist organization by the US.  A Swedish interpreter was also present.

The men are Mohamed Yusuf, Ali Yasin Ahmed and Mahdi Hashi. Of Mohamed Yusuf, I can find nothing. Ali Yasin Ahmed appears to be a Swedish resident, if not a national, who owned a travel agency in Sweden and was charged with not keeping financial records. Apparently, he sent over US $1.5m to Somalia while in Sweden.*

Hashi, 23, has been missing from his home in Somalia for over three months. Hashi was a British citizen. Hashi’s father reports that in the UK, Hashi and several others had been hounded to become informants for British intelligent agents.  Hashi refused, before moving to Somalia some time later, where he got married and had a child.

A little over 4 months ago, Hashi was informed by mail that the UK had stripped him of his citizenship for his association “with terrorist activities.” He was given 4 weeks to challenge the decision. But according to his family, he disappeared before he could challenge the British government’s decision.  Disappeared that is, until his appearance in Brooklyn last Friday morning.

As Jeremy Scahill tweeted:

Oh, you thought Obama ended renditions?

Not quite.

The FBI asserts that the 3 men were apprehended “on their way to Yemen.” According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism,

Mahdi Hashi passed through Djibouti on a number of previous occasions when visiting relatives in Somalia. It’s not known whether he made his own way to the small nation on this occasion, or was forcibly abducted and transferred to jail there.

The double-standards and arbitrary prosecutions of individuals is but par for the course for Department of Justice. But it is also interesting to ask why POTUS didn’t just kill Hashi instead of kidnapping him? It is especially interesting, given that US showed no particular interest in awarding trials to Osama bin Laden, Anwar Al-Awlaki—or his 16 year old son, Abdulrahman—before summarily killing them.

So, why suddenly render these three Somalis to the US and have them appear publicly in a NY Federal Court? If they were “accidentally” killed, there might be a small roar of protest, but the US government has stood tall in the face of much worse uproars.  Most likely, it is useful to make a public example of them to ordinary Muslim migrants who are interested in sending money to relatives or for charitable purposes, in the face of dubious restrictions.  It has been a standard practice for the Obama Administration to prosecute Muslims for charitable donations, as the family of Dr. Shakir Hamoodi and members of the Holy Land Foundation will attest.

Al-Shabaab is an Islamic militant organization that is challenging the UN-backed (Ethiopian) transitional government. It is deemed by the US government to to be a terrorist organization, and affiliated with Al-Qaeda–although this seems to be more of an aspirational association. It is also an organization toward which the Somali diaspora is sympathetic—likely because it is one of the chief organizations that distributes money for various charitable purposes in the civil-strife ridden country.

However, you will recall that the US is much less sympathetic to Somali migrants to who violate material support statutes—even for charitable purposes—than to banks who callously and openly flaunt the same statutes. Nima Ali Yusuf, a 26 year old woman who had fled Somalia as a child, was sentenced to 8 years in prison for sending $1450 for charitable purposes through Al-Shabaab. But to hear of her actions from the US Attorney General’s office, you would have thought she was a potential suicide bomber. HSBC, by contrast, agreed to “forfeit $1.26 billion and enter into ‘a deferred prosecution agreement’” for a much worse charge of money laundering and the “financing of drug cartels and groups with ties.” No criminal charges, no jail time for HSBC bankers.  The sum forfeited seems huge, but in fact it is substantially less than one month’s profits.

It is also notable that the UK stripped Hashi of citizenship, thereby rendering him stateless—immediately before he was kidnapped off the streets of Mogadishu.  So, a first world sovereign nation purposely stripped one of their citizens of complete protection and left him vulnerable to the exigencies of a first world imperial—outlaw–sovereign nation. Yes, outlaw nation: it is a nation that has a history of violating international law by constructing extrajurisdictional prisons, formulating new extrajudicial categories such as enemy aliens (lawful and unlawful) and rendering men whom they suspect of terrorism (often wrongly—remember Maher Arar? Khalid Al-Masri?) to CIA black sites and torturing them.

Did the UK know that the US wanted to render him? Is that why they stripped him of his citizenship?  It is more than likely that the UK and the US are yet again in collusion to kidnap, render, and otherwise ignore the rights of individuals whom they deem a threat to the state, or whom they want to make a “public” example.

Spare me the argument that Somalia is not a sovereign nation, which is why it wasn’t illegal to render Hashi, Yusuf, and Ahmed. Hashi was stripped of his British citizenship right before the US swooped in to render him.  As Asim Qureshi of CagePrisoners suggested on Twitter,

We believe that since the problems the UK gov has had with deportations and extraditions, it has been easier for them to remove the citizenship of individuals thus allowing them to be victims of rendition by 3rd party countries.

In light of this latest rendering, why does anyone think that Julian Assange–who has taken refuge in a stiflingly small apartment maintained by the Ecuadorian Embassy for the last 6 months and has avoided extradition by the UK to Sweden for questioning on rape charges–is paranoid to assume that it is the UK’s intention to extradite him to  the United States for torture, solitary confinement, and persecution along the lines now being meted out to Bradley Manning?

The main differences between Julian Assange and Bradley Manning are that Assange has a worldly set of resources, networks, and–now–a newly established press organization through which money for his legal defense can be channeled. Assange was able to use the first two to avoid the undoubtedly contrived extradition to Sweden by having Ecuador grant him political asylum—a necessity, since Australia does not appear to be actively intervening on his behalf against 2 outlaw first-world sovereign nations.

The main differences between Julian Assange and Mahdi Hashi include the former as well. But they also include the fact that Australia—as of yet—has not completely abrogated its sovereign responsibility over Assange, who still remains an Australian citizen. By contrast, the UK abandoned its responsibility in the sneakiest, underhanded way: by sending a letter to Hashi—somehow coincidentally timed such that he was kidnapped—rendered–with no notice given to his family–within a few days of having his citizenship rescinded.

Hashi had no time—and it is doubtful, the legal and financial capacity—to appeal to Ecuador for asylum from Somalia. Instead, he was granted the rewards of statelessness: vulnerability to the exigencies of international barbarism. Kidnapped with nary a sovereign nation to appeal to for defense on his behalf.

Although I can’t find anything about the citizenship status of Ahmed, he appears to have been a Swedish resident, if not citizen. Will Sweden intervene on Ali Yassin Ahmed’s behalf? Or will they also leave him in a similar barbaric statelessness?

__________________________________________________

*Patrick Fahlander, BA Thesis on Swedish Perceptions of Al-Shabab (Malmo University, 2010).

Then They Came For Me: The Futility of the Neimoller Argument

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.
 

 

Apparently, Martin Niemoller, a German theologian and pastor, was an initial supporter of the Nazi party. He did not say the above words until after well after he had been released from a German concentration camp, the second of two where he was incarcerated from 1938-45. He finally saw the light…well after his harassment by the German state. His poem can be summed up hence: we should care about the fate of others, because our fates hang in the balance.

Even though he was eventually targeted by the Nazis, Niemoller is hardly a paragon of virtue, as a quick browse of his wikipage will attest: he was apparently anti-Semitic, and cared mostly to protect his parish of Christians who were mistaken as Jews—rather than to protect Jews themselves. Yet, his argument is trotted out at every cocktail hour and dinner in liberal neighborhoods in America. This utilitarian argument is unfurled to make a plea for why Americans should care about the galloping abridgment of rights that has been occurring since well before September 11, 2001.

But it is not a compelling argument. It is especially unpersuasive for those who have never wondered whether they will live an entire lifetime without having their bodily cavities invaded by some policewoman’s already dirty latex glove.

Indeed, it is a specious argument, especially in view of the following examples:

In November of this year, 26 year old Rezwan Ferdaus was convicted of plotting to attack the Pentagon and Capitol building by making IED detonators. Ferdaus, like Tarek Mehanna before him, and Fahad Hashmi before him, and Mohamed Osman Mohamud before him, and myriad young Muslim men before them, were arrested for “terrorist” plots. They were arrested on very little evidence—in many cases—on hearsay of FBI agents or other unsavory witnesses. Many of them were incarcerated without charges for years, deprived of access to lawyers, family, other people (because they were held in solitary confinement). Many of them were notoriously entrapped by FBI agents. And a number of them—to finally escape the excruciating wait of being held in solitary confinement on trumped-up pretences that they had violated some prison rule—finally pled guilty. i.e., without trials, without public evidence, to charges of plotting to launch terror plots.

It is a repeated phenomenon—occurring all over the US. The most recent surveillance and entrapment projects were lead by the NYPD with the full support and approval of the FBI.

In 2005, 2 female Queens teenagers, unknown to each other, were arrested on suspicion of terrorism. Their crime? Tashnuba Hayder and Adamah Bah were separately reporting to the INS at 26 Federal Plaza in Manhattan. Passing each other, they noticed that they were Muslim (one was in hijab, the other in a niqab), likely greeted each other with “Salaam Aleikum” (we don’t actually know the phrase they used). This aroused the suspicion of the immigration agents who later reported them to the FBI, which proceeded some time later to arrest and interrogate them without their families or lawyers for 7 weeks. Both were released after protest by friends and teachers. However, 16 year old Hayder’s release came at a price: she was required to agree to be deported to Bangladesh. You can barely find the details of their ordeals on-line (I have written about them in detail elsewhere).

Today, thousands of Muslim men and women in the United States must watch their words carefully, be careful about context when expressing political dissent, and be wary of others in religious places of worship—lest they be undercover FBI agents. The danger of being entrapped or arrested is so rampant that Constitutional lawyers give advice to Muslim mothers warning them to keep an eye on their sons so as to avoid the claws of the FBI.

How many white men and women today must be careful about what they say when expressing political dissent? The laws that have been passed in the decade since 9/11 don’t name Muslims. And yet, we know that the populations being watched and targeted are not young white men and women from wealthy suburban families. The US is not targeting Germany or Sweden or France with drone strikes in order to catch terrorists. Young white men with assault rifles are not the subjects of anti-terrorist pre-emptive policing or of FBI surveillance–despite the fact that they are more likely to terrorize six year olds in leafy New England suburbs, young adults in movie theatres in Colorado, or town meetings with US congresswomen in Tuczon, Arizona.

In light of the intent and application of 9-11 laws, the Neimoller argument is a selfish and useless argument. It is used futilely to convince some comfortable, protected segment of the American populace to care about the repeal of rights because it could happen to them one day. Because—god forbid, someday, somewhere, someone who is white—or at least bourgeois (e.g. owning an espresso-machine, luxury car, iPad, Kindle, iPhone and 3 MacBooks, who splurges on ski trips to Aspen and considers Northface shells a wintertime necessity)—might be incarcerated, detained, tortured, have their private phone and email conversations with their extramarital lovers monitored. Or have their bank accounts and charitable contributions monitored to assess whether they’ve contributed to terrorist organizations.

Anti-privacy laws, search laws, pre-emptive policing laws are not being directed against young white American college students. The violations of material support statutes are not being prosecuted against HSBC in the same way that they are being prosecuted against Somali migrants.

The reason to care about the repeal of rights and the production of oppressive laws is because they punish, humiliate, target, dehumanize some other segment of the population: whistleblowers, Muslim men and women, political dissenters, children killed by “accidental” drone strikes, children deliberately targeted and killed by drone strikes, men and women who are rendered to far away places for torture on behalf of the United States government. Not because they might, remotely—somewhere, someday—be used to punish you.

If there are white or non-white wealthy Americans out there who watch the news and are aware of what’s happening to dark black and brown people, to Muslim, Arabs, Syrians, Palestinians, poor women, innocent black and brown children—and they aren’t ALREADY convinced that there is a serious rights abridgement taking place—making the argument that they should care because it could ONE day happen to them is a waste of breath.

They don’t care. If they are not interested in political and legal solidarity, they will not be moved by the pragmatic “we are all in this together fabrication.” Because they are not in it “with us.” The odds are overwhelmingly against their lives being upended (or simply ended) by counter-terrorism laws. Not because they are more innocent. They are no more or less innocent than a Muslim, Arab, Black, South Asian, Latino family—of crime, of violating sanctions, of crime, of terrorism, of illicit activity.

They are not in it “with us” because they are more visibly and folklorically “American.” They are more white. More conservative. More comfortable—economically. They are aware of these aforementioned attributes, and reasonably sure that they will rarely be lumped in “with us” by the American government. And so, they are more at ease with the extralegal rollback of rights, because their activities will not be held against them.

The legal framework of the War on Terror is designed neither to threaten comfortably ensconced Whites or Blacks, nor many quiet upper-class brown folks who take pains to be visibly obedient. It is designed to apply to those who are on the borders, on the margins of society—racially, residentially, economically, or socially. Or for those who might be “comfortable” at some level, but who are teetering close to that edge.

Or for those who are politically uncomfortable or angry with the reprehensible actions of the US government. This is how Syed Hashmi and Tarek Mehanna and Reswan Ferdhaus attracted the attention of the FBI.

Wait, you say. There are plenty of white men (and some white women) who’ve been trapped in the Legal War on Terror: John Walker Lindh, whistleblowers Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, John Kiriakous, Thomas Drake. Lynn Stewart.

The reason we know their names, the reason that their situations are so much more broadly publicized is because the American media and public find their situations to be so fascinating: The idea that counter-terrorism laws could be applied to men or women who are white–strikes the mainstream media (MSM) as a fascinating novelty. As importantly, the notable exceptions of white men such as Manning, Assange, Kiriakou allow MSM and the comfortable American public to assure themselves that the war on Terror isn’t racist. It confirms for them that counter-terrorism laws are being applied “equally” against all potential threats—Muslims or whites. It’s just disproportionately catching Muslims, because…well, you know.

Utilitarianism—supporting something because it’s useful or has strategically positive consequences—is a popular framework in our neoliberal era. We constantly make calculations based on this: the lesser of 2 evils, the more incremental of 2 evils, the Alan Dershowitz straw man question (what if torture of 1 person saved 100 people?). Or my favorite: 2 potential Supreme Court Seats that will go to the anti-abortion conservatives so I should vote for Obama because thousands of Pakistanis and Yemenis will die of drone strikes regardless of whether Romney or Obama wins. And besides most poor black and brown women in the US will never have access to abortion anyway regardless of the next 2 SC justices.”

In other words, it reinforces the whole white privilege thing: I have mine. Others won’t get theirs. Let me just get mine.

At heart, utilitarianism is an economic calculus that works for savings accounts and bank corporations. It is a useless framework to argue in defense of preserving and defending the rights of vulnerable and marginal groups.

The only argument that should be used in favor of caring about privacy rights, rights against torture, pre-emptive search and seizure, rights that protect dissenting speech, access to lawyers, and due process, is for their own sake. I know that this is a strange idea in our brave new world. But why we can’t just care about rights because they’re rights? Constitutional and human rights should be vocally defended, amply utilized. The defense of rights should be carefully kept away from specious arguments about “national security,” and from utilitarian arguments about the pragmatic usefulness of defending rights for other people.

Persecuted peoples should be uncompromisingly defended on the indubitable, unconditional, grounds of their humanity.

And rights should be directly defended for their own sake. They are not like exotic delicacies from faraway countries: they’re don’t have to be rare. They shouldn’t have to be carefully hoarded.*
___________________________________

*The last two paragraphs of this post have been revised/updated.

Time Magazine’s 2012 Person of the Year: A Celebration of the Indifferent Voter

It is the second time that Time has given Barack Obama this award. In 2008, Obama won the first time, ostensibly for making history as the first Black president of the U.S. This year, Obama managed to beat out Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teen who fought for education for girls, and was attacked by the Taliban for it. There were other—much less–distinguished luminaries, including Hillary and Bill Clinton.

Clearly Malala did not pursue the winning strategy: she did something constructive, and became a hero for risking her life and standing up to bullies, who shot her for it. She should have pursued a different strategy: capitulate to the bullies, repeat their stance even when you know it’s wrong (Israel has a “right to self defense), pursue rights-depriving legislation, expand authority for yourself, and all the while promising that she “will use all the powers of this office” to make sure terrible things don’t happen again—well after massacres occur over and over again. Perhaps she should have invited folks whose family members were murdered to remotely related celebrations at the White House and assume that such gestures would make amends for terrible injustices.

Time’s Editor Richard Stengel gave some reasons for why they chose Obama (over Yousufszai):

But he’s more than just a political figure; he’s a cultural one. He is the first President to embrace gay marriage and to offer work permits to many young undocumented immigrants.

Obama also has a kill list and disposition matrix. He has insisted on the executive power to arrest, detain, and incarcerate anyone he chooses for an indefinite period of time—without charges, evidence, or access to lawyers, due process, or even company in jail (witness the solitary confinement and humiliations awarded to Pfc Bradley Manning, hailed as a whistleblower for turning over evidence of ethical wrongdoing to Wikileaks). He reserves the right to drone civilians and children in 6 countries and counting. He entrenched the Hyde Amendment—the one that restricts federal funding for abortions–in his infamous health insurance bill of 2010.

Since his first election in 2008, Obama sent over 30,000 troops in Afghanistan. He promised to withdraw them but only because Afghanistan wouldn’t allow the U.S. to stay. His Administration promised to help oversee Afghanistan’s transition to democracy, only to protest vehemently when the Afghan legislature wanted to preserve the notion of due process.

In March of this year, Obama insisted that a Yemeni journalist, Abdulelah Hider Shaea (or Shaye), remain in prison, ostensibly because of his “association” with Al-Qaeda, which in fact is his propensity to interview Al-Qaeda. But Shaea’s real crime was reporting a December 2009 Cruise Missile strike launched by the U.S. Air Force, which killed 41 people —21 of them children– at a wedding party. It is unknown whether any terrorists, who were supposedly being targeted, were killed.  Shaea, who was convicted in 2010, was on the verge of being pardoned by the Yemeni president, until President Obama called President Saleh and “expressed his concern” about Shaea’s release. The pardon was immediately reversed.

Somehow, surprisingly, the editors at Time Magazine did not mention those accomplishments. What they did say, however, was that:

The President feels a responsibility to advance the values he sees reflected in the changing electorate.

Really? No candidate HAS EVER felt this before.

Of the nearly 66 million people who pulled the lever for him, Obama says, “The choice that they made was less about me and more about them, more about who they saw themselves to be.” It’s a lovely sentiment for a winner, but even if Obama’s right, the question now is, Who exactly do they want to be? And can Barack Obama take them there?

And how exactly, did the “people” who voted for Barack Obama in the last election see themselves? Well, I can tell you how I see them.

They were voters…who were unafraid of being arrested, incarcerated, or held in solitary confinement. Voters who were indifferent to drone strikes or the thousands of deaths of children and innocent civilians in far away countries—whom they would never meet, encounter or need to think about. Voters who do not live in fear of being surveilled by FBI or CIA in mosques around the country. Voters who don’t worry that the President has too much arbitrary authority to use against citizens. Voters who are not troubled by the massive number of deportations organized under the Obama Administration (1.4 million—more than under both Bush terms). Voters who don’t get their news filtered through the mainstream media—in other words, Voters who read TIME magazine.

Apparently, they saw Obama as

One man, despite his failures, [who] had voters like you in mind.

Voters like “you”?  According to Rush Limbaugh, Obama was elected by the low information voter. Limbaugh’s translation: stupid people. My version: voters who just don’t care about facts.  And indeed, Time Magazine confirms both of our translations.

As Limbaugh said:

Richard Stengel, who is the editor of TIME Magazine, explaining why they chose Obama. [He] essentially says that they chose Obama because he is a symbol, the champion, of the new low-information American. It’s kinda funny to listen to it,” Limbaugh began before playing Stengel’s explanation as follows:

“He won reelection despite a higher unemployment rate than anybody’s had to face in 70 years. He’s the first Democrat to actually win two consecutive terms with over 50% of the vote. That’s something we haven’t seen since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And he’s basically the beneficiary and the author of a kind of new America, a new demographic, a new cultural America that he is now the symbol of.”

Limbaugh also noted that Stengel said: “15% of voters actually don’t care about politics. These are the people we didn’t know who are gonna show up at the polls who actually like Barack Obama, in the sense they feel like he’s outside of politics.”

It is the first time that Rush Limbaugh and I have ever agreed on anything. I keep looking out the window for flying pigs.

Newtown, CT: The Culture of Terror and the Failure of the National Security Agenda*

Yet again. Yes, again. Another heinous massacre in Newtown, CT. When I read of the details on Friday, I didn’t plan to write about it. I didn’t want to write about it.  I wanted to lose myself in the heated discussions over the misleading and graphic depictions of torture in Kathryn Bigelow’s film Zero Dark Thirty, in the Twitter project of NYU student & artist Josh Begley, who is tweeting every drone strike between 2002-2-12, in the details of the pre-trial motion hearing of Pfc. Bradley Manning as reported by Nathan Fuller and Kevin Gosztola and others; in the discussions of the conflagration of the meaning of terrorism in NY courts.  I wanted to consider those “national security” issues that form the basis of my work.  But in fact, the horrific event that occurred in Newtown, CT is also a national security issue. It is the result of the failure of the National Security Agenda put in place in the US since 9/11.

There isn’t one dominant definition of national security, but it might be safe to suggest that in the U.S., national security relates to domestic and foreign policies created in the name of fighting the “War on Terror.”  The policies of National Security relate to waging wars on sovereign Middle Eastern nations on the pretense that they have hidden WMD’s, or that their women need saving from Afghan men, or that they have nuclear weapons technology that will be used against us if we don’t level sanctions. National security refers to the hunt for alleged terrorists through pre-emptive policing, warrantless and indefinite detention, torture, solitary confinement. National security refers to the solitary confinement, humiliation, and abuse of whistleblowers such as Bradley Manning for turning over evidence of ethical wrongdoing by the U.S. armed services to transparency organizations such as Wikileaks.

The media coverage of the Newtown murders and the memorial speech given by President Obama would lead us to believe that what happened on Friday in Connecticut is worlds away from national security issues, because effective national security lies in rooting out terrorists. And we know that terrorists operate in dark shadowy cells, in the basements of mosques—in Kandahar, in Sana’a, in Abbottobad, in Queens, Brooklyn, Paterson, NJ, Lodi, CA. Terrorists don’t walk up to schools in grassy, leafy, quiet New England towns, with semi-automatic rifles in their hands, and after killing their mothers, force their way in, and shoot twenty 6 year olds multiple times at close range. Terrorists don’t have Asperger’s. Well, maybe they do. But only if they’re Muslim.

The media reports and the corresponding images of the heinous massacre in Newtown, CT have done their utmost to distinguish the unique tragedy of this shooting, to humanize the beautiful young children whose families grieve for them so heavily. Everything we hear about Adam Lanza reinforces that this was a random tragedy, fueled by the easy accessibility to guns. It had nothing to do with the Culture of Terror. Nothing to do with National Security.

Doesn’t it? In fact, the latest shooting of schoolchildren is the latest evidence that the national security project of the U.S government has failed.  The shooting in Newtown, CT is but part and parcel of a culture of shooting children, shooting civilians, shooting innocent adults, that has been waged by the U.S. government since September 12, 2001.  It has been directed by two United States Presidential Administrations, and has intensified under the second President, a Democrat.

And let there be no mistake: many of “us” have directly felt the impact of that culture: Which “us”? Yemeni parents, Pakistani uncles and aunts, Afghan grandparents and cousins, Somali brothers and sisters, Filipino cousins have experienced the impact of the culture of killing children. Families of children who live in countries that are routinely droned by the U.S. Air Force. Families of children whose villages are raided nightly in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Culture of Terror has been waged insistently through Pres. Obama’s policy of drone strikes. Or by U.S. Cruise missiles, as the one that targeted a Yemeni wedding party in 2009, in which 20 adults and 21 children died.  The Culture of Terror is intensified when the journalist who reported that strike was jailed—at the command of POTUS—and remains in jail to this day.  The Culture of Terror was waged insistently on the day that the same President was re-elected–when another drone strike was launched in Yemen, and 3 more people died. The Culture of Terror was perpetuated when the US insisted on the right of Israel to “self-defense” in Gaza—in the face of the systematic, legal, theft of land and the disproportionate “targeted” killings of Palestinians by the Israeli government.

And in case, you have forgotten: here are the numbers for Israel’s “self-defense” in Palestine:

From January through September 2012, Israeli weaponry caused 55 Palestinian deaths and 257 injuries. Among these 312 casualties, 61, or roughly 20 percent, were children and 28 were female. 209 of these casualties came as a result of Israeli Air Force missiles, 69 from live ammunition fire, and 18 from tank shells.In 2011, the projectiles fired by the Israeli military into Gaza were responsible for the death of 108 Palestinians, of which 15 were women or children, and the injury of 468 Palestinians, of which 143 where women or children. The methods by which these causalities were inflicted by Israeli projectiles breaks down as follows: 57 percent, or 310, were caused by Israeli aircraft missile fire; 28 percent, or 150, where from Israeli live ammunition; 11 percent, or 59, were from Israeli tank shells; while another 3 percent, or 18, were from Israeli mortar fire.

The Culture of Terror has been consistently, repeatedly, enforced through the innumerable practices of rendering and torturing Muslim men and women alleged to be terrorists. Without ever providing evidence of their terrorist activities. The Culture of Terror is waged every minute that Bradley Manning is incarcerated in solitary confinement for having turned over documents that show the immoral, illegal, reprehensible practices of our U.S. Armed Services at the behest of the POTUS.

The Culture of Terror is reflected in the mass shootings in Oak Creek, WI, in Newtown, CT, in the 60 other places where mass shootings have occurred in the last 3 decades in the U.S. It is reflected in the deaths of countless children (2700 children in 2010) in the United States through needless and random gun violence—despite restrictions on guns. It is avoidable violence. The Culture of Terror is reflected in the “See Something, Say Something” posters, directed by the Department of Homeland Security, found all public transportation systems in the U.S. In the Pamela Gellar anti-Muslim posters posted all over NYC and Washington DC.  The Culture of Terror is reflected in the deportation of over 1.4 million migrants over the last four years. In the separation of 46,000 children from their parents (only in a 6 month period in 2011) . In the jailing of Dr. Shakir Hamoodi for sending money to his family in Iraq despite the needless sanctions imposed by the U.S.  In the refusal to allow a Muslim U.S. veteran fly home from Qatar to see his mother until the prolonged intervention of journalists and advocacy groups made it happen. In the fear that contributing to Bradley Manning’s or Julian Assange’s legal defense funds will render ordinary innocent citizens vulnerable to arrest and jailtime and similar privation of Constitutional rights. In the development of ever-longer kill lists and “disposition matrixes.”

In each and every one of those instances, the Culture of Terror is organized and directed by the U.S. government. And in each and every one of those instances, the Culture of Terror reflects a failure of the goal of National Security.  Because the goal of National Security cannot—can never succeed—if some among us must live in fear of being arrested, persecuted, imprisoned without charges, susceptible to being tortured or killed for being Muslim, Arab, hijabi, religious, the son of a suspected terrorist, a political dissenter, a whistleblower…

The project of National Security is the project of forcing us to live in fear of each other, of cutting social services to families whose members have severe neurological, psychological illnesses–in order to fund an increasing Culture of Terror. The National Security project is the project of allocating “2/3 of a trillion dollars” for 2013 alone: for the purpose of continued US military presence in other sovereign nations. The National Security project is to reward banks and financial institutions with even more money for their achievement of plundering the life-savings of thousands of ordinary citizens. For gratuituously rendering Americans homeless through subprime mortgage foreclosures.

What is the difference between the heinous tragedy that occurred last Friday in Newtown, CT and the instances that I mention above?  The key difference–Attorney General Eric Holder, POTUS Obama, Sec. of State Hillary Clinton, Sec. of Defense Leon Panetta—will tell you, is that the poor children in Newtown, CT were the innocent defenseless victims of a lone gunman, whereas the U.S. is in the full-fledged battle of combatting terrorism—which makes the murder of innocent civilians, of innocent children an unfortunate collateral damage. They will tell you that the housing crisis was the unfortunate result of greedy bankers, but they tried to punish the bankers. They will tell you to “Look forward, not backward.”

But in fact these are not the primary differences. The primary difference is that the U.S. has legitimated the Culture of Terror—and the failure of National Security—by insisting that needless violence, the random deaths of thousands of children and adult women and men, the gratuitous incarceration and solitary confinement of thousands of young men without charges is a necessary approach to “solving” terror.

The second primary difference is the complete lack of accountability—demanded from or given by– the U.S. government, the U.S. Congress—on the issues of unjust wars and invasions, human rights violations, damaging racial profiling, illegal drone and missile strikes, and countless other damage to ordinary citizens in the US and around the world. The third primary difference is that the same Liberals who are shocked by the shooting at Newtown, CT, in fact have legitimated the Culture of Terror by endorsing, voting for, and re-electing POTUS and his murderous terrorist Administration–instead of demanding accountability.

And that same legitimation—and the absence of outrage at the murders of thousands of innocent civilians around the world—whose parents, families, grieve identically to the families of the youngsters and teachers who tragically, horrifically died in Newtown, CT—shows the massive failure of our National Security agenda and the “War on Terror” in the era since 9/11.

Yet again. Yes, again.

___________________

*Revised.

Today is the 1 year Anniversary of Translation Exercises

I don’t have a topic-specific column today, but I wanted to mark the day. I’ve been happily surprised at how TransEx has taken off during the past 12 months. I’ve found my readers’ online engagement compelling, provocative, thoughtful, infuriating, but always motivating me to write more, engage more, think more.  Thank you for returning, reading, commenting, and continuing your engagement. I hope to keep blogging as much in the upcoming year, but alas, I return to full-time teaching, which will present some inevitable constraints on my time.  We don’t have a national election to fuel outrage and indignance, but I don’t doubt that there will be plenty of grist in other sectors of US and international politics.

Here were the top 5 (most read) columns of the past year on Translation Exercises:

Pollitt’s Perplexity about Pundits on Ron Paul
The Progressive Retreat from Obama: Who is to Blame?
Emily Hauser’s Disgusting Indifference to Women of Color
Mosques, Temples, and Theaters: We Need to Change the Script
White Privilege, American Privilege: Does It Make Sense to Be More Concerned with Rights at “Home”?

The least read columns (excluding reblogged or minor 1 paragraph posts) were the following:

Abdulmutallab, POTUS, and Al-Awlaki: NPR Stenographers and Post-Assassination Apologias
Illegality and Idiocy: Only One Can Be Solved for Sure
John Knefel: Adnan Latif Wrote to his Lawyer About Why He Wanted to End His Life
Indefinite detention: Business as usual. What now?
Election Year Redux

As we mark the beginning of the second term of the Obama Administration, I will continue to analyze some of the implicit concerns that underlie national and global politics. These include the new multicultural players in the system of white supremacy that is driving our domestic racial/political/economic polices, as well as global imperialist policies. Thinking about contemporary politics requires engaging with race—both in its old historical sense of whiteness as well as in its unconventional (but very important) sense of power and inviting black and brown folks to carry out white supremacist goals. This is also true with regard to feminism. The contributions of a number of white feminists has been to perpetuate systematically racist, misogynist (with regard to women of color) policies in the name of “universal” liberalism (see the above posts on Katha Pollitt and Emily Hauser).

As well, I hope to continue writing about problematic media analyses, and of course, the latent assumptions in national security issues regarding the GWoT, torture, incarceration, drones, and other troubling issues.

But really, over the next year, I want to think about what seems to be a remarkable—perpetual–obsequiousness to those in power. It is a noteworthy feat of contortionism—to watch the kissing of buttocks as it is displayed by those who are supposed to be political pundits, journalists, academics, so-called intellectuals, political representatives. But I also plan to include in this analysis some segment of the liberal/left public at large that reveres all policies statist—whether engaged in by a Republican, Democrat, white or black or brown.

We see the endorsement of morally reprehensible statist policies in the embrace of films like  Argo–despite its latent cultural imperialism and celebration of the CIA, as well as the opposition to criticism of the role of torture in Zero Dark Thirty–always in the name of art. We see the reverence in the embrace of the state-driven murderous policies such as illicit drone strikes, the insistence that Israel has a “right to self-defense” as it engages in systematic bullying and massacres of Palestinians. We see the embrace of US-led persecution of whistleblowers from John Kyriakou, Bradley Manning, and Julian Assange. And above all, we see the embrace of a murderous regime as led by a Black president, and his “pluralist,” liberal, feminist cabinet.

An effective criticism and challenge to a global imperial, lawless, regime begins from challenging some of the most uncomfortable assumptions on the part of a “well-intentioned” left: assumptions having to do with the tensions over national security, civil rights, a “progressive” political, racial and feminist agenda–which occludes the rights and plights of folks of color even as an elite multi-racial group leads the lawless agenda.

As always, I welcome your thoughtful comments. Do tell me if there’s something that you’d like to read more about on this blog–and if it’s in line with my interests, I’ll try to respond.  Again, thanks for the repeated readership and support. I look forward to continuing to think with you during the next year.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the Advantages of Not Being Female, Muslim, or Black*

What I do know is that nothing in the world can justify a man being thus thrown to the dogs.

–Bernard Henri-Levy on the unjust treatment of his friend Dominique Strauss-Kahn

Monday evening, in Manhattan, a private settlement was reached between Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund and one-time French presidential hopeful, and Nafitassou Diallo, a Guinean migrant and part of the housekeeping staff at the NY Sofitel hotel where DSK stayed. There is no word on the amount of the settlement, which marked an acrid public debate about how badly DSK was treated, even though Diallo had charged DSK with sexual assault in March 2011.

In a lame attempt to dilute the gravity of the charges DSK admitted that he had made an “error” and had engaged in a “moral failure,” while avoiding an admission of sexual assault.  By contrast, Diallo had her credibility questioned repeatedly and her words recorded and distorted.

While the French newspapers are dutifully reporting the settlement, their tone is in stark contrast to the outrage and shock that the French media and intelligentsia expressed at the horrific treatment received by one of the foremost political elites of Europe. Strauss-Kahn was a player “extraordinaire”: Charming, elegant, eloquent, and capable of holding his own among the world’s power players. Why, my fellow philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy asked, would DSK be treated so badly when the charges were clearly fabricated?

What I do know is that nothing in the world can justify a man being thus thrown to the dogs.

What I know is that nothing, no suspicion whatever (for let’s remind ourselves that, as I write these lines, we are dealing only with suspicions!), permits the entire world to revel in the spectacle, this morning, of this handcuffed figure, his features blurred by 30 hours of detention and questioning, but still proud.

What I know as well is that nothing, no earthly law, should also allow another woman, his wife, admirable in her love and courage, to be exposed to the slime of a public opinion drunk on salacious gossip and driven by who knows what obscure vengeance.

And what I know even more is that the Strauss-Kahn I know, who has been my friend for 20 years and who will remain my friend, bears no resemblance to this monster, this caveman, this insatiable and malevolent beast now being described nearly everywhere.

Poor DSK. The treatment he received was horrible. Here is how they mistreated him: they publicly apprehended DSK at New York’s JFK airport, forced him to do a “perp” walk in front of a gaggle of reporters, required him to stay in a NYC prison over the weekend until he was publicly arraigned at a Manhattan criminal court. He was…treated…as suspects were often treated in the pre-9/11 days: as a suspect who would eventually receive his day in court. And eventually the charges against him were dropped, proving further to the French that he was unjustly treated.

Perhaps the treatment of DSK should be compared to that treatment to that meted to Jose Padilla, deemed an enemy combatant in the early years of the war on terror, as described by the ACLU yesterday, as his mother brings a human rights case at an International human rights tribunal to protest her son’s treatment:

In 2002, President Bush declared Padilla an “enemy combatant” and ordered him to be placed in military custody. U.S. officials seized Padilla from a civilian jail in New York and secretly transported him to the Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, S.C., where they held him for 43 months without charge. Interrogators subjected Padilla to torture and other egregious forms of abuse, including forcing him into stress positions for hours on end, punching him, depriving him of sleep and threatening him with further torture, “extraordinary rendition” and death.

Doesn’t quite seem parallel. Perhaps DSK’s treatment resonates with that of Syrian-Canadian Maher Arar, who was intercepted at JFK on his way back from a family trip to Tunis, and rendered “off-site” for torture. For no apparent reason besides being Middle Eastern:

We went into the basement, and they opened a door, and I looked in. I could not believe what I saw. I asked how long I would be kept in this place. He did not answer, but put me in and closed the door. It was like a grave. It had no light. It was three feet wide. It was six feet deep. It was seven feet high. It had a metal door, with a small opening in the door, which did not let in light because there was a piece of metal on the outside for sliding things into the cell.There was a small opening in the ceiling, about one foot by two feet with iron bars. Over that was another ceiling, so only a little light came through this.

There were cats and rats up there, and from time to time the cats peed through the opening into the cell. There were two blankets, two dishes and two bottles. One bottle was for water and the other one was used for urinating during the night. Nothing else. No light.

I spent 10 months, and 10 days inside that grave.

The next day I was taken upstairs again. The beating started that day and was very intense for a week, and then less intense for another week. That second and the third days were the worst.  I could hear other prisoners being tortured, and screaming and screaming. Interrogations are carried out in different rooms…

The cable is a black electrical cable, about two inches thick. They hit me with it everywhere on my body.  They mostly aimed for my palms, but sometimes missed and hit my wrists — they were sore and red for three weeks. They also struck me on my hips, and lower back. Interrogators constantly threatened me with the metal chair, tire and electric shocks. The tire is used to restrain prisoners while they torture them with beating on the sole of their feet. I guess I was lucky, because they put me in the tire, but only as a threat.

I was not beaten while in tire. They used the cable on the second and third day, and after that mostly beat me with their hands, hitting me in the stomach and on the back of my neck, and slapping me on the face.  Where they hit me with the cables, my skin turned blue for two or three weeks, but there was no bleeding. At the end of the day, they told me tomorrow would be worse. So I could not sleep.  Then on the third day, the interrogation lasted about 18 hours. They beat me from time to time and make me wait in the waiting room for one to two hours before resuming the interrogation.

Maher Arar was finally released and allowed to return to Canada over 1 year and 10 months later. He has never been given an explanation for his treatment. Nor an apology from the U.S. government. Nor a visa to enter the U.S.

BHL’s words, in the epigraph above, echo as I reread this description of Maher Arar.  But apparently it can be justified–in the same breath as acknowledging that it is immoral. Two days ago, I had an exchange on Twitter about precisely this, even as my interlocutor agreed that torture was immoral.

But I don’t hear my dear colleague BHL exclaiming outrage about the latter cases. Why are earth-shattering screams of outrage only provoked when white elites such as DSK are thought to be badly treated? Why do we hear only mind-numbing silence when Jose Padilla, Maher Arar, Fahad Hashmi, Tarek Mehanna—dark, Muslim, non-elite men–are held, detained indefinitely without charges, put in solitary confinement for months and years, beaten with cables, and tortured otherwise? Why do we hear only smug justifications when the US kills US citizens and Muslims such as Anwar Al-Awlaki and, two weeks later, murders his 16 year-old US citizen son, Abdulrahman?  Where are BHL’s protests when African American woman are sentenced to a life in prison for a drug crime that they did not commit? Why do we hear little outcry from BHL and his colleagues when Muslim women in the UK are charged with terrorism for possessing an “Al-Qaeda magazine”?

Perhaps part of the answer can be found here:

“He was arrested just hours before the meeting during which he would face a more orthodox German chancellor to plead the cause of a country, Greece, that he believed could be brought back to order without being brought to its knees. His defeat would also be that of this great cause. It would be a disaster for this entire part of Europe and of the world, because the IMF, under his leadership and for the first time in its history, did not intend to sell out to the superior interests of Finance. And that would really be a dreadful sign.”

The horror then is that someone of such prestige, such wealth, such importance, was having his honor questioned by…a…gasp …“chambermaid” with whom “he had a quick tumble.”  There are virtually no references in the French context to the race of the “chambermaid,” or to that of the former head of the IMF.  But that is not surprising in a nation that still has no official statistics on race, nearly half a century after moving away from its colonial past: This is the French’s version of anti-racism, similar to the American liberal view of “colorblindness.” That is to say, if we don’t name it, then we can pretend it doesn’t exist…or that it will just go away.

As interesting, story after story came out about DSK’s “exploits,” (as if such a casual term could possibly describe what was slowly emerging as a history of sexual assault)—all of which were summarily dismissed by…French elites, prosecutors, philosophers. The regressive attitude toward sexual assault could be seen in the description of the tumble with the chambermaid, and in some of the following stories that soon came to light:

Tristane Banon, DSK’s step-daughter accused of DSK of having attacked her years before, describing him as a rutting chimpanzee. To bring out this accusation when she did suggests that it was hardly a spontaneous act of the imagination. But even then, DSK’s staunch defender BHL stopped at little: accusing DSK’s step-goddaughter of pulling out all an “eight-year” old accusation of attempted rape because of a “golden” opportunity. And what kind of opportunity was this, one might wonder? To accuse one’s family member of rape in public, after years?

And there were other accusations as well—certainly not legal accusations, but rumors of DSK’s sexually coercive exploits, which had floated about France for years. We can be skeptical of them, but it becomes more and more difficult to cast them off when the rumors and incidences and alleged victims multiply.

There are several lessons to be learned here:

1)    the sexuality of working-class, poor, and migrant women of color will always be under more suspicion than the coercive tendencies of the upper-class men who are accused of assaulting them.

2)    When those accusations are corroborated through the stories of other women, the falsely reviled sexual assault victim will rarely, if ever, receive an apology from those who cast aspersions on her to begin with. At least, I think so. Right, Bernie?

3)    The outrage and shock over the simple procedural treatment of upper-class men accused of sexual crimes will be loud and shrill–even in the face of plausible evidence.

4)  The horrendous treatment of Muslim men and women, of Black men and women, will be casually accepted worldwide–even in the face of no evidence whatsoever. And it will be augmented by near silence or smug righteousness.

I can only take a bit of comfort as a settlement was reached between DSK and Diallo, that some tiny little justice was served, even in the face of enormous, unconscionable, gaping injustices for other men and women of color in the US and around the world.

Yet, we can rest assured that upper-class elite white men, like their predecessors, will always be excused from being accountable for crimes they may have committed, while men and women of color and their communities will—for the foreseeable future–have to pay for crimes that they will never commit.

_____________________________

*Corrected Title. This post has been updated and revised.

Saving Afghan Women? NDAA 2013 Exploits Feminism to Justify Western Imperialism

Recently, the US Senate passed a measure designed to increase security for Afghan women as America gets ready to leave the country. The provision in question, according to the New York Times, “offers hope for the Afghan women who fear they will be even more vulnerable to harsh customs and the men who impose them after American troops withdraw from Afghanistan.” With its passage, some might believe that the United States demonstrating its commitment to feminism. That might be too quick a judgment.

Sen. Bob Casey, one of the sponsors of the measure describes it thus:

The legislation would require a three-part strategy to promote the security of Afghan women and girls by monitoring and responding to changes in women’s security, improving gender sensitivity and responsiveness among Afghan National Security personnel, and increasing the recruitment and retention of women in the Afghan National Security Forces. The Department of Defense would also be required to include an assessment of actions taken to implement the strategy and its results in its semi-annual reports to Congress on progress toward security and stability in Afghanistan.

This provision is sponsored by Senators Bob Casey (D-PA) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX). In light of the stories of Taliban repression of women, this provision suggests that Casey and Bailey-Hutchison really care about the fate of Afghan women. Let’s review their feminist records, shall we?

Casey, a Democrat, voted for Sen. Roy Blunt’s ““Respect for Rights of Conscience Act,” in March of this year. One of the most controversial aspects of the Health Insurance bill, it enabled employers to opt out of providing abortion and contraceptive coverage, along with “any other health treatment based solely on the undefined determination of the employer’s religious and moral beliefs, including prenatal care, childhood vaccinations, cancer screenings, and mammograms.”

As Kate Michelman points out, that vote was consistent with Bob Casey’s earlier votes against stem cell research funding back in 2007. Even though the bill passed, Pres. George Bush vetoed it– to his infinite credit. Was that the end of the story? Not quite: To show HIS feminist solidarity, President Obama enacted the ban against federal funding of stem cell research law through Executive order.

Hutchison’s feminist credentials are more ambiguous. Although until 2006, she sat on the board of The Wish List, PAC that endorsed pro-choice Republican candidates, she is hardly pro-choice. The National Right to Life Committee gave her between 93% and 100% on her anti-choice views over the last few years. Conversely, NARAL has given her between 0%-20% based on her consistency in voting to restrict access to abortion. As a Representative, Hutchison did work to sponsor legislation that would allow victims of rape to keep their names out of the press. But that was almost 40 years ago.

There is little in the description that confirms a chivalrous or feminist impulse to save Afghan women. The measure indicates a commitment to implement a security system that reflects and sustains American presence in Afghanistan.  Moreover, rebuilding Afghanistan in the image of the US facilitates a structure that would allow the US an excuse to rush back when it deems that the new political order is not going according to plan. We saw an example of this when the US objected to the Afghan insistence on upholding due process in its new justice system.

What exactly is the danger that Afghan women face from other Afghan men? Patriarchy? Violence? Sexual assault? Being vulnerable to violence when leaving the house? I have no problem believing that Afghan men can be sexist, misogynist, and harmful to women, just as I have no problem believing that men (and women  in positions of power) from all over the world can be sexist, misogynist and harmful to women. But there is a serious question about the relative comparison that Afghan men are MORE sexist, misogynist, and harmful than men anywhere else in the world, and that Whites (and elite People of Color who are part of White supremacy) are needed to save them from the harms of their male family and community.

That is to say, the rhetoric of this provision eclipses the danger that Afghan women have been in UNDER the presence of US soldiers for the last 5 years. The number of reported instances of rape, mayhem and plunder that U.S. male soldiers have inflicted on Afghan and Iraqi women in the 11 years since the U.S. has sent troops into these countries suggest that the impulses of Casey and Hutchison need to be considered against the backdrop of the violence that Afghan women have suffered in light of the US military presence. See here and here and here for just a few instances in which U.S. soliders have not only raped Afghan women or girls, or set fire to entire families. And these are only in those cases where the accusations against them have been aired publicly.

Given the range of stories of similar assaults by U.S. soldiers, I wonder how that differs from their lives under US military over the last few years, especially as US soldiers have not been held accountable for their extracurricular activities such as wartime rape, village burnings, and assault

As scholar Gayatri Spivak points out, this is the age-old story of imperialism: White men saving brown women from brown men. But it IS a story: a piece of propaganda that is used to justify military actions and condemn Others.  In the same way that well-intentioned imperial governments invaded India to plunder resources and expand their global authority while convincing themselves that they were bringing civilization to the savages, the U.S. tells itself the story that it is a peacekeeper and protector of women.  A peacekeeper who invades and creates mayhem in a country by enabling its soldiers to rape Afghan women without punishment.

In terms of misogyny and sexism, the U.S. should have faced sanctions or been invaded already for its neglect in addressing the systematic rape and violence that are faced by women in various parts of the United States–by fundamentalist Christians, football coaches (plural), schoolteachers, among various men. The United States, according to recent UN statistics on sexual assault (Excel pdf)has among the top 10 rates of rape in the world—some of the other countries including UK, Belgium Sweden, South Africa, and Botswana. I’m sure there are biases of self-reporting, but let’s be clear: the US is hardly a feminist refuge.

If all goes well, the above measure will be included in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, an annual budget measure which, over the last few years, has included little known provisions pertaining to the scope of presidential and military power in relation to the US’ War on Terror.  Last year’s NDAA made headlines as it included provisions Sec. 1031 and 1032, which authorized the US president to arrest or detain any US citizen or foreign national—anywhere in the world—on suspicion of terrorism. And that was in addition to a number of other objectionable provisions, as convincingly argued by ACLU’s Kade Crockford:

…the 600-page NDAA of 2013 authorizing 2/3rds of a trillion dollars in spending for the armed forces was before Congress. Introduced on March 29, 2012, by the time the new defense bill was voted on in mid May by the House it contained some troubling provisions. Sections 1221 and 1222 essentially authorized war with Iran. Again, the NDAA severely restricted the executive branch’s ability to transfer detainees out of Guantanamo. An amendment termed “The Smith-Mundt Modernization Act” which was added to the NDAA permits the government to create and distribute pro-American propaganda within the US to counter al-Qaeda propaganda, striking down a long-standing ban.

This year’s NDAA will may yet make headlines in the US because of another recently passed measure, sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, to retract the power of the President to detain US citizens without cause. While a laudable move, it leaves intact the US presumptive authority to arrest Muslim men or foreign nationals assumed to be terrorists, and to detain them indefinitely without charges or trials.

The real danger to Afghan women is the United States’ arbitrary claim to decide the terms of security: to decide who will be subject to violence, when, and at what costs. The security of Afghan women may be increased if they follow an American political order; still, they and other foreigners have already been subject to the danger and the violence of U.S. imperialism–through rapes and violence committed by US soldiers under the auspices of America’s self-justification to wage a imperial war abroad and at home. Those parts of the U.S. imperial mission to civilize and uplift will hardly make Afghan women, or men more secure.

American Politics and the Blurred Distinction Between Principles, Policies, and Personalities

Apologies for posting less frequently than usual. I’ve been traveling, which has made it difficult. Robert E. Prasch fills in today with an insightful post on the misapplication of categories. And I’ll have a new column within the next couple days.

Robert E. Prasch

One of the difficulties in following American politics is that words often lose their meaning in the course of partisan argumentation.  But thinking clearly, requires attending to the meaning of words and the concepts to which they refer.  One area where much work is needed is in the distinction between principles, policies, and personalities.

Principles, by definition, are “hard and fast rules.”  As such, they are not subject to negotiation.  Not for money, momentary political advantage, monetary reward, or any reason at all short of the direst of emergencies – and perhaps not even then.  In the political realm, our society has sought to elevate certain moral and procedural principles to the status of “rights.”  Long and painful experience has shown that we regret the consequences that follow, almost inevitably, from setting aside those rights.  Knowing this, we have deemed these rights to be “inviolate.”  This, as American schoolchildren used to know, is the idea underlying the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the several ensuing Amendments, etc.[FS1]   This special status is also important because we know, again from hard experience, that in the midst of emergencies, tragedies and panics (real, imagined, or induced), that the citizenry can be induced to set them aside.    We also know, again from hard experience, that our elected officials can be counted upon to lead the call for the suspension of our rights.

For example, consider that there is no Constitutional Amendment forbidding our elected officials from banging their heads against the nearest wall.  This is probably because history, experience, and introspection, all suggest that they are disinclined to do it, and that little of importance is at stake for our society or polity in the event that some of them decide to pursue such an activity.

By contrast, our Constitution forbids “unreasonable searches and seizures,” while insisting on a positive right to a “speedy and public trial,” along with a right “to be confronted with witnesses.” The reason is that circumstances have appeared and reappeared in which a majority of voters and elected officials insist that “this time is different.”  Hence they claim that “in this exceptional case” there are reasons to violate these principles (otherwise known as the 1st, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 14th Amendments to the Constitution).  As  principles, these Amendments cannot and should not be set aside to appease the roar of a crowd, or because an influential person or group persons believes that doing so might be an “expedient” or “pragmatic” way to achieve a particular and popular end (one invariably advantageous to the party making the argument).

In contrast to principle, policy is about the government’s approach to a particular problem or issue.  For example, the government may enact a policy designed to reduce the use of gasoline in that hope that doing so will improve the balance of trade while aiding the environment.  As with all policies, some will “win” and others will “lose,” but it is important to observe that no principles are at stake, just interests.  Policies cover a range of approaches to problems that can be discussed reasonably by reasonable people.  It is understood that, as a consequence of differing interests and perhaps political philosophies, different people may arrive at different conclusions.

The same cannot be said about principles.  So, when the minions of a sitting President of the United States work diligently behind the scenes to craft and then enact legislation granting the executive branch the authority to seize, imprison indefinitely, and kill United States citizens without “due process of law,” then what we are seeing is not a “policy difference,” the merits of which reasonable people may reasonably debate.  Rather, we are seeing the violation of our core principles as they are clearly described in the Constitution.  Only two positions can be taken on this issue: (1) ally with those who believe that we should live in a republic governed by laws, or (2) ally with those who do not.  By clear and distinct contrast with the Bush and Obama Administrations, I count myself as among those who wish to live in a free republic.

Moreover, I maintain this position unapologetically.  Most damning of all, by the standards of the District of Columbia, the White House, and the mainstream media, I am unashamed by my dogmatism.  But, the situation is even worse.  I fully, and with every ounce of contempt I can muster, dismiss the idea that we are living through a period of history featuring such unique, unprecedented, and extreme dangers that Constitutional protections can, and should, be abrogated.  Living as a free citizen in a free republic involves risks.  But, as we look around, it is evident that the risks are minimal and the costs – in lost liberties and out of pocket expenses — are massive (We can begin with the 230,000 employed by Homeland Security and the approximately 200,000+ employed at various “intelligence” agencies such as NSA, CIA, and others).

Let’s turn to personalities.  For the past several decades, we have been asked to judge political candidates exclusively on the basis of their personality.  Are they optimistic?  Do they have a lovely wife?  Have they had an affair?  Have they ever transported the family dog on the roof of the family car? I do not care.  I do not care about a politician’s family, their love-life, or the travel arrangements of their pets.  As a citizen, I just don’t care, and neither should you.  Adherence to the Constitution and an ability to formulate and “sell” compelling policies should be the foundation of political success in a well-functioning polity.  Not personal foibles or failings.

Why, then, does personality play such a role in our politics?  Two reasons come to mind.  One is that matters of principle and policy may be difficult to interpret, especially in a world featuring massive expenditures on disinformation and partisan “spin.”  Another, more disconcerting reason, is that the major parties represent the same elite interests and for that reason are not all that different on a wide range of issues.  For example, both parties are committed to establishing and maintaining U.S. hegemony across the Middle East.  Both parties are anxious to set aside Constitutional protections so as to further concentrate power in the executive branch.  Both parties are fully committed to protecting the nation’s largest and most useless financial institutions.  Both parties are anxious to pursue any and all “Free Trade” agreements designed by and for the Fortune 500 companies.  Both parties are committed to rolling back the meager income security that Americans receive from Medicare and Social Security.  Both parties understand that they will respond with alacrity and zest to the needs expressed by the upper 7-10% of the population as measured by income and wealth, even as they essentially neglect or assault the interests of the rest.  The leadership of both parties are fully aware of this convergence, and I would submit that they have not fooled as many Americans as they think.  However, just because they share a broad consensus should not be interpreted to mean that each party’s leadership is not anxious to garner the spoils of governing to themselves, their sponsors, and their camp followers.

In short, the focus on personalities, and the partisan bickering that follows from it, is not symptomatic of divergence, but rather signifies the convergence of political perspectives between the major parties.  Moreover, this convergence of the parties behind an agenda designed largely by and for economic elites can be more readily masked if differences of personality can made to substitute for discussions of substantive content.  So we should expect to see even more excited discussions about marital affairs and the travails of family pets as we witness the continuance of the bi-partisan push to set aside the core principles of republican government and the pursuit of economic policies designed to benefit a privileged minority at the expense of the rest of us.

Without Papers: Human but Not a Person

Several days ago in Paris, the city welcomed me with a bit of adventure. Within an hour of arriving, my wallet was lifted in the Metro.  Aside from feeling like a chump for having been scammed so easily, I was a bit puzzled by the immediate response of the concerned Parisians around me, who asked, “Vos papiers? Avez-vous vos papiers?” Do you have your papers (a.k.a. your passport or other identifying documents)? Even as a visitor, it was not the first thought that ran through my mind—I was more concerned about being without money. It is absolutely true that replacing my passport as an American citizen without any other documents would be hectic, to say the least. But as a visitor for France, I should have been even more worried about my passport than any other loss. According to French law, it is illegal to be without one’s identifying papers, whether citizen, visitor, or migrant.  Of course, even in a nation that to the present day does not account for race in its official government statistics, the police tend to apply the law selectively: much more frequently the papers of dark, male French denizens are checked than any other group.

As those who follow migration politics will undoubtedly be aware, the U.S. is somewhat dissimilar to France.  Technically, citizens do not have to carry proof of citizenship with them, even though all non-citizens do.  A number of states in the U.S. South and Southwest have enacted a series of profiling laws, such as Arizona’s SB 1070, which make it legal to ask for proof of legal entry into the Unites States for those “suspected” of being undocumented—again, even as citizens are not required to carry those papers.  The law’s contradiction appears nonsensical only if we bracket the racial profiling that this double-standard implies: That is to say, unless the American populace already has a common stereotype of who constitutes a bona fide citizen, how can a law enforcement official feel confident in distinguishing a citizen from a non-citizen?  Moreover, while citizens don’t have to carry proof of citizenship, if they are darker they still stand an increased chance of being deported, as has happened to several thousands of citizens under the Obama Administration. Recent numbers are difficult to ascertain, but approximately 4000 US citizens were detained and deported in 2010, and as many as 20,000 have been detained, with some portion deported in 2011, including teenagers.

In various countries, including the UK and Spain, non-citizen residents must register their presence at the nearest police station. It is a long-standing tradition in many nations, dating back to medieval times and fortressed cities, when a visitor had to have a host or sponsor within the gates in order to be allowed to stay overnight in that burgh. This requirement has been historically found in the United States as well: there are records dating back to the 1700’s Massachusetts in which visitors had to register their presence in order to be permitted to stay in a town.

In the late 19th century, along with the introduction of a centralized immigration system, the practice of requiring visitors to carry their papers emerged. This practice notably thwarted Chinese merchant migrants, who were required to show and leave their papers with INS offices upon entry at local ports, despite the fact that they were also required to carry their papers with them at all times. This contradiction induced the arrest and deportation of many Chinese in the wake of the 1882 Exclusion law. Lucy Salyer, in her book, Laws Harsh as Tigers, has a remarkable description of this contradictory law.

Today, if one is considered a non-threatening citizen (depending upon where in the United States one lives, that might include African Americans, Latinos, and South Asians of certain middle- and upper-class backgrounds, and most whites)—the issue of showing one’s papers to indicate that one belongs is a rare demand. Obviously, the opposite is true for black and brown residents in various parts of the United States: Georgia, Arizona, Texas, Florida, among other places.

The notion of having to carry one’s papers to demonstrate one’s “belongingness” is a fundamental feature of the world of nation-states. Bizarrely enough, many of us accept this requirement of proof without comment—we assume as a given that we must prove our political status regardless of our humanity.  In fact, as Hannah Arendt points out, that we are human is a trivial fact, meaningless without proof of our political status as citizens of a particular nation.  Yet, the ultimate existential irony–in the age of centralized databases–is that each of us must have (implicit or express) recorded permission to reside in any land on this earth—despite the fact that one’s birth is irreversible (I do not mean to imply that illnesses, death, or violence does not occur; only that a birth cannot be spontaneously, magically, undone). The need for permission is contrary to the basic obligation that every nation should have: that one belongs to the world, to the land, simply by virtue of having been born.

Even more bizarre is the fact that, for many, it is not enough to claim to belong somewhere by virtue of being born—one must also show one’s worthiness in order to claim one’s right to a place that doesn’t exactly reciprocate that desire. So, it still takes several generations and various somersaults for Turkish migrants to claim citizenship in Germany, despite changes in laws that should have made it easier. And as Turks and other migrants claim about Germany, even then, one does not feel as if one has the entitlement to claim it as one’s home. This despite the bizarre irony that if one can prove one’s German ancestry—regardless of whether that ancestry is several generations removed, one is always welcome back to the Motherland.

In the U.S., there still exists a notion of “birthright” citizenship, jus soli, which enables those who are born on U.S. soil to claim that they belong. But even jus soli has seen some pushback from conservatives who have begun to challenge the citizenship rights of children born in the U.S. to undocumented parents. H.R. 140, introduced in January 2011 by Steve King of Iowa and 90 others, but but not passed, is one example of this.

Of course, even outside the birthright challenge, the U.S has long engaged in its innumerable obstacles to belonging: the myriad bureaucratic measures that are laid out like a serpentine cobblestone road, to be followed minutely and precisely at the risk of having one’s application to belong thrown out at the first misstep; the threat of youthful indiscretions which may, in the current era of harsher sentencing, lead to a criminal record—making one’s ability to reside in the country with one’s family increasingly endangered; and other sanguine pacts—as entrenched in the as yet unpassed DREAM Act. For example, in the 2011 House and Senate versions, one must agree to give all biometric data to the state as a condition of having one’s application considered for citizenship.

In this supposedly cosmopolitan world, certain classes of people can and do travel freely and without fear: wealthy celebrity and business elites, and various “democracy-embracing” political classes. Others with neither money nor power–cannot take for granted the simple ability to live anywhere in this world  without question, without challenge, simply by virtue of one’s birth.  Even within the confines of the country of one’s birth—those without a home can linger nowhere– neither on sidewalks, subway grates, or benches in parks without being shoved off, told to move along, that it is not meant for loitering.  That something so primordial, so pre-political—the ability to claim belonging without question–can be subjected to such surreal administrative measures, speaks to how removed the contemporary world has become from the basic condition of humanity. Sans papiers, without papers, one is but human, often holding a lesser status than a corporation—at least in the United States.