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.