Revised 1/7/12, 3:25 pm.
Pervasive violence is the ever-louder siren of the U.S. state’s impotence. It is the beacon of this nation’s inability to garner respect by adhering to Constitutional principles. At the risk of being obvious, I have in mind principles such as the freedom to dissent; to challenge the state, to be free of undue invasions of privacy; to have a trial framed by charges, evidence, and clear, fair procedures. These are the principles which would—could–challenge the US’s increasing quest for violence as the means of political control at home and abroad. This quest, paradoxically, revitalizes loyalty among its people even as it drains the existential serenity of those elsewhere in the world.
By violence, I include overt violence, such as the kidnapping and rendition of black and brown men to the U.S; the drones directed towards South Asia, East Africa, and the Philippines; the detention and incarceration of men without charges, lawyers, fresh air. Solitary confinement.
By violence, I include psychic violence, such as warrantless wiretapping and surveillance of US citizens, residents and foreigners (sic); the silent spying on mosque-goers, protestors; the deportation of migrants by the millions; the separation of parents from their children by the hundreds of thousands; the fear of arrest by men and women who give money to charities and legal defense funds of groups deemed often ex post terrorist organizations; the deliberate withholding of justice for poor homeowners scammed by mortgage companies.
By violence, I include the existential violence enveloped in the fear that being Muslim, Black, or Latino marks you as a magnet for police attention. As a magnet for kidnapping. A magnet for arrest and endless incarceration without appeal. For drones. Bullets. Deportations. Among other kinds of invasions and violations.
Sociologist Max Weber talks about the state “as the rule of men over men based on the means of legitimate, that is, allegedly legitimately violence of the state.”
All modern states were founded on violence. On conquest and genocide and slavery. That history was elided, concealed through the abiding fiction of the social contract. The logic of the social contract was that men agreed to give up violence in order to abide by principles of respect and reciprocity. What we call rights and duties. A social contract. And even that Social Contract is founded on violence. It is a racial contract, one where the rights and duties of certain men were based on the eclipse of the rights of others: African men, women, and children. White women.
But social contracts—despite their origins– can be useful. Like the Constitution, they can make clear what our expectations are of each other. They can change, evolve, adjust—but their chief basis is the reciprocity of respect and freedom.
This is why there is something so earth-shatteringly irrevocable when a state based on a social contract, on a Constitution such as ours, declares a—continual–emergency by citing the threat of cultural, racial minorities and political minorities—of Muslims qua terrorists. Of Black men qua drug dealers. Of Latinos qua undocumented migrants. Of all who are political dissidents or whistleblowers who publicize the nefarious actions of elites.
What is it that propels people to endorse their government’s shift from representing them to overseeing them like an abusive parent? Since when do Americans seek comfort in a parent who oversees every move, micromanages every action, punishes every step that it construes as a misstep, who locks their child in the closet for howling in pain? Since when do we endorse political leaders who embrace beatings and torture as implements of security?
The ingenuity of the transition from political representation to state-incurred violence is that it is always—always—done with an array of equipment that makes that violence seem technical, impersonal, clinical. This is why it seems so natural to move from a society where we elect politicians to represent us with constraints–to one where we license them to expand their powers immeasurably while correspondingly narrowing ours.
As the formidable Miz Arendt point out:
Violence—as distinct from power, force or strength, always needs implements…the revolution of technology, a revolution in tool-making, was especially marked in warfare.
—Crises of the Republic, Part I, On Violence
She refers to physical violence and its dependence on technology. Technology such as atomic weapons, missiles, long-range high power assault rifles —and now, drones, cybersurveillance, wireless interception of phone and email communications. It is technology that becomes increasingly sophisticated in distancing the soldier, the pilot, the government IT specialist, from his targets. Less sophisticated is the distance in distinguishing the target from the bystanders.
Beyond the R & D advances of the US Armed Forces, we can add a range of old-school equipment to that list: torture rooms, undercover CIA operations, prisons in far away places, military bases in Djibouti. These are “necessary” equipment for the purposes of cinching security, to “nip danger in the bud.”
To Arendt’s point, I would add that physical and psychic violence intimately depend upon their own technologies. In particular, three kinds of technologies go hand in hand with violence:
Technologies of law, eager politicians, and enthusiastic citizens.
Technologies of law, as we have witnessed abundantly, include those that instigated the upside-downness of our legal world with categories like pre-emptive policing, (legal and illegal) enemy combatants, and terrorists.
They include the USA PATRIOT Act and the Military Commisions Act of 2006. But we shouldn’t forget the long, continual series of laws that have helped cement and entrench this world of violence.
More recent technologies of violence include the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (which legitimizes—after the fact–John Kiriakou’s criminality perfectly). FISA with its absence of oversight provisions and its latest 5-year renewal, and not 3 as proposed by Sen. Leahy. The NDAA 2013 which, like last year’s version, again legitimates the President’s and US Military’s authority to arrest and indefinitely detain anyone—anyone—that they suspect of terrorism. This year’s version prohibits the closure of Guantanamo Bay’s extra-judicial prison.
Another little remembered technology of violence: H.R. 347, which criminalizes protestors by making it illegal for them to stand near a public building or Secret Service officers with a sign or with “threatening intent.”
But of course, legal technologies of violence aren’t just limited to laws. They also include US court decisions—and the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear appeals–that criminalize members of charities—or people who give money to them. They include judges’ insistence that they can’t challenge the illegality of drone strikes. Etc. Etc.
Technologies of eager politicians can be found in seemingly liberal upholders of the Constitution. A most recent example would be Senator Dianne Feinstein, who insists that we must give as much information to the NSA as possible in order to catch the terrorists who are in our midst. She simultaneously insists that the NSA knows who to surveil or not surveil, and that its reasons are too dangerous classified for the rest of us to know.
Such technologies of violence can be located in POTUS and his Administration, who demand the authority to assassinate, kill children with drones, arrest and detain, to surveil at whim. Or to collaborate with bankers to ensure that bailout money goes to the perpetrators of fraud, and not its victims.
This technology is replete with smiles, fine suits and coiffures, and the assurance that they are working in the interests and safety of their citizens. It comes with the additional ingredient of insisting that human rights violations in China must be addressed. That the genocidal intentions of Iran and Palestine must be addressed. And condemning the dictatorial powers of the Venezualan and Ecuadorian Presidents. Um, right.
Perhaps the most efficient technology is that of enthusiastic citizens who vote and vote and vote again for politicians who openly assure them that they only want the best for their “constituents.” It is a dangerous technology, this technology of willing self-described liberal citizens who claim to revere the principles of freedom, privacy, and known laws, while insisting that POTUS is constrained by his Congress, his staff, his difficult legacy as the first Black President.
This technology is accompanied by an all-too-easy amnesia (or is it dissociation?). As Thomas Harrington writes,
…[W]hen a Democrat gets elected to office, it seems that this calculus suddenly changes…[w]hen I confront people whom I know voted for Obama and his party with this desultory and undeniably accurate bill of particulars, they act as if it had little or nothing to do with them and their vote.
In fact, then, the most effective technology of violence under a Democratic Presidency is the denial of facts. It is the willful amnesia that one of “their own,”—a liberal, a community activist, a constitutional law professor, a person of color (and his racially diverse Administration), a cosmopolitan—has taken the lead in violating the sanctity of human beings: through death, destruction of foreign lands, punishing journalists, torturing whistleblowers, kidnapping young men, and killing children. All the while, using secrecy, disposition matrices, surveillance—and–immunity laws—to breed the fear of God into us if we dare dissent.
The second most effective violence is the insistence that destroying and marginalizing one’s own people is better when it comes from a liberal. As Ethnic Studies Professor Dylan Rodrigues presciently wrote back in 2008—in the aftermath of the Barack Obama’s first victory (the piece is worth reading in its entirety):
To be clear: the political work of liberation from racist state violence—and everything it sanctions and endorses, from premature death to poverty—becomes more complex, contradictory, and difficult now. The dreadful genius of the multiculturalist Obama moment is that it installs a “new” representative figure of the United States that, in turn, opens “new” possibilities for history’s slaves, savages, and colonized to more fully identify with the same nation-building project that requires the neutralization, domestication, and strategic elimination of declared aliens, enemies, and criminals. In this sense, I am less anxious about the future of the “Obama administration” (whose policy blueprint is and will be relatively unsurprising) than I am about the speed and effectiveness with which it has rallied the sentimentality and political investment (often in terms of actual dollar contributions and voluntary labor) of the purported U.S. “Left.
As we witness the nomination and selective framing of Drone collateral death denier and Torture endorser John Brennan by the POTUS for the Director of the CIA–can there be any doubt of how apt Prof. Rodrigues’ words are?
The state’s struggle is not one for political power (defined as that which represents the flourishing of its people)—but for control—to decide the dividing line between flourishing and emaciation, between success and immiseration, between bodily sanctity and bodily violation and destruction, between political freedom and abject fear. Between life and death. That struggle for control is a voracious hunger. It is the hunger to monopolize violence—to insist that violence belongs to the state—as an efficient, effective—and legal means to manage its people.
And yet, this Administration’s most effective legacy is the dissemination of fear. Dissemination of evisceration. Of bodily violations. Of the destruction of countless innocent lives.
Liberals who embraced this second term have enabled the continuation of an empire under multicultural leadership—one which continues, expands, and intensifies the war on people—especially on brown and black and Muslim peoples—through an array of technologies, which are so clean, precise, and beyond refute for so many liberals—those who helped perpetuate this war by re-electing the very people who continued it under the mantle of Freedom and Democracy.
Looking forward, not back.