The Domestic Infection of Empire

27 03 2012

“Our security will require…being ready to strike at a moment’s notice in any dark corner…and our security will require all Americans to be forward-looking and resolute, to be ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives…”

There is no connection between the killings of Trayvon Martin and Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. There are some similarities though. The latter was sixteen, the former seventeen. Both were killed without any due process. Both were culpable because of who they were, not what they’d done. And both were victims of a panicky expedience mindset.

The President said, in a touching moment, that if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon Martin. Many American citizens could say the same about Abdulrahman al-Awlaki.

Unlike some, I don’t expect the President, at this point, to weigh in on the immorality of Martin’s killing; as the DOJ is investigating, it’d be inappropriate for the executive in charge of the agency to make a pronouncement on the rightness of wrongness of anything while the investigation is on-going. And frankly, I don’t want the President to make any pronouncement. Abdulrahman was an American child killed by his government without any due process as acceptable “collateral damage.” And of course, Zimmerman is due his process.

I get the consternation at the lack of indignant statements by the President. In the last twenty four hours, odious efforts have been made to smear Trayvon Martin, portraying him as a potential gangster, a one-time drug possessor, a general reprobate. Even if we accept these allegations as 100% true (and there’s no reason to do so) that would not come close to justifying the killing of this child. That is the point of due process. It is the process that ferrets out truth. Our past mistakes don’t justify imprisonment, much less killing; and in this country, we are never, ever, born carrying the burdens of our parents, much less be made to pay for them. Rather, it speaks to the American mindset, encouraged at all levels by serious public intellectuals: identity defines threats, threats respond only to force.

When I hear Democratic partisans complain about “civil liberties purists” like Glenn Greenwald, I think about ancient Rome, and not just because I just generally am thinking about ancient Rome. The Roman republic collapsed into autocracy in part because the pressure of maintaining an empire subsumed republican institutions. The exigencies of constant war concentrated more and more power into executive offices that, in a positive feedback dynamic, jockeyed for individual control. It was precisely Julius Caesar’s foreign adventures, and the attendant development of an extra-legal, military power center, that finally overwhelmed the capacity of slow, creaky domestic institutions to govern Rome.

The executive branch’s “foreign activities” are not discrete. They infect the domestic polity. And we know this to be true instinctively, and by experience. The PATRIOT Act was pushed by a wilding out executive as a necessary tool to battle foreign terrorists but has been used to go after domestic targets. The war authorizations for Afghanistan and Iraq have been used to expend blood and treasure literally anywhere in the world the President senses terrorist activities, and the cost of this war strangles the country’s ability to fund education and health care and basic social programs, which in turn perpetuate poverty and inequality. Meanwhile, these things are all rationalized by the executive branch’s “war powers,” deemed untouchable as political poison by Congress and as a “political question” by the Supreme Court.

The pressures placed on our republican institutions are straining the rule of law. The decision in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld has muddied the substance/procedure distinction in due process jurisprudence; the turbocharging of the military-industrial sector has bled into local police forces; federal terror authority has blended with local law enforcement and the immigration system. Operating an empire without compels a security state within–a security state with coercive, often violent solutions to what are social maladies; that feeds a voracious prison system–and that presumes guilt as a precaution in a time of supposed peril.

Our foreign practice reverberates in our domestic politics; the two are ineffaceablely connected, and fury at an executive’s abuse of his sacrosanct “foreign policy” power is not a haute cosmopolitan concern distinct from the “meat and potatoes” “kitchen table” issues that “real voters” worry about. To the contrary; it is precisely concern over the effect of unrestrained executive power on domestic politics that motivates criticism of foreign policy and civil liberties issues.

What respect is there for the rule of law and due process in a country that has reduced “due process” to an internal decision making process–for all we know, internal to the President’s mind? In a nation where suspicion and identity are sufficient reasons for the President to kill a 16 year old American citizen, what moral high ground can he operate from to lambaste an identity-motivated paranoiac who kills a 17 year old American citizen? Is it worse or better that one happened under the color of law?

This is not to say at all that Martin’s killing and the appalling law enforcement response are functions of the War on Terror. They are functions of prejudice. Prejudice, like fear, is not easily reasoned with. It takes brave leadership, moral arguments, and the hard work of trying to understand and love your perceived enemy, to purge these things from a body politic. When a republic’s leadership sharpen fear and insist on violence as a solution to insecurity, even where that means violating basic republican values, a toxic idea infects the majority. And I hate to go trite and quote De Tocqueville, but,

When an opinion has taken root in a democracy and established itself in the minds of the majority, it afterward persists by itself, needing no effort to maintain it since no one attacks it. Those who at first rejected it as false come in the end to adopt it as accepted, and even those who still at the bottom of their hearts oppose it keep their views to themselves, taking great care to avoid a dangerous and futile contest.

There is, persisting in the minds of the American majority, with little outrage or objection from the political classes an idea that peace and non-violence are by definition the fever dreams of whackadoos; that insisting that moral principles cannot survive when they’re forever being excepted is infantile. That insecurity can be shot to death.

Even if the worst about Trayvon Martin is true, his death is a crushing, era-defining tragedy. It reminds black children everywhere that they are still considered inherently dangerous, that their mere existence is sufficient grounds for hostility and violence. And what rationales are beginning to bubble all rest on the notion that security sometimes requires extraordinary action–and that we must therefore anticipate and forgive “collateral damage.”

A voluntary neighborhood watch is a good idea. Pursuit of terrorists is a good idea. Violence in a neighborhood is an evil that requires vigilance. Terrorists kill senselessly. Our communities need to be defended from organized crime that preys on the vulnerable. Nevertheless,

[W]e reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man — a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience sake.

Can there be any doubt that the security state has grown with pathogenic virulence? But the leaders of our national community always have this choice: to stoke our insecurity and justify rash expedience, or make a moral argument that those ideals that light the world are indelible, a source of strength when faced with the unknown, or different.



2 responses

27 03 2012
Why is Frank Martin often so indignant?

[…] The Domestic Infection of Empire « Same Subject, Continued […]

31 03 2012
Linkage | March 18–31, 2012 « trailerpilot

[…] 27: Ramsin Canon blogged about “the domestic infection of empire.” It would’ve been Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s 126th birthday; The Guardian published Steve […]

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