Policies aimed at marginalized, easily demonizable minorities are much easier to shield from political challenge
Opponent of war and advocate of civil liberties (Credit: AP)
In The Washington Post yesterday, Law Professor Jonathan Turley has an Op-Ed in which he identifies ten major, ongoing assaults on core civil liberties in the U.S. Many of these abuses were accelerated during the Bush administration in the wake of 9/11, but all have been vigorously continued and/or expanded by President Obama. Turley points out that these powers have long been deemed (by the U.S.) as the hallmark of tyranny, and argues that their seizure by the U.S. Government has seriously called into question America’s status as a free nation: “They form a mosaic of powers under which our country could be considered, at least in part, authoritarian.” All ten of these powers are ones very familiar to readers here: Assassination of U.S. citizens; Indefinite detention; Arbitrary justice; Warrantless searches; Secret evidence; War crimes; Secret court; Immunity from judicial review; Continual monitoring of citizens; and Extraordinary renditions.
I’ve written volumes on all of those powers over the last several years, but — especially today — I want to focus on one narrow but vital question: who are generally the victims of these civil liberties assaults? The answer is the same as the one for this related question: who are the prime victims of America’s posture of Endless War? Overwhelmingly, the victims are racial, ethnic and religious minorities: specifically, Muslims (both American Muslims and foreign nationals). And that is a major factor in why these abuses flourish: because those who dominate American political debates perceive, more or less accurately, that they are not directly endangered (at least for now) by this assault on core freedoms and Endless War (all civil liberties abuses in fact endanger all citizens, as they inevitably spread beyond their original targets, but they generally become institutionalized precisely because those outside the originally targeted minority groups react with indifference).
To see how central a role this sort of selfish provincialism plays in shaping political priorities, just compare (a) the general indifference to Endless War and the massive civil liberties assaults described by Turley (ones largely confined to Muslims) to (b) the intense outrage and media orgy generated when a much milder form of invasiveness — TSA searches — affected Americans of all backgrounds. The success of Endless War and civil liberties attacks depends on ensuring that the prime victims, at least in the first instance, are marginalized and easily demonizable minorities.
The fundamental interconnectedness between war and civil liberties abuses on the one hand, and the targeting of minorities as part of those policies on the other, is, of course, nothing new. It was most eloquently emphasized in the largely forgotten, deliberately whitewashed 1967 speech about the Vietnam War by Martin Luther King, Jr. (who himself was targeted for years with abusive domestic surveillance by the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover). Dr. King devoted that extraordinary speech generally to the way in which the war in Vietnam was savaging not only the people of that country but also America’s national character. He specifically sought to answer his critics who were objecting that his increasingly strident opposition to the Vietnam War was a distraction from his civil rights work; instead, he insisted, his war opposition and advocacy of civil rights are, in fact, causes that are inextricably linked:
Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns this query has often loomed large and loud: Why are you speaking about war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent? Peace and civil rights don’t mix, they say. Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people, they ask? And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live. . . .
It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor — both black and white — through [Lyndon Johnson's] poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such . . . .
As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked — and rightly so — what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent. . . .
Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Vietnam. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that America will be led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land. . . .
This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.
King notably added another reason why he felt compelled to prioritize issues of war: “another burden of responsibility was placed upon me in 1964; and I cannot forget that the Nobel Prize for Peace was also a commission.” As he put it: “ This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances.” If only that award were similarly understood today. His essential point was that nothing good could possibly happen in America so long as it continued on its path of warfare and bombing and invading foreign countries, and it was therefore necessary to prioritize protests against the war on at least equal footing with every other issue.
Over the weekend, I recorded a BloggingheadsTV session with The Nation‘s Katha Pollitt in which several of these same themes were discussed; it was a good, civil, constructive discussion, and the video is below. Part of the debate over the last couple weeks among progressives regarding political priorities, the Obama presidency, the Ron Paul candidacy and the like has entailed a litany of accusations — smears — hurled at those of us who insist on the prioritization of issues of war and civil liberties abuses, and who vocally highlight the ways in which the Democratic Party generally and President Obama specifically have been so awful on these matters. Some Democratic loyalists have explicitly argued that contrasting Obama with Ron Paul on these issues is warped because issues of war and civil liberties are, at best, ancillary concerns, while others have gone so far as to claim that only racial and/or gender bias — white male “privilege” — would cause someone to use the Paul candidacy to highlight how odious Obama has been in these areas.
Leaving aside the fact that (as I detail in the discussion with Pollitt), numerous women and people of color have made the same points about the vital benefits of Paul’s candidacy — voices which these accusers tellingly ignore and silence — these accusations are pure projection. Those who were operating from such privilege would not seek to prioritize issues of war and civil liberties; that’s because it isn’t white progressives and their families who are directly harmed by these heinous policies. The opposite is true: it’s very easy, very tempting, for those driven by this type of “privilege” — for non-Muslims in particular– to decide that these issues are not urgent, that Endless War and civil liberties abuses by a President should not be disqualifying or can be tolerated, precisely because these non-Muslim progressive accusers are not acutely affected by them. The kind of “privilege” these accusers raise would cause one to de-prioritize and accept civil liberties abuses, drone slaughter, indefinite detention and the like (i.e, do what they themselves do), not demand that significant attention be paid to them when assessing political choices.
As I noted the other day, it isn’t white males being indefinitely detained, rendered, and having their houses and cars exploded with drones — the victims of those policies are people like Lakhdar Boumediene, or Gulet Mohamed, or Jose Padilla, or Awal Gul, or Sami al-Haj, or Binyam Mohamed, or Murat Kurnaz, or Afghan villagers, or Pakistani families, or Yemeni teenagers. In order to get the full depth of the oppression and injustice of these ongoing War on Terror policies, one has to do things like listen to this amazing — and tragically rare — interview conducted by Chris Hayes this weekend with Boumediene, as the former GITMO detainee explained in Arabic how his life was devastated by indefinite detention. It’s easy to convince yourself that these abuses are not an urgent priority if, like those above-linked accusers, your non-Muslim privilege (to use their accusatory terminology) enables you to be shielded from their harms.
This is the primary point made so brilliantly by Falguni Sheth, the Political Theory and Philosophy Professor, in arguing that white progressives throwing around these accusations are themselves the ones guilty of it by virtue of their willingness to subordinate these issues to partisan gain — in other words, no longer desiring that these abuses be vested with prime political priority now that it’s their Party and their President guilty of them:
But HERE FOLKS! I am a brown woman (in case my bio didn’t clue you into that), and I am downright livid at policies passed during the Obama administration (which a number of folks will attest that I anticipated before the 2008 election), which are even worse than expected. I am as livid with progressives who affect a casual? studied? indifference to the Administration’s repeated support for warrantless wiretapping (remember Obama’s vote during the 2008 election season when he took a break in campaigning to return to Washington to vote for the renewal of FISA; for his support of the Justice Department’s withholding of evidence (and even habeas corpus) from detainees on grounds of national security; his commitment to indefinite detention (NDAA was not the first time it’s arisen. We saw his support in the gesture to move Gitmo detainees to a federal prison in Illinois—with only a casual suggestion that they might receive civilian trials—only to watch it die quickly under even modest resistance. Guantanamo is still open with detainees languishing); the expansion of troops into Afghanistan in the first part of his term; the unceasing drone attacks in Pakistan, etc. . . .
Here’s my other question: Why does this have to turn into a “guilt by association” debate? Why can’t we discuss the questions that are being raised as serious and important questions, rather than referendums on voters’ or pundits’ moral character? I don’t have to like Ron Paul (and why do we need to LIKE our politicians?). I don’t have to have dinner with him. He doesn’t need to be a friend. He is raising the questions that every other liberal and progressive and feminist (yes, including you, Katha) should be raising and forcing the Democrats to address. As Greenwald has pointed out, these issues only become outrage-worthy when the Republicans are spearheading human rights violations, because it gives the libs and progs a lever by which to claim political superiority. The silence on the Democrats’ record of human rights violations is deafening. And they’re more than cherries on a blighted tree. They’re dead bodies on the blighted conscience of Americans.
As I said the other day, I don’t run around accusing progressives who have different political priorities than I do of being driven by racial and religious bias. I genuinely recognize that there are all sorts of benign and even noble reasons why one might have different political priorities or might even value partisan loyalty more than I do. But there is one thing I know for certain: to smear with this kind of innuendo those insisting on the prioritization of war and civil liberties issues or devoting oneself to these causes is indescribably irrational and reckless. One driven by racial or other forms of privilege would seek to de-prioritize or ignore these issues, not highlight them. Indeed, a primary reason why these fully bipartisan policies of Endless War and civil liberties assaults largely go unchallenged is precisely because their primary victims are anything but privileged. That’s exactly why these issues are not a distraction from the cause of equality; they are an embodiment of it.
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On a related note, International Law Professor Kevin Jon Heller reviews the debate raised here and elsewhere last week about the murder of Iranian scientists and argues that these acts, definitively and without question, are acts of Terrorism.
Here is the 55-minute discussion I had with Pollitt this weekend, one which, as I indicated, I thought was quite constructive and helpfully illuminated the key points:
UPDATE: The always smart Freddie De Boer has some poignant insights on all of this – on progressives, war and civil liberties — that are well worth reading.
- Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald