South Side Chicago and the Afghanistan-Pakistan border: The Logics of Collective Responsibility and Collective Punishment in the Post-9/11 Security State

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This is the second, and concluding, reflection of a two-part essay. This essay is dedicated to the memory of Michael Hastings.

Following the first part of this essay, I want to outline here some thoughts on how the practices of the post-9/11 security state in the US dovetail with the current social forms of American patriotism and paranoia.  This convergence represents a remapping of the world within and beyond the borders of the US.  The entity responsible for redrawing the world thus is a nexus of US technology firms, military companies, and the state, a partnership of the private and public sectors that is partly visible and partly submerged. The relationship between the imperatives of profit and national security is easy to discern at work here [1]. Less visible are the ways in which hierarchies of racial inequality within the US and America’s homegrown brand of ethnic-racial nationalism feed into and, in turn, are reinforced by the techniques employed by the American state in its Bush-Obama era colonial ventures in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan.

The recent revelations about the NSA spying on the private telephone and Internet communications of Americans and others and the reactions of the US media to the controversy capture something essential about this phenomenon. The activities of the NSA have elicited a predictable set of responses from several well-known media pundits, which are characterized by three general qualities: an eagerness to approximate public sentiment on the issue; a rhetoric of hedging and balance, expressed as concern about the need to protect both civil liberties and America; and a dim awareness of the ideological assumptions underlying their arguments. New York Times op-ed columnists Thomas FriedmanDavid Brooks, and Bill Keller offered ruminations largely in the good German idiom. Another rhetorical strategy, exemplified by Jeff Toobin, David Gregory, and Farhad Manjoo, might be termed arguing-by-takedown-of-Snowden. Andrew Sullivan, with his remarkable ability to anticipate the pulse of the nation, was chill with it, “neither shocked nor outraged.” Sure enough, after a few days of low-to-moderate outrage, 56 percent of Americans  “shrugged off” the NSA spying. According to the US media, there was quite a lot of “shrugging off” of the espionage. The Washington Post reported the Taliban shrugging off the news, and the Huffington Post reported that the Internet, likewise, had shrugged off the fact of being spied on.

The most troubling aspect of the controversy, however, may be the consensus among many of America’s respected journalists and bloggers that it is legitimate for the state to monitor certain classes of citizens and non-citizens in this manner. This consensus, in turn, legitimates policies predicated on a number of assumptions about the behavior of people, Americans and non-Americans alike, who might possess a particular faith, bear one of several names, hail from certain countries in the present generation or one, two, or three generations back, or possess a certain amount of melanin in their skin: a logic of evaluation which, it is worth noting, America’s own policies forbid in the sphere of education, employment, or housing.

It seems to have escaped our media pundits that news of NSA’s spying reflected a perversely egalitarian moment of racial, religious, and ethnic profiling. Indeed, America’s outrage–no matter how short-lived and low-key–seemed to stem from precisely the anxiety that all Americans had suffered a descent into temporary subalternity usually reserved for untrustworthy minorities of one kind or another. For just that brief window of time, all Americans were subject, at least in theory, to the kind of interest that Muslim Americans and Arab Americans have drawn since 9/11 as a matter of routine. And till Mike Rogers, the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, clarified that the NSA was not listening in on the conversations of US citizens, Americans were also theoretically subject to the scrutiny directed at foreign nationals within and outside the US.

The outrage also drew from another source, namely that the “don’t be evil,” we-are-not-Wall-Street holier-than-thou Silicon Valley technology companies, including Google, Facebook, and Apple, had provided the government with data about their users. The technology companies have since clarified the scope and nature of the requests, attempting to come clean with their users. (It bears asking whether they would have done so had the story about NSA programs not been revealed.) The media coverage, though, did not address the fact of our desperate need as a society to believe in the goodness of Google, Apple, Facebook, and the like. The distinction between ‘good Google’ and ‘bad Google’–i.e., the Google that does not track us and the one that does (and sometimes hands that information to the state)– overlooks the fact that with Google, as Siva Vaidyanathan argues in his book The Googlization of Everything, we already inhabit a world of “universal surveillance.” Even before PRISM, we were on the dark side of the moon.

In The Age of the World Target, Rey Chow makes the case that our global culture is one in which virtuality, visuality, and representation have become the texture of reality itself, in times of war and peace alike. The atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, dropped from skies from which the world and its peoples below could thus be cognized, embodied this epistemic shift toward picturing the world as target. Developing and extending Chow’s thesis, one can argue that both Facebook and drones conceptualize the world in this mode, a representation or virtualization of behavior and streams of data meant to be mined for targeted advertising or targeted killing.

Central to this rethinking of the world is a set of new techniques for the denial of sovereignty to particular communities, peoples, groups, regions, or areas [2]. The denial of sovereignty has long been a vital strategy of colonial domination and the purported inability of subjected peoples to be sovereign (or to govern or rule oneself) a time-honored justification for colonial ventures. From a large body of superb scholarship on the relationship of colonialism and modernity, we know that there was a close relationship between the techniques of governmentality, surveillance, and disciplinary mechanisms used ‘at home’ and ‘out there,’ between the way internal and external outsiders were treated by modern colonial empires. The post-9/11 security state continues this tradition.

A couple of weeks ago, flipping television channels, I chanced upon an episode of HBO’s excellent new series Vice. The first segment of the episode, titled “Chiraq,” dealt with the problems and consequences of gang violence in South Side Chicago. The segment title was a reference to the fact that the largely African-American neighborhoods of South Side Chicago were a war zone for all practical purposes. Between 2003 and 2011, more Americans had died in Chicago than in Iraq or Afghanistan. The episode referred to the South Side as a “failed state” within the boundaries of Chicago, essentially outside the sovereign rule of the city.

The combination of Chicago and Iraq into Chiraq, whatever its origin, is much than a casual conflation of nouns. Whether it was intentionally meant to or not, the term speaks volumes about the shared attitude of the post-9/11 American security state to both South Side Chicago and Iraq (and, likewise, to Afghanistan and areas within Pakistan).  The term Chiraq encapsulates  an understanding that the state (in its respective forms as the Chicago city administration and the US), does not consider itself responsible for the conditions of social existence in both locations. The idea of South Side Chicago as a state unto itself first designates the area as separate from the rest of the city and from the rest of America. Thus defined, the state of South Side Chicago possesses a nominal sovereignty. But as a failed state, it can now be treated as a space bereft and undeserving of sovereignty.

The justificatory logic of colonial intervention in Iraq is quite similar. After the nonexistent Weapons of Mass Destruction did not show up, the sovereignty of the Iraqi people was invoked as one reason for removing Saddam Hussein. Liberated from a dictator, the Iraqis had now been handed back their country by a generous US, in Fouad Ajami’s charming phrase, as “the foreigner’s gift.” Following Saddam’s removal, the US remained as an occupying force and the de facto sovereign power in Iraq for nine years, though sovereignty was nominally claimed to rest with the Iraqi authorities. Even after the official withdrawal of troops, there is a significant US presence in the country, juxtaposed with a fragile state and social order. More generally, as Manan Ahmed has argued, the American political-military imagination conceives of the world as strewn with wild, lawless frontiers, such as the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The construction of such regions as zones of lawlessness enables them to be seen as less than wholly sovereign,  subject to surveillance (for instance, by drones), and justified targets of illegal action.

The term Chiraq is equally illuminating about the widespread societal indifference in the US to the loss of the lives of young people in South Side Chicago and loss of the lives of civilians in Iraq (and Afghanistan and Pakistan). As with news of the NSA programs, it is something that American society at large seems to have shrugged off. In the Vice episode, Father Michael Pfleger, a priest who has worked for decades to reduce gang violence in Chicago’s beleaguered neighborhoods, points out that the violence in Chicago claimed large numbers of children, yet, for the most part, has generated no outrage from soccer moms across the country. Identifying the causes of social breakdown in the area, Vice reporter Thomas Morton observes that the South Side has lost its schools, clinics, and public housing because of budgetary reasons. Morton also notes that none of the three hospitals in the area (shown in the episode as the University of Chicago Medical Center, St. Bernard Hospital, and Provident Hospital of Cook County) treat gunshot wounds anymore, claiming it costs them too much. The cost of their decision is an increase in the number of lives lost in the South Side.

The human costs of America’s recent military jaunts are well documented. The civilian body count in Iraq stands at well over 100,000 by one estimate. A 2006 survey by the medical journal Lancet estimated that there had been over 650,000 “excess” deaths in Iraq since the US invasion, of which about 600,000 were classified as violent deaths. Iraq has also seen an enormous increase in miscarriages and birth defects linked to the military presence of the US-led coalition. A report by the law schools at Stanford and NYU found that the US drone program in Pakistan had resulted in unnecessary civilian deaths, in addition to terrorizing and traumatizing innocent Pakistani citizens.

In each instance, the massive social suffering is a consequence of flawed, shortsighted policies: failed foreign and military policies in the case of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and failed economic and social policies in the case of Chicago [3]. And in both sets of locations–South Side Chicago, on the one hand, and Iraq, Afghanistan, and parts of Pakistan, on the other–these policies effectively operate as a collectivist argument about identity politics and violence. That argument very simply may be stated as such: since you live in South Side Chicago or Iraq, you are collectively responsible for what goes on here, and you have to collectively bear the punishment for being from here. The Iraqis, for all the talk of their liberation on humanitarian grounds, are being collectively punished for being the people that produced a Saddam, the Afghans for being the people that produced the Taliban, the Pakistanis for being the people that supported the Taliban and sheltered Osama bin Laden, the South Side for being the part of town that produces Chicago’s gangs. Each of these areas is also being punished for not getting its act together, for not solving its sectarian problems, for not getting rid of the Taliban, and for not sorting out its gang problem. Never mind that the same Iraqis suffering under the US occupation were also terrorized by Saddam or that most of the victims of the violence caused by Chicago’s South Side gangs are from the South Side itself [4].

The punishment in each case is severe. The devastation caused by the US occupation of Iraq is a textbook example of the rupture of colonial violence, resulting in deep and enduring material, psychological, cultural, and social harm. The population of South Side Chicago is, similarly, subject to various forms of violence. The denial of education, housing, and health itself is a form of violence. Residents in the area are exposed to literal, physical, violence at much higher rates than elsewhere, in addition to having to live with the constant fear of violence. Finally, the constant preventive and reactive policing of the population of South Side Chicago–unlikely to be tolerated by Disney-gaming rich Manhattan moms, one would guess–means that the entire population of the area must live under a permanent cloud of suspicion and surveillance.

In both settings, the glaring contradiction points to the larger ideological frame at work. Iraq’s infrastructure is devastated only to be rebuilt (albeit to the benefit of private contractors). South Side Chicago is socially abandoned by being starved of resources but is then heavily policed, requiring additional resources from shrinking budgets for extra officers, gang task forces, and overtime costs. The US could have helped build schools in Afghanistan without first bombing the country. Police-community partnerships do not require shuttering community centers. In each case, the obvious contradiction coheres only as part of an overarching disciplinary and punitive project.

Nothing speaks more powerfully about this logic of collective punishment ‘out there’ in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Pakistan than the images of children killed by US drones, revealed at a click on Google search. The Vice segment on Chiraq contains similarly heartrending stories: of a young man, shot by a stray bullet in the South Side, who died by the time he reached a hospital at the far end of the city because none of the three nearby hospitals near would admit him. In the case of Iraq, Afghanistan, or Pakistan, the patriotism and paranoia of today’s America visibly feed off each other to the point where they have become virtually indistinguishable. In the case of South Side Chicago, the relationship between the two has a longer trajectory, which is woven into the fabric of social relations and has become a kind of historical and sociological commonsense. It is a banal, deeply racialized nationalism that refuses to see the violence in South Side Chicago as a national, American tragedy affecting American men, women, and children [5]. The discourses of security and policing, domestic and international, wrapped in the language of technology and big data, conceal this underlying reality.

Strange days, indeed. Since news of the NSA’s controversial programs has broken, the Internet has been abuzz with law professor Daniel Solove’s fascinating paper, in which he argues that it is Kafka more than Orwell who explains the current state of affairs. Whether you are of the Kafka camp or Orwell camp, the moment has a strange, surreal literariness to it. As Jeremy Scahill, National Security Correspondent for the Nation, pointed out on the Charlie Rose show recently, it is Obama, the liberal, Democratic President and professor of constitutional law, who has authorized the killing of American citizens by drones. Obama, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, presides over a violent remaking of the world, even as in his speeches he draws on the inspirational words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., another Nobel Peace Laureate but one whose life, actions, and thought were dedicated to the philosophy of non-violence.  The paradox makes one almost nostalgic for the relative gaucherie and transparency of Bush-era necons and the Project for the New American Century. Kissinger’s unmitigatedly base calculations about American self-interest seem to be the better alternative to the strategies favored by ardent liberal interventionists like Samantha Power, Obama’s new appointee to the United Nations. (It would be interesting to learn what Power thinks about the doctrine of the “responsibility to protect” as it applies to the children of South Side Chicago). Many Americans seem already to have accepted the post-9/11 American security state as the new normal, especially after Obama reassured them that they were not being collectively judged or monitored. How things will shake out for the vulnerable populations in the US or elsewhere, who can rely on no such assurances, remains to be seen.

Notes

[1] For two outstanding essays on the subject, see Derek Gregory, “American Military Imaginaries and Iraqi Cities” in The Visual Culture Reader, 3rd edition, edited by Nicholas Mirzoeff, Routledge, 2012, pp. 180-195; and Lisa Parks, “Zeroing In: Overhead Imagery, Infrastructure Ruins and Datalands in Afghanistan and Iraq,” idem, pp. 196-206. See also Peter Ludlow’s essay, “The Strange Case of Barrett Brown,” The Nation, June 18, 2013.  Even advocates of this new continuously monitored world would not deny that a range of enterprises, such as those specializing in sophisticated satellite imaging technologies, manufacturers of simulated war games, and the containers from within which drones are remotely controlled from Utah, stand to profit handsomely from it.

[2] The enterprise of remaking the world extends to numerous spheres of social life. For example, the field of education too is being reorganized as a target ripe for the plucking, with MOOCs being the weapon of choice and classrooms being set up as components of a big data exercise. This reorganization too results in a redistribution of autonomy– or sovereignty–away from the teacher to the company administering the MOOC.

[3] Obama’s recent statement that Africa should stop blaming colonialism and Western oppression for its problems is very much in this vein. The master of this mode of argument is Thomas Friedman, who routinely berates the darker peoples of the world in the Middle East, South Asia, China, and Africa for not getting their act together.

[4] The home of the “Chicago School” of economics at the University of Chicago nearby is surely ironic. One cannot also help but think that had the money spent on the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan been spent on social, educational, and health services in South Side Chicago and other neglected neighborhoods in the US, much human misery might have been alleviated in each of these places.

[5] I owe this point to an observation made by Glenn Loury at a lecture and discussion with Babson College faculty held at Babson College in Fall 2007.

 

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