We live at a time in the United States when the notion of political enemies has become a euphemism for dismantling prohibitions against targeted assassinations, torture, abductions and indefinite detention. Under the elastic notion of permanent war and the use of Orwellian labels like terrorists, enemy combatants, enemies of the state or the all-encompassing “evil-doers,” the United States has tortured prisoners in Iraq and Guantanamo for more than a decade. It also kidnapped suspected terrorists, held them in CIA “black sites,” and subjected them to extraordinary rendition – “the practice [of] taking detainees to and from US custody without a legal process … and often … handing [them] over to countries that practiced torture.”1 As a new report from the Open Society Foundation, “Globalizing Torture,” points out, since 9/11 the CIA has illegally kidnaped and tortured more than 136 people and was aided in its abhorrent endeavors by 54 countries.2 All of this was done in secrecy and when it was eventually exposed, the Obama administration refused to press criminal charges against those government officials who committed atrocious human rights abuses, signalling to the military and various intelligence agencies that they would not be held accountable for engaging in such egregious and illegal behavior. The notion that torture, kidnapping and the killing of Americans without due process is an illegitimate function of any state, including the United States, has overtly suffered the fate of the Geneva Conventions, apparently too quaint and antiquated to be operative.
Excessive torture, cruel and unusual punishment, secret detention and the violation of civil liberties are not only deeply ingrained in American history; they also have become normalized in both popular culture and in government policy. For example, popular representations of and support for torture extend from the infamous former television series 24 to the more recent highly acclaimed Hollywood film, Zero Dark Thirty.3 Whereas popular representations of torture and other legal illegalities prior to 2001 were viewed largely as the acts of desperate and psychologically unbalanced individuals or rogue governments, the post- September 11, 2001 climate has accommodated such representations, as torture has become common fare in mainstream culture – from action films and TV dramas to comedies. As torture moves from state policy to screen culture it contains “an echo of the pornographic in maximizing the pleasure of violence.”4 In this instance, the spectacle of violence mimics a new kind of mad violence that has engulfed American society. Torture is now a mainstay of what might be called the state-sanctioned carnival of cruelty, designed to delight and titillate while in real life torture has been shamelessly sanctioned as a military necessity and state policy. At the same time, torture, violence and the culture of cruelty have been removed from the discourse of ethics, jurisprudence, accountability and human rights.5
This retreat from moral responsibility reveals more than political failure, more than a perverse victory for those who argue for the acceptability of what was once considered unthinkable in a democracy. It signals the emergence of a kind of anti-politics, the dismantling of a politics in which matters of power, justice, governance and social responsibility are inextricably connected to democratic institutions, laws, values and education. This is an anti-politics in which the obligations of justice and responsibility to others has been overtaken by a rhetoric of fear, national security and war that has made Americans accomplices of a tyrannical and terrorist state apparatus. Under such circumstances, the critical project of democracy, if not politics itself, is replaced by the shared experience of fear, the instrumentalization of culture and society and a state of emergency that “eradicates political freedom, democratic processes and legality as such.”6
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The move toward an authoritarian and dystopian state – one marked by its flight from moral and political responsibility – has been made more acceptable by the widespread popular willingness to overlook, if not legitimate, the ongoing violation of civil liberties as a central theme of government policy, military conduct, mainstream news media and popular culture in general. Mainstream culture is flooded with endless representations of individuals, government officials, and the police operating outside of the law as a legitimate way to seek revenge, implement vigilante justice and rewrite the rationales for violating human rights and domestic law. TV programs like Dexter and Person of Interest, as well as a spate of Hollywood films like as Gangster Squad and Django Unchained have provided a spectacle of legal lawlessness and violence unchecked by ethical considerations and allegedly justified by the pursuit of noble ends.
The culture of violence, fear and sometimes manufactured terror takes a toll politically and ethically on any democratic society, especially when it becomes the most popular spectacle in town. Unfortunately, the line between fiction and material reality, along with the more hallowed spheres of politics and governance, has collapsed and it has become more difficult to determine one from the other. Forms of violence and violations of civil rights that should be unthinkable in a democracy are now lauded as necessary and effective tactics in the war on terrorism, and so rarely subject to critical interrogation. Some of the more notable transgressions are evident in former Vice-President Dick Cheney’s infamous statement to Tim Russert on NBC’s Meet the Press in which he stated that the Bush administration would have to “work … the dark side” and the 2006 comment by John Brennan in which he claimed that we have “to take off the gloves” in some areas in order to wage a war against terrorism. And while torture has been denounced by President Obama, the administration has in actuality created a new foundation for violating civil rights and promoting human abuses.
As the White Paper memo produced by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel makes clear, Obama has put into play government policies so extreme and brutal that the administration has propelled itself to the vanishing point of legal illegalities. This is partly evident in the Obama administration’s claim, duly noted even in the mainstream press, that it can target and kill American citizens anywhere on the globe. The emergence of such practices has little to do with a legitimate need to promote national security and a country’s right to self-defense. On the contrary, such policies represent America’s slide into barbarism, made all too vivid by the fact that the officials who are responsible for them are not only held unaccountable, but nominated to the highest positions in the American government. Witness the nomination of John Brennan as the next director of the CIA. Moreover, the Obama administration now has carried this institutionalization of mad violence to an extreme with the assertion that a few officials in the highest reaches of government can decide which Americans and foreigners can be targeted and killed as enemies of the United States.
The winter 2013 release of the Justice Department’s “White Paper,” the confirmation hearings for John Brennan as the next CIA Director, and the publication of “Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret Detention and Extraordinary Rendition“8 all provide powerful evidence of the ongoing assault on American democracy under the Bush and Obama administrations, and the consolidation of a culture in which fear and punishment reign unchecked and the law is on the side of the most frightening of anti-democratic practices. These indices reveal, in turn, a society in which terror becomes as totalizing as the loss of any sense of ethical and political responsibility. These revelations are about more than the fact that the United States is losing its moral compass or is violating civil liberties and promoting human rights abuses, though these registers should not be dismissed.
What such commentary misses is the degree to which the Obama administration exercises scorn toward democracy itself, such that it now resembles an authoritarian state. The White Paper, for instance, reveals a mode of governance, policy, and practice that is deeply anti-democratic in its claim to be able to use lethal, yet legal, force against American citizens anywhere on the globe. When secrecy replaces judicial review and presidential power can be evoked without limits to kill Americans, it becomes difficult to recognize the United States as a democratic nation. Evoking the language of Orwellian legality to legitimate the claim that Americans can be killed without due process, the White Paper justifies assassinating American citizens if they are a “senior operational leader of al-Qaeda or associated force,” if they “pose an imminent threat of violent attack to the United States” and if their “capture is infeasible.”9
This Orwellian language operates in the dead zone of morality and jurisprudence. Moreover, this discourse becomes meaningless in light of the administration’s claim that the use of such sweeping authority and actions do not need judicial review, can be done in secret, away from the public domain and does not need to provide evidence to a judge before or after an attack.10 What is truly shocking is that an American citizen can be targeted for assassination by the US government without the latter having to provide any proof of guilt – or the former being given the right to establish innocence. This is more than an attack on constitutional rights or a violation of human rights; it is a capitulation to authoritarianism. Glenn Greenwald captures this in his insightful comment:
The most extremist power any political leader can assert is the power to target his own citizens for execution without any charges or due process, far from any battlefield. The Obama administration has not only asserted exactly that power in theory, but has exercised it in practice…. The definition of an extreme authoritarian is one who is willing blindly to assume that government accusations are true without any evidence presented or opportunity to contest those accusations. This memo – and the entire theory justifying Obama’s kill list – centrally relies on this authoritarian conflation of government accusations and valid proof of guilt. They are not the same and never have been. Political leaders who decree guilt in secret and with no oversight, inevitably succumb to error and/or abuse of power. Such unchecked accusatory decrees are inherently untrustworthy…. That’s why due process is guaranteed in the Constitution and why judicial review of government accusations has been a staple of western justice since the Magna Carta: because leaders can’t be trusted to decree guilt and punish citizens without evidence and an adversarial process. That is the age-old basic right on which this memo, and the Obama presidency, is waging war.11
The administration’s legal rhetoric and the practices it legitimates increasingly make the United States look like the ruthless Latin American dictatorships that seized power in the 1970s, all of which appealed to paranoia, fear, security and the use of extra-legal practices to defend barbaric acts of assassinations, torture, abuse and disappearance. The writer Isabel Hilton rightly invokes this repressed piece of history and what it reveals about the current Obama administration. She writes:
The delusion that office-holders know better than the law is an occupational hazard of the powerful and one to which those of an imperial cast of mind are especially prone. Checks and balances – the constitutional underpinning of the democratic idea that no one individual can be trusted with unlimited power – are there to keep such delusions under control…. When disappearance became state practice across Latin America in the 70s, it aroused revulsion in democratic countries where it is a fundamental tenet of legitimate government that no state actor may detain—or kill—another human being without having to answer to the law.12
Not only has the Obama administration discarded the principles of justice, judicial review and international law in its willingness to kill Americans without limits on its authority, it openly flaunts such behavior as integral to how the United States defines itself in a post- 9/11 world. And while it has agreed recently to release its legal reasoning for killing US citizens by armed drones, it has done so only “to ease pressure on John Brennan, the architect of the drones strategy, at his Senate confirmation hearing as CIA Director.”13 How can any American possibly talk about living in a democracy in which the President of the United States claims that he and a few high-ranking government officials have the right and “the power … to carry out the targeted killing of American citizens who are located far away from any battlefield, even when they have not been charged with a crime, even when they do not present any imminent threat in any ordinary meaning of that word.”14
In a democracy, citizens have constitutional rights, checks and balances limit unaccountable authority and human rights are upheld rather than scorned. The task of governance and political leadership is not to promote dangerous policies, but to draw out injustices embedded in the recesses of the past and present, to make clear that the cover of secrecy and silence will not protect those who violate the law, and to reject forms of patriotic militarism that sanction illegality in the name of a permanent war on terrorism. But there is more at stake here than a call for transparency, the embrace of human rights and the rejection of a government that imprisons, eavesdrops on US citizens or kills them without charges, trial and due process. There is also an obligation of democratic leadership and governance to uphold some measure of accountability and to redress the policies and practices that implicate the United States in a long history of torture – one that extends from the genocide of Native Americans to the enslavement of millions of Africans and their descendants, to the killing of 21,000 Vietnamese under the aegis of the CIA’s infamous Phoenix Program. The purpose of this history is not to induce shame but to recognize that such crimes were legitimated by political conditions and institutionalized policies that must be excised from American domestic and foreign policies if there is to be hope for a future that does not simply repeat the past.
What is missing in the refusal to make visible the United States’ descent into authoritarianism is the necessity for the American people to see what is wrong with such actions, who should be held accountable, why such acts of human cruelty should not happen (again) and what actions must be taken to open up the possibilities for society to exercise collective judgments that enable a rejection of past actions as well as the possibility of a more just future. Moreover, as philosophy professor Maria Pia Lara argues, refusing to narrate human cruelty is tantamount to relinquishing the moral imperative to build a transformed democratic community. She contends that exposing and engaging the hidden dimensions of cruelty and the abuse of human rights is part of a moral imperative “directed at making others understand that what happened did not need to happen.” Moreover, such “stories [provide] us with a moral sense of the need to keep examining the past in order to … build a space for self-reflection [and] define the process of establishing a connection between the collective critical examination of past catastrophes and the learning processes in which societies engage.”15
At a time in history when American society is overtly subject to the quasi militarization of everyday life and endlessly exposed to mass-produced spectacles of commodified and ritualized violence, a culture of cruelty and barbarism has become deeply entrenched and more easily tolerated. Beyond creating in this instance a moral and affective void in the collective consciousness – a refusal to recognize and rectify the illegal and morally repugnant violence, abuse and suffering imposed on those alleged to be dangerous and “disposable” others – such a culture contributes to the undoing of the very fabric of civilization and justice. The descent into barbarism can take many forms, but one version may be glimpsed when torture becomes a defining feature of what a country considers acceptable policy (to say nothing of riveting entertainment), or the majority of its inhabitants remain passive when the President of the United States claims he has the right to put together a kill list in order to assassinate American citizens. How else to explain the fact that 49 percent of the American public “consider torture justified at least some of the time [and] fully 71 [percent] refuse to rule it out entirely”?16
Frank Rich has suggested that the American public’s indifference to national security issues is partly due to the massive hardships and suffering many Americans have endured as a result of the Great Recession.17 This may be true but what it overlooks are the ever-growing anti-democratic forces, or what might be called authoritarianism with a soft edge, which haunt American politics and the modern ideal of democracy. The civic imagination is in retreat in American society and the public spheres that make it possible are disappearing.
Clearly, political and popular culture are in dire need of being condemned, interrogated, unlearned and transformed through modes of critical education and public debate, if American democracy is to survive as more than a distant and unfulfilled promise. Americans have lived too long with governments that use power to promote violent acts, conveniently hiding their guilt behind a notion of secrecy and silence that selectively punishes those considered expendable – in its prisons, public schools, foster care institutions and urban slums. As Tom Engelhardt points out, what has not sunk in for most Americans, including the mainstream media, is that the United States has become a lockdown state, or more appropriately an authoritarian state, as evidenced by the fact that the Obama administration can:
torture at will; imprison at will, indefinitely and without trial; assassinate at will (including American citizens); kidnap at will anywhere in the world and ‘render’ the captive in the hands of allied torturers; turn any mundane government document (at least 92 million of them in 2011 alone) into a classified object and so help spread a penumbra of secrecy over the workings of the American government; surveil Americans in ways never before attempted (and only ‘legalized’ by Congress after the fact, the way you might back-date a check); make war perpetually on their own say-so; and transform whistleblowing – that is, revealing anything about the inner workings of the lockdown state to other Americans – into the only prosecutable crime that anyone in the complex can commit.18
The fateful consolidation of an authoritarian state reaches its tipping point when a government engages in these practices along with the claim that it can kill its own citizens anywhere in the world without recourse to due process or any moral qualms. Such policies point to more than an ethically empty space and the atrophy of democratic modes of governance, politics and culture, they point inexorably to the dark caverns of a society that has embraced the foundations of authoritarianism. Democracy has been hijacked in the United States by right-wing extremists, the financial elite, the military-industrial-academic complex and a demagogic cultural apparatus that has created a state of emergency that appears to “lack the kind of collective sense of urgency that would prompt us to fundamentally question our own ways of thinking and acting, and form new spaces of operation.”19 All of us are now in the shooting gallery and we are all potentially the targets.
Spencer Ackerman, “More Than 50 Countries Helped the CIA Outsource Torture,” Wired, (February 5, 2013).
Amrit Singh, Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret Detention and Extraordinary Rendition (New York: Open Society Foundation, 2013).
Steve Coll, “Why Zero Dark Thirty Fails,” The New York Review of Books (February 7, 2013), ppp. 4-6.
Rustom Bharacuha, “Around Adohya: Aberrations, Enigmas, and Moments of Violence,” Third Text (Autumn 1993), p. 45.
Fabiola Salek and Fabiola Fernandez Salek, eds., Screening Torture: Media Representations of State Terror and Political Domination (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).
Michael Halberstam, Totalitarianism and the Modern Conception of Politics (New Haven:Yale University Press, 1999), p. 6.
Ibid., Amrit Singh, Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret Detention and Extraordinary Rendition. Also see, Amrit Singh, “Globalizing Torture: Ahead of Brennan Hearing, International Complicity in CIA Rendition Exposed,” Democracy Now, (February 7, 2013)
For some insightful critiques of this document, see: Interview with Jameel Jaffer, “Kill List Exposed: Leaked Obama Memo Shows Assassination of US Citizens “Has No Geographic Limit,” Democracy Now, (February 5, 2013); Jameel Jaffer, “The Justice Department’s White Paper on Targeted Killing,” ACLU, (February 4, 2013); Glenn Greenwald, “Chilling legal memo from Obama DOJ justifies assassination of US citizens,” The Guardian, (February 5, 2013; Juan Cole, “Top Five Objections to the White House’s Drone Killing Memo,” Reader Supported News, (February 6, 2013); Dennis Bernstein, “An Interview With Legal Scholar Marjorie Cohn: Why Targeted Assassinations Violate US and International Law,” CounterPunch (February 8-10).
As Jameel Jaffer points out, “Without saying so explicitly, the government claims the authority to kill American terrorism suspects in secret.” Jameel Jaffer, “The Justice Department’s White Paper on Targeted Killing,” ACLU, (February 4, 2013).
Glenn Greenwald, “Chilling legal memo from Obama DOJ justifies assassination of US citizens,” The Guardian/UK, (February 5, 2013).
Isabel Hilton, “The 800lb Gorilla in American Foreign Policy,” The Guardian/UK (July 28, 2004).
Chris McGreal, “White House to release legal rationale for killing of US citizens with drones,” The Guardian/UK(February 4, 2013).
Interview with Jameel Jaffer, “Kill List Exposed: Leaked Obama Memo Shows Assassination of US Citizens “Has No Geographic Limit,” Democracy Now, (February 5, 2013).
Maria Pia Lara, Narrating Evil: A Postmetaphysical Theory of Reflective Judgement (NewYork: Columbia University Press, 2007), pp. 14–16, 19.
Roy Eidelson, “How Americans Think about Torture—and Why,” TruthOut.org (May 11, 2009).
Frank Rich, “America Yawns at Obama’s Assassination Policy,” New York Magazine (February 7, 2012).
Tom Engelhardt, “The American Lockdown State,” TomDispatch.com (February 5, 2013)
Teddy Cruz. “Democratizing Urbanization and the Search for a New Civic Imagination,” in Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art from 1991-2011, ed. Nato Thompson (New York: Creative Time Books, 2012), p. 57.