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What Happens in Yemen: The "End" of Citizenship and How We Got Here

[Image from phawker.com] [Image from phawker.com]

When Troy Davis was executed in Georgia, despite the recantation of seven of the nine witnesses who had testified against him and despite the lack of other material evidence implicating him in the murder for which he was convicted, it seemed like things could not get much worse for due process.

Two weeks later, the US skipped the messiness of court hearings altogether and executed its own citizen, Anwar Al-Awlaki, with a unpiloted drone. The government and the mainstream media tried to rationalize what had once been unthinkable: the summary execution of a citizen without due process. Perhaps al-Awlaki was, as the State Department alleged, the operational head of Al-Qa’eda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) (proven totally false). Perhaps he was the abettor of many recent specters of terrorists-in-our-midst: Did he e-mail Major Nidal Hassan, the Fort Hood shooter, or meet with Christmas Day bomber Umar Faruk Abdulmutallab? At the least, analysts desperate to justify his death claimed, he was a threat because he “[moved] hearts and mind to hate.” Even worse, he did so in English.

Another two weeks later, the US took it a step further, proceeding to assassinate Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki, the 16 year old son of Anwar. The State Department tried even less diligently to claim its actions were within the bounds of the law. The most the US could claim was that Abdulrahman was twenty-one, which would somehow make him a legitimate target of a US missile. When the Al-Awlaki family produced the young man’s US birth certificate, they not only confirmed his 16 years but his birthplace in Denver, Colorado.

As assassination becomes official state policy, so too do other increasingly routinized and highly public forms of violence shatter conceptions of the liberal-democratic “rule of law.” Police “crackdowns” continue across the country against the Occupy (Everywhere) protests. The most egregious of these crackdowns took place in Oakland, where a now-hospitalized twenty-four-year old Iraqi war veteran, Scott Olsen, was shot by a police projectile, fracturing his skull. The plaza where he was shot had been renamed by protesters for another citizen shot dead with impunity, Oscar Grant.

The particularly shocking nature of these events is not that the people being targeted are US citizens. Americans’ lives are neither more nor less valuable than those of the countless numbers of non-citizens murdered by US troops, drone attacks, and private contractors. Nor is it the blatant hypocrisy of the US in these actions . The most shocking aspect is that the state no longer seems concerned with covering up deadly actions against its own citizens – and its disavowal of once-sacred protections of due process. It seems as if we no longer we need “spaces of exception”: the state just does what it wants.

But making sense of these events and finding a way to reclaim the value of human life means looking beyond the decade after September 11th. These recent events have much more to do with the forms of violence we have come to accept as routine. The official authorization of assassination and the use of militarized force to quell peaceful protests marks the natural end of a conception of justice that depends on the principle of “beyond a reasonable doubt” and due process. Rather, fear-inspired extra-legal retribution is becoming standard practice.

Cowboy Justice in the Neoliberal Era

As the news of the Al-Awlaki assassinations unfolded, reports revealed that US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has deported some 400,000 undocumented immigrants in one year, with the cozy relations between police and ICE agents under “Secure Communities.”  Over half of those placed in detention or deported have not been granted any immigration hearing, with some 3,600 US citizens swept up. At the same time, the US remains haunted by the data released by Pew in 2009: nearly one in thirty-one US adults are under some form of correctional control, with over 2.3 million people in jail and five million under some sort of probation.

In other words, assassination-by-drone or execution-without-due process is in many ways an inevitable step in the racialized and class-ed system of imprisonment and surveillance that we have made part of our daily lives. 

Listening to the Republican debates, one can get a glimpse of the kind of ideological hysteria that facilitates such widespread securitization. The moments of the greatest cheers from the crowd have been reserved for when candidates have stuck to hard-line retributive positions: Texas governor Rick Perry’s boasting of his record on the death penalty; businessman Herman Cain’s assertions that he would indeed build an electrified fence at the US border, supplanted by “boots on the ground” and other military technologies. Indeed, the only praise afforded our current president was reluctant acceptance that he does a great job killing terrorists.

The US obsession with retributive justice, its wild west/bad guy-good guy charades, did not begin after September 11th, nor even with the rise of neoliberal or market fundamentalist ideology over the last thirty years.  But the “financialization of everything” does make it far more profitable to traffic in death, incarceration, violence. After all, incarceration drains $50 billion from states alone. As Congressman Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA), who co-chairs and cofounded the caucus on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (i.e. Drones) caucus, said, “During these tough economic times, unmanned technology is one of the few consistent and dynamic areas of growth in American industry.”

Even further, neoliberalism makes it imperative for the state to manage the economic dislocations wrought by the evisceration of the welfare state and the immiseration of whole populations.

The linchpin of neoliberal ideology supplants the rights-bearing liberal citizen with a notion that an individual’s only worth is economic. This eases our preponderance towards vengeance. Wendy Brown explains that the tensions in classical liberalism that distinguish “individual moral, associational, and economic actions” have been thrown out the window, and moral, political and social choices are all subsumed into the economic sphere, into matters of cost and benefit. Self-interest becomes the defining value of a citizen.  The public and the polity become nothing more than an agglomeration of individual entrepreneurs and consumers, and due process, rule of law, and social welfare become refigured as frivolous excess. There is no “liberal” in neoliberal.

Everything then becomes a matter of (poor) choices, of individuals who “brought this upon themselves,” who must be punished for their disruption of or displacement from economic life. The thousands of migrants criminalized and swept up in the Secure Communities dragnet, or through legislative monstrosities that have emerged in Alabama, Georgia and Arizona, can be treated as such because they made individual “bad choices” to supposedly threaten American jobs. Troy Davis was marked with the greatest sin under neoliberal ideology: killing a policeman. Similarly, Anwar Al-Awlaki’s articulate command of English in anti-American sermons was enough to warrant killing him and his teenage son.

Since, as anthropologist Aihwa Ong notes, neoliberalism recasts “governing activities…as nonpolitical and nonideological problems that need technical solutions,” then we can dispense with moral and ethical dilemmas altogether. What could be more bureaucratic than death by remote-operated drone, or sterilized execution by lethal injection?

Remembering Race and Political Economy

What makes imprisoning or executing human beings a palatable solution is not merely the way it reinforces the degradation of political and social citizenship. It evinces a collectivized penchant to believe that some people make much worse choices that others – some are pre-destined by history, biology, or whatnot to be incompatible with and therefore undeserving of “civilized” life.

Geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore and dozens of social scientists have shown how our carceral system hinges on racism, what she defines as “the state-sanctioned and/or extra-legal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.”  Racism does not exist in abstract of course but paves the way for clear material and economic arrangements. Gilmore thus critically brings us back to political economy. Our nation’s carceral and policing obsession has been a critical means to resolve problems of unused land, surplus labor, free-floating finance capital and state power. All four factors are inextricably tied to neoliberal restructuring: corporatized agricultural production, endless investment speculation, the destruction of manufacturing, and so forth.

Securitzation also capitalizes on the particular ways institutions have been reshaped to facilitate corporate needs. As sociologist Saskia Sassen rightfully points out, this model of the world we are seeing is precisely the unique construction of “territory, authority and rights” that eases the “financialization of everything.” Among other radical reconstructions, executive power has been expanded over the last few decades, diminishing the power of legislatures and liberal constitutionality (and the welfare state) to place power in the hands of often very-secretive, “private” individuals and hand-picked regulatory boards. Just looking at the uproar in Europe with the Greek Prime Minister’s decision to hold a referendum on the European Union zone “bailout,” one can see that policymakers are uninterested in direct democracy.

Indeed, President Barack Obama’s “secret committee” orders US citizens executed with ease, governor-appointed parole boards don’t flinch before questions of lack of evidence, mayors call upon police to assault Occupy encampments.  The central locus of state power becomes executives, and their power is served through the regulatory agencies and central banks, military and policing systems that they command.

Returning to History

The circuits of power and neoliberal capital bind the violent murder of a cleric and his young son in a remote Yemeni town to the execution of yet another man of color within US borders. They place these events beyond debates around civil liberties but in the stream of history and political economy. These moments are the natural, logical end of a neoliberal political economic system where states mitigate crisis through violence, where governance means to facilitate what David Harvey calls accumulation by dispossession.

But as dark as the times seem, to believe that this degradation of citizenship is some sort of end-game, and that we are only bound to descend into a stratified Robocop-hell, would mean that indeed neoliberal theorists are right and we are just proceeding on the ineluctable course of history. But history is anything but linear, and liberal citizenship as it once was (a model not exactly kind to poor people, communities of color, migrants and so forth) is not our only recourse. As these events crystallize and lay bare the history that brought us here, they can just as much crystallize and force us to imagine new paths.

In the late 1990s, people began seeing how the very technologies and re-configurations that compress space and time to ease the flow of financialization were also opening new interconnections and possibilities of building truly global solidarity. Scholars looked to anti-corporate globalization movements as a sign and signal of hope. Much of that drowned in the dark events of the last decade.

But if the Occupy movements are pointing to anything, it is that again, the erosion of notions of national citizenship as a whole – the now-illusory rule of law and the liberal state – are forcing people to re-imagine what it means to live in the polity, to participate in political and social life as a full human being. Everything from immigration policies to constant surveillance have in fact forced us to take up literally from the grassroots and write for ourselves new meanings as to what it means to belong. With that must also come new models of justice –transformative and restorative justice-- being implemented in sites throughout the country.

In some ways (a much larger topic for another time), as Naomi Klein hints to, this is an ideal time to see beyond the constraints of NGO-ization, of sound bites and “winnable” battles towards seemingly impossible ideological reconstructions, toward much deeper philosophical and human re/imaginings.

Shaping a new future based on our ideals of what citizenship and justice should and could mean is not mere utopianism. Communities are already piloting new models of justice. It is happening in Ecuador, Bolivia and other Latin American countries, with completely new constitutional processes. It may just be happening in the Arab world, too. All of these are of course active, constant processes and struggles, but they inspire new possibilities and trajectories.

Yes, we in the US are finally seeing just how brutal the global, neoliberal capitalist nightmare can be: a state that has disavowed its political and social responsibilities, swallowed up lives at its borders, shattering any division between public/private, and asserting its right to indiscriminately murder without so much as an apologetic frown, all in the interests of global markets and the march of capital.  

But perhaps we are once again poised to face it with the possibilities of globalized life: multiplicities of movements, rooted in nonviolence, that can reshape the contours of ideology and borders, public and private, city and region; uprisings that are beginning to rescue and reshape new ideals outside of a marketized existence. It used to be said that another word is not only possible. These days, it is absolute necessary.

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