Wednesday, August 7, 2013

National Security Through the Looking Glass

There are several events in recent weeks that I see as connected by a common thread, from the acquittal of George Zimmerman to our continued use of drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan to the closing of embassies in Arab and Muslim-majority nations in anticipation of possible terrorist strikes against US targets. In all of these cases, the use of violence is justified by the fear of violence and the belief that the best way to achieve safety and security is by pre-emptively attacking and killing others before they can kill you. Why not just kill everyone in (a) any country we don't like, (b) any religion we don't like (c) any racial or ethnic group we don't like, or (d) all of the above? Wouldn't that be the logical extension of the pre-emptive, stop-the threat-by-any-means necessary, shoot-first-and-ask-questions later philosophy that seems to be increasingly popular in American life? I would prefer (e) none of the above, and in this essay I will attempt to explain why.

George Zimmerman, carrying a gun, followed Trayvon Martin through a gated-community housing complex in Florida and eventually shot and killed him because he perceived the seventeen-year old black teenager to be a dangerous person who had to be confronted and if necessary, subdued with deadly force. The nefarious activity that Mr. Martin was engaged in was walking back to the home of his father's girlfriend after purchasing some candy and a drink at a local convenience store. Mr. Zimmerman clearly had a distorted view of Mr. Martin, who was just a teenaged kid coming back from a store carrying junk food, not a dangerous person in any way. George Zimmerman claimed that he was driven to using his gun when Trayvon Martin over-reacted to Mr. Zimmerman's pursuit and confrontation of Mr. Martin by lunging at him and slamming his head against the pavement. In the course of the trial, the jury reached the conclusion that Mr. Zimmerman was justified in killing Mr. Martin.

The fact that Trayvon Martin was not engaged in any kind of criminal or antisocial activity when George Zimmerman decided to pursue him and confront him, that George Zimmerman was the person carrying a truly dangerous, indeed lethal weapon, not Trayvon Martin, and that Mr. Martin, seeing a strange man following him and possibly also seeing Mr. Zimmerman's gun, had just as much justification in feeling threatened and using force against George Zimmerman as Zimmerman did against Trayvon Martin, and that all that ensued was a result of George Zimmerman's decision to pursue and confront Trayvon, did not apparently factor into the jury's decision. They seemed to accept as persuasive the Zimmerman defense's argument that Mr. Zimmerman, feeling threatened by the presence of a black teenager in his community, had the right to hunt him down, confront him and kill him. Mr. Zimmerman received no penalty or punishment for killing a young man who was simply on his way home with a drink and a snack when a stranger with a gun decided he was a threat that had to be dealt with. Bottom line: fear is sufficient grounds for killing.

In what I see as a parallel case, on October 14, 2011, a drone missile strike launched by the U.S. military in the Arab country of Yemen ended the life of Abdul Rahman Anwar Awlaki, a sixteen year old boy visiting relatives. This teenager was under suspicion of nefarious activity not because of anything he was actually doing, but simply because he was the son of the militant cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki, who had been previously assassinated in a drone attack two weeks earlier on September 30, 2011. Abdul Rahman was killed along with six other suspected militants. The grandfather of this slain teenager wrote a poignant essay reflecting on his grandson's death in the New York Times on July 18,2013.


I did not agree with the killing of the boy's father, Anwar Al-Awlaki, who was slain for inciting violence against the USA through the internet and other means, but I can see that in that instance, there was at least some kind of understandable rationale, that the man was viewed as dangerous to US interests because he was actively provoking others to undertake attacks against American forces and citizens. I do worry, though, that this sets a precedent that anyone anywhere who says something at all anti-American or even criticizing America could be seen as a threat and made a target for long-distance assassination. But why kill his sixteen year old son? The reasoning seems to be, the more we kill, the better; the more they die, the safer we will be. This is a very short-sighted, myopic and entirely inhumane view of the situation, with terrible and extremely dangerous implications, it seems to me, as I will explain further below.

The link I see between the killing of the seventeen year old black boy in Florida and the sixteen year old Arab boy in Yemen is that in both cases, a judgment was made that because these boys might be threats to safety and security, they were legitimate targets for pursuit and killing. Neither Trayvon Martin nor Abdul Rahman had committed any crime. Neither was charged with any crime or afforded a trial in which their guilt and innocence could be proven in a court of law. No. There was no judge, no jury, no juridical process, which is to say, no justice. Only execution, "extra-judicial killing," justified by fear of potential threats, not actual actions.

It disturbs me greatly to see this same trigger-happy logic applied both here at home in America and in our actions overseas. George Zimmerman reserves the right to kill people who he sees as potential threats to the security of his gated community. The American government reserves the right to kill people who we think might be potential threats to national security. The really twisted part is the assertion of the right to kill people who have not necessarily done any actual action that causes harm, but who merely look suspicious (Trayvon Martin) or who are related to or who are in the physical proximity of others who are deemed threats (Abdul Rahman). This gives both the private citizen, the aspiring vigilante, and our military, police and other such security forces quite a lot of lassitude to kill quite a wide range of people on the basis of extremely sketchy information or even just vague suspicion.

This is all justified by fear. Fear of criminals, fear of black people, fear of terrorists, fear of Muslims, fear of Arabs, with perhaps a little hate and bigotry thrown in for good measure, too. But does following such policies actually make us any safer? Does it actually reduce the threats that are so feared? I would argue that at least in some ways, such policies can make things worse. If young African-American men have to live in constant fear of being hunted down and targeted like Trayvon Martin, never knowing when they might run across a George Zimmerman-like vigilante, it is only going to make African-Americans more angry and stressed and increase tension between racial groups, leading to more, not less potentially violent confrontations, and increase the odds that people of all racial and ethnic profiles will be packing guns and following the shoot first, ask questions later philosophy, expecting that if they do end up shooting and killing someone, that they might be able to escape any punishment the same way that George Zimmerman did.

In our government's foreign relations, I also do not see the never-ending drone attacks making us safer. We may be killing some people who are actually dangerous terrorists, I don't doubt, but there is a lot of evidence that we are killing lots of other people too. What we might dismiss as "collateral damage" is not going to be forgotten, let alone forgiven, by the friends, relatives, fellow tribal members and countrymen of those we kill. They will be angry. They will hate us. They will seek revenge. This should not be a surprise to anyone. When we suffered the 9/11 attacks, Americans were angry. They hated the perpetrators. They wanted revenge. This is universal human psychology. I shook my head in disbelief when I saw some so-called intelligence experts testifying in front of Congress several months ago, claiming that our drone attacks were not causing any major reaction among the population in Yemen or Pakistan or elsewhere. Fast forward to the last few days, and suddenly America is closing all its embassies in Yemen and elsewhere in the Middle East because we are scared shitless of the possibility of some unspecified attacks. This would seem to be the very kind of blowback that our experts told us was not an issue. Any person with a higher-than-moronic level of intelligence could have seen this coming.

And even as we close down our embassies in fear of terrorist attacks, we are launching new drone attacks in Yemen and elsewhere. I wonder if we might not be creating the very enemies that we fear. Is it because we want to have people we can kill with impunity, even as we accuse them of wanting to do the same to us? Have we gone through the looking glass and reached full-fledged insanity?

There is no such thing as total safety and security, but we keep being told that if we take certain measures, such as drone killings and total surveillance of all our telephone and digital communications, that we will be safer, things will be better. That is a dangerous myth peddled by those who gain advantage by increasing our fear and anxiety levels. I am in fact very suspicious of our national security state, because I think that in the end, what it is most interested in protecting is its own security. I note an interesting sequence of events. First, Edward Snowden releases documents that reveal the full extent of our national security surveillance operations. A major explosion in the media and in the Congress ensues,and there is a genuine public outcry, on both the right and the left. Though a lot of the media discussion remains on the idiotic level of "Where is Snowden now?," members of Congress start talking about the need for legislation to cut back this extremely broad and possibly out of control surveillance program. The President and his national security team protest that any cutback would be dangerous to our national security, that they are doing what they do to "keep us safe," and that we must not back down one inch or one dollar from our massive, and also massively secretive, national security operations. Still, some politicians keep talking about taking action, and one bill putting some brakes on the national security crowd almost gets passed through the House of Representatives.

Then, a very short time later, the very national security state that had been threatened with possibly cuts and restrictions now tells us that there is a very big, very real threat of massive attacks in the Middle East, and so embassies must be closed and American cautioned not to travel. Could it be that this is simply a ploy to make Americans cower in fear and back off from any discussion of cutting back our massive national security apparatus? Is there really a clear and present danger, or is this public relations to ensure the security and safety of the national security state?

I worry that by spending so much of our government money on national security, we are starving our country of resources that could be deployed for other purposes, such as jobs programs to help the unemployed, rebuilding of rotting infrastructure, cleanup of polluted areas, development of clean energies to help us turn back the specter of global warming and climate disaster, investing in poor communities that are breeding grounds for crime,addiction and hopelessness, and so on and so forth. If we sacrifice everything for national security, and it doesn't even really make us safer, but only agitates our current enemies and creates new ones as well, what kind of fools are we? If we seriously believe that encouraging more people to carry guns and shoot at anyone who makes them feel nervous or threatened is a wise policy, what kind of hellish society are we building for ourselves and our descendants?

A basic principle of morality in many religious traditions is a simple sense of reciprocity. We should not be doing to others what we do want done to ourselves, whether in the street, in our cities, or in other countries. We have to learn to trust and communicate and seek common ground with others, not always assume that we are in the right, others in the wrong, and that we are justified in using force.

But we Americans just love Love LOVE our guns and explosions, don't we? Sigh...


Maelstrom said...

The excellent site also has an essay with a somewhat similar perspective.


Ananta Androscoggin said...

I've been back in Maine since '82, and the only cop to get into any trouble (larger than a letter in their personnel file) for killing a citizen, NO MATTER HOW QUESTIONABLE the circumstances, was the (ex-)State Trooper who used his deer rifle to murder his ex-wife and her boyfriend.

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