A nation at war–an indefinite, borderless one, conducted against a faceless enemy, with little legal or moral restraint, with an endless wallet to be dipped into–will find, sooner or later, that the same inchoateness, the same vagueness, the same productive lack of definition of that conflict, which permitted its waging to be conducted secretly without trammel, will also facilitate the seeping back of that war to within its own borders. Wars, if conducted long enough, come home. To stay. To search too long for enemies elsewhere is to make possible and easier their location closer to home.
There are two wars currently underway, conducted by the US. There is the war on terror, kicked off in 2001, with a death toll in the hundreds of thousands, a budget in the trillions, and a progress report card that would qualify for an F–thanks to the political, legal, and moral disasters it has left in its wake. Local states made unstable; hostile regimes made stronger; religious and sectarian strife reinvigorated; torture and killings without due process; and of course, curtailment of civil rights at home. And then, there is the war on drugs. Its kickoff date is a little uncertain but there is no mistaking its cost and failures: rampant, social-service destroying budgets, a racialized conflict written into legal stone, a grossly bloated drug enforcement apparatus, interference in the domestic policies of sovereign states, the incarceration and criminalization of thousands of young men, the list goes on.
The blowback from these never-ending wars is clearly visible in Ferguson, where a perfect storm rages in exquisite miniature: a hostile, militarized, aggressive police stalks the streets of a town with a significant African-American population, their fingers resting lightly on the trigger, convinced they are in hostile territory; a confrontation with the locals–now not understood as members of a ‘community’ but as potential deadly criminals–quickly turns violent and murderous. Police all over the nation know the feeling; they are used to patrolling behind the lines on search and destroy missions. They’ve seen plenty of footage of kick-down-the-doors raids, of young men lying on the ground, waiting to be searched; they know what to do when someone talks back. A punch to the throat, a kick in the groin, and sometimes, when they don’t stop coming at you, a bullet to the head. Nothing is as important as making sure dimebags stay off the streets.
Then, when protests occur, they are met with disproportionate amounts of force and regulation and policing, with all the tools whose use has been perfected in the years of control that have followed the declarations of these wars. The language is that of peace at any costs, no matter the damage done to the values supposedly being protected. The peace of the graveyard–an orderly place–will do just fine.
All too often, it is imagined, because of the relentless hagiography of the Second World War, that war is an ennobling thing. But it isn’t. Those who conduct it lose themselves in the process; the fighting doesn’t remain directed outward.
If you stare long too into the abyss of war, it stares back at you.