American Exceptionalism And Political Violence

Adam Shatz offers some interesting thoughts on dreaming of political violence in the Age of Trump-Bannon:

It’s notable how easily violent thoughts have come to those of us who have known only a single, and much contested, month of the Trump-Bannon era. American exceptionalism may be dead, but it lives on as a habit of mind…in the unprecedented horror we imagine ourselves to be experiencing….It might be useful to think about these fantasies in wider terms, as a way of trying to understand the citizens of other countries, particularly those whom Americans have for the most part refused to sympathise with. We might try, for example, to understand why Palestinians have carried out violent attacks against the people who have occupied them for…half a century. They have been under military rule, without recourse to elections or a fair legal system, much less citizenship, for roughly 600 times as long as we have been under Trump.

Indeed. And we would do well too, to look inwards and closer as well, at the state of communities that have already, for ages now, suffered the kind of political and legal regime we imagine the Trump-Bannon era to resemble. The crisis of mass incarceration and the systematic evisceration of the US Constitution that it has both relied upon and facilitated provides the grimmest reminder that arbitrary search and seizure, detention, arrest, show trials, and cruel prison sentences are already the norm for some American citizens. Innocents make plea deals that send them to jail for years; families are torn asunder; no one reading the formidable corpus of literature on America’s prison and penal system, or the manifestos issued by Black Lives Matter, would imagine that much worse could happen to a black American in the Trump-Bannon era. The heavy-handed knock on the door in the middle of the night at the end of which a young man goes missing, and sometimes ends up dead in police custody? Been there, done that. The road-stop followed by the gunshot, which leaves an unarmed man dead? Been there, done that too. The ACLU received $24 million in donations in the weekend following the issuing of the disastrous ‘Muslim ban’ Trump executive order; it certainly could have used some of those dollars in holding the tide against the assault on the Constitution that drug warriors have been mounting for close to over three decades now.

Why, again, would such an openly declared war not provoke fantasies of violence? America is lucky, very lucky, that the millions of guns floating around in its cities and suburbs have not yet been turned against the armed constabularies who, on the pretext of conducting a War on Drugs, have felt free to promiscuously wage war against entire demographics instead.

The Trump-Bannon era calls for resistance, and resisted it will be. But let us not imagine that this era is exceptional, that the political and legal crisis it showcases is. To do so would be to lapse all too easily to facile self-congratulation, and to let the real work remain undone.

On Surviving A Police Stop (Unlike Terence Crutcher)

One morning in the winter of 1989, after finishing up a short trip to Binghamton, NY with a pair of friends, I was driving back to my home in New Jersey. Rather, I was dozing in the front passenger seat after having performed my share of driving duties. I was jolted out of my slumbers by the awareness that we had come to an abrupt halt; some excitement seemed afoot. On groggily inquiring into the reasons for our stopping, I learned we had been pulled over by a state trooper for speeding. ‘Great,’ I thought, ‘now we’re going to have to go through that old driver’s-licence-registration-insurance bullshit; but at least it won’t be me getting a ticket and two points on my driving record.’ I settled back drowsily in my car as the trooper walked over, asked for the windows to be rolled down, demanded our papers, and walked back to his car to run the appropriate checks.

A few seconds later, I was jolted out of my complacency. The trooper was now standing next to his car, pointing a gun at ours, while loudly yelling for us to get out of the car with our hands up. We stared at each other dumbfounded, a collective what-the-fuck informing our facial expressions. Even as we asked each other what the problem could be, we scrambled out of the car. It was December in upstate New York; we were wearing thin sweatshirts, and in the haste, forgot to put on our jackets. Our hands held high, shivering instantly as our formerly protected bodies encountered the freezing air, we stood next to the car, a large-caliber handgun pointed at our heads. The trooper ordered the three of us to turn around and put our hands on the car. We complied again even as the freezing metal made our fingers and hands almost instantly numb. I was scared and confused; we all were. Why was a state trooper pointing a gun at us? What had we done wrong? Our panic steadily mounted. We were frightened and freezing, an armed man was threatening to shoot us if we did not follow his orders precisely.

Suddenly, the trooper yelled, “Keep your hands in sight!”As he did so, my roommate, standing next to me, frantically pushed his hands inside the car window. As he did so, the trooper screamed again, “Keep your hands in sight!” Turning slightly, with my hands still raised, I whispered, “Take your hands out!” He complied. A few minutes later, two more trooper cars arrived; we were handcuffed, pushed into the back of the squad car, and hauled off to the local precinct station. The car rental agency had reported our rental stolen, having made the clerical error of not having taken the car off the ‘overdue’ list even though it had been returned by the previous truant client. A few hours later, we were released. An embarrassing fiasco, you will agree. We considered ourselves unlucky and aggrieved; we could have sued for the distress and discomfort caused us.

But in point of fact, we had been lucky, very lucky. We were brown men; we spoke English in accents. We hadn’t been black. Had we been, I wonder if my roommate, who had misheard the troopers directives, and I, who spoke to him–out of turn–during his misunderstanding, would have made it out alive.

Terence Crutcher was a black man. His car broke down on the road. The police showed up. He expected help; they shot him dead. He didn’t get lucky. Just like too many other black men when they encounter the police.

Veterans And The Dallas And Baton Rouge Shootings: Wars Return Home

Today, on Facebook, Chad Kautzer offered some brief reflections–“not interested in condemning or justifying”–on the shootings in Baton Rouge. They begin as follows:

First, the police have to stop killing black and brown people. I say that up front, because it’s the social relation and institutional practice that frames everything. Period.

Second, although it’s too soon to call it a pattern, it is significant that Micah Johnson, the shooter in Dallas, and Gavin Long, the shooter in Baton Rouge, were military veterans. These guys have been trained to confront force with force and violently take down an enemy. When you put people like that into a situation of social conflict and division, the impulse to exercise one’s lethal skill set is strong. Countervailing factors, such as strong community and familial relations, often mitigate the impulse to violence, but when they’re lacking or weak the risk increases. It is thus not surprising that both shooters explicitly stated that they were not affiliated with any group. They were not trained in ways to effect social transformation. They were not taught the history of social movements and thus how social change happens. They were taught that the most effective way to defeat an adversary is to take out as many of their soldiers as possible, so in times of conflict that’s what they do. [links added]

In a previous post on Hillary Clinton’s bellicose response to the Orlando massacre, I had written:

[T]hose bombs will find their way back here soon enough; in the persistence of states of war and the bolstering of the military-industrial complex, in depleted budgets for social programs and infrastructure and public education–wars cost money after all, in the militarization of police–as military weapons end up in police departments to be used against protesters in inner cities, in the criminalization of dissent,  in the crackdown on whistle blowers and the increasing pervasiveness of surveillance–because wars require national unity and secrecy.

Kautzer’s second point reminds us of another dimension of wars returning home: military veterans, who come back home bringing their memories, experiences, and scars with them. They have left behind–permanently–many who went with them on a tour of duty. Modern battlefield medicine and improved emergency care ensure death rates are not as high as they were in the wars of yesteryear; this means more veterans who would have died previously are now alive, even if grievously injured and crippled for life, perhaps requiring extensive and expensive rehabilitation and follow-up care. The lucky ones are only injured in the body; yet others carry scars in the mind too. Post-traumatic stress disorder and disrupted personal environments contribute to a shocking suicide rate: twenty-two veterans kill themselves every day.

Most relevantly to Kautzer’s observation, veterans–especially black and brown ones–find that they have returned to a society increasingly riven by economic inequality and racial discrimination (and awash in guns.) They find out, just like veterans of the Second World War and the Vietnam War, that they might fight America’s enemies abroad, and yet return to find themselves enemies at home. Second World War veterans returned to Jim Crow in their home states; Vietnam veterans got spat on by anti-war protesters; the modern veteran of color might find himself shot by a policeman at a traffic stop or outside his home itself. They see their communities at home patrolled by policemen just like American soldiers patrolled ‘hostile territory’ overseas. There is the same brusque stop-and-frisk, the same harsh impromptu interrogation, and sometimes, all too frequently captured on video, a fatal resolution of conflict. Those kinds of resolutions, as Kautzer points out, are what veterans are used to; and so they act to bring them about in the struggles of most personal and emotional interest to them, in the ways they know best. Except that the enemy now is an American policeman.

The NRA On The Dallas Shooting

The National Rifle Association has issued the following statement in response to the shootings in Dallas:

Today is a great day for the Second Amendment, that everlasting guarantee of our right to bear arms and take them up against a tyrannical government. For months and years now, we at the National Rifle Association have watched with increasing dismay as law-enforcement officers have used their firearms to shoot innocent citizens for a variety of offences–sometimes playing in a playground, sometimes shopping, sometimes running away from police. These were all bothersome, but then we learned of the death of Brother Philando Castile, who was legally carrying a gun, and was then shot dead by a police officer as he reached for his license.  Enough is enough.

And that’s not a thought that just we at the NRA had. Clearly some peace-and-justice loving fellow citizens had the same thought and decided to act on it: by using their firearms, their constitutionally protected guns, against the agents of this oppressive police state, ruled by that socialist autocrat, Barack Obama, who would like nothing better than to take away our guns. So they fired on the police; that the police succumbed to their shooting is an indictment of the police’s training, their inability to defend themselves with their guns. No more protection can be afforded to our citizens than to arm them with guns, as many, and as heavy a caliber, as possible. These the police had; they simply did not use them well enough.

The shooters did nothing wrong; they were merely ‘speaking up’ as citizens, heavily armed ones. They knew their guns were there to protect them and their communities and families from danger–just like the founding fathers intended–and so they did.

Let us not respond to these shootings with alarmist rhetoric about protests endangering lives; protests do not endanger people’s lives, people do.

Hillary Clinton’s War Abroad Will Come Home Soon Enough

Hillary Clinton’s response to the Orlando massacre reminds many why they are nervous about a person who carelessly voted for the Iraq war becoming US president:

Whatever we learn about this killer [Omar Mateen], his motives in the days ahead, we know already the barbarity that we face from radical jihadists is profound. In the Middle East, ISIS is attempting a genocide of religious and ethnic minorities. They are slaughtering Muslims who refuse to accept their medieval ways. They are beheading civilians, including executing LGBT people. They are murdering Americans and Europeans, enslaving, torturing and raping women and girls. In speeches like this one, after Paris, Brussels and San Bernardino, I have laid out a plan to defeat ISIS and the other radical jihadist groups in the region and beyond.The attack in Orlando makes it even more clear, we cannot contain this threat. We must defeat it. And the good news is that the coalition effort in Syria and Iraq has made recent gains in the last months. So we should keep the pressure on ramping up the air campaign, accelerating support for our friends fighting to take and hold ground and pushing our partners in the region to do even more.

On Facebook, Corey Robin responds and draws a damning conclusion:

Forget about policy, just examine the rhetoric. The way Clinton escalates and turns it up to 11, moving us away from Orlando and a police investigation, away from any domestic considerations and social concerns, to the platform of civilizational warfare, to a cosmic evil that isn’t containable but must be destroyed and defeated, to internationalizing and militarizing the whole thing. This is the language of George W. Bush.

I’m afraid Robin is right. The little excerpt above is very similar in tone to the kinds of speeches George W. Bush made when he was infected by the spirit of 9/12–which seems to mean ‘national unity’ for some, but which in point of fact turned out to be a paranoid, vengeful, misdirected, wasteful, rage. It resulted in the war crime called ‘the Iraq war’ and if you really take causal analysis seriously, ISIS itself.

Perhaps the most crucial sentence in the excerpt is the opener. For there, Clinton makes quite clear that no matter what we learn about the actual motivations of the killer, her focus on ISIS will not waver. That is where the easier action lies; that calls for saber-rattling and bombing, all the better to unify a nation with (the one doing the bombing, not the one getting bombed, as Libyans and Iraqis will testify.) In the next four sentences, the rhetoric is ratcheted up with ‘genocide,’ ‘medieval,’ ‘slaughtering,’ ‘beheading,’ ‘executing,’ ‘torturing,’ ‘raping,’ and ‘enslaving.’ The following four sentences showcase  a segue into aggressive plans for action, which are curiously and ironically informed by a sense of futility: the threat of ISIS “cannot” be contained; it requires–implicitly–a fight to the death. (Which as we all know, often tend to take down more than just the protagonists in the battle.) And then, finally, to wrap up, there is the nod to a global battle–waged on distant lands, from air, naturally, the American way, while hopefully, ‘allies’ sacrifice their foot soldiers to the maws of war.

There is no mention of homophobia, guns, masculinity, cultures of violence; there is no mention of domestic pathology. There is a problem; and here is a bomb that will fix it. Somewhere else. Never here. But those bombs will find their way back here soon enough; in the persistence of states of war and the bolstering of the military-industrial complex, in depleted budgets for social programs and infrastructure and public education–wars cost money after all, in the militarization of police–as military weapons end up in police departments to be used against protesters in inner cities, in the criminalization of dissent,  in the crackdown on whistle blowers and the increasing pervasiveness of surveillance–because wars require national unity and secrecy.

Wars are not just waged abroad.

Have Gun, Will Settle Dispute: The Dangerous, Alluring Temptation

I’ve seen fights, disputes, grow, fester, erupt into bouts of violence: disagreements become irrevocable, boundaries are crossed, and then, tempers flare. Punches and slaps are thrown, sometimes half-heartedly, sometimes in a desperate flurry, sometimes shirt collars are grabbed as the ‘fight’ turns into an ungainly grappling session with headholds and chokeholds that aim to incapacitate. When the smoke clears, the protagonists emerge bruised and battered with a bleeding nose or lip–the former is more visually striking, liable to cause alarm, as red stains make their way down jaws and shirt fronts. On rare occasions, the fights have turned especially ugly: once, a young man picked up a rock and hit another on the face with it, splitting open a gash that instantly turned crimson, on yet another, a small piece of wood was pressed into service for the same purpose with the same effect. Drunken fights–like those I have witnessed on umpteen occasions at baseball games–are always infected with a touch of the comic; the fighters fight to stay on their feet even as their impaired co-ordination prevents them from landing a meaningful punch or avoiding the blows that come their way (the infamous ‘why don’t you step on outside’ brawl at bars often showcases such encounters.)

I’ve never seen a fight, yet, turn deadly. No one got stabbed with a screwdriver or a knife and bled to death. The folks I saw fighting didn’t own or carry guns. But if they had, they might have pressed them into service, seeing in them a speedy resolution of a nagging irritation that had turned unbearable. Which is what a lot of folks all over the US seem to do–as the Parents Against Gun Violence page on Facebook reports, the following are some of the reasons Americans pressed guns into service in the month of May this year:

 

As you can see, the formula is pretty simple, and can be boiled down to a few essentials: see fellow citizen, enter into dispute with fellow citizen, reach point of irresolvable difference, settle dispute with gun. Sometimes alcohol, that most popular of all legal drugs, is also implicated, but it needn’t be; sometimes it is men doing the shooting, but not every single time; sometimes children get into the act. Traffic conflicts, workplace hirings and firings, prickly neighbors, property wrangling, domestic arguments–these can all be expeditiously settled with a firearm. (Road rage in the city and on highways has a long and dishonorable history of featuring guns in its eruptions.) Perhaps a handgun is used, perhaps a shotgun, perhaps an assault rifle. It does not matter; they all shoot bullets, they all shut a yapping mouth, they still a flailing body. They make the irritating person who won’t shut up go away.

Homicidal rage, the kind that results in violence, is always dangerous. It is made especially so when it can be coupled with a firearm. A gun promises a dramatic and satisfying denouement, a fantasy of forceful resolution, an imposition of our will on a stubborn and difficult world. It will always provide a dangerous and alluring temptation.

India’s IIT Graduates Go Mainstream: Via Campus Shooting, The American Way

Graduates of the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) are part of American life: professors, technology officers, and scientists at Ivy League universities, Silicon Valley start-ups, and industrial research and development laboratories.  But these are rarefied environs, exclusive precincts for the technocratic elite; the IIT graduate’s presence here places his cultural achievements in a fringe zone visible only to a select minority. But now with news of a participation in a campus shooting IIT graduates might have finally gone mainstream in the most American of ways: by using a firearm to settle a dispute.

The man who fatally shot a UCLA professor in his office before turning the gun on himself Wednesday has been identified as Mainak Sarkar. He was a former doctoral student who had once called his victim William Klug a “mentor” but in recent months he had written angry screeds accusing him of stealing his computer code.

Police have identified Sarkar as the gunman in yesterday’s murder-suicide that locked down the UCLA campus…Sarkar submitted his doctoral dissertation in 2013, and in the 2014 doctoral commencement booklet, Klug, a mechanical engineering professor, is listed as his advisor…Sarkar had previously earned a master’s degree at Stanford University and an undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur. Until August of last year, he had worked as an engineering analyst for a rubber company called Endurica LLC.

The academic CV follows a standard template: an IIT, a top flight American institution, some technical professional experience. And then, things go wrong: a personal relationship deteriorates:

In his acknowledgements, he wrote to Klug, “Thank you for being my mentor.” A source told the Times that Klug bent over backwards to help Sarkar on his dissertation and to graduate, even though Sarkar’s work wasn’t always high-quality. This source is appalled that Sarkar would later accuse Klug of stealing his code to give to another student: “The idea that somebody took his ideas is absolutely psychotic.”

On March 10, Sarkar wrote on a blog now archived:

William Klug, UCLA professor is not the kind of person when you think of a professor. He is a very sick person. I urge every new student coming to UCLA to stay away from this guy. […] My name is Mainak Sarkar. I was this guy’s PhD student. We had personal differences. He cleverly stole all my code and gave it another student. He made me really sick. Your enemy is your enemy. But your friend can do a lot more harm. Be careful about whom you trust. Stay away from this sick guy.

Sarkar resolved his personal crisis with his former mentor and adviser with a gun. Admittedly, only an unglamorous 9mm semi-pistol (perhaps even legally owned and registered), not one of those devastating ‘assault rifles’ that normally gets everyone ire up after the latest mass shooting. And Sarkar didn’t go for the full-fledged massacre; he settled for a ‘one and done’ deal. But in his cleaving to the Way of the Gun, he made his pledge of allegiance, his desire to be All-American, his assimilation strategy of choice, all too clear.