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.”13How 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.