Thursday, October 17, 2013

Too Much State Power? (Asymmetric Warfare and Asymmetric Policing)

It may seem strange to suggest, on the day that our dysfunctional government has been put back to work after weeks of deadlock by our dysfunctional Congress, that what we're confronting is too much state power. But all signs point in precisely this direction.

Most recently, I've been seeing reports about the man that a U.S. team grabbed in Libya, and every time I see them, I feel like there's something wrong here and we're not articulating it properly.

Continuing the practice that has filled the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center as well as Bagram and an unknown number of other prisons in Afghanistan, the U.S. government arrested/detained an alleged criminal/terrorist, Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai (Abu Anas al-Libi). From the get-go, the U.S. government said that it intended to do two things with this man: (a) interrogate him aboard a U.S. Navy ship; (b) prosecute him in U.S. federal court. The legalities of this are complicated, and turn broadly on the question of whether the man is a soldier, a civilian, or something in-between.

Having worked on the Guantanamo issue for years now, I have some familiarity with the relevant legal concepts. But in this case I kept turning from technicalities to simple moral instinct: no matter what the legal theory is, there is something that doesn't feel right about an all-powerful state grabbing a person and disappearing him down a hole (or multiple holes) where they will -- rules and protocols notwithstanding -- do whatever they want with him (thank you very much).

In other words, you don't have to be a lawyer to be able to assert that there's something wrong with what the U.S. is doing.

This is not, by the way, to deny that crimes may have been committed, or to in any way present a judgement on the character of the individual involved. The one thing does not excuse the other.

The point is the overwhelming asymmetry between the power of the U.S. government and the power of individuals. That is what is immediately apparent to our intuitive sense of justice -- even if we are not able to put it into words.

The U.S. government and its military talk constantly about the new world of "asymmetric warfare" -- which basically boils down to how "unfair" it seems to them that individuals can wield any meaningful amount of power, given how minuscule their numbers or the firepower available to them. But what what we should spend much more time focusing on is "asymmetric policing" -- i.e. the overwhelming power that the U.S. state wields in every encounter with individuals.

What's the Big Trend?

I think the U.S. is in the midst of a big shift.  I think that for over a decade following 9/11 people have been so enmeshed in fear that their instincts weren't working properly. I think that we are in the midst of a slow process of awakening: people are emerging from the shadow of fear to a wider range of sensibility -- and they are realizing there are some things that are out of joint.

We've seen some examples of that already in 2013: the push-back against surveillance, the movement against drone killings, the enormous success of the campaign to end stop-and-frisk in New York City, the widespread refusal to allow an attack on Syria, the call for detente with Iran . . . .

Much work remains to be done.  What will be accomplished in 2014?

Related posts

In the film "The Response," as military judges are debating the fate of a detainee at Guantanamo, one of them says, "Okay, if 9/11 is the measuring stick, are we a great nation because of the blow we took? Or because how we, as a country, respond to that blow? The response matters. Our response defines us . . . . "

(See Why Have We Built A Monument To Bin Laden?)

One issue that has a key place in the midterm elections in 2014, I believe, is surveillance.  With each passing day, I am hearing more and more people say that the surveillance issue is something that a wide spectrum of people are deeply upset about. That includes people on the right as well as people on the left -- people who don't usually talk with each other, much less work together for positive change!

(See The Surveillance Issue: The Fulcrum of the 2014 Election?)

In Chicago, the biggest symbol of asymmetric state power is the Cook County Jail: it is the club that the state uses to compel defendants to take plea deals.

(See Free Them All)