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Introduction: Policing Our Lives, Policing the World: The U.S. Expands Its Role

This issue was originally conceived as a forum to address the myriad manifestations of enforcement activities, backed by threat of force, that surround our everyday lives.
Megan Shaw Prelinger and Joel Scalit

Issue #58, December 2001

"Well, I'd say there's peace even in war, war has its islands of peace. For war satisfies all needs, even those of peace, yes, they're provided for, or the war couldn't keep going". War is like love, it always finds a way. Why should it end?
— Bertold Brecht, Mother Courage
"As Foucault said so well, it is not war that is a continuation of politics but politics which is a continuation of war. War is the foundation of the politics!"
— Antonio Negri, Le Monde

This issue was originally conceived as a forum to address the myriad manifestations of enforcement activities, backed by threat of force, that surround our everyday lives. The events of September 11 and the resulting war against Afghanistan and against Muslim fundamentalism have of course had an enormous impact on the tone and content of the issue. As the articles were being written, the United States' role as policeman to the world has taken on sudden new meaning. At the same time, we find ourselves victims, for the first time in 56 years, of a direct attack on our citizenry. The threat of force has thus exploded like a bomb into the fabric of everyday life.

As the quotation from Brecht's Mother Courage suggests, the mass execution in New York's financial district took place during what most Americans assume to have been a time of peace. But that assumption is blind to the reality that Anglo-American forces have been engaged in a continuous state of war with Iraq for over eleven years. Few Americans acknowledge that we have been in a continuous state of conflict since the Gulf War; from our daily bombardments of Iraq to our ongoing conflict with Osama Bin Laden's Al Queda terrorist network.

None of our opponents succeeded in striking back at us until September 11, which should be regarded as proof of America's ability to defend itself during wartime. The past ten years should not -- and since September 11 cannot -- ever be interpreted as a period in which we were at peace. And on October 26th the United States government extended this conflict into our everyday lives by passing militarily unnecessary anti-terrorist legislation that rescinds fundamental civil rights. Joe Lockard warned us in his September 24th Bad Subjects editorial, Civil Rights on the War Bonfire, that under the proposed anti-terrorism legislation:

  1. "Wiretapping orders will become available on demand for government investigators, based on no evidence beyond a claim of terrorist association. The probable cause standard for obtaining wiretap orders that presently holds in criminal cases will become history, replaced by a new standard of relevance to a criminal investigation. The judicial function of authorization for wiretapping will be marginalized; government investigators themselves increasingly will decide themselves what is relevant.
  2. Investigators will not even need to bother with the courts to obtain business records: an administrative subpoena will suffice. The Internet is already being saddled up with Carnivore monitoring software, an invasion of free speech and privacy for which its proponents now have a national security excuse. This is only part of a new culture of personal invasion. The Anti-Terrorism Act would create a new category of secret searches where government agents conduct furtive searches without providing notice or presenting a warrant.
  3. The bill would retroactively punish with deportation all non-citizens who made contributions to what the government now decides are terror-linked organizations, even though such contributions were legal under U.S. law and contributors did not know of any underground connection with a terror group.
  4. The INS will be able to have access to and use the intelligence files of foreign intelligence agencies to process U.S. immigration applications, creating substantial jeopardy for political refugees who fled because they opposed their governments.
  5. In the U.S., educational institutions -- whose seminar rooms are about the last conceivable refuge for terrorists planning the lucha armada -- will receive special attention. New legal authorization will be given to any federal officer, as authorized by the Attorney General, to obtain, use and disseminate confidential student records. In short, educational privacy will end."

Three weeks after the war against Afghanistan began, every single one of Lockard's predictions came to pass. Does this rescinding of civil rights represent the rise of a stereotypical police state? Yes. This legal initiative exemplifies a trend toward redefining the primary role of government as guaranteeing its own security at the expense of its responsibilities towards its citizenry. As Pennsylvania congressman Curt Weldon says: "The first priority of the US government is not education, it is not healthcare, it is the defense and protection of US citizens," Naomi Klein quoted Weldon as telling CNN, adding: "I'm a teacher married to a nurse -- none of that matters today."

Such statements ought to alarm all of us, but will especially frighten those familiar with the ideological history of the New Right. After nearly a generation of successive right-wing and neo-liberal attempts to scale back 'big' government, cut welfare spending, and prioritize the rights of the market, the role of the state has been finally and forcefully redefined by these very same critics as providing total and complete national security.

Anyone on either the left or the right who has a sense of historical perspective can see that every time the government has found itself at odds with the outside world, its security apparatus has applied an anti-democratic political logic to the everyday lives of its own citizenry. Given the history of abuses that Americans of all political persuasions have had to suffer at the hands of law enforcement agencies, the current legislation is guaranteed to result in civil rights abuses. If we are to take the supposed infallibility of American intelligence and weaponry as an indicator of the state's ability to guarantee freedom such abuses, than we're in a great deal of trouble. The new anti-terrorism legislation is the concluding political moment in the rollback of American democracy that is the primary leitmotif of the current presidential administration.

Indeed, given that the administration was not democratically elected, it would make sense for it to roll back some remaining aspects of democratic political culture in a time of war. While the American public has been promised that much of this legislation will be rescinded in four years, given the time we have been told it will take to fight the current war against terror -- the British Ministry of Defense recently speculated that it might take fifty years -- it is highly unlikely that we'll return to pre-September 11 levels of freedom that soon. Does that mean that we ought to remember the second half of the twentieth century as a golden age of historically unparalleled freedoms? Or instead remember the Clinton era as America's Weimar Republic equivalent? Quite possibly the latter.

Some of our essays address the tragedy of September 11 and its aftermath directly, while others weave reference to it into the fabric of other narratives. Judging from the articles we received for this issue, none of our writers' work has escaped the attack on the U.S. unaffected. While it is tempting for us to shift our focus dramatically toward the spectacle of war, it is neither practical nor appropriate for us to do so completely. The everyday world remains our immediate environment, and it is just as important now as ever to continue to explore the confrontations, abuses, prejudices, and complex negotiations that saturate our ordinary social environment.

Mike Males uses his prodigious research skills to make plain how crime statistics are misrepresented by politicians and the media, to ensure that those statistics further social agendas that the elites cannot afford to walk away from. Michael Pipkin relays his experience with being assaulted by the San Francisco Police Department, and leads readers through the trauma of police terrorism without generalizing his anger or giving in to bitterness. Rick Prelinger considers the emancipatory potential of scanning police broadcasts, and questions why the history of the hobby has not evolved to fulfill that potential. Alicia Curtis looks at the intersection between policing and mental health care. She takes a critical look at the practice of "involuntary commitment," and points out the conflict of this law with basic civil liberties: that no other group of citizens are legally subject to arrest for things they have not yet done.

Martha Bridegam reminds us of our national history of prejudice toward local citizens during wartime. She pulls us back to World War II, and shares with us some narratives of people on both sides of the fence at Tanforan, where Japanese-American citizens were interned solely for reason of guilt by (remote) association. Bridegam traces the path of historical memory of this internment site, and creates a compelling testimony to our cultural amnesia regarding our history of racial hatred. Scott Schaffer studies fascist political patterns in American society, and finds that factors contributing to a police state mentality are an integral part of everyday life in America.

Edmund Zimmerman examines the politics of Italy's new Berlusconi government through the violent events of the demonstrations against the G8 in Genoa last summer, concluding that the treatment accorded to protestors is symptomatic of a return of repressed fascist politics. Joel Schalit challenges us to consider the historical context of the current war against Afghanistan and Muslim fundamentalism. He warns that American progressives are at risk for having their ideology conflated with that of our "enemies," and that the domestic front is the next in line for assault.

Concluding this issue which is otherwise so focused on oppressive force, University of Toronto political scientist Gad Horowitz demolishes another equally important ideology: the religiously inspired narrative of universal forgiveness. Demonstrating where this discourse came from, and the acts it has historically been used to justify and whitewash, Horowitz' essay is a model for critically interrogating reactionary discourses about universal justice that are synonymous with justifications for the current war in Afghanistan.

Megan Shaw Prelinger and Joel Schalit are members of the Bad Subjects Production Team.

Copyright © 2001 by Megan Shaw Prelinger and Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.