Going in, I thought The Act of Killing was a documentary about the indigenous filmic practices of Indonesian paramilitary veterans, in which men who had killed thousands following the U.S.-backed overthrow of Suharto in '65 reckoned with their motives and tried to come to terms with their violence and its aftermath. I had only glanced at various synopses, at the AFI Docs website or on Flixster. Mostly I was struck by the film's marketing image (above) of an enormous, surrealist fish perched on a shore, and the column of pink-clad figures who seemed to have emerged from its mouth. But I was also interested in the film's relationship to violence and spectacle, both locational and mediatized, having researched Bombay's Hindu-nationalist Shiv Sena and its rise, also from the mid-'60s, to prominence nationally and within Maharashtra state thanks in large part to its public spectacles of violence—spectacles that were further spectacularized by Indian media, particularly via U.S.-influenced Bollywood gangster films. I was curious to see if The Act of Killing rebuked this spectacle and offered something else: a counter-spectacle, if you will.
Instead, the film amounts to little more than a Western propaganda piece about the evilness of others, without acknowledging the role of the U.S., for instance, in Suharto's removal and in provoking the anti-Communist fervor that animated the mass killings, nor the role of the U.S. director Joshua Oppenheimer, without whom there'd be no filmic practices of the now-grizzled members of the Pancasila Youth, the ostensible subjects—that is, objects—of this fiction. I should be clearer: there is no "foray into filmmaking," as The Act of Killing's official synopsis puts it, by "Anwar Congo and his friends." Instead, Oppenheimer asks Congo et al. to act out the stories of violence they purportedly share among themselves, and the director's camera records these increasingly staged scenes until Oppenheimer himself gets to condemn Congo for his murders. But this confrontation is as illusory as the film at large—it only occurs because Oppenheimer has created the conditions. Never mind the fact the director has palled around with Congo and his buddies since 2004. Congo understandably might have trusted Oppenheimer, who not only gives Congo the means to realize his Hollywood fantasies but also promises, explicitly or not, the global circulation of them. Such is the power of a white American's camera, especially in global locations where the range of U.S. cultural imperialism is seen and felt.
There are no ethics in this projection of Oppenheimer's own fantasies on to the material bodies of Congo and the others, who include, as the film proceeds, numerous extras. Indeed, the film's nadir goes well past ethics into outright harm when it subjects dozens of local Indonesians—the film was shot in and around Medan—to physical and emotional turmoil during a recreated melee in what looks to be a forest. At the end of the violence, Oppenheimer pans in on a child crying uncontrollably, then on a dazed woman gasping for breath amid lingering smoke from fires set during the scene. The director wants to highlight the victims of Congo's tactics, but these are the victims of Oppenheimer's own tactics: there would be no such suffering were he not filming a scene he has both asked and helped Congo et al. to stage. It's an unconscionable moment akin to the odious Stanford prison experiment of '71, in which a similarly deluded director—professor Philip Zimbardo—sent students into a simulated prison to act out the roles of guards and inmates. Among other effects of this staging, the guards psychologically tortured many of the inmates and also coerced them into torturing their fellow prisoners, while Zimbardo, observing all this, let it continue. (Nowadays, Zimbardo, like Oppenheimer, is keen to talk simplistically about good and evil, and what he calls the "Lucifer Effect." Like Oppenheimer, he's also been honored for his work, despite the harm it's caused.)
The point is that staging something sets the conditions under which people act, whether in the basement of the Stanford psychology building or in a forested area outside Medan. In the latter case, if there were no scene being filmed, there would have been no harm to the aforementioned visibly harmed extras (and they were just two out of the many). The process that Oppenheimer enacts by asking Congo et al. (and Congo is the de facto leader of this group of men) to stage their past violence leads to present violence: the "collateral damage" of the filming itself. The initial scenes are of Congo and his pals re-enacting their deeds themselves: they're quasi-knowing actors insofar as they've agreed to Oppenheimer's request. But as more and more people are roped into the process, abetted by the camera's presence and whatever off-screen negotiations there were, the majority of the actors become unknowing participants, there only because Congo and Pancasila Youth members have effectively demanded it. There's a spectacle to be filmed by Oppenheimer, after all, and the men don't want to miss out on the opportunity to dramatize their exploits for a new global audience.
I should point out here that, contra to the surrealist fish image, The Act of Killing's scenes are primarily realist, as reenactments tend to be. There are nods to noir, and some campy horror make-up and effects, but aside from the fish and a related scene of pink-clad figures dancing in the spray of a waterfall, the film endeavors to place the Pancasila Youth men—and the audience—into the original context of their actions. The two surrealist scenes, then, are outliers, and not just in terms of their form: their inscrutability is at odds with the seeming transparency of the historical, lived re-enactments. What kind of fantasies are being expressed in these two scenes exactly? In the second iteration of the waterfall scene, towards the end of the film, an "actor" tells Congo that he was glad to be killed, an obviously self-serving fantasy of Congo's, but why the waterfall location? Why the pink garb? There's likely a cultural symbolics at play here, but Oppenheimer doesn't explicate it, in keeping with his overall contextless approach. Instead of taking to task Congo, for instance, the director might have detailed the U.S.'s involvement in Suharto's overthrow and the country's Cold War geopolitical interests across Asia. That certainly would've been a valuable approach for American viewers, who could've learned about yet another violent abuse of power by their government, especially as such contemporary geopolitical warfare—against Iraq, Afghanistan, the vaguenesses of "terror," and, possibly next, Syria—is arguably more robust than ever. But such an approach would've also been useful for Indonesian and other viewers to learn, once again, about how U.S. imperial actions have materially shaped—that is, staged—the conditions under which they live. Instead, Oppenheimer, like many a U.S. filmmaker before him, chooses to ignore this history and place the burden of responsibility solely on Congo et al., whom the director makes look even worse by their enjoyment of the re-enactments.
The name Congo, of course, points to an important parallel with the African Congo, the setting of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which similarly sought to expose the heart of darkness at the center of the racialized other. The difference between that fiction and Oppenheimer's, however, is that Conrad wanted to expose the horrors of colonialism and not the horrors of the colonized, even if he perpetuated racist tropes about the horrors of Africans in the process. In contrast, The Act of Killing purports to expose the horrors of Congo and the Pancasila Youth by way of unacknowledged colonialist tropes, and elides the colonizer—here, the U.S. as global power—altogether. It's a reprehensible piece of filmmaking.
The spectacle of the film is all the worse because it takes material advantage of living people, but in that, The Act of Killing is merely a step ahead of more-easily-identifiable works of fiction, such as the Bollywood gangster films I note above or Jeet Thayil's Booker-nominated 2012 novel Narcopolis, set in Bombay/Mumbai and also a topic of my recent research. Indeed, although The Act of Killing appears to be a film about gangsters making a film and isn't, "gangsters" actually do make films in other U.S./European-capital-dominated spaces of the global south. In the paper I've been working on that's based on this research, I describe how various intersecting political economies—colonial British, postcolonial Maharashtrian/Indian, and contemporary global (that is, the related capital flow of multinational firms and the economic structural adjustment of Indian and other "developing" nations via the World Bank, IMF, and WTO)—produced material inequities in Bombay and Maharashtra that the Shiv Sena was able to leverage to perpetrate violence in service to its Maratha-Hindu nationalism. This strategy has been incredibly successful for the Sena: aside from ascending to the chief legislative bodies of both Maharashtra and India, it also led the campaign to rename Bombay Mumbai, the vernacular pronunciation of "Bombay" in Marathi, the official language of Maharashtra, rendered in English.
In the following excerpt from my paper, I explore the relationship between the Sena's street spectacles and the concomitant media spectacles of them, including those in Narcopolis. (My primary research source in this excerpt is Thomas Blom Hansen's Wages of Violence: Naming and Identity in Postcolonial Bombay, but the reference in the second paragraph to "elimination," which frames the paper at large, comes from Achille Mbembe's analysis of mortal and material expenditures in contemporary African states in the Comaroffs' anthology Law and Disorder in the Postcolony.) After the except, I make a final remark about how The Act of Killing might participate in a similar dynamic vis-à-vis the Pancasila Youth.
What we see in the case of Shiv Sena and their sainik foot soldiers is a group of men with differential holds on and claims to masculinity—and, therefore, material and symbolic power—and at various scales: local (among the Maratha Hindu males of the Sena and among them and other Mumbai men); national (insofar as Bombay is the commercial/financial/media capital of India); and global (among all Mumbai/Indian men, including the Sena, and northern capital/ists). Accordingly, violence orchestrated by the Sena can be an expression—a compensation—for any of these power imbalances. Sainiks can kill Muslims, they can rape women or men (proving their masculinity in either case), or they can target capital directly in street riots and property damage.
If the Sena’s discourse stoked this complicated dynamic, it’s also reinforced by cultural discourse at large, particularly by the news media and media forms in general, including crime tabloids, film, and literary writing. The Sena has a significant media arm of its own, comprised of several periodicals, but it’s the representation and circulation of its “violent public spectacles” by other cultural producers I’m particularly interested in: the propagation of spectacles of spectacles and the concomitant widening of psychic economies based on them. Specifically, what happens when the psychological experience—or structure of feeling—of elimination is picked up and distributed globally by Western capital interests? And does this experience or structure have a counterpart in the West? Indeed, to take the example of “Mumbai noir,” heavily indebted to U.S. noir (via Hollywood) as it is, suggests that the same dialectic of law and disorder, legality and criminality, attends to both the global south and the north, even if its effects—for now—may be more intense in the former given the latter’s economic hold.
As Gyan Prakash notes, the “dark form” as a mode for representing modern urban dystopia has a long, and particularly colonial, history (1). William Booth’s 1890 screed In Darkest England, for instance, tied urban metropolitan crisis to Africa but it spoke to a generalized fear of the other vis-à-vis India and the British Empire’s worldwide holdings in the midst of the apex of formal imperialism and its tensions. And while the dark form would later be taken up by Hollywood in the 1940s and ’50s and transformed into noir, this earlier colonial precedent is important to remember in the context of Bollywood’s version of noir that gained prominence in the 1980s. The Mumbai noir inaugurated by films such as The Godfather-inspired Nayakan (1987) thus draws on both a colonial imaginary and a U.S. one. The former, however, is not always recognized by critics writing on spectacle, noir, and contemporary Mumbai. Ranjani Mazumdar, for instance, sets her discussion in the “context of globalization” (401), whereby she elides the colonial formation of darkness while replicating it anew by opposing the “dark space” of the “underworld” (414) to the “light space” of the bourgeois “interior city” (404). In this way, denizens of Mumbai’s “middle and upper class” are akin to Victorian Londoners, both threatened by an ever-encroaching disorder from elsewhere.
Of course, as I’ve been trying to show, and as the class positions in Mazumdar’s analysis indicate, disorder, darkness, and the underworld/underground are products of the dialectic of law and order that underwrites particular political, economic, and social ends. Therefore, while she notes the “material connection of finances” between Bollywood and Bombay’s criminalized economy (415), she fails to consider the discursive stake that a group like the Sena has in depictions of violence and strife. Thus, she asserts, “One of the principal features of noir is its ability to destroy urban spectacle” because its evocations of “shadowy and mysterious spaces” sharply contrast with the “phantasmagoria of aerial photography so commonly used in tourism and travelogue films” (423). But as my tracing of the effects of various political economies on Bombay shows, those shadowy spaces are part of the same phantasmagoria as the aerial footage: city bureaucrats may offer one spectacle to global capital and consumers, while other urban actors display their own spectacles on Mumbai’s streets and screens for the city’s residents.
In the case of the Sena, the group’s material connection to the Bombay film industry is one of deep imbrication, in both the financing and the production of “gangster” films. According to Hansen, the term “gangster” first came into use in the 1970s via “American gangster mythology” and was applied by “police, officials, and the press” to describe members of Bombay’s criminalized economy (188). How this happened remains unclear, as do the particular ways the Sena came to participate in the making of gangster films. But since the mid-’80s, the group’s entanglement with Bollywood has been “wide-ranging and complex,” involving
the “Motion Pictures Unit,” Shivsena Chitrapat Shakha, which organizes employees in the film industry, a number of directors and actors who produce Marathi and Hindi films and are closely involved with members of the Thackeray family who invest in their films, as well as Cable Sena, a recent association of smaller cable TV operators in the Mumbai area. (213)
Hansen goes on to describe the example of the director N. Chandra, “a self-avowed supporter” of the Sena whose various films, beginning with Ankush in 1985, depict violence as a form of justice for “poor and marginalized figures”—“an enduring element in the Sena ideology” (214). Given the scale of reception for film, and its mimetic-like, experiential qualities, the Sena, then, had found a more potent form in which to circulate their street-level spectacles. That is, if the middle and upper classes weren’t directly witnessing Sena-orchestrated violence—if they were, say, only reading about it in the papers, or catching glimpses on broadcast news—then they could see it in extended visceral fashion without leaving their homes or, to go to a movie theater, their enclaves. Film, of course, is a paradigmatic way of experiencing the other, at least in the psychoanalytic tradition that I’ve already been using in this essay.
It’s in this context that we must consider both the representations in and the global reception of Narcopolis, which is set in the criminalized lifeworlds of Bombay over the last 40 years or so. Its main narrative thread (as its title implies) is the role of narcotics in an economically transforming Mumbai, in particular the effects that opiates and their changing commodity status have on a cast of characters that includes a traditional khana, or opium den, owner, a hijra woman who works in the khana and a nearby brothel, a dada subordinate who sells cocaine and “black-market whisky” for the boss, and a native informant who’s returned to the city after a long stint in New York. The novel foregrounds the history of the opium economy—first an eastern Mediterranean and Asian trade good, then a British-imperial commodity produced in India for sale to China, and, since the early 20th century, a fully global commodity in both legalized (pharmaceutical) and criminalized (heroin) forms (see McCoy)—as a stand-in for the wider political economic changes I sketched above. Specifically, we see a version of how heroin’s replacement of opium as the in-demand drug in Bombay affects people who’ve subsisted on the market for the latter, at the same time that other global capital flows reshape the city in other ways (by the novel’s end, for instance, the khana has been replaced by a call center owned by the khana owner’s son).
I say “version” because this is Thayil’s particular treatment of this shift, of course, and for the remainder of this paper I want to consider the particular narrative and representational choices he makes and their possible effects on readers—who, since the novel is only available in English, must largely occupy the upper and middle classes of India and (more likely) of Britain and the U.S. Indeed, Narcopolis has done rather well in the Anglophone literary prestige economy, winning the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and having been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Man Asian Literary Prize, and the Hindu Literary Prize, the latter an indication of how the book has been received in religio-cultural contexts.
Akin Adesokan has claimed that “Commonwealth” novels that garner attention in the West are primarily concerned with representing, or relating to, “political or humanitarian emergency” (3). Further, he claims that these novels typically share five additional characteristics, among them a narrator or protagonist who is “culturally innocent or marginal” and who can thus register the “emotional consequences of familial or public upheavals” (4). These two characteristics are key for what they evade: “a culturally innocent” character by definition can’t recognize the structural contexts of his or her life, and though a “marginal” character may have a better vantage, the everyday challenges of marginalization may deter such awareness (I return to this point in my conclusion). On the other hand, if “emotional consequences” are prized, literally, by Western literary elites, then other consequences—political, economic, social—are not. In contrast to their politically unaware characters, however, the creators of these avatars seem to be quite aware of the politics of the awards market, adroitly leveraging them to achieve acclaim.
But, what, exactly, are metropolitan elites rewarding? What are northern readers getting from a text like Narcopolis—or, on a much grander scale, Slumdog Millionaire, also about strife in criminalized lifeworlds? In interviews, Thayil, born in Kerala, has cited his own experiences in Bombay’s khanas as his chief inspiration, but whether he was also influenced by Bollywood gangster films or a particular masculinist ideology is unclear, though he has said he would find “fist fights” between authors “more satisfying” than intellectual skirmishes (Ghose n.p.). Certainly his dada-subordinate character, Salim, styles himself after “two tough-guy actors,” namely John Travolta and Amitabh Bachchan, and Thayil gives him the opportunity to reference a (possibly invented) movie starring the latter called Polyester Khadi, “in which Bachchan played a policeman’s son who becomes a criminal because he sees how hard his father’s life is” (136-137). “You know what he tells his father, played by the veteran Sanjeev Kumar?” Salim asks a visitor to the shop that provides a front for his criminalized labor. “Are you a man or a pajama?” (137-138). It would seem, then, that Thayil has incorporated, at least in part, some of the overt signs of masculinism that the Shiv Sena produces and promulgates.
I go on to develop this point in the remainder of the paper, but The Act of Killing now gives me a generative new example to think through these questions of global psychic economy, and the ways that media can perpetuate, rather than disrupt, troubling reactionary political forms, whether in Indonesian, India, or the U.S.
And then my phone ran out of juice as we walked down the above block, which I happen to live on. (Would that I could've gone up and gotten a fresh phone.) The march continued east on 12th Street, north on 1st Avenue, west on 23rd Street, north on 6th Avenue, west on 33rd Street, and north on 7th one block to 34th Street, where we were stopped. I peeled off at that point but the march continued west on 33rd and then, from what I heard, to Times Square. No justice, no peace.
In this third and final excerpt from my recent work on U.S. national security, I consider the case of Assata Shakur, retroactively designated a "domestic terrorist" under the post-9/11 Patriot Act. The continuity between the national-security response to black radicalism and the present heightened response to Islamic radicalism made me think about security at large as an inherently racialized, racist form.
“We must define the nature and scope of this struggle or else it will define us,” President Obama said in his recent “dronetánamo” speech in which he laid out plans to scale back the war on terrorism. But the example of Assata Shakur shows how much terrorism already “defines us.”
On May 2nd, just weeks before the President’s speech, Shakur was added to the FBI’s “most wanted terrorist” list—40 years after her alleged murder of a New Jersey state trooper. Long in exile in Cuba, she was first designated a terrorist in 2005, under the Patriot Act’s reconceptualization of “domestic terrorism.” According to this new definition, which is U.S. law, an act of domestic terrorism must
A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State;
B) appear to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and
C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States. (“Patriot Act” 106)
But the FBI has never explained how Shakur meets part B of this definition. In its press release announcing her addition to its “most wanted terrorists” list, it simply calls her a “domestic terrorist who murdered a law enforcement officer execution-style” (Woodruff). Furthermore, Shakur was already convicted of this crime; she’s wanted for extradition to serve the remainder of her prison sentence. Finally, Shakur’s conviction—which the government pursued through three acquittals, three dismissals, and one mistrial on separate charges—remains disputed (“Who is Assata Shakur?”). After all, the FBI didn’t just act violently against black-radical groups, or foment violence between them. It also outright manufactured charges of violence, as in the 1969-1970 prosecution of the “Panther 21,” who were charged far in excess of their alleged plot to dynamite two New York City police stations and a school—and were acquitted largely because the jury recognized the defendants had been framed for political reasons (Zimroth 6-7). Given the FBI’s COINTELPRO initiatives against both black-radical groups and Cuba, the “most wanted terrorist” label, which comes with a poster of Shakur “prepared in English and Spanish” and a $2 million reward for “information leading to [her] capture and return” (Woodruff), seems designed to lay the groundwork for an illegal mission to retrieve her from a country imaginatively considered a state sponsor of terrorism. As the U.S. continues to violate other nations’ sovereignty in pursuit of its terror objectives, a well-compensated tip on Shakur’s specific whereabouts in Cuba might be all the FBI needs to get her.
Against such institutionalized, operative definitions of terrorism, which hold that the U.S. can never be the perpetrator of terrorism but only the victim of terrorism—whose national security is always at risk even as that national security is used as a pretense to make other nations insecure—there would seem to be no way out. Although COINTELPRO ended because of public exposure, the forms of national security today remain mostly hidden, classified and accessible to only those with the proper security clearance. And certainly the stakes are higher today given the wider reach of the global war on terrorism. The Citizens’ Commission members who stole incriminating files from an FBI field office were never apprehended, but if they had been, it’s not hard to imagine what they would’ve been charged with: burglary. That was the charge the Watergate burglars were slapped with in 1972, the year following the Citizens’ Commission action. Today, Bradley Manning stands charged with aiding the enemy, which carries a life sentence. Aiding the enemy “usually means material aid—the statute mentions ‘arms, ammunition, supplies, money, or other things’”; the last time someone was charged for passing information was 1863 (Davidson). Manning is also charged with violating the Espionage Act of 1917, the same charge the Justice Department is pursuing in its investigation into who leaked national-security information to the AP and other news outlets. It would seem the U.S. government is using all its power to stop the flow of its secrets to the public.
Manning’s contributions to WikiLeaks go some way toward detailing the excesses of the U.S. war machine abroad, but that’s just one aspect of the national-security apparatus. Within the “homeland,” national security is deployed in various ways: in the context of immigration and border security; nuclear and other weapons storage; currency and monetary policy; and, as we have seen, state secrets. It’s also deployed against U.S. citizens, as the NYPD’s comprehensive infiltration of Muslim communities in the New York City metropolitan area shows—an operation the NYPD, working with the CIA, has yet to be held accountable for (although it has admitted the operation yielded no useful intelligence). According to the Associated Press’s Pulitzer-winning coverage, which relied heavily on Freedom of Information Act requests, the NYPD’s action here bore the main hallmarks of COINTELPRO’s involvement with black-radical groups some 25 years earlier: specifically, a wide-scale surveillance program coupled with the use of double agents and informants. The AP’s reporting, and the raw files it obtained by FOIA, are available on a website (“Highlights of AP’s”), but the overall archive of the NYPD’s operation remains to be built. As a public investigation seems unlikely, that archive will have to be constructed with FOIA requests. Such a tactic suggests that opponents of the state of exception can use exceptions to the state’s rule by law to mount a counter-offensive.
Finally, it’s important to note that New York area Muslims aren’t the only people to be racially profiled by the NYPD. Though 9/11 gave the department a rationale to do so—the kind of rationale I’ve been calling imagined—it has systematically racially profiled people of color, via stop-and-frisk, over this same time period as well. Whether this means the NYPD’s exceptional response to 9/11 has influenced other forms of policing is unclear, but it does make me wonder whether the very notion of security—national or municipal, public or private, or intersecting versions of these and others—is inherently racialized. Given the settler-colonial origins of the U.S., in which security was established, materially and conceptually, in opposition to the brown bodies of indigenous tribal peoples, it would seem that the figure of security has always been white, and the figure of the threat to that security always of color. In this way, the FBI, CIA, and NYPD are only the latest figures of security, and Al Qaeda, Muslims, and black and brown New York City men—and radicals of all kinds—the latest figures of threat.
Cross-posted to my research Tumblr.
Previously: "National Security as Racism"
Yesterday I posted an excerpt from my recent research on the history of U.S. national security, particularly its specific origins in the FBI's COINTELPRO campaign against black-radical groups. The following excerpt returns to the 1975-76 Senate Church Committee to show how national security is a form of institutionalized racism. Given the attention to the NSA-files leak, it's important to remember who the targets of national-security operations are: threats to white U.S. supremacy.
The second aspect of the committee’s work I want to highlight concerns the COINTELPRO campaign against the Panthers, to which the committee gave special focus. In the report on COINTELPRO, the Panthers are the only targeted group to receive its own sub-report, titled “The FBI’s Covert Action Program to Destroy the Black Panther Party” (“Book III” 185). The report begins by noting that the Panthers were not among the original list of groups targeted when the black-nationalist campaign began in August 1967. However, “[b]y July 1969, the Black Panthers had become the primary focus of the program, and was ultimately the target of 288 of the total 295 authorized ‘Black Nationalist’ COINTELPRO actions” (188). The report further notes that despite COINTELPRO’s ostensible mission to prevent violence, “some of the FBI’s tactics against the BPP were clearly intended to foster violence, and many others could reasonably have been expected to cause violence.” Indeed, the report concludes that the FBI “engaged in lawless tactics and responded to deep-seated social problems by fomenting violence and unrest” (189).
The report goes on to detail numerous examples demonstrating these claims, but I think this last point—that the FBI “responded to deep-seated social problems by fomenting violence and unrest”—is the most useful for thinking about how the U.S. national-security apparatus is responding to the “deep-seated social problems” of today. That is to say, if Islamic terrorism is largely motivated by opposition to the U.S.’s global political, military, economic, cultural, and secular imperialism, then the U.S. government, not limited to intelligence agencies, has responded—most recently—by waging two wars in Muslim-majority countries and using drones to prosecute the more nebulous “war on terror” in several other Muslim-majority countries. This point is often made—that U.S. warfare in the Muslim “world” incites terrorism—but I would argue it bears greater significance knowing that this model of protecting national security has its roots in a domestic context: namely, the FBI’s battle with the Black Panthers.
The Church Committee report on COINTELPRO contains one more point that deepens my aforementioned claim: that instead of protecting national security and preventing violence, as the FBI said its purpose was, the program was really about preventing “dissident” groups from changing the existing “social order.” I want to quote at length from the committee’s description of the program:
COINTELPRO began in 1956, in part because of frustration with Supreme Court rulings limiting the Government’s power to proceed overtly against dissident groups; it ended in 1971 with the threat of public exposure. In the intervening 15 years, the Bureau conducted a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association, on the theory that preventing the growth of dangerous groups and the propagation of dangerous ideas would protect the national security and deter violence. (“Book III” 3)
Three pages later, the report points out the falsity of the national-security rationale:
Protecting national security and preventing violence are the purposes advanced by the Bureau for COINTELPRO. There is another purpose for COINTELPRO which is not explicit but which offers the only explanation for those actions which had no conceivable rational relationship to either national security or violent activity. The unexpressed major premise of much of COINTELPRO is that the Bureau has a role in maintaining the existing social order, and that its efforts should be aimed toward combating those who threaten that order. (6)
What becomes clear in these passages is that whatever purpose COINTELPRO may have had vis-à-vis national security, the program’s actions had nothing to do with national security. Instead, the program worked to “maintain” a particular social order. In this way, national security was imagined as the reason for COINTELPRO’s mission, and the “political violence” of groups like the Panthers imagined as the “threat” to that national security. In contrast to this imagined dynamic, however, COINTELPRO deployed political violence to prevent dissident groups, but particularly the Panthers, from changing a social order that was, and remains, white supremacist. The “dangerous ideas” of the Panthers weren’t a threat to national security but to white power. The dangerous ideas were conflated with material danger—“dangerous groups”—in order to promulgate the imagined vulnerability of the nation, when in fact it was white nationalism that was vulnerable. COINTELPRO became a way to further marginalize already marginalized groups by overriding their “First Amendment rights of speech and association.”
Accordingly, COINTELPRO’s management of the racial threat must be seen in the context of other forms of institutional racism carried out by other institutional actors in the late 1960s and continuing until today. I’m reminded here of Rod Ferguson’s work, for instance, on the ways the public university managed racially diverse students at the onset of open admissions. But unlike public universities, which operate in public and are thus subject to public pressure, such as the student activism at City College that forced the institution to accede to certain demands about inclusion, COINTELPRO operated in secret and was therefore more able to deter inclusion.
We must keep this legacy of exclusionary “national security” in mind as we consider the expanded version of COINTELPRO tactics currently deployed against Muslims in the U.S. and abroad. That is to say, the “war on terror” is more properly understood as a war on ideas, in which the ideas have been figured as a violent threat to national security. This may seem a self-evident point to some, but certainly it’s a more influential point given the history from which it emerges. If the U.S.’s prosecution of Islamic terrorism is seen as part of a national pattern of political discrimination and not as an initiative uniquely warranted by 9/11 or phantasmatic “facts on the ground,” the case against exceptional politics—to stop surveilling Muslims for no other reason than they’re Muslim—would seem to gather strength.
Cross-posted to my research Tumblr.
Previously: "The #NSAFiles and the End of COINTELPRO"
When the NSA files story broke last Thursday, I'd just finished a seminar paper that argues the FBI's secret COINTELPRO campaign against the Black Panthers from 1967-1971 is a valuable, if unrealized, precedent for the U.S.'s post-9/11 dragnet against an omnipresent, pervasive, imagined Muslim terrorist "threat." Today Edward Snowden announced he was the leaker of the files, joining the company of Bradley Manning, Daniel Ellsberg, and the anonymous Citizens' Commission activists who brought COINTELPRO to a halt in '71. An excerpt from my paper:
But whereas the Panthers and other black-radical groups were a rather narrow “threat” to national security—that is, the threat was defined as membership in one of a specific set of groups—in the post-9/11 context, anyone who’s Muslim is regarded as a threat—as a subject who can be radicalized. I want to argue that this is the first critical benefit of extending the current U.S. state of exception to encompass the COINTELPRO campaign against black-radical groups: it reveals how U.S. national-security apparatus and discourse have grown exponentially since that campaign began in 1967. As both the FBI’s infiltration of Salahuddin Muhammad’s New York mosque (“Entrapment or Foiling Terror?”) and the New York Police Department’s much more extensive infiltration of Muslim communities in the New York City metropolitan area (“Highlights of AP’s Probe”) show, there’s no longer a limit to what law-enforcement agencies can do in their effort to root out the terrorist/radical threat.
There once was a limit, though: COINTELPRO, a secret program since its inception, was halted in 1971 six weeks after a group known as the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into a field office outside Philadelphia and “stole at least eight hundred documents,” as Tim Weiner writes in his 2012 history of the FBI (a history that contains only nine references to the Panthers). The burglars, who were never caught, disseminated the files, describing FBI informant operations on 22 college campuses and the surveillance of the Panthers’ Philadelphia chapter, to members of Congress and the media, though it took a year before either group acted. Nevertheless, Hoover acted first, ending COINTELPRO before the “deepest secrets of the FBI [were] exposed” (293). I believe this is the second critical benefit of returning COINTELPRO to the frame of analysis concerning post-9/11 exceptional politics: that pernicious national-security programs can be held accountable, and even ended, by public knowledge.
Four years later, the public knowledge of COINTELPRO, along with U.S. intelligence operations overall, would grow substantially with a Senate investigation. The Church Committee, as the Senate committee charged with the investigation became known (after its chairman, Frank Church, Democrat of Idaho), was the progenitor to the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (currently chaired by Dianne Feinstein). The committee released 14 reports in 1975 and 1976, totaling thousands of pages, which detailed the illegal actions of U.S. intelligence over the years, everything from the Army opening the mail of civilians to the CIA’s attempted assassinations of Fidel Castro and Patrice Lumumba. Altogether, the committee’s findings were an unprecedented public archive of information concerning national security; an additional 50,000 pages were released in 1992. This Church Committee archive, however, would later be surpassed exponentially by the national-security archive Bradley Manning gave to WikiLeaks in 2010, which, among other documents and videos, included some 500,000 reports produced by the U.S. Army (according to various news reports).
In terms of the deliberative work of the committee, I want to highlight two aspects central to my developing argument in this essay. The first concerns the committee’s conclusion that U.S. intelligence programs as a whole tended to operate outside the law—which is to say, based on exception:
The Committee finds that the domestic activities of the intelligence community at times violated specific statutory prohibitions and infringed the constitutional rights of American citizens. The legal questions involved in intelligence programs were often not considered. On other occasions, they were intentionally disregarded in the belief that because the programs served the “national security” the law did not apply. (“Book II” 137)
Thus, 26 years before the Patriot Act greatly expanded U.S. intelligence gathering to respond to 9/11 and the Islamic threat, creating a new state of exception on the basis of protecting national security, a U.S. Senate committee had rebuked the FBI, CIA, and other intelligence agencies for their illegal tactics in service to national security. Not only were the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens “infringed,” but the “law did not apply.” We would do well to remember this history when considering the politics and policies of terrorism today. On the one hand, there’s a precedent for illegal U.S. intelligence work, to which current illegal intelligence work adheres. On the other hand, there’s also a precedent for ending such work, which suggests that today’s illegal activities may well come to an end as well. Perhaps, contra Agamben, security need not inexorably increase; perhaps it has a limit.
Cross-posted to my research Tumblr.
I participated in and documented the rally at Cooper Union tonight in support of the student and faculty sit-in of the president's office (ongoing as I post this). After more than a century of being free of charge, the school now plans to charge tuition. My Storify.
My notes for teaching this great poem about the author's conflicting heritages vis-á-vis the struggle for Kenyan independence. I used the poem to kick off my English-composition class this semester at BMCC, which is loosely organized around postcolonialism.
So America finally got to see the film that Glenn Greenwald, Jane Mayer, Dianne Feinstein, and other reactionaries don't want anyone to watch: Zero Dark Thirty, which racked up $24 million in its first weekend of national release. Although the relentless criticism of the film's depiction of torture appears to be poisoning its Oscar chances—director Kathryn Bigelow was snubbed for a nod, and last night's Golden Globe for best drama went to the faux-political film Argo—the groupthink clearly hasn't deterred audiences, whom Zero Dark Thirty is for, after all. Indeed, the film grippingly reminds American viewers of what the U.S. government has done in our names—but without our consent—in the "war on terror": torture, yes, but also the illegal extraterritorial "black site" detainee program that undergirded it. Why, then, are the film's critics in denial about what it shows?
Emphasis on "shows": visual media is uniquely able to represent for our eyes to see what otherwise can only be conjured by words. This is a fact that the film's critics, who apparently don't think about aesthetics much, constantly miss. And there's been plenty written about the indefensible tactics of post-9/11 superpower warfare, such as Mayer's invaluable 2008 book The Dark Side, not to mention the 6,000 pages of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on torture—that is, if it ever sees the light of day. In contrast, what Zero Dark Thirty shows, as Manohla Dargis puts it, is the "dark side" itself—or, at least, as best as it can be imagined "based on first-hand accounts," as the film's preface states.
That proviso, of course, has also been attacked, as if no aesthetic work had ever utilized journalistic or insider knowledge. Nevertheless, the film—a docudrama—has primarily been faulted for not being journalistic enough—for the ways it "distorts" history, as Mayer asserted in her condemnation of the film. But that's exactly what aesthetic work, at its best, does: it distorts received facts into affective experiences impossible to achieve for strictly evidentiary narratives.
And the affective experience of Zero Dark Thirty is profound: because the film corresponds to a certain reality—that is, it's not completely made up—we are in effect seeing torture, and we must reckon with the affects of such witnessing. The brutal interrogation scenes are representations of torture and not documentations of it, yes, but failing a leak of CIA footage, we're never going to see exactly what happened in the black sites of the war on terrorism. (It bears reminding here of the important service provided by the original incarnation of WikiLeaks: revealing the secrets governments desperately want to keep.)
How else are we to witness waterboarding and other "enhanced interrogation techniques" if not aesthetically? How else are we to feel whatever it is we feel—rage, nausea, indifference—as we watch the first detainee in the film, Ammar, beaten, nearly drowned, or shoved into a box? The character may be a composite, but real detainees were subjected to such suffering—and aside from the Abu Ghraib photos, we have few images of what these prisoners went through.
This is the great power of Zero Dark Thirty: it shows us what we haven't seen. It's a uniquely aesthetic contribution to the multi-dimensional debate about torture that the film has reignited, itself a salutary effect. Bigelow and her partner Mark Boal have people talking about the ethics of U.S. military power again, at a time when the lightning rod for that topic, however unconductive, has been drones, whose use has greatly expanded under Obama. And let's remember, the Guantánamo detention facility remains open, with 166 "enemy combatants" illegally and indefinitely detained there. It's been four years since our president promised to close the site, and yet no one seems to care.
Indeed, in their zeal for whether Zero Dark Thirty promulgates the efficacy of torture (which it doesn't, as a careful reading of the film, such as Dargis's, makes clear), the film's critics have failed to consider the larger contours of extraterritoriality that allowed the torture to happen in the first place. Precisely because torture is illegal under federal law, it had to occur outside U.S. jurisdiction, as the film plainly shows.
And though torture has supposedly stopped (one never knows with the CIA), the extraterritorial precedent lives on, not only at Gitmo but also in the drone program. Instead of besmirching the film, its critics should be lauding it for its complete and total exposure, to use Andrew Sullivan's word, of Bush's—and Obama's—unethical prosecution of terrorism. It reveals the "unethics" of U.S. government decisions in the way that only a film can.
Of course, in addition to visceral representations, film also offers the benefit of much wider reach than a book or op-ed, as Zero Dark Thirty's box office this weekend confirms. Part of the appeal of Zero Dark Thirty, after all, is the chase for and eventual killing of "UBL," and Bigelow and Boal adroitly deploy suspense to marshal their exposé forward. That's what draws viewers, especially those who might otherwise shy away from brutal scenes of torture.
Altogether, the affective impact of watching those scenes combined with the pull of suspense made me feel complicit in the torture, which, of course, I am—or was. That's a complicated feeling that no American can easily resolve, as Jessica Chastain's character indicates when she bursts into sobs after her mission is complete. Displacing it on to the filmmakers, as the film's critics seem to do, only prevents the individual affective work that could, maybe, begin to remediate the unethics of U.S. foreign policy. Far from ratifying our government's tactics against terrorism, then, Zero Dark Thirty powerfully challenges them.
"You can't preserve everything," Florent Morellet, pioneering meat-market restaurateur, said Thursday night at a Historic Districts Council screening of the 2009 documentary about the rise and fall of his eponymous French diner. The stories of Morellet, his restaurant (which closed in '08), and the meat market have been well told over the years, but the Frenchman's rebirth as a quasi-anti-preservationist could be fresh narrative terrain: Now a member of the community board that serves the neighborhood, Soho, in which he lives, Morellet professed to have lost interest in the meatpacking district, having turned his attention instead to high-rises, urban density, and sustainability.
"It's not about the buildings, it's about the people," he ramblingly opined after the screening at the Tribeca Film Center. "That's what we as preservationists have to think about. High rise is the future, that's what's sustainable. We have to start leveling the suburbs and bringing them to the city, to the core, where there's transit. Apartment buildings of 100 stories! Going against that is immoral, because it's green."
Not exactly the talking points of New York's historic-preservation community, whose latest success is getting a distinctly low-rise section of the East Village landmarked, but that's part of Morellet's charm: he's unpredictable.
He's also, again, ahead of the trend. "There should be high rises on the avenues of the East Village," he said—and along the northern reaches of Third Avenue, there already are.