Thursday, August 25, 2011

Killing in Our Name

From CounterPunch:

We make a bargain with our governments. We pay taxes and expect a set of government services in return. And in return for a guarantee of some measure of security, we grant the government a monopoly on legitimate violence. In theory, then, we forswear mob rule and paramilitary organizations, we occasionally accept the death penalty as an appropriate punishment, we delegate the responsibility to declare and prosecute war to our legislative and executive branches, and we put guns into the hands of the army and the police.

Governments, in other words, kill on our behalf. This arrangement is a form of social contract, which means that governments are basically contract killers. Some states, like Nazi Germany, use the tremendous power of arms and bureaucracy to transform their territories into slaughterhouses. Regimes that are merely authoritarian can be equally brutal but display a greater selectivity in their tyranny. In our more decorous democracies, meanwhile, we perfume our conversations with words like “justice” and “national security” to mask the odor of death.


Rather than view these acts as some unfortunate stage in the evolution of democracy, I prefer to think that democracy consistently attempts to obscure its relationship to violence. Wars are not put to a vote. Indeed, here in the United States, Congress has been largely shunted to the side when it comes to war, and it generally weighs in only after the fact. The militarism of the Bush administration required a concentration of power in the executive branch and a flouting of international law (such as the Geneva Conventions). The Obama administration, with its policies on drones and extrajudicial killing, has not relinquished much of that executive power or shown much greater sensitivity to international law. More troubling, perhaps, is the fact that leaders don’t necessarily hijack the political process in order to use violence. Swayed by fear and nationalism, a democratic society can agree, albeit with significant minority dissent, to a rollback of democracy (such as the USA PATRIOT Act) or a full-scale military invasion (into Afghanistan, for instance).

More here.

The essay concludes with a call for civilization to find ways to restrict state violence as much as possible, a notion with which I wholeheartedly agree, but what's fascinating here is the reminder that when the government kills, it does so in the name of the people of the United States--it kills for us.

As much as I'd like to be a pacifist, I just cannot be so absolute. What happens, in some ideal social reality, when the collective farm over the hill runs out of water, and comes with guns for ours? If the situation is dire enough, you've got to fight. I mean, sure, try to find a way to coexist if you can, but if your attacker or oppressor has his mind made up, and your own existence is on the line, you've got to fight. Or die. Personally, I prefer fighting to death.

But in this day and age, especially in fortress America, such existential situations are extraordinarily rare. So even though I'm not a pacifist, it seems pretty clear that most wars are avoidable. And as far as the death penalty goes, there is no justifiable reason at all, at all, to kill a person who is behind bars and no longer a threat to society. Capital punishment is barbaric and wrong. Nonetheless, we continue to fight wars and to kill criminals who have been rendered harmless. All for the people of the United States. For me. For you.

The reality, of course, is that the government doesn't really kill for the people. It only uses our name for false justification. The reality is that the government kills for the special interests, the wealthy, and the massive corporations that actually run the government. Not us. Sure, there are voters who support the wars, voters who support the death penalty, but all that strikes me as the result of these interests owning or having access to the mass media. That is, most media portrayals of victims of US state violence strongly assert that they had it coming; conversely, innocent victims of capital punishment and the so-called "collateral damage" of war are, by and large, invisible.

I think that if most Americans had a crystal clear picture of what it literally means to have the government kill on their behalf, to see the corpses, to hear the sobbing and weeping of victims' families, to have wet and warm blood on their hands, there would be a lot less state sanctioned killing. Perhaps this is the direction we ought to go if we're serious about restricting the state's ability to rain down death on whomever it wants.