On Intersections of Land, Law, and Literature, from Primitive Territories to the Post-National Future

Leave a comment

The Chickens of Militarism Are Coming Home to Roost (August 19, 2014)

Both tragic and outrageous, the police shooting and killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown has cast a powerful light on the increasing militarization of police within the United States. Images of protests in Ferguson, MO, are unsettling, to say the least—however used we may have become to images of police in riot gear and in military formation. With images circulating online and on television of such modern war-gear as armored vehicles, semiautomatic assault weapons, and camouflage uniforms, as well as of tear-gas, rubber bullets, and stun grenades being deployed against protesters, many commentators have likened the area to a war zone, as this BBC analysis details.  Capturing the uncanniness of seeing weaponry and tactics that we associate with US militarism being deployed on US soil (Josh Levs summarizes this well in this CNN article), many commentators, such as Mike Bonifer on the Huffington Post or “Trotskyite” at Culture War Reporters, have taken to calling the area Fergustan.

I am quite taken by the rise of the term ‘Fergustan,’ since its fusion of foreign and domestic locales captures the essence of the increasing availability of military equipment associated with distant war-zones appearing here in the United States. While racial injustice is at the heart of the Ferguson protests, the stakes clearly go well beyond this single, albeit horrific, trend. Blurring the lines separating the civilian and the military, police militarization should frighten all of us—for the war material we thought we had sent safely way out there is being used here.

As Radley Balko, author of Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces, explains in this BBC video,  the explicit militarization of police can be traced at least as far back to the 1967 formation of the Los Angeles Police Department’s SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics Unit) through Inspector Daryl Gates’s consultation with US military experts (see the Wikipedia history here; and see the LAPD’s own self-description of the unit here). Chillingly, the creation of these SWAT units were in response to the August 1965 Watts riots. As Balko makes clear,  the incorporation of military tactics and gear in urban policing was quickly coupled with the political rhetoric of war, particularly the “war on drugs” that President Nixon chillingly declared on June 17, 1971, by naming drugs as “public enemy number one” (see this PBS timeline of this so-called “war,”). Once militarizing police departments found a constant set of targets supplied by the political rhetoric about a drug war, such disturbing trends as a consistently escalating number of “no-knock drug raids” ensued—with something like a 10-fold increase of such raids since the 1980s, according to Balko.

Especially insofar as I have been swayed by Stuart Elden’s powerful analysis of terror as a tactic that, while popularly held to be used only by non-state actors, is a fundamental part of modern state military strategy (see Elden’s Terror and Territory: The Spatial Extent of Sovereignty, University of Minnesota Press, 2009; articles related to the book are archived here, at Elden’s fantastic blog, Progressive Geographies), I find the shocking deployment of military gear and tactics in Ferguson deeply alarming. While this case is, once again, in one respect solely about institutional racism (and on the ongoing problem of racial inequality in terms of police activities, see this response to Michael Brown’s killing by Richard Cohen of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Dara Lind’s disturbing history of racism on Vox, as well as the multiple excellent essays available here from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Center on Race, Crime, and Justice), it is also very much another reminder of the disproportionate, quasi-military force being increasingly brought to bear upon protesters exercising their civil rights on American soil.

Police, as Steve Herbert discusses in his excellent Policing Space: Territoriality and the Los Angeles Police Department (University of Minnesota Press, 1997), often treat urban spaces in the same manner as military do in war-zones—with any challenges to their territorial supremacy requiring aggressive actions made as if against enemy forces. It is, as many have pointed out, a profoundly unsettling move to go from conceiving of the police’s mission as protecting and serving the community to conceiving of their mission as military—for this can lead to police behaving either as if they are making incursions into hostile territory or defending territory from enemy forces. The bewilderingly disproportionate nature of law-enforcement response in Ferguson presents a stark reminder of the dangers of police militarization.

Given such disproportionate response, the movement of military equipment from the war-zones of Iraq and Afghanistan into local police departments is deeply disturbing. The activities in Ferguson are casting a light on this problematic practice, as can be seen from Rear Admiral John Kirby’s responding today to anxieties about such movement of military equipment, as reported here by CNN’s Barbara Starr. As Starr explains, the Department of Defense’s program, the Defense Logistics Agency, created in 1999, has been involved in transferring military equipment to local police departments. Happily, Starr reports, this program appears to be coming under review, with the unrest in Ferguson having spurred President Obama to call for analysis of a program that delivers military-grade equipment to police departments who are, it seems to go without saying, neither trained for military combat nor tasked with military missions.

While the killing of Michael Brown that initiated the civil unrest in Ferguson is irremediably saddening, it does hearten me to see both the intensity and the diversity of the protests concerning the law-enforcement response in Ferguson. Communities should always foreground shared stakes—and while not all of those present at Ferguson protests would be subject to the same institutional racism that African Americans regularly experience, all citizens should be interested in knowing that law-enforcement agencies must be held to account if they do not pursue justice impartially. Moreover, all of us have a shared stake in seeing that the trend of militarizing the police be reversed, lest we see more cities broadcast such war-zone-like scenes as to inspire names analogous to “Fergustan.”


1 Comment

ISIS as Managing Medieval and Modern Communications (August 13, 2014)

In declaring a caliphate, ISIS is posing both geographical and temporal political challenges. As I have discussed elsewhere, the very name of the group in its transformation from Al Qaeda in Iraq to the Islamic State if Iraq and Syria [or the Levant] inherently challenges accepted international borders. The geographical challenges are clear: the group, both in straddling the sovereign states of Iraq and Syria, and in inherently signaling its intention to take territories beyond these limits through the ambiguity of the final word in its name, the Arabic al-Sham. Indeed, along with its quite well-known successes in taking vast sections of Iraq, ISIS continues to take territory in Syria, most recently in towns near Aleppo.

            The group also operates with a temporal challenge: while caliphates have existed at various points throughout history, ISIS is clearly trying to hearken back to the very earliest eras of “Islamic empire,” as William McCants says in this CNN video-clip on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s role as the imam center of ISIS called “ISIS Leader: ‘See You Guys in New York.’” As McCants (Brookings Institution) points out, al-Baghdadi is seeking to present himself as the ruler of the entire “Islamic World”—an all-encompassing goal that can be seen in ISIS’s efforts to rebrand itself as IS, as simply “the Islamic State.”

            The medieval world does not simply lie in ISIS’s efforts to challenge modern sovereignty and assert a trans-national Islamic state associated with Islam’s pre-modern status as an expansive, imperial domain (not unlike, it must be noted, the Western and Eastern Christian empires of the Middle Ages). As the CNN video-clip ‘See You Guys in New York’ states, recent US attacks by the “so-called Crusaders” have increased the prestige of ISIS within the Islamic world, channeling the hostilities that many Muslims feel concerning the series of transnational invasions driven by the Western Christian ideology first marshaled by Urban II in his chilling 1095 Clermont speech (seen here in 5 translated versions presented by Fordham University’s Internet Medieval Sourcebook).

            As is clear from my recent post on journalistic reactions to ISIS, and as is clear from the clear fascination with the “corporate” sensibilities and communications savvy evidenced in Brian Todd’s reporting in the chillingly titled clip ‘See You Guys in New York’ (the quotation comes from a statement al-Baghdadi made to Kenneth King, commander of Camp Bucca, after he had been captured some 10 years ago in Fallujah), ISIS has been very effective of late in reaping even more massive shock than it has already sown from its incredibly shocking military campaigns. In focusing on al-Baghdadi’s carefully orchestrated appearance as a “holy” and “gentle” man, even as he leads an organization that advertises such actions as “crucifixions” and other spectacular “executions,” Brian Todd and his CNN team make clear that ISIS has been making extremely effective use of bringing together both ultra-modern communications techniques and pre-modern geographic and temporal sensibilities.


Cinematic ISIS Studies (August 12, 2014)

I have been for some time mesmerized by this new BBC “interactive” video focused on the history of ISIS, called “The Rise of the Islamic State.” This is a truly powerful production, tracing the history of ISIS from its beginnings as Al Qaeda in Iraq, to its “rebranding” to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant during the civil war in Syria, to its current aggression in Iraq. It was “produced by Lucy Rodgers, Emily Maguire, Richard Bangay and Nick Davey,” with “Additional research by David Gritten.”

            While it is not entirely clear to me how the video is “interactive” (indeed, it seems rather to be a cinematic production, providing both historical information and illustrative video evidence such as maps and television clips, with all rendered intensely dramatic by graphic design and a carefully arranged soundtrack), I am convinced that this production marks a new era in journalism. If the BBC can keep putting together segments that offer both historical and geographical contextualization, even as they render all as dramatic as big-budget documentary, then I think many will be looking for their news exclusively from online venues.

            As readers of this blog may know, I have been quite fascinated with ISIS, particularly since its declaration of a caliphate and the ambitious ambivalence of its name pose profound threats to the global state system. In all my scouring of the internet to learn about this group’s latest manifestation, this video is by far the most powerful production.

            The BBC states that it is experimenting with “new ways” of “telling stories”—and I must say that I am quite intrigued by the power of “The Rise of the Islamic State.” While the intensity and audacity of ISIS’s actions are clearly a key to the power of this video, the production here clearly has a narrative confidence and competence of its own. The production, especially in the opening scenes that show images of confident and well-armed ISIS fighters and statistics about their numbers and money, seems chillingly to remind one of  terrorist recruitment videos, while the eerie music and the haunting clips present precisely the atmosphere of violence and paranoia upon which a group like ISIS feeds. Seeing the images of AQI and later ISI and ISIS leaders set against statements by Bush and Obama subtly equates the two factions, even as the reference to the US-led invasion, occupation, and departure from Iraq foregrounds how ISIS’s survival clearly undermines the notion of US success in its 2003 invasion. Watching the BBC video, I found it hard not to think that this might as well be an ISIS production, insofar as it accords such a powerful, almost romantic image of the group, all set against the images of massive, U.S.-led violence. At the same time, it is also crucial to note that “the Rise of the Islamic State” is incredibly effective in offering the history of ISIS, placing it in precisely the historical and geographical contexts needed to understand its origins and aims.

            Count me among those who are quite thrilled by this new method of “telling stories.”