Charlottesville, Supremacy, and the War on Terror
Back in ancient Greece, Aristotle wrote about the need for equality to ensure security. Millennia later, Nelson Mandela echoed the sentiment: “Without equality, there can be no peace.” Though it may not feel like it, given the onslaught of 24-hour news, we humans have made progress on both counts. We’re living in the period of least violent conflict and most protection for human rights in recorded history. But we have a long way to go. Violence, while on the decline, still claims innocent lives. And human rights protections, while increasingly enshrined in national and international law, are unevenly enforced. The root cause of both those challenges, at home and around the world, is the notion of supremacy — that arch-enemy to equality —the idea that race, religion, nationality, socio-economic class or any other characteristic entitles one human being to more or less dignity than another.
Which brings me to Charlottesville.
As the nation grapples with how and why our media and leadership have been slow to label the death of Heather Heyer an act of terrorism, those of us with a background in counterterrorism are watching a familiar pattern unfold. Because white supremacy is not just unacknowledged in the War on Terrorism. In many ways, it is what fuels the War on Terrorism.
A fundamental characteristic of white supremacy is the conviction that white people deserve legal rights and protections not afforded to people of color. This used to take the form of discrepancies in the rights we each got on paper. Today, much of our legal code has been updated to confer equal rights on all, but real-world discrepancies in enforcement of those rights tell us systemic white supremacy remains.
On our domestic soil, those discrepancies include:
- Fair Trial and Due Process of Law: The 5th and 14th Amendments of the US Constitution both guarantee due process and prohibit extrajudicial execution. And yet criminal suspects of color are disproportionately killed on American streets, by police officers acting as judge and jury.
- Habeas Corpus and Right to a Speedy Trial: Article One of the US Constitution guarantees the right to habeas corpus, yet prisoners of color are routinely held and interrogated illegally at law enforcement black sites such as Chicago’s Homan Square. Despite legal prohibition against both torture and assault, interrogations in these environments are intentionally undertaken prior to booking and therefore prior to assignment of legal representation. Medical attention is regularly required to deal with detainees who have been struck by batons, beaten, and tased. Many accept plea bargains following extended, unsupervised detention.
- Protection from Unreasonable Search and Seizure: The 4th Amendment protects Americans against search of their property or person without probable cause, yet people of color are so frequently pulled over and subject to search for no reason that the term “Driving While Black” has been coined to describe it. The disproportionate searching of both pedestrians and motorists of color has been thoroughly and repeatedly documented by the ACLU and independent law enforcement investigations.
- Self-defense: Americans enjoy a statutory and common-law right to self-defense and yet “Stand-your-ground” laws are applied to safeguard white men who are protecting life and property, while women and people of color face disproportionate prosecution for use of deadly force in self-defense.
- Right to Bear Arms: While guaranteed by the 2nd Amendment, possession of a registered gun can still prove cause for summary execution if you’re a person of color, as in the case of Philando Castile, where a law-abiding black man was killed in front of his family because he had possession of a legal weapon.
These discrepancies in our enforcement of domestic law are driven by an underlying systemic belief that people of color, on our own soil, do not deserve the same protections — and cannot be trusted with the same rights — as whites. Why give them the protection of a speedy trial by a jury of peers when it’s less risky, cheaper and faster to hold, question, and execute them outside the rule of law? Why entrust them with a deadly weapon and the right to use it in self-defense, when their judgement to exercise that somber responsibility cannot be relied upon the way it can in the hands of whites?
The same discrepancies drive the Global War on Terror:
- Fair Trial and Due Process of Law: While extrajudicial killing and torture are both illegal under international law, criminal suspects accused of involvement with Islamic terrorism are routinely murdered from the sky by drones, acting as judge and jury, even in non-war-zones. Thousands of civilians of color have been killed alongside them. This stands in stark contrast to prosecution of terror suspects in Northern Ireland, the relatively humane and legal treatment of Nazi prisoners during WWII, and prisoners in the Balkans, almost all of whom were white.
- Habeas Corpus and Right to a Speedy Trial: While SCOTUS has held foreign nationals, including enemy combatants, maintain a right to habeas corpus, suspects accused of involvement with Islamic terrorism are regularly stripped naked, put in a diaper, drugged, and rendered to black sites, including Guantanamo Bay and many in the territory and control of autocratic allies, where they are held for indeterminate periods without legal representation.
- Protection from Unreasonable Search and Seizure: While international law grants protection from arbitrary deprivation of property, anyone who has served in the War on Terror is familiar with the sight of Iraqi, Afghan, Yemeni, and Somali families face down in the gravel, children included, as their houses are searched with no more probable cause than being located in a particular neighborhood.
- Self-defense: International law of war allows sovereign states and their inhabitants to defend their lives, territory, and property from threat by a foreign state or control by force. And yet, resisting removal from one’s own home or firing back when fired at in one’s own car can prove sufficient, for civilians in some Middle Eastern and African countries, to be summarily arrested or executed by Coalition Forces.
- Right to Bear Arms: Despite the right to protection of life and property enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, Iraqi, Afghan, Yemeni, and Somali men carrying guns are arrested at road blocks and killed by drones in “signature strikes” because they are carrying a gun in an environment where crime and violence is rife and most adults arm themselves for protection. On a state-to-state level, governments of color are routinely sanctioned and eventually bombed for attempting to arm themselves with the same nuclear weapons white governments not only already have, but have already used against civilians. Twice.
Just as in the domestic examples, these discrepancies in our enforcement of international law are driven by an underlying conviction that people of color, on foreign soil, do not deserve the same protections — and cannot be trusted with the same rights — as whites. Why give them the protection of capture according to international law when it is less risky, cheaper and faster to hold, question, and execute them outside the rule of law? Why entrust them with a deadly weapon and the right to use it in self-defense, when their judgement to exercise that somber responsibility cannot be relied upon the way it can in the hands of whites?
We have made tremendous progress enshrining equal protections for all humans in our domestic and international law. Now our work is to ensure those laws are enforced with equality, consistency, and fairness. The above examples are a woefully incomplete list of the ways in which equality on paper has not yet translated into a full dismantling of supremacy mindset in real-world enforcement.
So, does dismantling white supremacy in American foreign policy mean putting our security at peril, being soft on terror? Of course not — no more than dismantling white supremacy in our justice system at home means letting criminals go free. As anybody who’s had the honor of watching US diplomacy in action knows, Washington vigorously reminds new governments that the key to their peace, security, economic well-being and political endurance is the fair and consistent enforcement of their laws on every member of their society. Study after study tells us that enforcing rule of law for some and not for others creates the division, resentment, corruption and eventually violence that tears peace and prosperity apart.
We are seeing exactly that progression result from our failure to follow our own advice, our failure to apply US law consistently for all people at home and international law consistently for all people overseas. This isn’t a new concern. Henry David Thoreau warned in Civil Disobedience that the legal system’s oppression of of blacks during slavery and the military’s seizure of life and property on a foreign state’s sovereign soil during the Mexican-American War were two sides of the same moral wrong, driven by the notion that one kind of human being was inherently superior to another.
Still, it is not a widely acknowledged point. Many who are convinced that American suspects of color should not be shot by police without trial don’t give much thought to non-American suspects of color being shot by drones without trial, though it happens with considerably more frequency. Many articulate the idea that equality can feel like a downgrade to those accustomed to control, understanding that idea’s application in domestic American life but not giving much thought to its implications for a foreign policy rooted in American exceptionalism.
The protections I get don’t apply to you.
The rights I enjoy don’t belong to you.
I am human and you are something less than that.
Therefore my security and peace of mind is worth more than your life.
These are the systemic norms of the Justice System domestically and the Military internationally, when dealing with people of color. The War on Drugs as a tool to control and profit from populations of color at home and the War on Terrorism as a tool to control and profit from populations of color overseas. They are not independent phenomena — they originate in the same system of white supremacy that we, as patriots, must name so we can dismantle.
Let me be clear. This does not mean allowing terrorists to go unpunished any more than it means allowing drug dealers to roam the streets. It means punishing both according to the rule of domestic or international law. It means investigating, arresting, prosecuting, and sentencing both in the same way the case would be handled were the suspect an eighteen-year-old white college kid whose dad runs a law firm and contributes to presidential campaigns. That might be life in prison. But it’s unlikely to be extrajudicial execution.
It also means using the same terminology, regardless of the race or religion of the suspect. Marijuana residue cannot be proof of a “youthful indiscretion” for that white college kid if it’s proof of “antisocial tendencies” for his classmate of color. Plowing a car into a crowd of people cannot be an “act of violence” for a white nationalist and an “act of terrorism” for his Muslim neighbor. We get to peace and security, Aristotle tells us, by equally applying the definition of a crime no matter who the perpetrator. We get to peace and security by stating that Heather Heyer was killed by a terrorist on US soil. And prosecuting her killer the same way we would if his name were Mahmoud.
This focus on consistent application of the relevant law and terminology, on the streets and on the battlefield, at home and abroad, in the media and in our private moments, is not designed to challenge our law enforcement and warfighters. On the contrary, it’s designed to support them.
I know all too well the stress of working cases where thousands of lives may be on the line. I understand how heavily the burden weighs and how easily that weighty burden can tip the scales toward defensive action. The cop who misjudges a split-second reach, the soldier whose adrenalin is pumping after the last house he searched exploded when he walked through the door. Humans, good humans, all humans are fallible. Humans who have stepped up to serve, who put themselves in danger for our well-being. They, we, are all subject to defensive, biased instincts every day of our fallible, human lives. That is why we have the rule of law. And why we must never give up our Sisyphean American quest to enforce that law more fairly and thereby create a more perfect union.
This is, I believe, what makes America unique among all hegemonic powers in world history — our constant striving to one day fulfill the audacious promise of equality for all. We aren’t there yet. Not even close. Like the mathematical asymptote, we might never fully arrive. But we recognize our shortfall and we struggle mightily to move ourselves forward. This is why the Liberty Bell has always been my favorite national symbol. Its inscription represents the promise. Its crack represents the distance we have yet to run. It was first used by the Abolitionists, then by the Suffragettes, then by those battling Jim Crow. Each time, we took two steps forward, one step back, on our long walk to freedom. Today, we need to pick up that bell once more, and ring it in our quest not to change the law, but to enforce its expectations and protections equally and honorably for all.