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The Shooting Gallery: Obama and the Vanishing Point of Democracy

Posted on Feb 13, 2013
Jill Clardy (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

This piece first appeared at Truthout.

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We live at a time in the United States when the notion of political enemies has become a euphemism for dismantling prohibitions against targeted assassinations, torture, abductions and indefinite detention. Under the elastic notion of permanent war and the use of Orwellian labels like terrorists, enemy combatants, enemies of the state or the all-encompassing “evil-doers,” the United States has tortured prisoners in Iraq and Guantanamo for more than a decade. It also kidnapped suspected terrorists, held them in CIA “black sites,” and subjected them to extraordinary rendition - “the practice [of] taking detainees to and from US custody without a legal process ... and often ... handing [them] over to countries that practiced torture.”[1] As a new report from the Open Society Foundation, “Globalizing Torture,” points out, since 9/11 the CIA has illegally kidnaped and tortured more than 136 people and was aided in its abhorrent endeavors by 54 countries.[2] All of this was done in secrecy and when it was eventually exposed, the Obama administration refused to press criminal charges against those government officials who committed atrocious human rights abuses, signalling to the military and various intelligence agencies that they would not be held accountable for engaging in such egregious and illegal behavior. The notion that torture, kidnapping and the killing of Americans without due process is an illegitimate function of any state, including the United States, has overtly suffered the fate of the Geneva Conventions, apparently too quaint and antiquated to be operative.

Excessive torture, cruel and unusual punishment, secret detention and the violation of civil liberties are not only deeply ingrained in American history; they also have become normalized in both popular culture and in government policy. For example, popular representations of and support for torture extend from the infamous former television series 24 to the more recent highly acclaimed Hollywood film, Zero Dark Thirty.[3] Whereas popular representations of torture and other legal illegalities prior to 2001 were viewed largely as the acts of desperate and psychologically unbalanced individuals or rogue governments, the post- September 11, 2001 climate has accommodated such representations, as torture has become common fare in mainstream culture - from action films and TV dramas to comedies. As torture moves from state policy to screen culture it contains “an echo of the pornographic in maximizing the pleasure of violence.”[4] In this instance, the spectacle of violence mimics a new kind of mad violence that has engulfed American society. Torture is now a mainstay of what might be called the state-sanctioned carnival of cruelty, designed to delight and titillate while in real life torture has been shamelessly sanctioned as a military necessity and state policy. At the same time, torture, violence and the culture of cruelty have been removed from the discourse of ethics, jurisprudence, accountability and human rights.[5]

This retreat from moral responsibility reveals more than political failure, more than a perverse victory for those who argue for the acceptability of what was once considered unthinkable in a democracy. It signals the emergence of a kind of anti-politics, the dismantling of a politics in which matters of power, justice, governance and social responsibility are inextricably connected to democratic institutions, laws, values and education. This is an anti-politics in which the obligations of justice and responsibility to others has been overtaken by a rhetoric of fear, national security and war that has made Americans accomplices of a tyrannical and terrorist state apparatus. Under such circumstances, the critical project of democracy, if not politics itself, is replaced by the shared experience of fear, the instrumentalization of culture and society and a state of emergency that “eradicates political freedom, democratic processes and legality as such.”[6]

The move toward an authoritarian and dystopian state - one marked by its flight from moral and political responsibility - has been made more acceptable by the widespread popular willingness to overlook, if not legitimate, the ongoing violation of civil liberties as a central theme of government policy, military conduct, mainstream news media and popular culture in general. Mainstream culture is flooded with endless representations of individuals, government officials, and the police operating outside of the law as a legitimate way to seek revenge, implement vigilante justice and rewrite the rationales for violating human rights and domestic law. TV programs like Dexter and Person of Interest, as well as a spate of Hollywood films like as Gangster Squad and Django Unchained have provided a spectacle of legal lawlessness and violence unchecked by ethical considerations and allegedly justified by the pursuit of noble ends.


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The culture of violence, fear and sometimes manufactured terror takes a toll politically and ethically on any democratic society, especially when it becomes the most popular spectacle in town. Unfortunately, the line between fiction and material reality, along with the more hallowed spheres of politics and governance, has collapsed and it has become more difficult to determine one from the other. Forms of violence and violations of civil rights that should be unthinkable in a democracy are now lauded as necessary and effective tactics in the war on terrorism, and so rarely subject to critical interrogation. Some of the more notable transgressions are evident in former Vice-President Dick Cheney’s infamous statement to Tim Russert on NBC’s Meet the Press in which he stated that the Bush administration would have to “work ... the dark side” and the 2006 comment by John Brennan in which he claimed that we have “to take off the gloves” in some areas in order to wage a war against terrorism. And while torture has been denounced by President Obama, the administration has in actuality created a new foundation for violating civil rights and promoting human abuses.

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