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Violence, USA: The Warfare State and the Brutalizing of Everyday Life
Posted on May 2, 2012
By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout
This piece originally appeared at Truthout.
Since 9/11, the war on terror and the campaign for homeland security have increasingly mimicked the tactics of the enemies they sought to crush. Violence and punishment as both a media spectacle and a bone-crushing reality have become prominent and influential forces shaping American society. As the boundaries between “the realms of war and civil life have collapsed,” social relations and the public services needed to make them viable have been increasingly privatized and militarized.(1) The logic of profitability works its magic in channeling the public funding of warfare and organized violence into universities, market-based service providers and deregulated contractors. The metaphysics of war and associated forms of violence now creep into every aspect of American society.
As the preferred “instrument of statecraft,”(2) war and its intensifying production of violence cross borders, time, space and places. Seemingly without any measure of self-restraint, state-sponsored violence flows and regroups, contaminating both foreign and domestic policies. One consequence of the permanent warfare state is evident in the public revelations concerning a number of war crimes committed recently by US government forces. These include the indiscriminate killings of Afghan civilians by US drone aircraft; the barbaric murder of Afghan children and peasant farmers by American infantrymen infamously labeled as “the kill team”;(3) disclosures concerning four American Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters; and the recent uncovering of photographs showing “more than a dozen soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division’s Fourth Brigade Combat Team, along with some Afghan security forces, posing with the severed hands and legs of Taliban attackers in Zabul Province in 2010.”(4) And, shocking even for those acquainted with standard military combat, there is the case of Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who “walked off a small combat outpost in Kandahar province and slaughtered 17 villagers, most of them women and children and later walked back to his base and turned himself in.”(5) Mind-numbing violence, war crimes and indiscriminate military attacks on civilians on the part of the US government are far from new, of course, and date back to infamous acts such as the air attacks on civilians in Dresden along with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.(6) Military spokespersons are typically quick to remind the American public that such practices are part of the price one pays for combat and are endemic to war itself.
The history of atrocities committed by the United States in the name of war need not be repeated here, but some of these incidents have doubled in on themselves and fueled public outrage against the violence of war.(7) One of the most famous was the My Lai massacre, which played a crucial role in mobilizing anti-war protests against the Vietnam War. Even dubious appeals to national defense and honor can provide no excuse for mass killings of civilians, rapes and other acts of destruction that completely lack any justifiable military objective. Not only does the alleged normative violence of war disguise the moral cowardice of the warmongers, it also demonizes the enemy and dehumanizes soldiers. It is this brutalizing psychology of desensitization, emotional hardness and the freezing of moral responsibility that is particularly crucial to understand, because it grows out of a formative culture in which war, violence and the dehumanization of others becomes routine, commonplace and removed from any sense of ethical accountability.
It is necessary to recognize that acts of extreme violence and cruelty do not represent merely an odd or marginal and private retreat into barbarism. On the contrary, warlike values and the social mindset they legitimate have become the primary currency of a market-driven culture, which takes as its model a Darwinian shark tank in which only the strong survive. At work in the new hyper-social Darwinism is a view of the other as the enemy; an all-too-quick willingness in the name of war to embrace the dehumanization of the other; and an only too-easy acceptance of violence, however extreme, as routine and normalized. As many theorists have observed, the production of extreme violence in its various incarnations is now a show and source of profit for Hollywood moguls, mainstream news, popular culture and the entertainment industry and a major market for the defense industries.(8)
This pedagogy of brutalizing hardness and dehumanization is also produced and circulated in schools, boot camps, prisons, and a host of other sites that now trade in violence and punishment for commercial purposes, or for the purpose of containing populations that are viewed as synonymous with public disorder. The mall, juvenile detention facilities, many public housing projects, privately owned apartment buildings and gated communities all embody a model of failed sociality and have come to resemble proto-military spaces in which the culture of violence and punishment becomes the primary order of politics, fodder for entertainment and an organizing principle for society. Even public school reform is now justified in the dehumanizing language of national security, which increasingly legitimates the transformation of schools into adjuncts of the surveillance and police state.(9)
The privatization and militarization of schools mutually inform each other as students are increasingly subjected to disciplinary apparatuses which limit their capacity for critical thinking, mold them into consumers, test them into submission, strip them of any sense of social responsibility and convince large numbers of poor minority students that they are better off under the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system than being valued members of thy public schools.. All of these spaces and institutions, from malls to schools, are coming to resemble war zones. They produce and circulate forms of symbolic and real violence that dissolve the democratic bonds of social reciprocity just as they appeal incessantly to the market-driven egocentric interests of the autonomous individual, a fear of the other and a stripped-down version of security that narrowly focuses on personal safety rather than collective security nets and social welfare.
Under such a war-like regime of privatization, militarism and punishing violence, it is not surprising that the Hollywood film “The Hunger Games” has become a box office hit. The film and its success are symptomatic of a society in which violence has become the new lingua franca. It portrays a society in which the privileged classes alleviate their boredom through satiating their lust for violent entertainment and, in this case. a brutalizing violence waged against children. While a generous reading might portray the film as a critique of class-based consumption and violence given its portrayal of a dystopian future society so willing to sacrifice its children, I think, in the end, the film more accurately should be read as depicting the terminal point of what I have called elsewhere the suicidal society (a suicide pact literally ends the narrative).(10)
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