May 22, 2013
Violence, USA: The Warfare State and the Brutalizing of Everyday Life
Posted on May 2, 2012
By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout
Given Hollywood’s rush for ratings, the film gratuitously feeds enthralled audiences with voyeuristic images of children being killed for sport. In a very disturbing opening scene, the audience observes children killing each other within a visual framing that is as gratuitous as it is alarming. That such a film can be made for the purpose of attaining high ratings and big profits, while becoming overwhelming popular among young people and adults alike, says something profoundly disturbing about the cultural force of violence and the moral emptiness at work in American society. Of course, the meaning and relevance of “The Hunger Games” rest not simply with its production of violent imagery against children, but with the ways these images and the historical and contemporary meanings they carry are aligned and realigned with broader discourses, values and social relations. Within this network of alignments, risk and danger combine with myth and fantasy to stoke the seductions of sadomasochistic violence, echoing the fundamental values of the fascist state in which aesthetics dissolves into pathology and a carnival of cruelty.
Within the contemporary neoliberal theater of cruelty, war has expanded its poisonous reach and moves effortlessly within and across America’s national boundaries. As Chris Hedges has pointed out brilliantly and passionately, war “allows us to make sense of mayhem and death” as something not to be condemned, but to be celebrated as a matter of national honor, virtue and heroism.(11) War takes as its aim the killing of others and legitimates violence through an amorally bankrupt mindset in which just and unjust notions of violence collapse into each other. Consequently, it has become increasingly difficult to determine justifiable violence and humanitarian intervention from unjustifiable violence involving torture, massacres and atrocities, which now operate in the liminal space and moral vacuum of legal illegalities. Even when such acts are recognized as war crimes, they are often dismissed as simply an inevitable consequence of war itself. This view was recently echoed by Leon Panetta who, responding to the alleged killing of civilians by US Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, observed, “War is hell. These kinds of events and incidents are going to take place, they’ve taken place in any war, they’re terrible events and this is not the first of those events and probably will not be the last.”(12) He then made clear the central contradiction that haunts the use of machineries of war in stating, “But we cannot allow these events to undermine our strategy.”(13) Panetta’s qualification is a testament to barbarism because it means being committed to a war machine that trades in indiscriminate violence, death and torture, while ignoring the pull of conscience or ethical considerations. Hedges is right when he argues that defending such violence in the name of war is a rationale for “usually nothing more than gross human cruelty, brutality and stupidity.”(14)
War and the organized production of violence has also become a form of governance increasingly visible in the ongoing militarization of police departments throughout the United States. According to the Homeland Security Research Corp, “The homeland security market for state and local agencies is projected to reach $19.2 billion by 2014, up from $15.8 billion in fiscal 2009.”(15) The structure of violence is also evident in the rise of the punishing and surveillance state,(16) with its legions of electronic spies and ballooning prison population - now more than 2.3 million. Evidence of state-sponsored warring violence can also be found in the domestic war against “terrorists” (code for young protesters), which provides new opportunities for major defense contractors and corporations to become “more a part of our domestic lives.”(17) Young people, particularly poor minorities of color, have already become the targets of what David Theo Goldberg calls “extraordinary power in the name of securitization ... [they are viewed as] unruly populations ... [who] are to be subjected to necropolitical discipline through the threat of imprisonment or death, physical or social.”(18) The rhetoric of war is now used by politicians not only to appeal to a solitary warrior mentality in which responsibility is individualized, but also to attack women’s reproductive rights, limit the voting rights of minorities and justify the most ruthless cutting of social protections and benefits for public servants and the poor, unemployed and sick.
This politics and pedagogy of death begins in the celebration of war and ends in the unleashing of violence on all those considered disposable on the domestic front. A survival-of-the-fittest ethic and the utter annihilation of the other have now become normalized, saturating everything from state policy to institutional practices to the mainstream media. How else to explain the growing taste for violence in, for example, the world of professional sports, extending from professional hockey to extreme martial arts events? The debased nature of violence and punishment seeping into the American cultural landscape becomes clear in the recent revelation that the New Orleans Saints professional football team was “running a ‘bounty program’ which rewarded players for inflicting injuries on opposing players.”(19) In what amounts to a regime of terror pandering to the thrill of the crowd and a take-no-prisoners approach to winning, a coach offered players a cash bonus for “laying hits that resulted in other athletes being carted off the field or landing on the injured player list.”(20)
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