Dec 8, 2013
Lockdown, USA: Lessons From the Boston Marathon Manhunt
Posted on May 9, 2013
By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout
Since 9/11 we have witnessed the rise of a national-security-surveillance state and the expansion of a lockdown mode of existence in a range of institutions that extend from schools and airports to the space of the city itself. The meaning of lockdown in this context has to be understood in broader terms as the use of military solutions to problems for which such approaches are not only unnecessary but further produce authoritarian and anti-democratic policies and practices. Under such circumstances, not only have civil liberties been violated in the name of national security, but the promise of national security has given rise to policies which are punitive, steeped in the logic of revenge, and support the rise of a punishing state whose echoes of authoritarianism are often lost in the moral comas that accompany the country’s infatuation with war and the militarization of everyday life.
Glenn Greenwald, a columnist for The Guardian, succinctly insists that Boston marathon bombings is a political event because it “connects to larger questions about our culture and because it was infused with all kinds of political messages about Muslims, about radicalism, about what the proper role of the police and the military are in the United States.” While there has been some criticism over what was perceived as the unnecessary imposition of a lockdown in Boston, and especially Watertown, what has been missed in many of these arguments is that the U.S. is already in lockdown mode, which has been intensifying since 9/11. A number of critics have raised questions about the abridgement of civil rights and the specter of excessive policing after the marathon bombing as one-off events, but few have discussed the continuity and expansion of the logic of lockdown predating September 11 which can be traced back to the massive incarceration of disproportionate numbers of people of color beginning in the early 1970s.
This history has been addressed by Christian Parenti, Tom Englehardt, Angela Davis, Michelle Alexander, and others and need not be repeated here, but what does need to be addressed is how the concept and tactic of the lockdown has moved far beyond the walls of the prison and now shapes a whole range of institutions, making clear how the United States has moved into a lockdown mode that is consistent with the precepts of an authoritarian state. While the Boston lockdown was more of a request for the public to stay inside, it displayed all of the attributes of martial law, especially in Watertown where house-to-house searches took on the appearance of treating the residents as feared criminals.
Lockdown cannot be understood outside of the manufactured war on terrorism and the view, aptly expressed by Lindsey Graham, that the Boston marathon bombing “is Exhibit A of why the homeland is the battlefield.” Graham’s comments embrace the dangerous correlate that everyone is a possible enemy combatant and that domestic militarization and its embrace of perpetual war is a perfectly legitimate practice, however messy it might be when measured against democratic principles, human rights, and the most basic precepts of constitutional law. Lockdown as a concept and strategy gains its meaning and legitimacy under specific historical conditions informed by particular modes of ideology, governance, and policies.
Some would argue that locking down an entire city because a homicidal killer was on the loose can be attributed to how little experience Americans have with daily acts of terrorism, unlike Israel, Baghdad, and other cities which are constantly subject to such attacks. While there is an element of truth to such arguments what is missing from this position is a different and more frightening logic. Americans have become so indifferent to the militarization of everyday life that they barely blink when an entire city, school, prison, or campus is locked down. In a society in which everyone is treated as a potential enemy combatant, misfit, villain, or criminal “to be penalized, locked up or locked out,” it is not surprising that institutions and policies are constructed that normalize a range of anti-democratic practices. These would include everything from invasive body searches by the police and the mass incarceration of people of color to the ongoing surveillance and securitization of schools, workplaces, the social media, Internet, businesses, neighborhoods, and individuals, all of which mimic the tactics of a police state. At a time when prison, poverty, and a culture of cruelty and punishment inform each other and ensnare more and more Americans, the “governing-through-crime” complex moves across America like a fast-spreading virus. In its wake, Mississippi schoolchildren are handcuffed for not wearing a belt or the wrong color shoes, young mothers who cannot pay a traffic ticket are sent to jail; and according to Michelle Alexander “More African American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began.”
These examples are not merely anecdotal. They point to the alarming degree to which lockdown becomes a central tool and organizing logic in controlling those growing populations now considered disposable and subject to the machinery of social and civil death. The racist grammars of state violence that emerged during and in the aftermath of the lockdown of Boston speak to a connection between the violence of disposability that haunts American life and the increasing reliance on the state’s use of force to implement and maintain its structures of inequality, abusive power, and domination. Within this system of control and domination, matters of moral, social, and political responsibility are silenced in the name of securitization, even as efforts to pass legislation on gun control are routinely displaced by the assertion of individual rights. For instance, Americans rightly mourn the victims of the Boston bombings but say nothing about the ongoing killing of hundreds of children in the streets of Chicago largely due to the abundance of high-powered weaponry and the gratuitous celebration of the spectacle of violence in American culture. Nor is there a public outcry and mourning for the tragic deaths of over 200 children killed as a result of drone attacks launched by the Obama administration on Afghanistan and other countries alleged to harbor terrorists. Evil, when deployed by the American media and its complicit politicians, becomes at once too broad and too narrow, but insistently self-serving. Evil is always lurking out there in some objectively defined place, fixed spaces, and territories but never within those who seize upon the category to distance themselves for the crimes they are complicity with.
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