Drone Strikes, Police Violence, and Suspect Classes in American Justice

Last week, NSA domestic surveillance programs, as well as several provisions of the PATRIOT Act were shut down.

First off, credit where credit is due: I disagree with Rand Paul on a great many things, but he has consistently been good on surveillance issues, and he blocked the Senate from fast-tracking a vote on the USA Freedom Act, the disingenuously named bill that would have established some narrow limitations on domestic surveillance, but more or less would have allowed the intelligence community to continue business as usual. In fact, even as President Obama was signing the USA Freedom Act, he was also allowing the NSA to expand its collection of Internet records.

Of course, none of this would have ever happened without the information provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden, so tip of the proverbial cap to him as well.

The USA Freedom Act has passed now, so Rand Paul’s main victory has been opening the space for a wider debate on the continuation of these policies.

I have a lot of thoughts regarding the modern American surveillance state, and none of them are good. For now, I’ll keep my argument focused on one aspect in particular: the bulk collection of domestic phone call records.

Defenders of this program are often quick to emphasize that these phone records are just metadata. Metadata, they argue, is not an invasion of privacy. It doesn’t include the content of phone calls, just the callers and the time and place of the call. Surely no one cal feel that possessing such information about them gives the government unwarranted insight into their lives.

Yet in the same breath these defenders claim that this program is necessary precisely because it does provide enough insight into people’s lives to determine if they are terrorism suspects and should be the subject of further investigation. In fact, on the evidence of metadata alone, our government can apparently determine whether someone is in fact guilty of terrorism and deserves to be executed. So-called “signature strikes” conducted by the CIA targeting decisions are based on metadata evidence.

So we shouldn’t worry about metadata collection because it doesn’t really give the government any personal information about our lives, but it does give the government enough information to literally determine whether terror suspects abroad (including sometimes American citizens,) deserve to live or die.

It seems to me that those two statements should be mutually exclusive.

It also seems that maybe these contradictory arguments are accepted precisely because the victims of the violence stemming from our metadata collection are members of a geographically distant, racialized and exoticized other. They are dehumanized to the point where their death is referred to a “bug splat.” An analysis of a pattern of suspicious behavior is enough to render a person inhuman, an insect or pest.

Not only does this violence obliterate individuals on evidence that is often shaky at best. It also casts entire populations as potential enemies. Men killed in drone strikes are presumed to militants unless intelligence explicitly proves otherwise, upending the much-vaunted American notion of “innocent until proven guilty.”

Even if this violence were only enacted in distant corners of the world, it would not be acceptable. But its logic is used to justify violence not only in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, but also in Cleveland, Baltimore, and Ferguson.

In cities across America, a host of so-called suspicious behaviors can mean your death at the hands of police. These behaviors include arguing with police, putting your hands up when confronted by police, and running from police. No further evidence of a crime is needed to justify your subsequent execution, just as your location can be enough to prove membership in al Qaeda, as in the case of Mohammed Toiman al-Jahmi, a 13-year-old boy killed in a U.S. drone strike earlier this year.

The violence committed by the state on U.S. streets comes in a thousand gradations, from summary execution to daily harassment via policies like stop-and-frisk. Why is this accepted, just like the violence of our drone strikes, when it takes place right on our soil?

Because once again its targets are a racialized and exoticized other.

While drone strike victims are presumed to be militants unless definitively proven otherwise, sometimes even contradicting video evidence is not sufficient to counter a police officer’s testimony that his use of force was reasonable and necessary. In the aftermath of police killings of people of color, there is a rush to connect the victim to some sort of illegal activity, usually drug use, as though such crimes suddenly merit the death penalty.

And while foreign militants become “bug splats,” in officer testimony black victims become “animals” incapable of being restrained or reasoned with.

Once again, this state of affairs leads not only to the deaths of many individuals (roughly 400 people have been killed by police in America so far this year,) but to the state casting entire communities and classes of people as inherently suspect, worthy targets of surveillance, harassment, and death.

The rhetoric of the War on Terror, the War on Drugs, and this apparent government ability to infer individuals’ guilt from patterns of behavior does seem to have some limits, though. While we are told it is necessary to spy on Muslims at home and abroad for potential terrorist activity, and people of color for drug crime, it seems to be unnecessary and perhaps even unreasonable to extend this same treatment to another potentially suspect class. For instance, while the vast majority of mass shooters in the U.S. (79 percent) are white men, they are not stopped in the streets to be searched for weapons, or shot on sight for when they do carry one in an open-carry state, like they did to John Crawford III. He was carrying a BB gun, in a Walmart that sold BB guns.

In the week since I originally drafted this post, there have been two video-recorded instances of white police officers brutalizing black children and, today, a white mass shooter was arrested after killing nine people in a black church. In the first case, commentators like to blame “bad apples,” despite the fact that we keep seeing this behavior over and over again. In the second, the blame shifts to mental illness. Despite their consistent patterns of violence, police officers and white men more generally are almost never called terrorists or even criminals.

Guilt by association is evidence enough against victims of drone strikes. Black suspects are framed as fitting a familiar narrative of drug use and violence. White suspects are analyzed in depth, with attention to their mental health and positions in their communities. Not only the presumption of innocence, but even individuality is a privilege we afford to white suspects and deny to people of color.

The government brands its drone strike policy and its police methodologies as necessary tools for public safety, but the way they are used reinforces existing structures of white supremacy, globally and locally.


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