“The local focus on the War on Drugs,” writes Annalisa A. Jabaily in Ships Passing in the Night: Mapping the Trade Routes Between the War on Drugs and the War on Terror, “relies on the non-existence of the racial politics of the War on Terror. Race is considered to take place only in confined contexts such as the Equal Protection Clause. Yet many actions of the United States military make sense only in the unique context of American racism.”
Nothing illustrates this observation more clearly than President Obama’s “kill list” counter-terrorism strategy.
According to the New York Times, the President’s strategy includes a process by which he and his advisors count “all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants…unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” To the President and his advisors, adopting this approach is a matter of “simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good.”
If you’ve been paying any attention at all to the War on Drugs, then you cannot help but hear in the President’s and his advisors’ “simple logic” the “high crime area” or “high crime neighborhood” or “high drug area” justification offered for how the War on Drugs has been conducted in cities across this country, particularly through law enforcements’ stop and frisk policies.
With the blessing of the U.S. Supreme Court and its erosion of Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures (an erosion undertaken because the Court had willingly transformed itself, as Justice Stevens wrote in his California v. Acevedo (1991) dissent, into “a loyal foot soldier” in the War on Drugs), law enforcement routinely evokes the “high crime area” justification for stopping and frisking whomever it feels is “probably up to no good.”
“High crime area,” however, is just a stand-in for race, a coded way of naming as a problem African Americans and, increasingly, Latinos. More specifically, it is a coded way of saying “black and Latino neighborhoods” and is thus a phrase by which law enforcement and policy makers – in the name of drug enforcement and crime control generally – criminalize all of the inhabitants living therein. Consequently, it has been primarily in black and brown neighborhoods where stop and frisk enforcement occurs – and most often with impunity.
“Area of known terrorist activity” and “strike zone” are just as surely stand-ins for race. These phrases are, undeniably, coded ways of naming as a problem all Muslim Arabs, and they are spoken to justify (in the name of the War on Terror) the deadly and not-so-accurate execution of drone attacks wherever Muslim Arabs (outside of this country and not in Europe) live – even if those killed prove to be, upon posthumous examination, simply a few homeboys who had been hanging out together.
How apropos it is, then, that the “kill list” story broke not long after the New York Times reported that a class action lawsuit has been filed against the New York Police Department for its stop and frisk policy!
According to the NYT, over the last few years the police have conducted an “enormous annual number of street stops.” And yet, only a “tiny percentage” of these stops “resulted in a gun seizure or an arrest.” In her decision to certify the class action, Judge Shira Scheindlin of the Federal District Court noted that of the 2.8 million stops that the police conducted between 2004 and 2009, fifty percent of those stopped were African American, thirty percent were Latino, and ten percent were white. Last year alone, the NAACP writes, “police stopped and interrogated black men between the ages of 14 and 24 [for] a total of 168,126 times. The total population of black men and boys aged 14 through 24 in New York City is 158,406. That means the amount of times police stopped black men and boys in this age group exceeds the total number living in the city.”
Predictably, the New York City police listed “high crime area” as a “justification for a stop in approximately fifty-five percent of all recorded stops,” wrote Judge Scheindlin, and did so “regardless of whether the stop” took place “in a precinct or census tract with average, high, or low crime” (my emphasis). Moreover, as revealed in the records that the police themselves produced, the officers’ suspicions proved wrong “nearly nine times out of ten.”
Clearly, these “high crime area” stops have simply been a pretext for harassing, intimidating, criminalizing and controlling primarily black and brown men – a problem that occurs from New York to Arizona. And the characterization of African Americans and Latinos as inherently criminal provides justification for the very creation and existence of these law enforcement strategies. Thus, even if NYC officers were wrong nearly nine times out of ten, they were nevertheless right because black and brown men are criminals and therefore need to be stopped and frisked.
Between 2009 and 2011, “the United States carried out an estimated 20 airstrikes in Yemen, most in 2011. In addition to killing al Qaeda militants,” writes David Rohde in The Obama Doctrine, “the strikes killed dozens of civilians.” According to the New York Times, a drone strike conducted in Yemen on December 17, 2009 resulted not only in the death of the “intended target, but also neighboring families, and left behind a trail of cluster bombs that subsequently killed more innocents.”
In addressing the kill list strategy, one Obama Administration official offered that what bothers him about the strategy is “when they say there were seven guys, so they must all be militants. They count the corpses and they’re not really sure who they are” – which is another way of saying that, to the Administration, even if innocents are killed the drone strikes are right because all of these “guys…must all be militants.”
We should all be bothered by this.
It bothers me to witness, as I have often done in my community, the police roll up on/round up young Mexican and African American men (who had just been hanging around, laughing and flirting with the girls) and make them “assume the position.” Without any reasonable suspicion, the police pat these young men down, empty their pockets and, after making a few threatening remarks, drive away empty-handed or, occasionally, drive away with one young man in tow, a young man who had been searched way beyond the scope that the law allows.
The young men left behind don’t flirt anymore; indeed, they’re too angry, too hurt, too humiliated and probably too traumatized to do so. For many passersby, the event is so normal that it fails even to register as something that requires attention, let alone outrage.
The “War on Terror” is clearly “exporting a unique strand of American racism,” to quote Jabaily, a strand embodied in part by the racial logic underlying the War on Drugs. Racial profiling, guilt by association, indiscriminate and largely unchecked enforcement in designated problem “areas,” disregard of civil and human rights and human life itself – these are just some of the racial ties that bind the two Wars.
And both Wars (I know, I know: the War on Terror has been re-characterized as the War against al Qaeda; but isn’t that sort of like re-characterizing “civilian deaths” as “collateral damage”?) depend on language that obfuscates “racial violence and degradation” because it casts these Wars in colorblind terms. “High drug area” and “strike zone” camouflage the Wars’ racial imperative – which is, on the one hand, an unspoken desire to reaffirm, via the War on Drugs, “racial caste in America” through the criminalization and “mass incarceration” of black and brown men. “Mass incarceration,” writes Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow, “is the most damaging manifestation of the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement.”
The Wars’ racial imperative is also, on the other hand, a desire to undo a “new world order” perceived – at least according to what former President George H.W. Bush claimed in the late 1980s after the fall of the Soviet Union (a fall facilitated no less by the United States’ support of al Qaeda and the Taliban) – as an emerging “third world threat.”
The War on Drugs and the War on Terror are not, of course, “wholly the same.” But we do need to take note of the ways in which they inform each other and intersect, particularly with regards to race, for by “confining the debate on American racism to the War on Drugs,” we have bolstered “the presumption of United States colorblindness abroad. If racism occurs only within American borders, on American streets,” Jabaily writes, “then we are invited to assume that the United States really is colorblind in its international affairs.”
As details about the kill list counter-terrorism policy emerge, we will no doubt be invited to assume that it is a policy having nothing to do with American racism. But the Administration’s reliance on the racial codes of the War on Drugs reveals otherwise – a fact that demands from all of us who are engaged in taking “offensive action in behalf of justice” a broader international focus on dismantling American racism.