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Crime and Warfare in the U.S.:

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madmusic Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jan-01-07 01:10 AM
Original message
Crime and Warfare in the U.S.:
1. In the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center of September 11th, 2001, the Bush Administration quickly declared that the violence perpetrated against the United States was an act of war which would be responded to in kind. In apparent contrast, many on the Left (particularly in academia) tried to read the attacks as crimes, offering a narrative of criminality that would allow the attacks to be dealt with through the pursuit, arrest, and fair trial of those responsible, either domestically or in international courts. No one should be "smoked out" and killed, but rather they should be dealt with justly, as perpetrators of crimes. In itself this response would seem to be wholly appropriate, offering a course that recognizes the horror of the attacks and the necessity of a response, but is an alternative to the opportunistic war-mongering of the political parties and, in particular, the American Right. Many of us today still have "justice, not vengeance" bumper stickers on our cars. The latter narrative, however, has so far failed to make a significant impact on the national debate. In late 2001 the burning question was simply when the war on terrorism would start, and who would be targeted; if today the war has been problematized, it is because the burning question is, "are we winning?" The fact of the war, and its purported necessity, is still taken for granted except on the political margins and in some parts of academia. Put another way, the narrative of crime, or at least of crime being in any way distinct from war, just isn't playing in the heartland.

2. Why, then, has this approach remained sidelined, and generally ignored by the broader public whose hearts and minds we seem to be trying in vain to reach?

3. Perhaps we could claim that people aren't listening, or that our voice isn't loud enough, or that maybe we're not being clear enough. (In fact, this paper was conceived at a roundtable discussion closing a cultural studies conference in March 2002 when most of the speakers suggested one of these three possibilities.) But I think that the problem is rather with the narrative itself. In suggesting that the attacks should be treated (and punished) as crimes, one must presuppose a disjuncture between the pursuit of criminals and the waging of war, and assume that those listening to or otherwise encountering the narrative also understand such a disjuncture. Yet no such differentiation is apparent. I would argue that from the militarization of policing and the successive political "wars on crime" to racist "reality-based" crime dramas, the American cultural imagination has become one in which all crime is intrinsically violent, it's committed by people "not like us," all the nation is collectively victimized by it, and the appropriate response is a war of retribution -- which makes alternative readings of (and responses to) actual violence nearly impossible.

4. A note in the Harvard Law Review in early 2002, titled "Responding to Terrorism: Crime, Punishment, and War," attempted to tease out the apparent shift in US policy toward terrorism after 9/11.1 Noting that many scholars had indeed called for the September 11 attacks to be dealt with inside a national or international criminal justice system, rather than through unilateral warfare, the article examined what it perceived to be the gradual conversion in US policy from a crime approach to dealing with terrorist acts to a war approach. Although it finds that the United States "traditionally treated terrorism as a crime," using as examples the Pan Am 103 bombing and the first WTC attack, and that a criminal justice response to 9/11 was certainly possible within existing legal frameworks, the government had spent much of the 1990s shifting from a "reactive to a proactive posture vis-a-vis terrorism" (as evidenced in part by the limited use of military force to respond to the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania). Further, it notes that the political and legal shift has been taking place within a growing cultural shift in this country with regard to popular theories of punishment. Although the article is purely descriptive and isn't interested in why there's been a cultural sea-change, it does note that theories of deterrence and rehabilitation have been largely pushed aside, in favor of the more popular "incapacitation" (we might also call this "pre-emption") and "retribution" theories of punishment for all sorts of crimes. From the perspective of either retribution or incapacitation, all-out war is then quite a logical, and normatively appropriate, response to crime, whether terrorist or otherwise -- and begs a closer look at perceptions of crime generally, and how they overlap with the discourse of war. My purpose here isn't to prove that the conflation between crime and war exists -- others have done so in much more detailed ways -- but merely to highlight the extent to which this is a very significant problem for those of us trying to push different narratives of terrorism, and one which the broader Left has ignored and will continue to ignore at the price of its own irrelevance in this still-one-sided debate.

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dave_p Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jan-01-07 01:34 AM
Response to Original message
1. Criminal war
Edited on Mon Jan-01-07 01:39 AM by dave_p
I was never happy with the prevailing left formulation: to me 9/11 was an act of war by a non-state actor which the US had earlier backed in less spectacular acts of violence. Characterising it as mere crime risked appeasing the desire for retribution, rather than exposing the political background and demanding a coherent and disciplined response against a real enemy rather than a label. It probably wouldn't have changed anything, but I feel it was a lost opportunity to address the dangers of a poorly-directed national reaction.
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madmusic Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jan-01-07 04:35 PM
Response to Reply #1
3. On the other hand...
Framing it as an act of war rather than crime lost much of the support in the rest of the world and in large part is responsible for so many joining the jihad against the U.S.. It also risks making it a religious war rather than bringing criminals to justice, which most Muslims agreed with in the beginning. Now to many the U.S. is criminal.
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Trillo Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jan-01-07 03:43 AM
Response to Original message
2. Rewards bubble up, Punishments flood down
What else is new. There exists the perception of a severe lack of justice that has the face of pseudo justice that extracts mostly from commoners -- the pseudo justice is perceived because it exists.

I wonder if the longer-term methods our corporatist and its media have used to create fear and pushed the fear/crime gradient with the slant that it is almost always due to the acts of 'little people' instead of those at higher hierarchical levels isn't a primary problem with respect toward popular contempt. The lack of government prosecutors for civil violators exacerbates this, for only the rich (and don't forget corporate is a major component) have the resources to protect their civil rights. Curiously, corporations cannot be put "in jail," so they end up with reduced punishments as well as enforced rights. Most people aren't so lucky.

Perhaps the way to disentangle the framing of crime as war or war as crime into a singular concept is by adopting real reforms in civil justice for commoners and framing it in the media and language as such. Perhaps establishing a Civil Law Department that would operate similarly and parallel to the Attorney Generals and their criminal prosecutors would help.

People have long memories, and experience teaches that business as usual approaches always seem to be returned to.
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