On September 4, 2013, as the war drums beat loud in Washington and the crowds that had come to the city for the fiftieth anniversary of the march on Washington had become a memory, Nation columnist Michelle Alexander published an essay, “Breaking my Silence.” The piece owned up to the culpability of quiet that pervades the American Left when it comes to recognizing the connections between insidious racism at home and martial imperialism abroad. In the piece, Alexander, noted author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” takes personal ownership for “staying in her lane”; for failing to speak out on “the use of drones abroad in a “war on terror” and to “connect the dots” between NSA spying on millions of Americans; for the labeling of mosques as “terrorist organizations”; and for the FBI and COINTELPRO programs of the sixties and seventies, which placed the Civil Rights Movement under constant surveillance, infiltrated their organizations, and assassinated their leaders.
As a Pakistani American writer and human rights activist, inhabiting the intersection between American remote-controlled wars and uncounted Pakistani casualties, I am grateful for Michelle Alexander’s words. The common connections between the dehumanization that allows for the incarceration of millions of African-American men and the new vocabulary of precision and humanitarianism that has been attached to imperial war are indeed many. Both use the weight of moral righteousness to create two-pronged chains of justification: the first insists that the practice is necessary, and the second pronounces it good for those on whom it is being inflicted. As per this recipe, the imprisonment of African-American men — the lurking, drug peddling demons of peaceful American neighborhoods, it says — is crucial to the safety of all but is also ultimately rehabilitative for these wayward men who have fallen into lives of crime.
Just as mass incarceration uses the gloss of rehabilitation to hide the realities of social control, military intervention has appropriated the language of humanitarianism to disguise imperialist motives. In Afghanistan it was the women being so sordidly oppressed by the Taliban; in Iraq it was a the unstoppable bullying of a dictator; and now in Syria it is the rows of children so cruelly gassed by their own President. Just as an African-American man convicted by a crime and condemned to a sentence becomes invisible, so do the populations of these countries once interventions have actually happened and occupations are underway. The individuality of the African-American man ceases to exist post conviction, as does the plight of the Iraqi and the Afghani once their countries are occupied and attentions drift elsewhere. The cruelties that are perpetrated before American interventions exist loud and blaring and demanding of moral outrage; the ones inflicted by American forces after intervention do not exist at all.
In the case of mass incarceration, the moral imperative of “justice” stands as a foil against any critique pointing to the racist undertones of American criminal law. The pliant public, watching the system put away millions of young African-American men and boys, believes that they “deserve” their punishments. In recent cases of American intervention, the rhetoric of “precision” utilizes a similar mechanism. American drones in Pakistan and Yemen can pinpoint targets with tremendous exactitude, American military officials and war hawks purport from their pulpits. Figures are produced enumerating the “terrorist’ leaders killed, the alleged firsts and seconds and fifths of Al-Qaeda and Taliban leadership, all decimated with the remote-controlled accuracy.
Never mentioned is that no independent casualty counts are permitted or that the self-styled rules that govern the CIA drone program label most killed by drones to be combatants. Nor is the fact that after nearly five years of aggressive drone bombing and the supposed killing off of terrorist leaderships, Pakistan still experienced 652 terrorist attacks in 2012 and 426 so far in 2013. Hence juxtaposed, just as the imprisonment of every black man convicted is imagined just, all those killed by drones are terrorists. As Alexander has pointed out in her book, the point of the “War on Drugs” is not to end drug crimes but to create a thriving industry of enforcement around them. Similarly, the “War on Terror,” aims not to eliminate terrorism but merely to posit it as a loose category for “enemy” in which a changing number of targets can be interposed and then righteously eliminated.
Incarceration and interventionist wars impose their own regimes of who can and who cannot be considered victimized. In the equation of visibility and invisibility coined by modern American imperialism, the faces of children gassed by the Syrian military draw tears from Congressional leaders, but the faces of the nearly 200 children killed by American drone strikes in Pakistan do not exist at all. Unsurprisingly, then, this selection of the seen and unseen, the long-term radiation poisoning and varied cancers inflicted on Iraqis by American bombing of Tomahawk missiles, whose depleted uranium tips have poisoned groundwater, are erased from collective memory or never discussed at all.
The industrial prison complex takes in millions of African-American men. When they emerge they face severe limitations of their rights — to vote, to work, to participate in society. Maimed by a combination of denied opportunities and the reframed architecture of exclusion so astutely described by Michelle Alexander, they remain forever outsiders. The condition of post-conflict societies that have faced the brunt of American interventions is the same.
As the United States mulls war over Syria, the war weary citizens of Iraq, a few years into the American withdrawal, have seen nearly 4,000 deaths from terrorist attacks this year. In Afghanistan, as the months before President Obama’s announced withdrawal next year roll by, the country remains wracked by violence, massive corruption, and decrepit institutions. Just like systems of mass incarceration sentence African-American men to be perpetual misfits, unwanted and discriminated against, America’s millennial imperialism keeps the countries it invades and leaves forever debilitated and aid-dependent, unable to rise to self-sufficiency, condemned to a marginal existence based on begging rents from former invaders.
Undergirding Michelle Alexander’s thesis and unifying the slew of wars unleashed by the United States in the past decade is the issue of race. The millions of men duly incarcerated with such methodical diligence by a criminal justice system functioning as a proxy for perpetuating prejudice can be ignored away because they are black. The millions cowering in fear as American drones watch from the sky, as American missiles rain into cities and American tanks roll into towns, are all brown. So successful is the cumulative propaganda of “justice” and “precision,” of “redemption” and “humanitarianism,” that the misery of their bodies, the colors of their faces, the particularities of their perspectives are all erased before the power of whiteness to define what is worthy, right, just, and deserved.
Brown and black then are the American colors for the unwanted, the prisoners at home and the targets abroad.