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Of hoodies and shalwar kameez

Scholar examines the similarities between predator drone strike victims and "stand your ground" victims.

Last Modified: 26 Jul 2013 13:40
Mark LeVine

Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine, and distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh.
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"Drones don't say anything before firing. They don't warn you or ask you stupid questions. They just surveil and when given the command, kill," writes Mark LeVine [AP]

Attorney General Eric Holder made headlines after the announcement of the not guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman trial when he condemned the "stand your ground laws" operating in states like Florida, Texas and some twenty other US states, as having contributed to the violence that took young Trayvon Martin's life on February 25, 2012.

"We must stand our ground to ensure that our laws reduce violence and take a hard look at laws that contribute to more violence than they prevent," Holder explained in his speech to the NAACP national convention in Orlando, Florida. "It's time to question laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defense," he continued, as they have "unfortunately... victimised too many who are innocent."

President Obama's remarks on the Martin case - which aides made sure the media knew were made without a teleprompter (cue feelings of "authenticity" here) - were even more direct. Criticising the alleged propensity of stand your ground laws to encourage violence (something that is in fact backed up by the increase in shootings in states that have enacted such legislation), he declared that "Trayvon Martin could have been me".

What's more, rather than a Clintonian attempt to feel the pain of the Martins, or the nation more broadly, he sought to enlighten white Americans to the specific pain with which almost every African American lives because of the ongoing legacy of racism, and through it, the very specific prism through which the community interpret events like Martin's killing.

Both the president and his attorney general's remarks were powerful reminders of how policies and laws based on fear, prejudice and an uncritical support for violence as a solution to potential threats do more harm than good. They increase enmity and distrust while doing little to tackle the violence they were supposed to address.

What most Americans, including this administration, don't seem to understand is that as long as the US or any country or group is willing to kill other people so easily and without direct justification or regard for the rule of law... it will never be able to tackle with its legacy of hatred, violence, racism and death inside its borders.

It appears President Obama or Mr. Holder have not thought through the full implications of their remarks, whose logic in fact condemns their own policies. Not relating to gun control or law enforcement at home. Rather, they offer a point blank indictment of the rationale behind what is perhaps the "signature" foreign policy of the Obama era: the large-scale use of drones to kill suspected terrorists and other "enemies" of the United States across the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia.

Instead of a young black man in a hoodie walking in the "wrong" neighbourhood in suburban Florida, let us imagine a young Muslim man in the badlands or even suburbs of Afghanistan, Yemen, or Pakistan dressed in a shalwar kameez (the traditional loose-fitting outfit worn by people in the Pakistan/Afghanistan region). Let us further imagine that instead of George Zimmerman we have a twenty-something drone operator, sitting in a control room however many thousands of miles away, examining "suspicious" activity of a group of military age men. Let's say the men seem to be behaving in a manner that suggests they could be terrorists (and indeed, as with the supposed prevalence of crimes committed by young black men in Zimmerman's neighbourhood, the majority of "terrorists" are probably wearing the kind of clothes and moving around in similar ways to our subject, who might himself even be armed (since gun laws are about as strict in these countries as they are in Florida or Texas).

In other words, the men fit the " signature" that the US has developed - and President Obama himself has repeatedly signed off on - of a terrorist. And so, even without a shred of proof that they are in fact terrorists or engaged in activity that would threaten the security and/or lives of American citizens or soldiers, they can, at least according to the still unpublished legal reasoning of the US government, be legally vaporized by a missile fired from a drone.

Let's return to the dark and rainy street where the fateful encounter between Martin and Zimmerman took place. From what was established at the trial, it seems that Martin might have been able to take actions to avoid being shot. Not that he should have had to, or that Zimmerman's shooting him is morally justified (even if a jury did not find enough evidence to convict him beyond a reasonable doubt of second degree murder).

But at least he could, in theory, have behaved in a completely submissive manner when confronted by Zimmerman, perhaps prostrating himself on the ground with his hands up, or groveling obsequiously like a modern-day version of the Stepin Fetchit character (whose actor, Lincoln Perry, ironically also hailed from Florida).

Maybe such a response to the initial confrontation by Zimmerman would have convinced him that Martin posed no threat. Perhaps if had he done so, Martin might have survived his fateful and ultimately fatal encounter with a vigilante neighbourhood watchman. Humiliated to be sure, but at least alive to share his story.

Let's think about the young Afghan or Yemeni or Pakistan man in his shalwar kameez or jelabiya engaged in the seemingly threatening behavior - threatening enough seeming to lead the President of the United States to authorise his murder. Could he talk or even grovel his way out of the situation? Plead his innocence or remove his skull cap to show he wasn't really one of "them"?

Not very likely, not least because he wouldn't even know he's being targeted until the last second before the missile hit and killed him. Drones don't say anything before firing. They don't warn you or ask you stupid questions. They just surveil and when given the command, kill. And according to most every report not produced by the US government, they do a very good job of killing the wrong people  with civilian death tolls far in excess of the levels admitted to by the Obama Administration.

President Obama asked us to consider how easily "stand your ground" could have applied to Trayvon Martin, producing a situation where two armed men with diametrically opposed notions of security and justice had equal incentives to shoot first and ask questions later. Well, unless he is a very good shot and has an RPG or surface to air missile, the chances of a young soon-to-be victim of a US drone strike being able to shoot first and disable the drone, never mind the operator, would be even slimmer than Trayvon Martin's.

Of course, in US-occupied Afghanistan or Iraq, people did have the ability to behave toward American soldiers much as George Zimmerman did to Trayvon Martin, except for the fact that standing their ground against encroaching American forces would have immediately identified them as terrorists, or at best troublemakers who needed to be taught a lesson - maybe by drone.

What most Americans, including this administration, don't seem to understand is that as long as the US or any country or group is willing to kill other people so easily and without direct justification or regard for the rule of law, and to do so in pursuance or protection of a set of policies which oppress or support the oppression and immiseration of so many people, it will never be able to tackle its legacy of hatred, violence, racism and death inside its borders. The same dynamics that make those drone operators with a conscience "feel like sociopaths" ensures that the sociopathic tendencies within American culture at home - the fetishisation and idolatrous worship of guns and violence and their disproportionate use on the young, the poor, women and minorities - will continue.

It's hard to see how the US will finally have that "conversation about race" so many have hoped Obama would lead as long as its government so routinely kills "others" for nothing more than looking the way Trayvon Martin looked to George Zimmerman. If two men as smart as Obama and Holder can't or won't understand this, young men will continue to die without legal or moral justification, and in the suburbs of the American south as much as the badlands of Pakistan.

Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine and distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh. His book, Heavy Metal Islam, which focused on 'rock and resistance and the struggle for soul' in the evolving music scene of the Middle East and North Africa, was published in 2008.

Follow him on Twitter: @culturejamming

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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