Burying liberalism in the Homeland

Liberalism in the 1920s was strong enough to tolerate mass protests and respectful funerals for “terrorists”.

The remains of suspected Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev have been buried at Al Barzakh Cemetery
Tamerlan Tsarnaev's remains have been buried at Al Barzakh Cemetery in Doswell, Virginia [EPA]

Shortly after 9/11, a new term entered the US political lexicon: Homeland. Despite the worrying Germanic ring of Heimat, officials created a new department of state for “Homeland Security” and began planning for “Homeland Defence”. 

Today, the popular politics of the “Homeland” have exploded well beyond the intent of officials. These politics now obstruct rational national security policy. More than this, they are a powerful indicator of the hollowing out of liberalism and of humanism in the West, as events surrounding the burial of the alleged Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev show. 

The path from official policy to a popular politics that exceed such policy can be seen in the debate over Guantanamo. For misguided reasons, the GW Bush administration created an extraterritorial space where terrorist suspects could be denied the rights accorded to US citizens and other human beings. 

In so doing, US officials licensed a popular reaction which now prevents the closing of Guantanamo. Reacting to public opinion, the US congress passed laws blocking the transfer of Guantanamo inmates to US “soil”, even to incarcerate them in “supermax” prisons. President Obama was unable to bring the 9/11 perpetrator Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to New York for a trial for the same reasons. 

Although Guantanamo is now widely perceived to be gravely damaging to the reputation and prestige of the US, it cannot be wound down because of the populist politics of anti-terrorism and anti-Islamism. Terrorists are not to be allowed onto this sacred dirt, even to be tried in a court of law. 

Nor, if events in Boston following Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s death are any guide, are they to be buried in it. 

Funerals for ‘terrorists’

In a bizarre coda to the Boston marathon bombing, dozens of protesters picketed the funeral home holding Tsarnaev’s body. They held signs that said “Do not bury him on US soil” and “Bury the garbage in the landfill”. One protester threatened to disinter him, were he to be buried. Funeral homes and communities across Massachusetts refused to receive Tsarnaev’s body or allow its burial. 

Of course, some Bostonians reminded their fellow citizens that it was a matter of basic human decency to bury the dead. But what was especially notable about the funeral home protests was that they were spontaneous and popular, and they were polyglot. This was not an insta-protest of angry white men ginned up by the likes of Fox News. 

Appalled at this display, a concerned Christian finally found an Islamic funeral home and cemetery for Tsarnaev in the state of Virginia. Hardly was his ripe corpse in the ground before some in the Muslim community in Virginia  voiced vigorous objections. Perhaps they also wished to deny Tsarnaev’s humanity, or maybe they sought to vigorously demonstrate their loyalty to the Homeland, lest they become victims of popular Islamophobia. 

It is useful to contrast these events with the funerals of two other “terrorists” in Boston, the anarchists Ferdinando Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. They were convicted and executed for murdering two men during an armed robbery in South Braintree, Massachusetts, in the 1920s. 

Profile on the Tsarnaev brothers

Their trials and execution were conducted against the backdrop of a worldwide armed campaign for workers’ rights. Anarchists, syndicalists and other far-left groups and individuals planted bombs on Wall Street and elsewhere in the US. Abroad, in direct support of Sacco and Vanzetti, US embassies, consulates and officials were bombed, in Paris, Lisbon, Marseilles, Zurich and Rio de Janeiro among other places. Anti-US protests were held around the world. 

The trials of Sacco and Vanzetti were hardly exemplars of impartial justice. But after their execution, 10,000 mourners were allowed to gather in support of Sacco and Vanzetti at a funeral home in Boston’s North End. A wreath over the caskets read “Awaiting the hour of vengeance”. Although there were some clashes with the police, a two-hour funeral procession was allowed to march through the city to Forest Hills Cemetery, where the bodies were cremated. 

Even amid the first “red scare” of the 1920s, liberalism in the US was sufficiently robust to stomach mass protests and respectful funerals for “terrorists”. 

Racist passions

Today, amid the politics of Homeland, it is unimaginable that Chechens, jihadis, or supporters of al-Qaeda might have been allowed to peacefully protest and bury their dead in Boston in the wake of the bombing of the marathon. If law-bound officials had allowed it, the good citizens of Boston would not have. 

The idea that al-Qaeda supporters or Chechen nationalists be allowed to march in Boston may appear obscene to some. They would do well to recall, as did folks in the 1920s, that the US Constitution guarantees rights to free speech and protest. 

They might do well also to reflect on the shock many Americans and others around the world felt at seeing the body of a US Army helicopter pilot paraded through the streets of Mogadishu. Similar shock was felt when the charred and mutilated bodies of US defence contractors were strung up on a bridge outside Fallujah by Iraqi insurgents. 

The difference between these events and demanding that a body rot in a funeral home or be thrown onto a garbage dump is one of degree, not kind. As for the good Christian in Virginia, desecrating the dead generates such profound shock because it is widely seen as a marker of degradation into barbarism. 

While the official politics of the US and other western countries is still that of constitutional liberalism, the stresses and strains of globalisation and the “war on terror” have generated something much darker at the popular level. In the US, the politics of the Homeland is out of control. In Western Europe, politicians regularly pander to a dangerous, racialised, anti-immigrant nationalism that has already led to mass murder in Norway, as far-right political groups, such as Britain’s UK Independence Party, score electoral successes. 

We may think we live in an era of the unquestioned acceptance of liberal democracy. But even in its western heartland, liberalism and all it promises about universal human rights increasingly appears in peril. 

Officials and politicians may think they can control racist passions for their own cynical, illiberal ends. Before too long, the rest of us are likely to find out just what kind of policies of state repression these passions can underwrite. 

Tarak Barkawi is associate professor in the department of politics at the New School for Social Research, in New York City.