Monday, April 25, 2011

Unlawful Combatants, Unlawful Prison

Any fool could have told you that as soon as The New York Times compiled and interpreted its WikiLeaks collection on the prison at Guantanamo, the Obama administration would come along and blame the messenger (Assange and Manning more than the media itself), and refuse to discuss the content of the Gitmo papers. After all, this is the administration that gave up on its plans to close Gitmo, gave up on its plans for civilian trials for detainees (back to military tribunals), gave up on efforts to end the National Security Agency's FISA bypass. In fact, I think that Eric Holder has fallen so far into the secrecy domain, I would classify him as an attorney general as reprehensible as John Ashcroft. And that is a sad state of affairs.

There's a factor of a blind spot of the nation-state that makes the statements of people like Diane Feinstein and Joe Lieberman as creepy as those of virtually any Republican, or most members of the Obama White House. They all want to throw the Espionage Act at Assange, Manning, and the media outlets that publish WikiLeaks, for a very specific reason: the WikiLeaks project undermines the legitimacy of the nation-state, and suggests that when a state gets too powerful, its regular mode of operation becomes too dirty by nature to allow the state to operate comfortably from a position of transparency. I have to applaud the editorial in the Winter 2010-11 MERIP Middle East Report with describing this tendency with an accuracy few other analysts reached.

A couple months ago, I wrote a poem called 'The Legitimacy of a Naked Manning' in which I used the words "legitimacy" and "assume" very deliberately. The poem concluded by suggesting that 500 years of the Westphalian system of nation-states was no more legitimate than Bradley Manning's piss. The intent of this poem was not to pose the case for utter nihilism, saying that the state was so illegitimate that all sources of political power and authority should be torn down immediately and replaced by 40 acres and a mule. Rather, it was to say that nation-states help make people's lives run in a smoother fashion, particularly with the rise of complex technical bureaucracies, but that we should not grant them any automatic assumed viability that is any greater than a single individual. If Julian Assange shows that the emperor has no clothes, it is just as legitimate as if a political leader says so. Similarly, just because the U.S., UK, Russia, China, et al. have owned nuclear weapons and cryptographic infrastructures for more than 50 years, they are no more legitimate as "keepers of the keys" than would-be nuclear states. We assume certain things about the realities of power to make our lives easier to understand, but we should not assume that these shorthand descriptions of nation-states and power bear inherent legitimacy.

That being said, I will surprise some of my friends in progressive movements and in the ACLU by saying that George Bush and Dick Cheney got a concept half-right when describing Gitmo detainees as "unlawful combatants." These are individuals who seek to attain unachievable goals, like restoring the Third Caliphate, by declaring war on the entire planet. Does this make the detainees unlawful human beings who have automatically forfeited human rights? Of course not. But the Bush administration recognized that, once a jihadist or other form of non-state fighter rejects the globalized system of the nation-state as the source for legitimacy, that jihadist becomes an "unlawful combatant" under the global system of law, who should expect the combined states of the world to array their full powers against the combatant, even if it is a single person or a handful of jihadists challenging the world.

In this sense, the unlawful combatant is not unlike Randy Weaver, challenging the FBI at Ruby Ridge back in 1992. Right-wing anti-state conservatives wanted to make a martyr out of Weaver, because he declared himself an autonomous being, inside the boundaries of the United States, ready to wage war against the state. Once he made his mind up to be autonomous and armed, Weaver and his followers should have fully expected federal forces to drag out tanks, APCs, even tactical nuclear weapons, to put down anyone who armed themselves and challenged the legitimacy of the state.

Does this mean I rationalize Syria sending tanks into Dara'a to preserve the state? No, because the protesters there are practicing nonviolent massive civil disobedience, against which any use of force is illegitimate. What about Libya? Tougher question, because the rebels are armed, yet Ghaddafi himself is illegitimate. What about the U.S. using armed drones? The drone is the cheapest, quickest way for a state to declare its legitimacy against the unlawful combatant, yet it quickly extends itself into a general robotic war of the powerful against the powerless.

At the end of the day, the jihadist, anarchist, or nihilist who takes up arms and declares the entire nation-state system to be illegitimate, should expect and prepare for any and all tools of war to be used against the rebel. Only the power of absolute and total nonviolent disobedience can bring down the state. But in the meantime, we should not grant any legitimacy to a nation-state trying to preserve, wield, and hide the dirtier aspects of its power, and we should praise the WikiLeaks backers of this world for trying to expose that power. Assume nothing, legitimize nothing.

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