Yasmin Nair

On Death & Exceptionalism

Filed By Yasmin Nair | December 09, 2012 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: American imperialism, Bradley Manning, George Zimmerman, innocent victims, Obama Administration, Rebecca Solnit, Trayvon Martin

bigstock-Police-Line-Victim-1431989.jpgLike so many, I've been following the George Zimmerman case since his shooting of Trayvon Martin. Like many, I was outraged at the idea that a young black man was, in essence, shot for WWB (walking while black) in the "wrong neighborhood."

My shock at what had happened was sadly tempered by my knowledge that this was only one such instance amongst many. Things may not always take such a deadly turn, but the violence of suspicion and outright exclusion is felt by many, especially people of color.

All of which is to state that what happened to Trayvon Martin was horrific, and that we need to work on creating a world where such moments are truly unfathomable. But even as I felt the heaviness of what had happened, I found myself disturbed by the first and enduring inclinations of many of my left/progressive friends and colleagues as they gathered their wits, their pens, and their activism to launch campaigns against the truly problematic ways in which so many blamed the victim.

Geraldo Rivera articulated the first of such victim-blaming responses, when he openly stated that youth like Martin invited panicked responses if they insisted on wearing "thug gear." He apologised, after sharp and widespread criticism from many, including his own son. Yet, Rivera's comment merely illustrates a larger criminalisation of youth of color, the sort that closely replicates plantation-style racism: Stay on your side or suffer the deadliest of consequences.

The problem, though, is that progressives have resorted to the discourse of exceptionalism as a measure against such rhetorical and physical violence. In the months following Martin's killing, the progressive press has painted Martin as an innocent victim. Now, it's Zimmerman who's able to use that same discourse of innocence: A newly released photo of his bloody nose taken shortly after the shooting threatens to dispute the claim that he suffered no violence. It could bolster his case that he acted in self-defense. In recent weeks, Zimmerman's attorneys have gained access to Martins' high school records. Many, including the lawyers acting for his parents, insist that these are irrelevant to the case.

Much of this has to do with the details of Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law, which grants a degree of impunity to those who feel compelled to use violence to defend themselves. This is also the result of the narrative about innocence that Martin's supporters have used all along. If the case is that he did not deserve to die because he was innocent, is there any point in criticising efforts to prove the opposite?

I often think about this and other instances, where progressives are the first to demand exceptional treatment for those they deem innocent victims. I find this problematic for a number of reasons.

Surely, we ought to focus on dismantling laws like "Stand Your Ground," which actually promote violence and a gun-carrying culture. And does it really matter whether or not the victim was innocent? If Martin turns out to be a pot-smoking, lazy teenager, would he become someone who deserved to be shot?

Focusing so much on exceptional victims erases the possibility for more systemic analysis which could go a longer way to end it. During an Occupy Oakland event, many protested the violence faced by a woman in a wheelchair and other disabled people or, as one commenter put it, "The world needs to know that Oakland PD is tear gassing the elderly, the disabled, children, and the press."

Surely, I would argue, what "the world" needs to understand is that violence and repression are the first tools of State machinery, that police are not going to stop in the midst of quelling a response against that which feeds them and gives them their pensions in order to first construct escape routes for the disabled, children, and the press (and even as a member of the press, I'm unclear as to why the last category deserves special treatment). In aiming its outrage at who the police are repressing, progressives fail to analyse and, in the long term, end the systems of oppression they claim to fight.

Some of my favorite writers on the left frequently engage in this discourse of exceptionalism. I agree with Glenn Greenwald on nearly everything (except gay marriage), but I wish he would stop emphasising how much U.S imperialism (of which he provides some of the best-researched and argued critiques) is killing children.

I understand that this is one way to demonstrate how deeply callous the U.S can be in its foreign wars. But surely, those who support U.S imperialism are well aware that drones and bombs kill children, and they are not likely to change their minds just because children die.

Drones are designed to kill indiscriminately: That is exactly how they exert terror. Israeli attacks are not calibrated to avoid killing Palestinian children, because the whole point behind them is to leave a population in perpetual fear and dread; that can only happen if the most vulnerable are also affected.

Besides, supporters of U.S imperialism are able to exert their own rationales. For an excellent example, we need look no further than Rebecca Solnit, a darling of progressives everywhere, who waved away Obama's critics on the left:

At a demonstration in support of Bradley Manning this month, I was handed a postcard of a dead child with the caption "Tell this child the Democrats are the lesser of two evils." It behooves us not to use the dead for our own devices, but that child did die thanks to an Obama Administration policy. Others live because of the way that same administration has provided health insurance for millions of poor children or, for example, reinstated environmental regulations that save thousands of lives.

You could argue that to vote for Obama is to vote for the killing of children, or that to vote for him is to vote for the protection for other children or even killing fewer children.

What Solnit means is this: "Take your pictures of dead children elsewhere; I see them and I still don't care."

Ending U.S imperialism or violence in general will not come about by counting how many innocents are killed, because imperialism is not due to a lack of moral force that can be somehow rectified by a greater demonstration of feeling and horror on our part. Writers like Greenwald and too many of us on the Left engage violence, death, and imperialism on the grounds that innocent and good people, exemplary fathers, loving mothers, and beautiful, perfect children are being killed. This reduces our collective attempt to end all of that to nothing more than a public relations campaign.

Surely the Left, with its long history of systemic analysis and revolutionary zeal, can do better than to, in effect, insist that some people deserve to die more than others. Or have we gone so far down the path of exceptionalism that we cannot find a way to unstick ourselves from its gooey, affective mess?

(My thanks to Doug Henwood for pointing me to Solnit's piece. Police line graphic via Bigstock.)

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