Henry A. Giroux: State Terrorism and Racist Violence in the Age of Disposability — From Emmett Till to Eric Garner

If you want a picture of the future imagine a boot stomping on a human face forever.     —George Orwell

By Henry A. Giroux  Truthout | Op-Ed  December 5, 2014

Comments by Giroux posted on his Facebook page:

My newest Truthout piece on the connection between the new totalitarianism and the killing of black men and youth. I could not resist writing this. I am so tired of the liberal reads on the Garner execution. All this stuff about the police wearing cameras, Bratton’s disingenuous call for police re-training, the broken-windows nonsense, and, of course, the unapologetic racism of the right-wing politicians and anti-public intellectuals. Nobody wants to connect the dots between the age of lynching, Emmett Till, the Birmingham bombings, and the endless upsurge of lawlessness that has come to characterize a new entity, the punishing state. We live in world where the delete button holds sway. And what is being erased is not only any vestige of a sense of commitment, but public and historical memory, if not justice itself.     

 A police officer atop an armored vehicle looks through the scope of a rifle towards a crowd of demonstrators gathered to protest the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Aug. 12, 2014. The militarized police response to the protests over the shooting of an unarmed teenager has elicited a broad call from across the political spectrum for America’s police forces to be demilitarized. (Whitney Curtis/The New York TimesA police officer atop an armored vehicle looks through the scope of a rifle towards a crowd of demonstrators gathered to protest the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Aug. 12, 2014. The militarized police response to the protests over the shooting of an unarmed teenager has elicited a broad call from across the political spectrum for America’s police forces to be demilitarized. (Whitney Curtis/The New York Times)

The larger reasons behind Eric Garner’s execution seem to be missed by most commentators. The issue is not simply police misconduct, or racist acts of police brutality, however deadly, but the growing use of systemic terror of the sort we associate with Hannah Arendt’s notion of totalitarianism that needs to be explored.


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When fear and terror become the organizing principles of a society in which the tyranny of the state has been replaced by the despotism of an unaccountable market, violence becomes the only valid form of control. The system has not failed. As Jeffrey St. Clair has pointed out, it is doing exactly what it is supposed to do, which is to punish those it considers dangerous or disposable – which increasingly includes more and more individuals and groups. Hannah Arendt was right in arguing that, “If lawfulness is the essence of non-tyrannical government and lawlessness is the essence of tyranny, then terror is the essence of totalitarian domination.” 1.

In an age when the delete button and an utterly commodified and privatized culture erase all vestiges of memory and commitment, it is easy for a society to remove itself from those sordid memories that reveal the systemic injustices that belie the presence of state violence and terrorism. Not only do the dangerous memories of bodies being lynched, beaten, tortured and murdered disappear in the fog of celebrity culture and the 24/7 entertainment/news cycle, but the historical flashpoints that once revealed the horrors of unaccountable power and acts of systemic barbarism are both disconnected from any broader understanding of domination and vanish into a past that no longer has any connection to the present.

The murder of Emmett Till; the killing of the four young black girls, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair, in the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama; the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr; the killing by four officers of Amadou Diallo; and the recent killings of countless young black children and men and women, coupled with the ongoing and egregious incarceration of black men in this country are not isolated expressions of specific, marginalized failures of a system. They are the system, a system of authoritarianism that has intensified without apology. Rather than being viewed or forgotten as isolated, but unfortunate, expressions of extremism, these incidents are part of a growing systemic pattern of violence and terror that has unapologetically emerged at a time when the politics and logic of disposability has been normalized in American society and violence has become the default position for solving all social problems, especially as they pertain to poor minorities of class and color.

When ethics and any vestige of social responsibility and the public good are trampled beneath the hooves of the finance state, there is no space for democratic values or justice. We live in an age of disposability – an historical period of increasing barbarism ruled by financial monsters, who offer no political concessions and are driven by a death-drive.

The aim of the terrorist state, as Arendt argues, is not only to instill fear, but to destroy the very capacity for convictions, rather than to instill them. Under such conditions, power is not only unaccountable, but it is free from any sense of moral and political conviction.  Hence, the rise of the punishing state as a way to govern all of social life. In this context, life becomes disposable for most, but especially for poor minorities of class and color. I think bell hooks is right when she states that “the point of lynching historically was not to kill individuals but to let everybody know: ‘This could happen to you.’ ” This is how a terrorist state controls people. It individualizes fear and insecurity and undercuts the formation of collective struggle. Fear of punishment, of being killed, tortured, or reduced to the mere level of survival has become the government’s weapon of choice. The terrorist state manufactures ignorance and relies on induced isolation and privatization to depoliticize the population. Beliefs are reduced to the realm of the private allowing the public realm to sink into the dark night of barbarism, terror and lawlessness.

As an endless expression of barbarism and the ongoing elimination of any vestige of equality and democratic values, the killing of innocent black children and adults by the police makes clear that Americans now inhabit a state of absolute lawlessness, one that both fills the Hollywood screens with prurient entertainment and a culture of cruelty and, unfortunately, provides testimony to the ravaging violence that marks everyday life as well.

Calls for minor reforms such as retraining the police, hiring more minorities, or making the grand jury system more transparent will not change a political and social system that has lost its connection to the ideals, values and promises of a democracy. Just as calls for punishing the Wall Street crooks who caused the financial crisis will not reform the system that produced the financial debacle.

Calls for such reforms do not challenge the totalitarian politics and financial forces that rule American society, they simply give the system a veil of legitimacy, suggesting it can be fixed. It can’t be fixed. It is a death-dealing system ruled by political and moral zombies, and it has to be transformed through the ongoing, nonviolent mobilization and development of social movements that can imagine a democracy that is real, substantive and radical in its calls for justice, equality and freedom. The dark possibilities of our times are everywhere. Let’s hope the killing of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner provides the beginning of a political and social movement to fight what has become a dark and gruesome political state of governance in the United States.

1. Hannah Arendt, “Ideology and Terror: A Novel Form of Government,” The Origins of Totalitarianism, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York: 2001). pp. 464.

May not be reprinted without permission of the author.  truthout.org  permission  

HENRY A. GIROUX

Henry A. Giroux currently holds the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest in the English and Cultural Studies Department and a Distinguished Visiting Professorship at Ryerson University. His most recent books include: Youth in Revolt: Reclaiming a Democratic Future (Paradigm 2013), America’s Educational Deficit and the War on Youth (Monthly Review Press, 2013) Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education (Haymarket Press, 2014), and The Violence of Organized Forgetting: Thinking Beyond America’s Disimagination Machine (City Lights, 2014). The Toronto Star named Henry Giroux one of the 12 Canadians changing the way we think! Giroux is also a member of Truthout’s Board of Directors. His website is www.henryagiroux.com.

To see more stories from Henry A. Giroux, visit his page at “The Public Intellectual.”

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