Being Muslim isn’t a criminal act. Worshipping in a mosque isn’t treason. Unfortunately, for many of Donald Trump’s supporters, that distinction ins’t clear. Citing recent extremist attacks as a pretext for indefinite detention, Republicans are calling for a return to “enhanced interrogation” techniques, like those used against Abdullah al-Kidd. Trump, himself, lionized the use of waterboarding “and a hell of a lot worse” throughout his campaign, before issuing a barely believable reversal in November.
In an event that evades our 24-hour media memory, in 2003, two years after the 9/11 hijackings, Al-Kidd was held without due process for fifteen days under the material-witness statute, during which time the former University of Iowa football star was strip-searched, shackled nude to a chair and subjected to constant illumination. Upon release, he was placed under probationary conditions that limited his travel to four states and, ultimately, resulted in irreconcilable marital strife. The catch? Prosecutors never called Al-Kidd to the stand in the case for which he was claimed as a witness, the trial of Sami Omar al-Hussayen, nor was he connected to a crime, despite former FBI Director Robert Mueller’s congressional contention that al-Kidd’s capture was one of the nation’s major anti-terrorism “success stories.”
Believing someone should be held responsible for the illegal detention of himself and approximately 70 other Muslims arrested under the material-witness guise, Al-Kidd filed a civil suit in federal court against then Attorney General John Ashcroft, who, later defended by Obama administration attorneys, maintained that the doctrine of qualified immunity–which exempts government officials from being held liable for violations of an individual’s constitutional rights–shielded him from “burdensome litigation and potential damages.” In 2009, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Al-Kidd, ruling that Ashcroft could be found culpable for the wrongful detention of American citizens. Department of Justice lawyers then appealed to the Supreme Court, which found, in 2011, that al-Kidd’s attorneys did not met the burden of proof necessary to show that Attorney General Ashcroft could be personally sued for DOJ actions, nor that Ashcroft was directly involved in or had explicit knowledge of the events surrounding Al-Kidd’s detention (suggesting the injustice was executed by Ashcroft’s subordinates).
Given the SCOTUS ruling and national security inclinations of the incoming Trump administration, the narrative juncture cleaved by Al-Kidd’s case poses the legal question: How does the state legitimate authority to catch “criminals” without evidence of a crime? It’s a question that’s more urgent than ever, in a time of increased hate crimes, heightened vigilance of police brutality, anti-LGBT violence, and rising Islamophobia.
One possible answer resides in the discursive structures through which the consequences of statecraft are naturalized among the nation’s citizenry, particularly with regard to national security. Locating the production of security within the nexus of processes comprising an imagined political community, critical state theorist Joseph Campos II argues that the state attempts to manage the textual field of national security discourse in order to reproduce its relevance to the governed, prompting the conceptualization of threats, both internal and external, as the end-products of political labor. For Campos, instances of “terrorism,” framed within a hegemonic security metanarrative, are micropolitical inversions, whereby the othering of terrorist assemblages consecrates not only the legitimacy of state violence, but also the discursive space necessary for manufacturing consent to the omnipresence of state control, laid bare before the governed. As Campos explains:
National security discourse constitutes, and is representative of, the construction of a privileged space where the state makes terrorism meaningful and terrifying at the same time. Terrorism is made meaningful in a process that legimitizes relations of power and sets up statist objectives–maintenance of secured borders, economies, and peoples. These statist objectives are solidified in stressing the terrifying aspect of terrorism as a direct assault against the authority of the state (Campos, The State and Terrorism, 2007).
Thus, “terrorism” reaffirms the state’s Weberian monopoly of the legitimate deployment of violence inasmuch as violence is the default reaction to terror understood as an existential threat against the state, while delimiting the ideational loci from which citizens, like Al-Kidd, may critique majoritarian notions of terror without being perceived as traitors.
To combat the crackdowns on freedom that may be forthcoming if corporate security forces are exalted under Trump, we must question the manner in which terrorism is instrumentalized by the state to police society, both literally and figuratively. Here, Campos contends that the state defines terrorism as anathema to the performance of liberal life at the everyday level, undermining the state’s efforts to safeguard such functional necessities as food, shelter, and personal finance. In this way, disciplinary systems organized to confront terror are made into imagined states of relevance, requiring the constant mobilization of a citizenry faced with the threat of permanent war. Says Campos:
With the focus on the affect of terrorism on the entirety of security, security and terrorism are made imagined states of relevance for the general citizenry. In imagined states of relevance, national security discourse is constituted as a steady murmur of memory–a discourse that is constantly present, but at times in the background quietly producing itself so that it may be made vocal and active at any moment to justify any action (Campos, The State and Terrorism, 2007).
Usurping narrative strategies to valorize the moral purity of its aims, the state reenacts the historical encounters most pertinent to externalizing threats, disabling contrapuntal knowledges that problematize the production of martial subjectivities. Interrogating the dichotomous structure of securitization becomes a self-reflexive form of Aristotelian barbarism, incomprehensible to a population that views (in)security as crucial for the survival of their nation, state, community and own docile bodies. A population like Trump’s GOP followers, 68 percent of whom reported, in June, that they support a temporary ban on Muslims entering the U.S. to make America safe. Again.
And what better pretext for actualization of national security discourse than the novelty of a threat that can strike anywhere, at anytime? One of the foremost hagiographic fictions of many political regimes, including the United States government, is a missionary mythology predicated on centuries of struggle with “heathens” and “savages.” Muslims, against whom ongoing crusades have for centuries been waged at the hands of Western warlords, first with swords and now with drones, are useful victims, especially when distilled through the timeless trauma of terror. Portrayed as the most lethal outside threat to an imagined community of like-minded Americans, Muslims are said to be plotting attacks from within our communities, erasing the inside/outside binary that grounds the state’s security machine. They are everywhere. Here and there, from here to there. They must be stopped at all costs, argue our soon-to-be-statesmen, and brought to justice by any means necessary.
Even if they’ve never committed a crime.