Thursday, September 11, 2014

What Can September 11th Teach Us About Michael Brown and the Extrajudicial Killings of Black People?

13 years have passed since Al Qaeda attacked the continental United States. There is a particular type of hurt when outsiders attack the "homeland".

On the morning of September 11, 2001, many Americans stood with mouths agape, wondering "how could they do this to us?" Others shook their heads, asking, "why do they hate us so much?" The American people, drunk on lies of their country's exceptional nature, willfully blind to the deeds and acts done in their name abroad, too many of whom would rather watch stupid human tricks on the TV, they the products of failed school systems and a deceptive 4th Estate, latched on to such empty questions--questions which both then and now have readily available answers.

Ignorance is a sweet pablum until it makes one sick. The pundits, policy wonks, and other inside experts knew, understood, and could readily explain the concept of blowback, its relationship to American foreign policy in the Middle East, the rise of Osama bin Laden, and the organization that the Western media would christen as Al Qaeda. Alas, truth-telling about 9/11 would be punished. It was and remains far easier to embrace lies such as "unknown unknowns" where 9/11 is framed more as some mystical, bizarre, and unpredictable event than it is to talk in a direct and clear fashion about how America's policies abroad can and do have implications for the American people at home.

In many ways, the noted American public intellectual Cornel West has the first and last word on the emotional and psychic impact of September 11th on the (white) American public. When the planes were brought down on that day, and the national security surveillance state reached out to touch even white folks (in relatively minor ways) as compared to how it has historically treated people of color, West brilliantly observed that white Americans had been, for a moment, "niggerized".

They were made to feel unsafe, insecure, vulnerable, and subject to random violence. White privilege works as a shield against such feelings as experienced by white Americans en masse. The lie that Whiteness is a type of existential innocence means that most white Americans are complicit in a type of historical and contemporary amnesia--what is a break in the chain of cause and effect--that makes it extremely difficult for them to understand how they could be disliked as a people and targeted for group violence.

Al Qaeda's attack on the United States was not a motherless child.

In many ways, the attacks on September 11, 2001 were a gut punch to the stomach of White American racial innocence.

By comparison, black and brown Americans have a long experience with "niggerization" and what it means to be subjected to random, unjust, violence that is designed to make them feel insecure. In total, Black and Brown America have had centuries of practice in trying to navigate white racial terrorism, and also developing the defense mechanisms necessary to survive its assault.

Stated differently, September 11th was an attack on the American people by a foreign terrorist organization.

But, what if your experience as an American was that of being routinely attacked and terrorized by your own country and fellow citizens because you were a person of color on the wrong side of the white on black enforced color line?

The activist Bill Fletcher Jr. has written a great short essay called Suspected of Being Black. It grapples with questions of terrorism and the American habit that is the extra-judicial murder of black people in a snug and powerful way.

Fletcher begins with the following observation:
Two recent killings, one of Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, speak to a very different reality experienced by African Americans compared with whites in the USA. Without going through the details, there are certain questions that can be asked to anyone in the USA and, depending on the answer, one can ascertain what I would call the ‘racial terror index.’ Here are a few examples: 
Are you generally afraid of the police?
To what extent do you expect there to be a possibility that you will be stopped by the police? Have you ever been trained on how to respond if you have been stopped?
If you were in a car that broke down, how likely are you to knock on someone’s door seeking help? 
 If you are man, how likely are you to drive long distances with a female of another ‘race’? 
If you had difficulty getting into your own home, how likely would you be to contact the police and ask for their help? 
How many neighborhoods do you need to be careful in transiting for fear that the police will stop you?
What white America largely misses is that there is a system of terror under which African Americans constantly live. It is not the terror of Al Qaeda but a terror that began with slavery and continued during the reign of the Ku Klux Klan. But it is also represented by lynchings and false arrests. It is truly terror because it can come at any time and be directed at any individual, but it also is the use of violence against civilians in order to advance a political objective. In that sense it is no different—in fundamentals from a car bombing.
He continues:
The personal uncertainty and insecurity that so many white Americans felt and expressed post-September 11th terrorist attacks came as such a shock to the system…but not for African Americans. For African Americans, living with uncertainty is about living in the USA. Living with the reality that at any point and for any reason, we may be ‘misidentified’ by the authorities, and jailed or killed; we may be targeted for extra-judicial harassment and killings; we may be humiliated by the authorities, yet obtain no apologies. We may be otherwise silenced.
The (apparent) surprise nature of the events of September 11th cause the American people deep pain.

Al Qaeda's attacks on the American mainland pierced a veneer of invulnerability, caused national trauma, and excited a war fever blood lust that almost destroyed the American economy while killing thousands of American soldiers, crippling and otherwise injuring many thousands more, and subsequently wrecking the American middle class.

If "terrorism" is wrong when directed at the American people, it should be wrong when used abroad, and especially as directed by one group of Americans against another in the "homeland".

Moral consistency ought to demand that the tears, memorialization, pathos, reverence, and public memory of 9/11 be similarly reflective about the terrorism which has been visited upon the people of Ferguson and Michael Brown. A mature understanding of terrorism, state violence, and race would also locate white on black and brown state violence within a continuity of terrorism both in the United States and around the world.

In many ways, American Exceptionalism is a bridge too far. Consequently, the adherents to that civic religion are unable and unwilling to acknowledge that terrorism and state violence are American traditions.

It is far easier to find righteous anger when "those people" attack "us". White privilege and the white racial frame make it difficult for the owners of Whiteness to be introspective, and thus to ask, "what must it feel like to be a person of color, and a member of a community, that is routinely terrorized by the police and other white-identified vigilantes?"

The killings of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, John Crawford, Eric Garner, Jonathan Ferrel, and so many other unarmed black people by white police and other street vigilantes are acts of political violence and terrorism. The attacks on 9/11 were more spectacular. The killings of black people by white police and white-identified street vigilantes every 28 hours, within a decades and centuries-long continuum, has exacted a far higher body count and is no less traumatic to our families and communities.

It is tragic that the flag waving patriotism of September 11th has not been turned to larger questions of social justice, equality, and how to make sure that no American is ever subjected to terrorism and violence by their own government.


Wild Cat said...

I could write a novel about that day. But I have one incident I want to share here:

I trudged up from the 30s to the upper part of the Upper West Side to seek shelter at a friend's house near Harlem (lovingly known as "Morningside Heights" so as not to frighten the dainty yuppies. At 96th Street and Broadway, a young black man was working diligently on the deserted street collecting cans and bottles for his daily bread. He took a look at my pale, sweaty, and ethnic white face and said, "Why don't you all fucking let them have a fucking homeland already?!?!"

He was the smartest man on the planet that day.

joe manning said...

True that, we're afraid to speak up lest we jeopardize our seat on the death train. Folks must honestly face the fact that humanity's survival is seriously endangered by a pathological elite.

Wild Cat said...

Both of us will pay for that day until we're long dead. At this point, I don't even care that Obama is on the verge and taking the ISIS bait. My tax money - and yours - has to be wasted on anything but the needy and our infrastructure and the future of humanity. But there's no more 'we' or 'our' - just consumer-unit citizens in a capitalist/military hell.

Your friend was probably the only human ever saved by eating McDonald's colon-cancer causing plastic-tasting "food." I had a cousin who overslept. She was slated to work at the WTC that day, but running late by 20 minutes or so saved her life.

balitwilight said...

I appreciate this sober and reflective writing. I appreciate the vision and truth-telling that is able to connect the real suffering of this nation on that horrific day with the real suffering we have inflicted abroad - and within our own borders.

I still remember the very day the towers were destroyed, when in my own grief my heart fell even further to hear it instantly branded as "Ground Zero". It was a horrific sort of history-blind irony. "Ground Zero" is a term-of-art used by military scientists to describe the point on the ground directly beneath an air-burst nuclear weapon. Just as (rightly so), no matter what future horrors they may suffer, Germans should never term it a "Holocaust" - only citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have earned that usage of "Ground Zero". Americans should avoid that term.

Even in my grief of that day I still remember hearing commentators opine that America - indeed the world - would be forever changed because Evil has entered our Garden of Eden; and the thought buzzing like a fly in the back of my head: what does it mean for a people to have been blind to all the evil abroad and at home until a day like this?

I know very well a "black" man who earns 4-times the US Median Household Income, who still has to counsel his wonderful young son not to follow his "white" friends even on harmless pranks, for fear of the police and the lethal terrorism of White Supremacy. Imaging the psychological damage, the evil in that over the continuing centuries.

I am increasingly seeing the literal truth in the sayings "Without a vision the people will perish"; and "The truth will set you free". America today is a wasteland dying for vision and truth.

hcaparoso said...

Yes, yes, yes, so true! your reflections on the use of the term "Ground Zero". Americans so just don't seem to get it. All this blather about " our way of life, etc, etc, etc". I would say the vast majority of white Americans are ignorant of any of their history, and don't want to know any, as then they might have to confront the truth about what has been done in their name.
My oldest daughter was in Ireland at the time, staying with one of my cousins. I called her and said maybe she should come home as her dad and I were worried and didn't know what was going to happen. My cousin took the phone and said it was our ( the Americans) fault as we couldn't stay out of anyone else's business and what did we expect would happen, messing around all over the world. I had to agree with her ( but I made Deirdre come home anyway.)

balitwilight said...

That's a great anecdote. I guess that you probably know this already - but just to be clear on behalf of the poor Palestinians, none of the 9/11/01 hijackers were Palestinian. 15-of-the-19 were Saudis, as was their leader (Bin-Laden). 1 was Egyptian. Their driving grievance was the forced garrisoning of US troops in their country to prop up the corrupt dictatorships like Saudi Arabia, which (like the Egyptian military) suppresses, imprisons and tortures Islamic dissidents. Al Qaeda's then #2, Ayman Al Zawahiri, was an Egytptian surgeon from an aristocratic family, who was literally caged and tortured by US-puppet Mubarak for political activism, and emerged from Egypt's torture-cells with a psychotic thirst for revenge. Thus Al Qaeda was born.

Wild Cat said...

I just, thirteen years later, have to credit this man (possibly homeless) to have more foreign-policy knowledge, insight, and guts than any media flunky now - or then - had or would ever have.

Right now every Pravda "news" reader, from Fox to MSNBC to PBS, are polishing up their old flag lapels and churning the ketchup for their Freedom Fries.

I don't know how these people can live with themselves. I don't know how much longer we can continue our obsession with bombing weak people whose lives we have destabilized.

Nina Flowers said...

Most Americans have no clue that Osama bin Laden and his crew used to be called "freedom fighters" by Ronald Reagan. Same as they don't know about our propping up of dictatorships in Western Africa in order to steal the oil in the Gulf of Guinea. Take Sao Tome and Principe... They would not allow the US military in and then suddenly, there was a coup! There's way too much to talk about in regards to foreign policy.

RPM said...

The day is nearly done in my neck of the woods but some things to add. I remember the yuppie high school white kids i went to school with shocked for the first time. Bubbles penetrated for a brief moment. Most were the offspring of bankers, jewelers, lawyers and other parasites. Some were the kids of actors and ex hippies that got money but told their kids all the 60's radicalism stuff that they could parrot without thought. Shopping at Good Will in a Mercedes. That dicotamy never amused me as much as it should have. So I saw many kids looking around the room trying to see who was the most shocked and then copying the expressions of those who looked sincerely distressed. I kept thinking about my brother in the city. I knew he wasn't there. I knew it but a million thoughts kept swirling. The idiot anchors telling us we were at war. You could hear the excitement in their voice. Media loves war. I always knew this. You'd have to be afoul not to see it. So why anyone trusts them to be objective about it always makes me shake my head. As all the dust and debris flooded the streets i remember looking at the TV thinking"How can anyone breathe?" I thought of my brother again and knew he would be okay. I knew it. When I finally said screw waiting around and went home to find my family there. Calls weren't getting through. But I knew he was okay. I knew it. The attacks were done and he wasn't therein the rubble. Still I watched the idiot box and the images of the smoke filled sky. My mother came in my room and said that they finally got a hold of my brother. He was okay. We knew it. I now turned to the TV and looked at this with as objective eyes as i could for the first time and my mother said the first of many things I reflect on this day. She said looking at that TV screen "It's going to get a lot worse before it gets better." Three years later I was in a hostel dorm in Europe on the eve of my first presidential election i could vote in. As I tried to sleep a group of foreigners were playing cards as people tried to sleep. They talked about America and one of them said "America thinks it's safe. It's not. 9/11 is only the beginning. Watch!It's country is doomed. It doesn't have long left." Many had been from countries that had been destroyed in the last century or present. They didn't know i was there. Four years later I heard the refrain about how Gore wouldn't have allowed it and now Obama will stop these pointless wars. Americans, Europeans and Middle Easterners alike all said the same to me. All i see is the cycle repeating again. And I think of those Europeans and the old Italian character in the Catch 22 movie I saw a year after the attacks who asks Garfunkel's character: How long do you think America will exist? Forever?
"Forever is a very long time i guess."
Very long."

Myshkin the Idiot said...

This is exactly the path of reasoning I began to follow after 9/11. I was only 15 when it happened and facing a number of issues from a troubled childhood of uncertainty, but the months and years following the WTC attacks.

It is a tragedy that people in the US are unwilling to examine the terrorism of people of color within this country as well as throughout the world. America is always a "welcomed liberator" spreading democracy to the darkest corners of despotism.

KissedByTheSun said...

I know I'm late to the party but I have a few thoughts to share on 9/11.

NWO conspiracy theories sky rocketed in popularity after 9/11. So many people were quick to believe that powerful white men were really the ones who orchestrated 9/11 that almost no one realized this reasoning was just whiteness re-centering itself. The idea that a bunch of cave dwelling sand n****** could single handedly bloody the nose of America was too much for even people of color to accept in this country, let alone many white people. Thus the conspiracy theories helped to reorder the world back into a mindset that only white people are powerful enough to conduct such spectacular attack.