Other tribes’ lives matter

I have been fretting, lately, about which if any 2016 presidential candidate will speak up against America’s ongoing campaign of bombing and shooting up predominantly Muslim countries. Gradually, I have resigned myself to the fact that the answer is “no one on the official candidates list.”

This feels just a bit more disappointing, this year, given how much the official list has been gatecrashed. As Ben Norton opined recently, “both hegemonic parties in the U.S. love war,” and any difference is one of hawks vs. warmongers, rather than doves vs. hawks. Yet Bernie Sanders, who is now in a neck-and-neck chase for the Democratic Party’s nomination, is not even a Democrat! If ever there were a year for a breach in support for the military-surveillance complex, it seems like 2016 might be it.

Apparently, not. Norton wrote that within a two-party universe, “Sanders is almost as anti-war as it gets.” But that isn’t very anti-war, it seems.

This quote from an interview has finally confirmed what I’ve suspected for some time, which is that Sanders would basically continue the Obama administration approach. If only by default, this seems to be the overwhelming verdict of the Democratic Party at present: as long as you don’t put enough “boots on the ground” anywhere that people start using the word “war,” the Pentagon, CIA, etc., can pretty much kill whom they want. Over at Slate, Joshua Keating recently made a great point that in the 21st century this is not really a relevant determiner of “at war” vs “not at war.” We should be at least as concerned with drones in the air and bombs on the ground as we are with “boots on the ground.”

For the time being, though, it seems like you might as well be speaking Etruscan as trying to interest people in this. I can share stories like this, this or this, and even say “please,” and even in my own social circle no one pays the least attention. American forces can blow up a fucking hospital, and offer no official reaction besides “oops my bad” … and the debate even among the relatively war-averse party is only about whether or not we should overlook voting for a full-scale illegal invasion and occupation.

And it’s just disappointing that nothing else seems to get through. Maybe most people are ignorant of what’s being done in our name, but on some level this is elective ignorance. Again, the information is in the news, and not just at niche outlets. It just isn’t shouted at people day in and day out from all directions. This is kind of a chicken-and-egg problem, but on some level, there are lots of people who have encountered this information and simply declined to take any notice. I presume that this is largely because murder of “the other” just doesn’t trigger much engagement from the average person.

Look, after all, at arguments over police violence and the Black Lives Matter campaign. Police officers can murder American citizens—English-speaking Americans who live in ordinary American places like Cleveland, Ohio and have cultural practices indistinguishable from any kind of American mainstream identity—and many of the people who do take any notice side with the cops. Presumably for no reason besides the victims having dark skin.

In that context, the fact that there is some growing push back against police brutality and other institutional bias is kind of discouraging as well as encouraging. It’s great that there is an effort, and it’s great that it’s making some inroads against public and official indifference. But the fact that this is a controversy at all is also dispiriting in a larger picture. If it’s still such an uphill battle to reject state violence against American lives, what will ever persuade Americans even to take notice of state violence against people in Pakistan or Yemen or other places most Americans couldn’t even find on a map? American society is obviously still segregated in multiple ways, but we’re nonetheless close-knit family relative to all the ways that the typical taxpayer is distant from the typical drone victim.

What can bridge this? I just don’t know. The only reason I’m not totally hopeless is that, again, the Black Lives Matter campaign has made some inroads, including one or two that are heartening from the perspective of transcending narrow tribalism to find common cause. Black activists seem to have made a real impression on Bernie Sanders—an old white U.S. Senator from Vermont—and this seems to be making a reciprocal positive impression in turn. Given how this dialogue began, in particular, I’m a little amazed that it has become so fruitful.

Maybe, then, there is some hope for further recognition of shared humanity. I’m not going to argue that it’s any oppressed group’s responsibility to be more broadminded—the rebuttal “all lives matter” has with good reason been protested as inappropriate in context. Dominant American culture does have an indifference problem with more than one “other tribe,” however. Knee-jerk violence by “security” forces victimizes members of multiple other groups, and I hope that existing dialogues will find a way to address this and be strengthened by it, not diluted. Maybe, at some point, the whole notion of keeping “us” safe by terrorizing “them” with bullets and and bars and bombs can be subjected to question in mainstream politics, too.

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