The Colonial Frontier at Home: Extrajudicial executions, surveillance drones and indefinite military detention

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Predator drone on display at the Reno Air Races. (Photo:

Senate and House negotiators have drafted a final version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) “that includes specific authorization for the use of long-term indefinite detention without trial.” The hullabaloo surrounding the NDAA relates entirely around the fact that U.S. citizens can too be targeted for military detention without trial. This distress that we might do unto ourselves what we do to ‘others’ privileges Americans as sole possessors of certain rights, such as the right to not be held in indefinite military detention. Perhaps this will shine some further light on what we do ‘There’ now that we’ll be doing it ‘Here’ as well.

The U.S. has used indefinite detention throughout the last decade against foreign nationals kidnapped from the streets of Europe, captured in Iraq, and sold into prison bondage in rural Afghanistan and Pakistan. The NDAA adds a slightly new dimension to this by authorizing such actions against U.S. citizens. This should be seen in the same light as the extrajudicial executions in Yemen of U.S. citizens Anwar al-Awlaki, Samir Khan and Abdul Rahman Anwar Awlaki, and the increasing domestic deployment of surveillance drones. These all share an important element: they are practices of the U.S. Empire in its frontier regions that are being brought home, what Michel Foucault called the ‘boomerang effect’ about which I wrote recently.

U.S. capital punishment policy too has shifted during the Global War on Terror (GWOT). Adding the minimum estimate of those purposefully killed just in Pakistan by drone strike to the judicial executions carried out in the U.S., over 78% of executions carried out since the campaign of drone strikes began have been done so extra-judicially. The extrajudicial has become normal while the judicial has become the anomaly. When al-Awlaki, Khan, and Awlaki were extra-judicially executed in September and October this removed the last distinction between who gets executed judicially, and who gets executed extra-judicially. Since 2004, the U.S. now executes foreign nationals judicially (9, 131 others on death row, plus five more facing capital charges in military tribunals), foreign nationals extra-judicially (between 1,424 and 2,209 executed in Pakistan alone), U.S. citizens judicially (383), and U.S. citizens extra-judicially (the three mentioned above). U.S. citizens still tend to be executed judicially. But when judicial executions are a small minority of the total (and those numbers do not count executions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and count only three in Yemen) and U.S. citizens can also be executed the newly normal way, extra-judicially, this tendency is less significant than it used to be.

Surveillance drones are another import from the colonial frontier. The U.S. first integrated drones into the battlefield in the 1990 invasion of Iraq. But the U.S. drone arsenal has come into its own in the interim period. Drones are deployed in increasingly large numbers as part of a surveillance regime intended to allow near instantaneous target identification and engagement, no matter the military’s distance to the battlefield. Or better put, the use of drones as persistent surveillance and targeting mechanisms – an ever increasing number of which are also armed themselves – takes the battlefield to wherever the drones are at any given moment. As drones, operating personnel, and data processing software increase their coverage, everywhere becomes part of the battlefield.

These drones are now working inside the United States too. Drone deployments started in 2004 with border surveillance in Arizona and have slowly been migrating into the interior (this would likely have happened faster but for the Federal Aviation Administration moving slowly to address how drones should move through the busy U.S. airspace). Houston, Miami, and other police departments have all investigated acquiring drones. The Montgomery County Sheriff’s department in Texas recently bought a ShadowHawk drone for police use. Sheriff Tommy Gage, attempting to address privacy concerns, said, “We’re not going to use it to be invading somebody’s privacy. It’ll be used for situations we have with criminals.” Sherrif Gage explicitly mentioned intercepting drugs shipments as one use for the ShadowHawk. The GWOT morphs into the War on Drugs, with all the implications for race, class and incarceration that come with it.

North Dakota offers a more disturbing development. The Nelson County Sheriff’s Department has used two Predator drones from Grand Forks Air Force Base to fly “at least two dozen surveillance flights since June.” The Posse Comitatus Act bars the military from police actions on U.S. soil but it apparently does not prevent the use of military technology housed on military bases from participating in police actions.

How indefinite military detentions for U.S. citizens will be carried out is still in question. But the law is coming, the Obama Administration on Wednesday withdrew its threatened veto of the NDAA removing the only remaining obstacle outside the court system. Indefinite military detention is an escalation of the vast round ups of Muslims, Arabs and South Asians throughout the U.S. after 9/11. We should make no mistake as to against whom these practices will be used. Protestors and dissidents – and even ‘normal’ citizens on the rare occasion – might feel some of the weight of the drone surveillance, extrajudicial executions, and indefinite military detention. But we can expect that these will be mostly deployed against groups that are already targeted, the Arab and Muslim communities, undocumented migrants (or those profiled as such), and poor communities of color. It is those groups who are already on tenuous footing against whom ‘controversial’ forms of social control are used.

It is precisely their unpopularity and perceived threat – the systemic discriminations by which we make ‘others’ – that allows this. It’s easy to speak out against extrajudicial executions. It’s hard to speak out in defense al-Awlaki’s. It’s easy to say you don’t like the drone surveillance. It’s hard to argue for the rights of ‘illegal’ border crossers who will be watched by drones. It’s easy to argue for basic legal rights like habeus corpus. It’s hard to demand the release of detainees linked to ‘terrorism’. But those supposedly linked to terrorism are most often simply guilty of being Arab, South Asian or Muslim, sometimes holding unpopular political opinions.. Those watched by the Border Patrol here in Detroit, mostly with cars rather than drones to date, are most often citizens and legal residents who are Brown. These structures of racism and are those which will guide the deployment of Empire’s practices at home.

And it is precisely because we did not argue forcefully when the U.S. first deployed these practices on the distant frontiers of Empire that we will now encounter them at home. It’s quite likely that White supremacy and class privilege will shield a large segment of the U.S. population from this. Police brutality is, by and large, seen as abnormal by privileged groups and as structural by those on the end of the nightstick. This boomerang effect will probably be similar The excluded, the unpopular, the disenfranchised, the ‘other’ will bear the brunt of the burden. From the frontiers of Empire to the domestic frontiers of capitalism and White supremacy.

The Weather Underground carried out high-profile bombings in the 1970s to ‘bring the war home’ as an act of protest against U.S. imperial policies in Southeast Asia. No such militant resistance does the same today. Instead it is the Empire itself ‘bringing the war home.’

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extreme measures of repression call for what? popular resistance, that’s what. but how? well, taking a page from ww ii’s danish resistance to nazi persecution of jews (the king of denmark calling upon all danes to wear a star of david as an expression of solidarity with their jewish brethren), what if every freedom and justice loving american expressed her/his opposition to this thought controlling national defense authorization bill by publicly stating (online &/or elsewhere)… Read more »

First, they came for the “terrorists”…, as Martin Niemöller would say. Will we all be fooled by the mass murderers again, and then, 30 years later, our children and grand-children vow to “never again” let injustice happen, as they stand above the mass graves where their parents lie? Do we think we are any safer then the people of Germany when they thought that “I will be fine as long as I don’t try to… Read more »

. . . Much later I would come across the words of a German university professor who described to journalist Milton Mayer what it had been like under the Nazis in the 1930s: To live in the process is absolutely not to notice it — please try to believe me — unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so… Read more »

JJ: “From the frontiers of Empire to the domestic frontiers of capitalism and White supremacy.” I didn’t realise the KKK was running those drones. As far as I can tell, Paul is the only candidate likely to ground them, or indeed end the Empire. It sure isn’t going to be Obama doing either. But Paul’s unacceptable to you, so despite the dire warnings in your post other things must be more important to you. That… Read more »