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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.’

Jimmy Johnson
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Jimmy Johnson lives in Detroit with his books and bad habits. Get at him @aus3rn4me.

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41 Responses

  1. yourstruly
    yourstruly on December 20, 2011, 2:10 pm

    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) that which is verboten; for example, “i hereby express my solidarity with the palestinian people in their struggle to regain their homeland, palestine, from the jewish settlers who have stolen it, even if this means negotiating with hamas”, &/or “I join with other patriotic* americans who oppose going to war against iran and favor immediate peace negotiations as per republican presidential candidate ron paul’s recent statements”, &/or “given that that my own government isn’t serious about peace, i’d be willing to participate in person to person peace negotiations with the taliban, the better that there be no war no more, never, nowhere.” in other words, mass violation of this f——fascist law, such that, let them try to incarcerate every protester.

    *patriotic, as per mark twain’s “patriotism is supporting your country all the time and your government when it deserves it.

    • annie
      annie on December 20, 2011, 2:24 pm

      for example, “i hereby express my solidarity with the palestinian people

      people could conduct wedding ceremonies saying their vows in public.

  2. Jimmy Johnson
    Jimmy Johnson on December 20, 2011, 2:39 pm

    @yourstruly – Mass incarceration of Arabs and Muslims in the United States has already been done. There is no significant taboo against it, no matter its dubious constitutionality. You say, “let them try” but we already did let them try, and they did (right after Sept. 11, 2001). Second, to reiterate, it’s not protestors who will face this first (if they ever do), but groups that are already being targeted with wide support from the US populace through the criminalization of certain behaviors and practices, as well as the projection onto others who fit certain stereotypes.

    Second, wrapping it up in patriotism only exacerbates the problem by accepting such discourse as legitimate, Twain’s version notwithstanding. Third, Ron Paul is the worst, worst, worst candidate of the entire lot. He doesn’t like aid to Israel? Is against attacking Iran? Great. Me too. But free market fundamentalism would be devastating on a scale that would easily exceed an attack on Iran, even if he could only implement it partially.

    • yourstruly
      yourstruly on December 20, 2011, 2:56 pm

      i agree with your critique of free market fundamentalism, cited ron paul’s position on israel/iran as a kind of short-hand approach, since most mw viewers know it. free market fundamentalism for sure would be devastating, but more than an attack on iran? not so sure about that, considering an iran war’s possiblities of bringing on ww iii. and, yes, the terms of this ndaa bill already are in effect against arabs/muslims, but the increased number of incarcerations made possible by this law opens the door for mass civil disobedience on a scale that hasn’t been seen in this country since the vietnam war. as for patriotism exacerbating the problem? face it, patriotism is here to stay, we resisters take it, fascists can’t use it, simple as that.

      • Jimmy Johnson
        Jimmy Johnson on December 20, 2011, 3:13 pm

        @ yourstruly – Think of the environmental catastrophe from Paul’s desire to get out of the way of big business as one example of the catastrophic nature of his policies. As for patriotism, it’s an ugly thing. Would you say the same thing, “if we resisters take it, fascists can’t use it” about a different oppressive social structure, like sexism or racism? To paraphrase, ‘if we corner the market on racism, the racists won’t be able to use it.’ Patriotism/nationalism is different than racism so I wouldn’t try to stretch the comparison very far, but I don’t see eye to eye with you on this.

      • yourstruly
        yourstruly on December 20, 2011, 3:24 pm

        sexism & racism are inherently evil/harmful with no mitigating factors. patriotism/nationalism not invariably. the soviet union, for example, using patriotism in fighting the german invaders. contesting the america right or wrong bullies for who’s the real patriot? how will that not help the resistance to tyranny in america?

      • yourstruly
        yourstruly on December 20, 2011, 3:34 pm

        not sure why but you’re beating a horse (ron paul’s market economy stuff) that i never meant to ride, said as much. was speaking only about his take on u.s. involvement in military escapades. so there’s no difference between us on this issue.

      • Jimmy Johnson
        Jimmy Johnson on December 20, 2011, 3:50 pm

        Such discussions are important but message boards are ridiculous places for conversations. Communication is almost impossible.

      • Dan Crowther
        Dan Crowther on December 20, 2011, 3:55 pm

        I agree with Jimmy here. As Ive said on previous posts, I believe Pauls views on “free markets” are a distortion of what enlightenment thinkers like Smith and Ricardo actually meant.

      • yourstruly
        yourstruly on December 20, 2011, 9:04 pm

        given that patriotism can be the last refuge of the scoundrel, admittedly it would be better to appeal to our more egalitarian instincts, rather than resorting to such a corruptible precept as patriotism. but if by our laying claim to being the true patriots we can seal the deal, can we afford to turn down such an opportunity, given that perpetual war + global warming = doomsday, and time running out?

      • Citizen
        Citizen on December 21, 2011, 6:52 am

        Ron Paul came out directly against the crumbling of our basic civil rights via the Homeland Security Act and its add-ons, in the Iowa debate a few day sago. I don’t know why anyone here thinks he does not strongly support every protection afforded by our Constitution–he does not think we now have a war in our back yard that justifies the erosion of our rights as individual citizens.

    • kapok
      kapok on December 20, 2011, 6:10 pm

      Perhaps Paul will abolish the military in favour of private contractors.

      • Dan Crowther
        Dan Crowther on December 20, 2011, 7:15 pm

        Thats actually part of the anarcho capitalist model. private police, private armies, private courts etc.

        yea, that sounds like something that would work well…….ummm….

      • Citizen
        Citizen on December 21, 2011, 6:55 am

        Ron Paul has explicitly spelled out he is not an anarcho capitalist. He is a proponent of volunteerism.

      • Dan Crowther
        Dan Crowther on December 21, 2011, 8:27 am

        he might not be a anarcho capitalist, but alot of the Zi-RON-ists are…..thats my new term for the Paul heads…. unquestioning support of the “movement” which in this case takes a human form. Leader worship, in other words….

  3. Justice Please
    Justice Please on December 20, 2011, 2:58 pm

    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 stop my mass murdering government”?

    • yourstruly
      yourstruly on December 20, 2011, 3:16 pm

      we let the mass murderers do their thing again, and then, 30 years later, our children won’t have time to be standing above their parents mass graves. instead, on account of perpetual wars and global warming, they’ll be tied up doing whatever it takes to survive, and, at the same time worrying about which of their own children will be the one who’ll have to answer the call, “will the last one out please turn off the lights.”

    • lysias
      lysias on December 20, 2011, 3:24 pm

      It happened way earlier than the Nazis. When the Thirty Tyrants seized power in Athens, first they went after the universally despised sycophants. Only after that did they go after lots of perfectly respectable people, including even members of the Thirty.

    • Les
      Les on December 20, 2011, 9:32 pm

      We would like to imagine that the trial of Bradley Manning is part of Germany’s history under the Nazis.

  4. Les
    Les on December 20, 2011, 5:51 pm

    . . .

    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 small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted.’. . .

    Believe me this is true. Each act, each occasion is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for one shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join you in resisting somehow.. . .

    Suddenly it all comes down, all at once. You see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately, what you haven’t done (for that was all that was required of most of us: that we did nothing). You remember those early meetings of your department in the university when, if one had stood, others would have stood, perhaps, but no one stood. A small matter, a matter of hiring this man or that, and you hired this one rather than that. You remember everything now, and your heart breaks. Too late. You are compromised beyond repair.

    . . .

    But one thing is for certain, time is running out. When you have a Democratic President supporting military incarceration without any constitutional protection, you don’t have many friends left. This is not just a difference in ideology; it is two Americas.

    And we may not even get a next time in which to know better how to do it.
    . . .

    • Citizen
      Citizen on December 21, 2011, 7:04 am

      Les, you are right. What will Obama not do to gain a second term? If he did not sign the American detention bill, the GOP would cry out he’s soft on terrorism, not only abroad, but here at home. Americans have access to a lot of information if they care to look; they are not limited to a government-peddled radio with one station that delivers only propaganda.

      • Les
        Les on December 21, 2011, 12:30 pm

        I would only add that the trial of Bradley Manning for revealing war crimes could be understood by Americans if it were taking place in Nazi Germany.

    • Justice Please
      Justice Please on December 21, 2011, 12:54 pm

      Les, that was exactly what I meant too with my Niemöller comment. Great quote.

  5. libra
    libra on December 20, 2011, 6:14 pm

    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 being the case, do you have any voting recommendations?

    • Citizen
      Citizen on December 21, 2011, 7:07 am

      Libra, I agree with you, and would like to hear who all our anti-Paul candidates will vote for since they think Ron Paul’s stance is such a giant net evil.

      • marc b.
        marc b. on December 21, 2011, 9:27 am

        citizen, i am seriously contemplating not voting for a presidential candidate at all. isn’t your vote just validating a corrupt system? i’d like to see about 10% participation. maybe then people will ask real questions about the nature of the current political climate.

      • on December 21, 2011, 9:55 am

        you may as well dig a hole in the ground and wait for a miracle.

      • MRW
        MRW on December 21, 2011, 10:35 am

        marc b,

        When has it not been corrupt? When you don’t vote, you abdicate your judgment to those who would use the vote, and designed apathy, against you.

        Far better to have 90% voter participation, a rarity in this country except in a crisis.

      • Citizen
        Citizen on December 21, 2011, 11:00 am

        Even if the 90% voter participation was guided mostly by the dumb-downed TV ads the Zionists and Corporations can spend by far the most on.

      • marc b.
        marc b. on December 21, 2011, 11:27 am

        mrw, i believe that we are poised at one of those historical moments, like the onset of the great depression. the level of corporate influence, ‘bundling’, etc. is unprecedented. if the options are obama and romney, for example, i will exercise my right not to choose either. as for paul, i agree with his non-interventionist stance, but find his randian philosophy on domestic politics to be repugnant.

        let’s assume for a second that obama and romney are the nominees, and paul is polling between 15-18% as an independent in the hours before election day: who are you going to vote for and why?

      • marc b.
        marc b. on December 21, 2011, 11:31 am

        or let’s assume that the nominees are obama and newt, with paul pulling the same numbers, and conventional wisdom is that votes for paul (‘anti-war’ voters who would have likely otherwise voted democratic) will help newt get elected. what will you do then?

    • Jimmy Johnson
      Jimmy Johnson on December 21, 2011, 1:40 pm

      @ Libra – White supremacy is a political, social and cultural structure. Sometimes its called racism but most people use racism to describe any bigotry, even if that bigotry does not have structural power. Neo-nazis, David Duke, the KKK, etc., these are merely crude articulations of White supremacy.

      Lasting progressive political gains have been made through grassroots organizing regardless of who was in elected office (as a quick study in this, the same Democratic Congress that denied voting rights to Black Mississippi delegates at their convention passed the Civil Rights Act, change came in spite of the political leanings of those in power). Even if Ron Paul would be tolerable, which he is not despite the glossy-eyed adoration of some supposedly anti-war folks, his election would not prevent the next president from continuing with the current policies. A change in political culture is needed. I don’t care who you vote for, probably the lesser of whichever evil makes sense, I probably won’t vote for president myself. But I won’t spend a second of my time advocating for a candidate. That’s the opposite of progress. Organize, organize, organize, then it don’t matter who is in office. Like Nixon, they simply won’t have a choice.

      • libra
        libra on December 21, 2011, 2:34 pm

        JJ: “White supremacy is a political, social and cultural structure.”

        I think you mean construction, as in your own political construction. Because you have crudely labelled as “White supremacy” something which I would regard as it’s opposite i.e. “multiculturalism” which is tantamount to the secular state religion in such currently aggressive countries as the US and UK.

        Indeed, it’s this self-righteous multiculturalism which is so dangerous. In its self-regarding moral superiority it seems to recognise no borders, either geographic or moral to its “right” (indeed obligation as in R2P) to intervene around the globe.

        Now, you may think this is just a sophisticated cover for “White supremacy” but I don’t think so. Certainly the elite are currently largely “white” but I don’t think it is in a tribal sense, though as endlessly discussed here at Mondoweiss, one component of the elite is very tribal and very well-served by “multiculturalism”.

      • Jimmy Johnson
        Jimmy Johnson on December 21, 2011, 2:53 pm

        Clearly I disagree.

      • Dan Crowther
        Dan Crowther on December 21, 2011, 3:05 pm

        wow, me too.

        the zi-ron-ists are a cult. there is no rational argument you can give these people…..

      • libra
        libra on December 21, 2011, 3:46 pm

        DC: “the zi-ron-ists are a cult. there is no rational argument you can give these people…..”

        Dan, you really are being stupid tying Ron Paul supporters to Zionism. And you are quite wrong to imagine I am one of his uncritical fans. But I do see him as the only candidate who would change US foreign policy and avert a possible war with Iran. In my list of priorities, that takes top place.

        By the way, if you also think drone-loving Obama is a “White supremacist” then you have really lost it.

      • Jimmy Johnson
        Jimmy Johnson on December 21, 2011, 4:13 pm

        @ Libra – Again, White supremacy is a political, cultural and social structure. Look at the wealth gap (, the incarceration gap (, etc. These are not due to neo-nazis and the KKK, who embrace a crudely articulated version of White supremacism. And if you think these are due to some fantasy of a multicultural society that has yet to exist then I know a guy in Norway you’d get along with. The problem is systemic, sometimes in spite of individuals who help govern it.

      • Dan Crowther
        Dan Crowther on December 22, 2011, 1:10 pm


        Im not tying the two – I just think there are similarities. Reflexive, unquestioning support of a movement taking the masses to a utopia. I see this trait in both zionists and ron paul fanatics…..

        Im all for no more war, but Paul plans to declare war on Americans with his economic ideas. 1 trillion from the budget year one. That will kill people. Your still killing people, Libra.

      • Citizen
        Citizen on December 22, 2011, 10:00 pm

        Odd, Dan C, coming from you, who has here on MW declared yourself a hardcore socialist and “RED.” We view Ron Paul as standing for the odd notion America should not be worshipping the MIC Ike warned us about, and standing with G Washington against enmeshment with a foreign country, especially a rogue one: Israel. No other candidate stands firmly, or even weakly, on those two feet. Paul’s domestic stances, while not providing enough safety net for the disadvantaged in our country, are small potatoes in comparison. Endless wars around the world in behalf the 1% & Israel is a greater harm to Americans and the world.

  6. libra
    libra on December 21, 2011, 4:43 pm

    JJ, it’s you who has chosen to stamp a racial tag on what is happening in the western world today. If you think it will change by making the western world, especially the US, less “white” then you are deluded. In fact, quite the contrary. As the US becomes ever more demographically diverse it is becoming ever more aggressive internationally.

    I agree we are faced with a systemic problem. But to better understand what is going on we not only need to step outside traditional left-right politics but also to stop clinging to outmoded racial thinking. Believe me, the current power structure is not going to be worried by being accused of “white supremacy”.

  7. Jimmy Johnson
    Jimmy Johnson on December 22, 2011, 12:57 pm

    Like I said, there’s a guy in Norway who agrees with you.

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