Cages: The Intersection of Fear, Race, and Terrorism by Alex Poppe


“What greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical … that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths. It requires … the willingness to speak out for what’s right …” President Barack Obama, Selma Alabama, March 7, 2015.Three days after President Obama’s well-received speech to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, the Supreme Court declined to consider a case concerning videos and photos. According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, these photos and videos prove the torture of Guantanamo Bay prisoner Mohammed al-Qahtani. The Supreme Court claimed the images could threaten national security by stoking anti-American sentiment. I shook my head when I heard the news bulletin: the United States’ official denial of its torturous acts, its reluctance to bring American perpetrators of terror to justice, and the continuation of its terrorist behavior is what stokes anti-American sentiment, no videos or photographs necessary. Unfortunately, justice is willfully, woefully blind. Why is America so afraid to be self-critical?

Noam Chomsky, author and Institute professor emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argues that American society has been a frightened society since colonial times. Therefore, mobilizing people’s fear of “them” is an effective political tool. From its position of privilege, American society does not tolerate criticism. Where does America’s privilege come from?

Drawing on The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward Baptist (Basic Books, 2014), Noam Chomsky reports that the Unites States’ economy, wealth, and privilege derive from the output of slave labor camps, which existed for more than a century. In slave labor camps (otherwise known as plantations), productivity increased more quickly than it did in industry, without any technological advances. Output increased because overseers implemented a “pushing system” of brutal labor management: people were driven harder and harder to increase productivity and, therefore, profit. Edward Baptist argues that slavery’s brutality is and should be called torture. The camps where this torture took place are the foundation of the United States’ wealth and privilege today because cotton production fueled the Industrial Revolution and supported the financial system, the merchant system, and commerce in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Torturing slaves in labor camps, as well as the extermination or expulsion of the native population, is at the core of the United States’ history, argues Mr. Chomsky, but it is not part of the United States’ consciousness. (“Black Lives Matter: Why Won’t the US Own Up to History of Slavery & Racism?” Noam Chomsky, Democracy Now! www.democracynow.org, 3 March 2015. Web. 5, 7, 14, 15 March 2015)

It’s not part of the US’ consciousness because we (I am American) make it so. Our creation narrative characterizes Native Americans as savage and inhumane, completing ignoring their close relationship to nature and their spirituality. Our history books claim that slaves were “well-treated,” at least by some, (middle school text books frequently point to Thomas Jefferson as the example), while market fundamentalists claim slaves were “well-treated” because they were valuable capital. They say nothing about the rape, harsh physical punishment, and murder of slaves. Those who do acknowledge these atrocities relegate them to the past: slaves may have been tortured in slave labor camps/plantations, but that was one hundred and fifty years ago. True, we don’t have slave labor camps today; we have unarmed blacks being shot by police and police forces being armed with military grade weapons such as tanks. Why?

Let’s take a look at the connection between privilege, fear, and terrorism. When you have something of value that others don’t have, you fear “others” taking it away from you. You’re placed on the defensive because you want to hold onto what you have, ill-gotten or not. If Noam Chomsky is correct and American society has been a fearful society since colonial times, this fear may have derived from our usurping the land and burying our guilt in our subconscious. We feared losing the land, our privilege, as much as we feared owning our uncomfortable truth about how the land was acquired. This fear kept us aggressively defensive until we controlled the whole of the country and what was left of the native population had been relegated to a few reservations.

In Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1865-1877 (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, III Edition, 2002), historian Eric Foner explains that during Reconstruction, the concept of equal citizenship was put into US law and the Constitution with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, which added the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. The Civil Rights Act states that anyone born in the US is a citizen, and as a citizen, he (notice the gender specificity) is to enjoy equal civil rights. Before the Civil Rights Act was passed, only whites had civil rights: whiteness was a privilege. Reconstruction caused a violent reaction among some whites: in order to hold onto their privilege, some whites formed groups such as the Ku Klux Klan to restore white supremacy. Foner characterizes this aggression as homegrown terrorism. If man fears his privilege will be taken away, he resorts to preemptive violence to maintain his privilege, which is terrorism.

The United States enjoyed unprecedented world power, which is privilege, after World War II, and its fear of losing this power makes it desperate. Much like the white supremacists after Reconstruction, the US resorts to terrorism in order to hold onto its privilege. I won’t bother cataloguing its list of sins, the historical record speaks for itself. Instead, I want to explore its fear, so let’s talk a bit about addiction.

In Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs (Bloomsbury USA,2015), Johann Hari dissects what we think we know about addiction. Conventional wisdom says addiction is either the result of hedonistic overindulgence or a drug hooking and hijacking you. If you put a rat into a cage and give it two water bottles, one laced with cocaine or heroin and one without, the rat almost always prefers the drugged water and almost always kills itself within a couple of weeks.

What if you change the cage?

Psychologist and professor emeritus from Vancouver, BC, Canada, Bruce Alexander, changed the cage, with startling results. He built Rat Park, which is like heaven for rats. It has food, other rats to be friends with, colored balls and the water bottles — one drugged and one not. In Rat Park, the rats don’t like the drugged water. They hardly drink it; no one overdoses. None of them drink it compulsively or addictively, which means addiction isn’t about hedonism or your brain becoming hooked. It’s about your cage. Addiction is adaptation to your environment. Therefore, Johann Hari argues, to fight addiction you need to change your cage. That is, you need to change your environment.

Citing the work of the Director of the Center for Drug Research at the Faculty of Social and Behavioral Sciences, University of Amsterdam, Professor Peter Cohen, Hari argues that human beings are bonding animals that need to connect and love. We need to have things we want to do, events we want to be present for in our lives, reasons to get out of bed in the morning. Bonding and connecting are how humans find satisfaction. If we can’t connect to one another, we connect to anything we can find. Therefore, addiction is bonding, driven by disconnection. The first cage was devoid of any such purposes or opportunities for connection. The rats became addicted to the drug-laced water because of the isolation which was endemic in their environment not because of the drug. According to Hari, the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety; it is connection. Disconnecting people from society partly explains why Westerners are drawn to jihad. Those in the West who are drawn to jihad become estranged from their community partly because the community brands them as “other,” demonizes Islam or scorns hijabs, while accepting crosses and crucifixes worn in public. As a result, the disconnected look for inclusion/belonging someplace else. Asim Qureshi, research director at CAGE, an independent advocacy organization working to empower communities impacted by the War on Terror, questions, “When are we going to finally learn that when we treat people as if they’re outsiders, they will inevitably feel like outsiders, and they will look for belonging elsewhere?” (“To Deal with ISIS, US Should Own Up to Chaos of Iraq War & Other Radicalizing Acts” Asim Qureshi. Democracy Now! www.democracynow.org. 3 March 2015. Web. 18 March 2015)

Hari also argues that the war on drugs is steeped in human history. He describes it as a symbolic war where we go to war against the embodiment of our fears. We fear our own addictive impulses rising within ourselves and we fear them because we are disconnected. Instead of confronting our fears, we make the fear external and then try to hunt it down and destroy it. He points to the Crusades or the witchcraft crazes as examples.

Is the War on Terror any different?

If we go to war against the embodiment of our fear, and our fear is the fear of losing our privilege, and we fear losing our privilege because we, collectively, unconsciously, know our privilege was ill-gained, shouldn’t the remedy start with acknowledging our uncomfortable truths? We could build museums acknowledging the horrors of slavery (the first is said to be built in Louisiana in the near future) and pay reparations in the form of subsidized housing, funding for job training programs, or free college tuition for black Americans. Most importantly, our police need to stop killing unarmed, black Americans.

Next, the United States government should own its terrorist activities and call its perpetrators at the highest level to account. The US cannot enjoy impunity as it carries out targeted drone strikes on civilians, tortures victims of extraordinary rendition, or arms other sovereign actors’ terrorists. These are the activities which stoke anti-American sentiment. It is doubtful anyone believes in the United States’ democracy-building creation myth anymore.

American society has become militarized under the guise of terrorism. As a result, domestically, more and more black and brown people are being shot and killed by police officers who overreact to street confrontations, which should be handled without excessive force or shooting (Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Miriam Carey, Akai Gurley, recent events in Ferguson, Albuquerque, Cleveland, New York and California). Internationally, the United States has increased its use of drone strikes (Pakistan, Yemen), arms factions which overthrow democratically elected leaders (Ukraine), supports dictators who are politically aligned with US interests (Egypt), and arms other perpetrators of terror at the state level (Israel, Saudi Arabia). The United States is addicted to terror because it fears losing its privilege; its fear makes it pre-emptively violent and its violence terrorizes others. If addiction is adaptation to your environment, to fight terror, the United States needs to acknowledge its addiction to it and then change its cage.

What would that new cage look like?

We would own our wrongdoings and bring our perpetrators to justice. Currently, we live in a culture that severs connection. We have become highly individualistic, hyper-consumers who connect with things, not people. Hari argues that we are trained from an early age to focus our hope and dreams and ambitions on things we can buy and consume. In the wake of the September 11th attacks, President George Bush urged the American public to go out and spend and to support the American economy. Our new cage would have seats at the table for everyone. There would no longer be a fear of “them” because “them” would be “us,” and all of us would have a claim to the table where we fed. Our new cage would encourage a social recovery where we connect to people and not things. In our new cage, no one would be isolated.

You might be tempted to scoff at this utopian cage. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt ushered in the New Deal, it was considered radical at the time. He reasoned, “This country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it, and if it fails, admit it frankly and try another, but above all try something.” In his speech in Selma, President Obama celebrated, “Oh, what a glorious task we are given, to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.” Isn’t it time we tried something new?

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