The Law’s Curse

Today’s mantra is: we must restore law and order. But without backing that mandate with an intelligent targeting of failing areas, of those areas in need of extra resources or attention, the illusion soon spreads that there is no law and order whatsoever anywhere (“an environment of lawless chaos”), and that a heavy-handed intervention must be made, since terror threatens every doorstep. In this way, every public space is rendered a potential check-point or quarantined area, but without any actual necessity to the excessive surveillance, save to assuage inflated fears that a grave danger is imminent.

The “restoration” of order then amounts to the chaos of police harassment. The enforcement of the law loses its social rationality and becomes a curse upon anyone. For Mr. Rousso, a man who has traveled to the states for decades to lecture, everything was perfectly “in order” until, for no reason other than a visa technicality, he was suddenly a suspect who needed to be interrogated, fingerprinted, body-searched, sequestered, and almost returned to his country a hand-cuffed illegal alien. Because of the broad stroke of this order for order–of this appeal to apply the law unconditionally and thus to extend its curse indiscriminately–a Holocaust scholar can appear to the authorities as a national securty threat, as someone not to be trusted, who will need the backing of lawyers, university officials, and other experts to escape the grip of the law’s suspicion. But let’s just ask: even if his visa was wrong, who actually cares? No one could conceivably think that his visit would harm someone. It is even conceivable that a country would be lenient in such circumstances, since in a way it is lucky to have smart people who want to travel to it to educate its people. The least it could do is let them earn a few bucks without having to jump through tons of bureaucratic hoops to get here. But what we have instead is the erection of a wall for the sake of its erection, regardless of whether or not it’s efficient or rational or humane to erect it. Not only is it needless, stressful, and a waste of time and labor, but it sets a precedent of unkindliness and mistrust. Who will want to visit this country if they know that, instead of being welcomed, they’ll be harassed?

In daily life, everyone relies on the fact that the law will not be enforced in an absolute manner without any flexibility. Most citizens confronted by the police try to soften the situation with excuses and other pleas. They appeal to the humanity in the policeperson behind the badge. Everyone knows that society runs better when it is based on mutual understanding (faith) and not strict adherence to rules (legalism). But when an unspecific edict comes down from the President, and when he himself incessantly exaggerates the level of the threat (remember, there have been no terrorists attacks by refugees from any of the countries named under the travel ban), what results is “unexperienced” cops like the one involved in this story getting a rush out of carrying out extermination orders. This reflects a State that is filled with paranoia, that lacks any measured perspective of the facts. Recall also the Australian illustrator of children’s books, Mem Fox, who was detained for hours in Los Angeles (border officials later apologized), or the recent NY Times story about Juan Pacheco, a pillar of his community in Illinois, beloved by everyone for many years, who is now being threatened with deportation–even though none of his fellow citizens actually want him to be deported. Should we be a country that says, “Tough shit, those are the rules”? The stance, in practice, is hypocritical: people shout for the rule of law to be applied when it comes to others, but when their own infractions are at stake they would love for an exception to be made, for some mercy to be shown or–miracle of miracles–that the cop might change his mind about the arrist, the court might forget about the case, the prosecutor might drop all charges, and leave us back to our lives.

When the application of the law wins out over human consideration, you can be sure that the law is no longer within the scope of its purpose, which should be to mediate disputes only when all other options have failed (see Luke 12:57-59). Instead, law has become an excuse for violence and for the exertion of police sovereignty as the first and best option. It becomes a tool in the hand of authorities who, being the executors of the law, would like to convince people that without the law, and thus without them, they would be doomed.

Yes, the State refuses to come to clarity about what the real threats to security are. And yes, it is discriminatory in its framing of that problem (e.g., little mention of right-wing terrorism, inflation of the threat from Muslims). But more deeply, it misunderstands that a country based in nothing but “law and order” (and I take this broadly to include the rule of capitalism too) does not constitute a world or a culture, but a prison-camp. Put it this way: under the law, strictly speaking, there is no opportunity, no surprise, no future, but only retribution, revenge, the settling of scores, the setting-straight of the record, the refutation of liars, the proving of villians. There is only an eye to past identities, past grievances, past hatreds–so much so that new animosity can be fabricated on the spot, as if it should have been there already. There is only a definition of things according to a general, indifferent, robotic language, which sees categories and rap-sheets rather than souls and faces. Once that language is used to view all events and persons, only the nastiest kind of social sclerosis can insue. It will undoubtedly lead to a collective heart attack if the process is not somehow reversed. That of course will require a different form of politics than today’s, which conspires to produce emergencies and hold the people in a state of constant fear, tension and paralysis.

The State believes it is defending the “national interest,” when in fact it has had no meditation upon what those national interests actually are, partially because it insists upon being selective about who should benefit from its spoils. It will deconstruct branches of the government, increase surveillance of citizens, shut down funding for the arts, eliminate welfare programs and healthcare benefits, set up barriers for foreigners to come to the country, censor or block media outlets, criminalize protesting–all in the name of security and patriotism. But to sacrifice these liberties of free speech, free movement, free time and free participation is to sacrifice everything American about America–or at least whatever about it was *futural* and not merely nostalgic for some imagined social purity and former “greatness.” This is why Mr. Rousso says that America has already lost something of its spirit of openness, of adventure, welcome, and curiosity. If it does not somehow reawaken that spirit, it will no doubt lose itself even more in petty in-fighting and protectionism, risking the outbreak of suicidal wars (civil or global). Along the way, sadly, many may lose themselves too, so much so that they no longer even remember what is dead: that although this is a country of laws, its greater aspiration has always been to be a country of freedoms. And doesn’t freedom begin by freeing itself from the binds of whichever law?

Paul once said famously, “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” The next sentence is not usually quoted, but it is just as essential, “If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other” (Galations 5:14-15). When it comes to the question of law and order, it is our duty to ask which of these two extremes it should sustain. If destruction, there will be death and division, cynicism and segregration forever. But if love, there is a chance for trust among strangers and clemency for all to prevail. The choice here is between assault and decency–between an interminable legal proceeding obsessing over past differences, and a future that fulfills the law by suspending its application, redeeming us from its curse.

Relevant links:
— Agamben on Police Sovereignty: http://brotherwisedispatch.blogspot.de/…/sovereign-police-b…
— Agamben on Security State: http://autonomies.org/…/from-the-state-of-law-to-the-secur…/
— Badiou on Democracy and Corruption: http://www.versobooks.com/…/1521-democracy-and-corruption-a…

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