Pick Up the Stone: The American Way of Vengeance

Pick Up the Stone: The American Way of Vengeance

Pick Up the Stone: The American Way of Vengeance

The line from defeat in Afghanistan to deputizing bounty hunters in Texas can be traced in blood—and history.


Vengeance is mine,” saith the Lord, and for this reason there is a peculiar perversity to the spectacle of fanatical Christians embracing vigilantism and de facto bounty hunting to “save the children,” punish the women, avenge the fetuses consigned by law to limbo ever since Roe v. Wade allowed women a measure of bodily autonomy in 1973. The Lord, after all, did not say, “Vengeance is yours; go get ’em!”

The fundamentalists and their opportunistic secular brethren, for whom oppression has always been primarily a political organizing project, are not unused to playing God, but with the Texas law they have abandoned even the trappings of civic petition for a refinement on freelance violence. Today’s enraged righteous might not get to bomb abortion clinics, shoot down or physically threaten doctors and other workers, as their coreligionists have since the 1990s. But there is more than one way to pick up the stone. The rock is in a million hands—legally this time. We’re not so far removed from Afghanistan, after all.

And yet, notwithstanding Justice Sonya Sotomayor’s vehement dissent to the Supreme Court’s ruling on the law, what seems a departure from legal and political norms is really an extension.

Courts consider cases in light of their particulars, legal process, and precedent; hence Sotomayor’s ire and the Justice Department’s new challenge. But law or abortion—or anything, actually—doesn’t exist in such a tight box; it exists in, and is shaped by, the flows and eddies of culture. That bears remembering, because for decades now what has suffused the common law of the culture, the reigning ideas and practices indulged across the political spectrum, is the thrill of revenge—along with an accommodation to what we don’t call vigilantism but which bears its stink.

The coincidence of this latest battle in “the culture wars” with the 20th anniversary of the War on Terror is more than an accident of the calendar. Talk about picking up the stone… Marred as this year’s commemoration of the 9/11 attack was by recriminations for the US defeat in Afghanistan, the essential features of the ritual—the God-bothering, the claims of unique suffering, the beams of pure blue light piercing the night sky—again reinscribed the idea of America as innocent victim who deserved to be avenged. The bloodletting across the globe that officially began September 20, 2001, had many causes beyond the suffering and death on 9/11: imperial fantasies, beclouded imaginations, fear, corruption, money, and the opportunities war presents for greasing many wheels. But the reason proffered to the public always played to Americans’ sense of virtue: the victim-nation would make the world safe, secure justice for its dead—and free Afghani girls, to boot.

How easily vengeance was called justice. The declaration seemed so bold, but only because shreds of decorum prevented a more brutal honesty. Bush and Cheney could hardly have told the people: “Look, Smedley Butler was right: War is a racket. Halliburton is on the line!” Working alongside the regular armed forces, private contractors and subcontractors supplied mercenaries, translators, and torturers. They supplied services and equipment that were shoddy or worse. They reorganized Abu Ghraib as an American prison in Iraq, and supplied spoiled food that sickened US soldiers and prisoners alike. They assisted the CIA’s metastasis into a shadow army and torture operation. And they’ve profited mightily ever since.

That public-private vengeance campaign was prosecuted under a wisp of law—and by kidnapping, by rendition to foreign dungeons, by deals with local death squads, by bounties, by drone, by Republicans and Democrats. Legitimized violence, contract violence, freelance violence, they all have rubbed shoulders. Presidents weren’t vigilantes, exactly; they had legal memorandums and special exceptions devised by their hirelings, if not a formal declaration of war. Yet in the Oval Office they became Dirty Harry. Bush kept kill lists. Obama expanded the geographic kill zone. He invited The New York Times to report how he picked targets for assassination every Tuesday, and to advertise his moral agita. “Turns out I’m really good at killing people,” he is said to have told his staff. Under Bush, Saddam Hussein was hanged by the puppet Iraqi government at a joint military base called Camp Justice. Obama had Osama bin Laden executed rather than arrested and then pronounced:

Justice has been done…. tonight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to…. we can do these things not just because of wealth or power, but because of who we are: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Pick up the stone… “We will not forgive. We will not forget,” Biden said, shortly before a US drone fired a missile at a car full of children in Afghanistan on August 29, killing them and the adults nearby, 10 civilians in all, as the US army beat its final retreat.

The United States didn’t need 9/11 or the War on Terror to become vengeful, or to outsource havoc round the world, or to prod Americans into public-private exercises of cruelty and call it good. History groans with our pretenses to innocence. Now that the war is soundly lost (though hardly over), and we clearly cannot do “whatever we set our mind to,” we confront, again, the prospect of derangement in defeat.

And so full circle to the Texas law, a pivot point, coming as it does in the wake of one lost war while rooted in the political backlash that defined the aftermath of the first major defeat, in Vietnam.

Pick up the stone… Someone had to pay. Back then, anti-war and civil rights actions that made the connections between systems of oppression had bloomed into a bouquet of movements that saw the beginnings of fundamental change reaching into every institution of America. Who knew that these advances were also creating an opportunity for the right? A new power base would be built from new threats with a new story line. “Save the unborn!” cried holy warriors, caring nothing for the born, exploiting every opening in Roe’s spongey reasoning to constrain women’s autonomy legally, and stoking the violent passions that would, at their extralegal extreme, lead to hit lists and blood. “Save our children!” cried those same warriors bent on strangling the post-Stonewall gay rights baby in its cradle. Their leader, an orange juice pitchwoman and former beauty queen, sang “Glory, glory, hallelujah” rallying voters to deny homosexuals civil rights, while vice squads raided cruising spots around the country and entrapped gay men and teenagers. “Save the family!” cried legions of women organized to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment, roused by the specter of loneliness, lost status, and unisex public lavatories. Their leader, an anticommunist hawk, didn’t believe any of it; she recognized a ripe constituency that would support Ronald Reagan and, willy-nilly, a proxy army in the Hindu Kush that brought on bin Laden and the collapse of the Twin Towers.

Black people and poor people paid the most. The war on crime, the War on Drugs, the roundups of young black men, prison as a rite of passage. The war on sex, on porno and sex workers and single mothers. Liberal politicians joined the vengeance game partly to capture the flag from the right, partly out of a futile politics of accommodation, partly out of their own prejudices. Clinton’s end of “welfare as we know it” also meant the forced contraception of women receiving public benefits, and shackles clapped on pregnant women addicted to crack. Panic begot legislation by pitchfork. Spineless Democrats, caving to religious fanatics, passed the Defense of Marriage Act. Although sex-crazed strangers had been killing children for centuries, an extreme rarity, devastated parents forced a series of laws named for their dead children, which with every iteration have elaborated and expanded the machinery of punishment. That machinery has so transformed criminal prosecutors into advocates for aggrieved individuals or their families under the banner of victims’ rights that collectively we no longer remember why the state still claims to be representing “the people.”

Through it all there were real social dislocations and real fears, real frustrations and harms and material effects that were almost never honestly addressed, and real resistance. But bookended as we are at this moment between two imperial defeats—Vietnam and Afghanistan—it’s clear how much punch the idea of Victim America has had. All this and still we’re not safe? No wonder people pick up a gun, or a stone.

The Texas state guardians of fetal heartbeats abdicate responsibility not only for the people—the society of beating hearts from whose consent the government ostensibly derives its power—but for their own law enforcement. Of course, they’re cynical, as are the justices whose failure to enjoin a law designed to evade federal review undermines their very reason for being. All of which suggests that either abortion is a threat to the republic so grave that the Supreme Court might slash its own wrists to stop it—or this is really about something else.

Pick up the stone… “Remember the Ladies,” Abigail Adams wrote her husband, John, shortly before the founding fathers threw them out of “We the People.” Abigail insisted, “Your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical,” but John’s response—“We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems”—admits that patriarchal subjugation is a choice. Like offensive war. Like the police state. Like stoning women literally or figuratively. If oppression were immutable in men’s nature, why would anyone resist? (And why would women join in the fun?)

But just because something is a choice doesn’t mean that persistent tutelage can’t make it seem like nature. Imperial aspirants and their cultural appendages have historically had to work at welding “masculinity” to glorified violence and disdain for womanish things. (Even now, China’s government is campaigning against “sissies” and conscious slackers to man up for its future as global top dog.) Part of the 1960s counterculture was a rejection of that tutelage. Though halting and not without contradictions, the changes were destabilizing to some men who’d identified with male headship, militarism, and brutalizing work—especially once women rebelled, Vietnam was lost, and industrial jobs disappeared. All the reasons these guys might feel “stiffed”— in Susan Faludi’s term—could be buried in payback for the Feminazis who’d magically turned them into girly men, forcing them to be bottoms. In the right-wing culture war paradigm, all routes to male emancipation led to Fight Club—right on up to January 6 and the explosion of vigilantes (overwhelmingly men) screaming “Where’s Nancy?” as they clobbered cops with flag poles.

They were losers. It seems important to underscore that. Losers who’d been promised that they would “get so tired of winning.” Now they and their cohort have been enlisted in another battle, to spy on their neighbors, snitch on their kin, pick up the stone. It’s not very dignified. In common parlance, people engaged in such activity aren’t soldiers but rats. Dignity, though, and even “protection of innocent life” aren’t the main points in the opportunistic politics of setting people at one another’s throats.

As with the War on Terror, the culture war has a machine to grease. It’s a racket, too. This past summer our friend Jeff Sharlet, who’s long been reporting on the Christian right, returned from a tour of churches that have largely whisked Jesus away. In one, the Lamb of God didn’t get a mention and Jeff couldn’t spy a cross. The preacher had an altar made of swords. Wherever Jeff went, he recounted with some mixture of awe and dread, the talk was of civil war.

Christians deprived of Christ, Oath Keepers naming names, baby-savers reduced to rats: There’s something desperate about it all. The backlash machine that had kept its troops in order for 50 years seems to be sputtering. There’s danger here; when hasn’t there been? But the old paradigm has shaken loose, a new one is not yet clear, and we are at the fulcrum.

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