An investigator with the California Highway Patrol recently interpreted the Black Power salute as proof of “intent and motivation” to violate the civil rights of right-wing protesters. The FBI Domestic Terrorism Analysis Unit last August announced a new designation of “Black Identity Extremist,” which it now deems a violent threat. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump just appointed as director general of the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration someone who’s made anti-Muslim comments. Arrests for deportation by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement rose 30 percent in the first year of the Trump administration. And the Trump administration continues to enforce its Muslim ban and to seek funding for a wall on our Southern border.
When you add to that the hypermilitarized policing we have witnessed on the streets of Ferguson, Baltimore, and around the country, the use of a robot bomb to kill a criminal suspect in Dallas, Texas, and the NYPD surveillance of mosques and Muslim businesses post 9/11, a pattern arises: Increasingly, our government is turning its own citizens and residents into an internal enemy. A new way of thinking is taking hold. A new way of governing.
These measures form part of a new way that we, in the United States, govern ourselves at home, inspired by the theory and practice of counterinsurgency warfare. These measures fit together, like pieces of a jig-saw puzzle, in a momentous political transformation: not from the rule of law to a provisional state of exception, as many suggested after 9/11, but rather from an earlier model of governing based on large-scale warfare to one modeled on tactical counterinsurgency strategies.
For most of the 20th century, we governed ourselves differently: Our political imagination was dominated by the massive battlefields of the Marne, by the Blitzkrieg, and the fire-bombing of Dresden. It was an imagination of large-scale war, with waves of human bodies and columns of tanks, military campaigns, battlefields, fronts, theaters of war. And alongside these vast military engagements, President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched an equally massive economic and political campaign—the New Deal. J. Edgar Hoover declared a large-scale War on Crime. Lyndon B. Johnson inaugurated a society-wide War on Poverty in an effort to create the Great Society. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan initiated a massive War on Drugs, and others allied themselves—President Bill Clinton among them.
But the transition from large-scale battlefield warfare to anti-colonial struggles and now to the war against terrorism brought about a historic transformation in the way that we govern in the United States. Variously called unconventional, anti-guerilla, or modern warfare, this new prototype of counterinsurgency war is the very opposite of large-scale battlefield encounters: It involves strategic, surgical operations, total information awareness, targeted elimination of a radical minority, psychological techniques, and political savvy to gain the trust of the general population. The target is no longer an enemy army, so much as it is an internal enemy. It involves a new way of thinking about war, and politics, that gradually has come to dominate the American public imagination.