The Trump presidency is itself a provocation. Trump is a billionaire, a reality TV star, a congenital liar who is seemingly addicted to a social media app which he uses to live-tweet his responses to a morning television show. The public is often bombarded with the phenomenon of his inner thoughts being pushed to mobile devices, not only by Twitter, but by pretty much every news outlet on the planet. And with good reason. He controls an arsenal of nuclear weapons, authorizes covert action, and has vast surveillance capacities at his fingertips. Trump also brought with him to Washington a team of radical ideologues and outsiders — people like Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, and Sebastian Gorka. His attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has a long history of racism, including — according to his former associates — using the N-word and “joking” about joining the Ku Klux Klan.
Trump has given encouragement to white supremacists and neo-Nazis, at times through his public statements and, at others, by what he doesn’t say. And Trump is the master of the dog whistle. See, for example, Trump saying there are good people on both sides in the aftermath of the horrible white supremacist violence in Charlotte. Or how Trump and his acolytes constantly talk about violence in Chicago as a substitute for the racist perspective they only want thinly veiled. He calls black athletes “sons of bitches,” says the mass shooter in Las Vegas was “probably smart” and constantly portrays undocumented immigrants as a collective group of gang members, rapists, and murderers.
There is no doubt that the way Trump talks and tweets, the people he has chosen to surround himself with, and the policies he has announced or implemented are all evidence that this is a dangerous administration. But how dangerous relative to past U.S. presidents? If you talk to many Democrats on Capitol Hill, Trump is the most dangerous president in U.S. history. He has also given rise to a new alliance of discredited, hawkish neocons and MSNBC hosts and analysts. Former directors of the CIA, NSA, and DNI have all clamored to condemn him and assure the public that these heroic spy agencies are protecting the country from the madman inside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
But is he the most dangerous president ever? Is he really so outside the norm of the policies of his predecessors? The short answer, when it comes to substance and policy, is: not yet. Harry Truman dropped not one, but two nuclear bombs. Multiple presidents continued the war on Vietnam, killing tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers and more than a million Vietnamese. Have we forgotten the secret bombings of Cambodia and Laos, the CIA Phoenix Program, and the widespread use of Agent Orange? The dirty wars in Central America? The global assassination operations?
George W. Bush and Dick Cheney implemented a global torture network, began shipping people snatched from across the globe to Guantánamo prison, invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, and conducted mass surveillance operations against Americans. The list of horrible presidents who caused unimaginable death and destruction across the globe is vast. None of this absolves Trump one bit. But it is important to keep perspective rooted in fact and history.
There is a particular risk in erasing the line between horrible things Trump does with horrible things the U.S. has done for a long time and acting like it is all Trump. It’s a complicated conversation, but it is one we should have. It means exploring the roots of white supremacy in the U.S., the way American wars are constantly put through a laundering process to make them seem noble and brave, the way “real American” has been defined and continues to be defined in our society. For eight years, we had the first black president in U.S. history and now we have a reality TV host who spends a great deal of time tweeting and watching TV. So what is unique to Trump and what is embedded in the politics of empire in the U.S.?
Professor Nikhil Pal Singh has spent years studying trends in U.S. policies throughout history, domestically and internationally. He is professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and History at New York University. His latest book is “Race and America’s Long War.” He is unafraid to take on the golden calves of “American exceptionalism” and challenges us all to examine both the forest and the trees of American Empire. We aired an excerpt of our interview with professor Singh on the latest episode of Intercepted. What follows is the entire interview and transcript.
Jeremy Scahill: Professor Nikhil Singh, welcome to Intercepted.
Nikhil Singh: Thanks for having me.
JS: I want to start off by talking about one of the big themes in your latest book, the link between war-making and what you call race-making. Explain that.
NS: You know, I start the book with an epigraph from one of my favorite thinkers, who’s not that well known, a civil rights activist named Jack O’Dell. He said that, “the great through lines of American history run from the slave plantation to the ghetto, and the frontier to the Pentagon.” So, he’s really thinking about frontier war-making as a kind of formative national experience and then an internal security project that’s focused on a kind of anti-insurrectionary project aimed at slave revolts, essentially, but against a population that is seen as potentially threatening, that’s internal to the Republic.
So, both of those are projects that are defined in terms of state violence and war-making, that are fundamentally about alien populations: one, on the border, one in the interior. And so, thinking of those as through lines, thinking of those as kind of origin stories for the formation of the United States that have a kind of a longue durée, it’s something that I’m interested in and I’m kind of tracing in various ways throughout the book.
JS: What do you mean by the phrase race-making?
NS: Race-making, I mean the creation of populations, groups whose alienage or whose difference becomes understood as constitutive of a relationship between them and another group. Right?
So, by calling it race-making, I’m trying to highlight the fabrication of racial difference, to not see it as something that is somehow inherent out there in the world, but something that has to be produced by constituting divisions among people, often people who actually live together in the same social space. It’s something that happens through the passage of laws, it happens through the restriction of movement, it happens through the allocation of resources, but in a really fundamental way, it happens through the distributions of violence. And that’s really what I’m arguing in the book.
JS: There’s a sentence or two that I want to read from the book and ask you to expand on it. You write: “The commonsense view that overt, racially targeted, state-sanctioned violence is now unacceptable and a social problem leads to assessments that deem such violence, for example police shootings of unarmed black men and women, as arising from justified fear, accident or individual error, rather than a structured and structuring public mechanism and investment.”
NS: So commenting on that, I’m thinking about how we’re addressing a situation where we now have an increasing consciousness partly due to movements around Black Lives Matter, that there is a widespread phenomenon of police killing of civilians, often unarmed civilians and that it is disproportionately African-Americans who are the victims of this violence. Although not just African-Americans obviously, and there’s, if you really look at numbers for Native American populations, you find those are disproportionate as well. So, you can see, breaking down police killings across racial lines, there are all of these disproportions.
But the overall numbers are also staggering, for an industrial democracy, let’s say.
So, in the United States, now, though — this is a little tough to parse because of Trump — but we tend to operate within an understanding of publicly sanctioned racism as something that’s been receding. That it’s normatively unacceptable.
JS: We had a black president.
NS: We had a black president. We believe in inclusion. We believe in tolerance. And above all, we believe that our justice system operates fairly, which obviously extends to the police.
JS: Look, there’s so many black and Latino Chicago police officers! That’s, that’s the response from the police unions in Chicago to these very questions.
NS: You’ve also had the diversification of these institutions, on, along racial lines, exactly.
So, how do you square these two stories? How do you square the excessive force and violence of the police, on aggregate, the racial disproportionality of that story, with the kind of public story that wants to tell us that we are a constantly improving society organized around the rule of law, justice and inclusion?
You square that story by essentially saying that these are events that happened in error, they happened by accident, they happen because a policeman was afraid, justifiably so. And that’s when the narrative starts to creep into something else and you start to see how this sort of demonology of the black criminal or the dangerous subject kind of comes into the defense or the rationalization, right?
So that’s where I think what gets rationalized away as something that has no real systemic reason, right? Has no structural reason, sort of begins to be made visible is something that actually is structured. Right? It is structured into our understanding of criminality, it is — of race, that is structured into our understanding or structures our understanding of the criminal, of the threatening, of the other in a way that is part and parcel of why there is this level of violence.
JS: Hasn’t that notion that you’re describing, of fear as a justification, hasn’t that always been used? I mean, if you look at so many of the lynchings that occurred in the United States and killing of young black men through means other than lynching them, it’s — they were whistling at a white woman or we’re sure that they were probably going to try to rape the white woman. I mean it’s almost like, what I’m reading is that it’s kind of a more sophisticated deployment of the same justification for murdering people.
NS: Yeah. I think American violence is almost always understood in defensive terms. Maybe, at some level, it’s understood in retributive terms, that it’s a sort of a justifiable punishment. But it’s understood as having a rationale and logic that is, that we can explain to ourselves in a way that amplifies our sense of our virtue.
JS: What do you make of the, now it’s been going on for a while but it seems to be coming to somewhat of a head, the discussion about gay men and women serving in the United States military and the question of whether the military is going to allow for government funded gender reassignment surgery? What’s your view of that, because I sort of look at it and I think: Well is it a good thing that there’s this idea that we have a rainbow-colored military that’s going to be slaughtering people across the world?
NS: Yeah, it’s something I think about a lot and it’s something I think about a lot in the book which is that the military and the national security state, especially since, say, World War II, has been this kind of engine of inclusion. It has been at the forefront. I mean it was at the forefront of racial integration — of course, under social pressure, it didn’t just happen automatically, and now we see the extension of that into questions around women in combat or gays and lesbians or trans people in the military, and the various ways the military is going to continue to be or not, because it’s still contested, an agent of diversification.
And this is a tricky thing for us to work through because now that story of diversification and inclusion is enlisted in the project of empire. The project of empire clearly once had a very naked, kind of racist face. You know, it was about the white man’s burden, it was about benighted peoples, it was about, you know, the inferior lesser breeds and so forth in the kind of language of the say, the British Empire, or the American Empire before World War II.
But after World War II, you really see how this notion of a kind of racially inclusive or multicultural imperial machine begins to develop.
And I’ll never forget that moment, and I write about it in the book, right before the Iraq War, where the liberal Canadian politician and historian Michael Ignatieff said the reason the United States Empire is justified, if we even want to call it an Empire, because it is not built on conquest and the white man’s burden. And then you have these moments where, where rotting out the kind of multicultural face of the American military becomes a kind of confirmation.
And I’ll never forget this moment, early in the Iraq War, watching a Frontline episode. It was almost like one of those episodes from an American war movie where you see the kind of multicultural platoon out on patrol, it’s like a Latino guy, an African-American guy, a white guy, and there are some Iraqis in handcuffs by the side of the road. They had stolen some milk or something. And then a car, and the car was the, the car was their means, their livelihood. I think they were basically delivery people, or taxi drivers.
And these three guys were interrogating, and then, all of a sudden, they say, “Well, because you did this, we’re going to have to exact a kind of punishment.” And they basically take their armored vehicle and crush these guys’ car. Right?
And it’s this kind of moment of sort of, they don’t kill them, but they steal their livelihood, they enact collective punishment, all in the image of their own righteousness.
And it’s such, it’s so clearly this moment of horror for a viewer like me, where these guys in their own country, their country is under occupation, they’re trying to eke out a living, and here they are like, facing retribution from this military machine with a multicultural face.
And it has really kind of become an alibi, right? It’s become an alibi for the empire, which still operates in its other face, right, with the notion that it is policing and disciplining an inferior people. Right?
So even if the multicultural and inclusive face has sort of emerged as a kind of form of justification or a legitimation for the American military, there is still always this other side that constructs the enemy as somehow benighted, inferior, congenitally sort of constituted as a threatening population. And that is part of the underside, the history of race-making, to go back to the earlier point, I want to foreground as a kind of insistent part of the rationale and logic of how the United States fights in the world.
JS: One of the themes that seems to kind of run through your book is this notion that the U.S. is an empire, and you, sort of, reluctantly agree to use that term in the book. But the way that you talk about the language that’s used in official American history to talk about war and American wars, I think it would be interesting to kind of give some examples of how various U.S. wars have been described and talked about and what is drilled into the heads of kids in this country when it comes to war.
NS: It’s a funny, again, it’s another one of these funny paradoxes, which is to say that the language of war is ubiquitous, right? We’ve had wars on drugs, wars on poverty, wars on crime, a Cold War that lasted for 40 years, a War on Terror that now we’re told is going to last for another 40 years. So, the language of war is ubiquitous.
But on the other hand, the United States hasn’t declared a war anywhere in the world, really, formally, since World War II. So, there have been police actions, there have been various kinds of military authorizations.
JS: Global contingency operations was Obama’s favorite term.
NS: Right. Exactly. Yeah. So, these sort of euphemisms for something that is not war, even though the popular discourse is all about war.
And then sort of think about the kind of earlier history, a continuous history of fighting Indian wars that were not understood or recognized as wars, they were really, again, seen as contingency operations, they were seen as the operations of kind of quasi-authorized settlers. You know, they were clearing operations, they were really kind of an ongoing counterinsurgency project.
JS: Well, and one of the most murderous ethnic cleansing campaigns, to use a term that the Clinton, people really loved to deploy, that is what happened here. That is what happened here.
NS: Right. That is what happened here.
JS: People from elsewhere got off their boats, onto the shores and almost instantly started a mass extermination, ethnic-cleansing campaign of anyone that wasn’t a European, “settler.”
NS: Exactly, exactly. And then the context of at least initially having to confront indigenous people as a real counterforce, having temporary agreements that were then constantly broken. And once the balance of forces shifted, any acts of violence by Indians in defense of their land or defense of their kind of customary rights was increasingly described as crime. Right? So, you have the kind of translation of sort of the language of co-equal combatants who have certain kinds of rights into a kind of asymmetrical language in which one party has the right of war and the other party is essentially seen as the party of a sort of asocial violence that needs to be disciplined, exterminated, sequestered, what have you.
And so, there’s a reason why that history becomes so prominent again in the War on Terror because it’s almost the same kind of language. And I remember, early in the war, there was this whole debate about the sort of the civilized thing to do was to describe al Qaeda as a criminal operation, as opposed to think of this in the language of war.
But in fact, all parties on the U.S. side agreed what needed to be done. You know? In some ways, this was a — this semantic distinction between whether they’re enemy combatants or whether they’re criminals doesn’t really matter, because both kinds of languages sort of deny them any kind of standing as, as actual parties to a war. Right?
So, in a strange kind of way we’ve inflated the language of war and then we’ve hidden the idea that war is our modus operandi in the world.
JS: Well, and it’s incredible — in this country, there’s a media culture, particularly on cable news channels but also on the pages in the papers of record, that dictates that you have to accept two primary factors in order to talk in a reasonable or responsible way about war.
The one hand, you have that the U.S. motive is always based on some benign interest — that it’s a humanitarian intervention or it’s to stop a despot or a dictator from threatening world stability or it’s that a particular country is pursuing a weapons of mass destruction program. And then the other factor that I’ve noticed that needs to be present is you have to agree, if it’s not already natural to you, to a self-induced sort of amnesia about how we ended up where we are, like in Syria today, in Iraq today, in Iran, in Somalia, all these countries — Pakistan — around the world that the United States has played an active role in creating the conditions we see today. It’s like you erase all of that and only talk about the narrow question that officials in the U.S. pose: Is it right or wrong to try to stop country x from pursuing weapons of mass destruction? It’s like a massive version of the ticking time bomb scenario that everyone wants to have, when it’s like, Jack Bauer is gonna save us from al Qaeda by ripping someone’s fingernails off. I mean, in a way, that is a byproduct of this bigger American mentality of amnesia, and then always assume beneficence on the part of the empire.
NS: Absolutely. I mean you’re sort of pointing to two things: Again, wars are defensive, American wars are defensive, and they’re in the general interest. Right? So, they’re not motivated by a particular American desire for power, for resources, they’re not connected to any sort of past history of involvement or engagement that may have produced enmities or conflicts or destabilization, they’re always about creating security and creating the rule of law. Right?
So the acts of destabilization that have gone into producing the conditions of insecurity that than are sort of understood to be the motivation for the intervention are completely erased. And then the continued destabilization that is constituted by the intervention becomes the kind of stuff of like debate, and sort of hand wringing until the next time that an intervention is planned and demanded.
Right, so, it is a rinse-and-repeat cycle, right, that we’re in. And it really does kind of go back to this much earlier history, I think.
JS: In your study, have you ever come across a U.S. war that you believe was actually defensive in nature?
NS: That’s a really, really good question, and a hard question. I would actually have to say no.
Even World War II was, in many ways, built upon threat inflation; it was built upon arguments that were later proved to be false about the ways in which the United States was actually threatened. And when you think about the rationale for World War II, when Roosevelt says, we can’t be an island in a sea of tyranny in the world, essentially — I mean the thinking that’s going into the intervention in World War II is that we’re going to become the world ordering power after this war, and that our security is now going to be bound up with being involved in every part of the world.
And I think it’s Dean Acheson who says to Truman a few years later, there is no concept of security that is local anymore for the United States. And that’s a new thing, right? That’s a new idea. But that is an idea that is not actually about a national defense. It’s actually about something else.
JS: And you also, I mean, arguably, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the United Says, “Oh, that’s when we officially got into the war.” But I always push back — when people try to start a debate or a discussion about World War II and the U.S. role, it’s often that they want to start with the invasion of Poland by Hitler and the Nazi forces, rather than going back a decade, and looking at how powerful elites in the United States, financial institutions, supported the rise of Hitler.
If you look at the way the New York Times reported on Adolf Hitler, it was clear that the United States did not view him as some sort of massive threat. In fact, the United States turned away refugees that were fleeing, not unlike some of the discussions that we see today about Syrian refugees. But that’s like an untouchable subject — you can’t talk about U.S. support for fascism, both through its own activities or inaction, in the case of the rise of Franco in Spain, when the United States said, “We’re neutral on this.” Because neutrality meant, you’re backing General Franco. Right?
NS: Exactly. I mean, I think to any way challenge the notion that the U.S. is a benign, world-ordering power is to break from a kind of a logical sort of monolith. I mean it’s not even just a consensus, it’s the really the equivalent of what we used to condemn as Soviet ideology. Right? It’s a kind of axiomatic —
JS: I mean, I sort of consider, they’re like flat-Earthers. You know what I mean? It’s sort of like, “What do you mean the U.S. wasn’t the most beneficent savior in the world, that stopped all of us from living under the Nazis.”
NS: The Nazi yoke. Exactly.
JS: And also, I mean it’s such an incendiary topic to raise in this country. When you go to almost any public event, whether it’s a graduation at a high school or a middle school, a sporting event, someone is going to invoke the heroic nature of the World War II record of the United States. And it happens, Republicans, Democrats, across the board, everywhere! It’s like our society is dripping in it.
And as I read your book, I was thinking: It’s such a great pushback to this notion that being born an American means you are born into the greatest nation that’s ever lived, the country that saves the world. I mean it really is like a nonstarter if you disagree with that in the mainstream of American discourse.
NS: Absolutely. And it’s one of the reasons why in this book and in some of my previous work, I really go back to the black radical tradition in thinking about World War II, in particular, and I use this quote from Langston Hughes where he talks about, “we hate Hitler as much as anybody, but we also want to defeat what he calls our native fascisms.
And for African-Americans, that notion that World War II would require a double victory: A victory against fascism abroad and also against racism at home, became a very sharp critique. Right? It was a refusal to prioritize something like kind of national security citizenship at the expense of the fight for justice at home, for one thing. And it was also a refusal of the idea that the United States was somehow, again, like a coherent moral entity as opposed to actually a deeply divided imperial society internal to itself, one riven by these kinds of histories of racial violence, and sequester, and separation, and dispossession that actually were not distinct historically or conceptually from the kinds of acts that the Nazis themselves were engaged in.
And, in fact, national socialists throughout the 1930s are reading about American Jim Crow law to like, figure out how to write the Nuremberg Laws. I mean they see the United States as an example.
When they cross the frontier into Eastern Europe, they’re talking about Eastern European Slavs as the equivalent of redskins. There’s a kind of way — I mean, not that we want to elevate the Nazi example as some kind of touchstone, but there’s a way in which in the history of the world in the history of racialized colonialism in the world, the United States has always been a major player. And so, the idea that history is suddenly wiped away by the fact that the United States fought against fascism in World War II is really a laundering of a much longer history. And it’s a much longer history that is actually not going to go away.
So it’s kind of like: How do we square these things? This is not about saying that the United States is the source of all the world’s evil or anything like that. Right? Or even that the world isn’t a complicated and dangerous place in which you might actually have to think about the use of force.
I mean we could have that conversation, right Jeremy? I mean we could have, if we were going to have a serious conversation about how to think ethically about American power in the world.
JS: This is part of the point I’m getting at, we can have that conversation about World War II —
NS: Right, exactly.
JS: — if you don’t start the history of World War II at ’39. You know, because it’s always like, you’ll be in a debate, and this has happened to me on television before, where someone will say to me, “Right now, on the spot, yes or no, should we have stopped Hitler?”
JS: And I’ll say, “I reject the entire framing of that question, because it asks me to engage in an act of incredible erasure of everything pre-dating the invasion of Poland.” And, but I feel like that’s always the case: Is there a such entity, as al Qaeda, that does want to kill Americans, Westerners, et cetera? Yeah, there is.
I would love to have the conversation about how do we take away the motive or the justifications that these people use to their own base to justify their acts of violence. But it requires a real reckoning with American history. And that’s what’s not allowed.
NS: Well that was the amazing thing after 9/11, and it’s hard to believe sometimes that 9/11 is like, 17 years ago, you know, because it still — it like, created a total miasma, right?
JS: Well, and think of how many people, how many young people grew up — 9/11 is their entire reality.
NS: Their entire reality.
JS: That’s the entire frame of what’s going on in the world —
NS: Right, right.
JS: — is shaped by 9/11 and nonstop war.
NS: That’s right. And remember the one thing that was disallowed, right from the beginning of 9/11, you could not make an argument that there was motive. You could not make an argument that the people who committed that act might have had some even kernel of rational grievance that motivated it. It could only be the act of what became called terror. Right?
JS: Well, and just to put a finer a point on what you’re saying.
JS: If you look at the targets that were chosen, I mean, the Pentagon, clearly a military target. The plane in Pennsylvania that went down was either heading toward the White House or the Capitol and then you hit the World Trade Center, right in the heart of financial power in the United States. Now, it’s dangerous to even go down this line of talking about it, but I think the point you’re making is we have to remove any sense that people who are the others are motivated by a set of their own grievances that we may have played a role in creating. Rather, we can only look at it for the crime that was committed. Civilians were killed, end of story.
NS: That’s right. That’s right. And the only answer that we can engage in, in response to that, is our own kind of traumatizing violence. Right? So, 9/11 was a kind of traumatizing violence for Americans, to be sure and that was it by design. But the response to that can only be a kind of traumatizing violence and as opposed to some approach that might actually be reparative.
And there may be the need for coercion. There may sometimes be the need — I will admit this into the frame of the conversation, but only if we can actually have the conversation. You know? It’s really, really hard to have the conversation.
And of course, what we have done now for the last 17 years is to commit a kind of traumatizing violence all over the world. And to, if anything, strengthen the very possibility of long-range terrorist networks with motive and grievance that we were ostensibly setting out to eliminate.
So, on its face it’s a failure, right? In its own terms it’s a failure. But we’re left with a situation where we’re asked to basically believe that the only response now is to continue down the same road. Right? Not to actually try to pull back and think about what it might mean to think differently about the kinds of relationships we’re in with people in different parts of the world.
JS: You write a good deal about Obama’s presidency in this book, and you have addressed that in a much more extensive way in previous work. But on the issue of Obama and how he talked about the killing of civilians, I’m sure you recall when Obama finally publicly came out and expressed some sense of regret over the killing of people in drone strikes, and it was when white Westerners, including an American citizen, were killed in strikes that Obama said were mistakes. But the overall way that Obama and his team talked about the issue of civilians being killed was always one of moral superiority: We don’t intend to kill civilians; when we bomb a hospital, we didn’t mean to do that; when we bomb a wedding party we didn’t mean to do that. See, that’s the difference between us and al Qaeda: We didn’t mean to do it and they do mean to do it.
NS: Right. Right.
JS: Which, by the way, that’s bullshit. The United States has intentionally killed civilians.
NS: Of course.
JS: And they’ve said, “OK, a terrorist is in this building, we want him dead, there happens to be 30 other people in there, boom, they die today.” That’s cold, crass war-mongering right there and it’s war crimes.
But Obama really spent a lot of his moral capital with the base trying to convince people that the benign nature of American war-making makes us morally superior to those who fly planes into buildings or shell a school.
NS: Definitely and I think this is an old debate — again, even going back to like the Vietnam War and the sort of origins of American counterinsurgency. You know, the idea that we act with a minimum of violence, that we, through our very careful, deliberative, kind of rule-bound process, we come to the sort of absolute minimal threshold of necessary force and that is what makes us morally superior. So, it’s both about the following of a rule and it’s about the minimization.
And I always find it extraordinary because, of course, you’re right. Oftentimes the calculation is probabilistic. It’s like: There might be one terrorist. So, if we do this and take them out and there are other casualties, it is collateral damage. It’s not intentional, but it is entirely foreseeable.
So, what does it mean to say that we commit mayhem that is not intentional but entirely foreseeable? How does that make us somehow morally less culpable? And thinking about it from the other side, from the eyes of people who are the victims of American power, of course there’s no distinction.
And therefore, when you turn around and try to look at American power through those eyes, what do you see? You don’t see the operations of rule and the minimization of violence, you see the operations of a power that sees itself as able to act with impunity and to commit a kind of atrocity that has no sort of limitation to it that is understandable within the terms of those who are on the other side of it or on the receiving end of it. Right?
JS: You know we, a couple of years ago, we obtained these secret documents detailing how certain aspects of the assassination program, or drone program, whatever you want to call it, worked under Obama.
And one of the, I think, most important revelations to come from that is the kind of mathematical equation that has been used, particularly under the Obama administration, to almost always produce the number zero, when it comes the question of how many civilians are killed.
And it’s this idea that when people are killed in drone strikes, and we don’t know their identities, they are preemptively determined or categorized as enemies killed in action. And only if they are posthumously proven to be a “innocent civilian” is that every revisited. So it’s not so much that they know that they aren’t killing civilians or they’re trying to minimize it, it’s that you or I or a human rights group or a journalist would have to go and prove that the nine people that you didn’t know the identities of in that drone strike, that you killed, were actually civilians, and you only killed one person that you label terrorist, even though it has no legal definition. To me, the sophistication of Obama’s legitimizing or seeking to legitimize these kinds of operations, is going to be with us for generations to come.
JS: Because he sold a lot of liberals in his base on this idea that had come up with this magical, safer, cleaner way of waging war, and that it’s morally justifiable in a world where there’s already too much war.
NS: Well, I think you’re absolutely right, and you guys have done amazing work around this and it’s really, really valuable for all of us.
You know the other thing that I would add to what you’re saying though is that there’s an interesting kind of flipside to Obama’s careful, kind of prophylactic imagination around the use of American violence, and that is that it sort of draws the ire of the Right. So, Trump comes in and basically says, you know: We’re going to take the gloves off because this hasn’t worked and now we’re going to sort of free the commanders in the field to use maximum discretion and we’ve already seen what’s happening with that.
JS: Discretion sounds like almost like they’re being — I mean, I know what the words means, but he’s widened the rules of engagement so they can kill more civilians if they feel like it’s necessary.
NS: Right, right. Basically: Take the gloves off, do what you need to do and don’t worry so much about it. So, and that’s seen as the sort of adventurous spirit, the spirit that’s really going to lead to victory.
So, you oscillate between these sort of poles, right? These poles of: We’re following the rules and we’re being careful and we’re killing just enough of them to keep everyone safe, and then, when that doesn’t work, now we’re going to take the gloves off. Nobody really thinks about trying anything different. Right?
And you’re right. Not only is this going to be with us for a long time, but as we excavate the sort of history of violence in the future, we’re going to find out things that we didn’t know before about the consequences and the casualties. You know, I’m thinking of like Nick Turse’s work on, “A May Lai a Month” in Vietnam, that there are shrines all over your rural Vietnam where massacres occurred, and, where people —
JS: That book is called “Kill Anything That Moves” and it’s amazing.
NS: Right. It’s a fantastic book. And this is not a well-known history, and the use of body counts in the Vietnam War, I mean the scale was bigger, so let’s not make it identical, but it was a similar kind of obfuscating exercise. You know? It was always the enemy who was killed.
JS: I want to ask you briefly about the way that Native American imagery, identity is used. Obviously, it’s used in sports, the football team in Washington and other pro sports teams. But it’s so pervasive in the U.S. military that you have the Apache attack helicopters and the use of imagery of hatchets and —
JS: Tomahawks, the cruise missile is called the Tomahawk, and my colleague Matthew Cole did this series here that you cite in your book on the “Crimes of SEAL Team Six,” and the phrase “bloody the hatchet” and you cite that article in your book. And there’s a broader discussion in your work on the use of this nomenclature.
Talk about the way that Native American culture and imagery has been co-opted or snatched by the military?
NS: It’s such an important topic and I think it needs a vaster exploration and it’s about the imagery but it’s also about the kind of conceptual role that, that the Indian wars play or that the, or that the iconography or the mythos of the Indian wars play, which is to say that sometimes you’re fighting a savage foe and when you fight a savage foe, you need to loosen the restraints under which you fight, you need to learn to fight like a savage.
And that notion, you know, of savage war is one of the deepest kind of organizing ideas of the American democratic experiment. In fact, it is in some ways a democratization of war itself because it’s about licensing individuals to engage, in some sense, as authorized representatives of the state on the frontier in certain kinds of ways. I think it sometimes informs the way that police think about the ways in which they operate, that they’re sort of the line between civilization and the sort of chaos on the outside, on the frontier.
You know, so the idea that imagery then gets sort of brought in to the sort of highly technical kind of kind of weapon systems and other things to name them in the U.S. military is fascinating, right?
JS: Also, Bin Laden, was Objective Geronimo.
NS: Bin Laden was Geronimo. But the other thing that I talk about a little bit in the book is the ways in which this actually comes into the language of really like high academia and high thinking about, about just war and so forth.
So, just two quick examples — right after 9/11, the sort of dean of diplomatic historians, John Gaddis, wrote a little book called “Security, Surprise, and the American Experience” where he basically says, well, you know, we used to pursue rule-bound order, but there’s this other tradition in American history which is about the frontier, and when the Bush administration launched the Iraq war it was really that tradition that was important. Because now it’s not national frontiers, but it’s the global frontiers of civilized society that are threatened by terrorists and non-state enemies who are like the non-state enemies of the past: the Indians, the pirates, and other kinds of marauders.
So, he actually isn’t just drawing even just an analogy. He’s really saying that this kind of war in the past was justified in the name of civilization, and this war now is justified in the name of civilization. And so, it’s really extraordinary, and it goes to your earlier point about how we erase history. Like the Indian wars were about civilization, that’s primarily what they were about, as opposed to a being about land, hunger, and a struggle over territory and resources, in which violence became the mechanism and ethnic cleansing and erasure of one party became the mechanism for the triumph of the other. Is that really how we think about the world now? Is that really the kind of world we want to be imagining ourselves living in?
And you know Michael Walzer, who’s a liberal, who wrote a very famous book about just war theory after Vietnam, he makes the point at one point in the book where he says, well, you know, one of the times you can fight a just war is when you know that there’s somebody out there who wants to kill you. And then he his mind immediately goes to what he calls the Wild West of American fiction, you know? And I’m kind of scratching my head. I’m like, why is the Wild West of American fiction the sort of framework that we would want to use when we’re thinking about how we would deploy power in the world?
And Walzer is explicitly at that moment in his book writing about Israeli incursions into the West Bank. Right? Which is really the settler project of our time. Right? I mean there’s, we have an active settler project that’s been going on since the 1967 annexations, which is one of the greatest sore points around the world today and it’s a project that the United States has put its full kind of faith and credit behind.
JS: Let’s talk for a second: How would all of these settler wars in the United States have been live-tweeted by Democrats and Republicans. Here, I’ll start off with a thought I had as you were talking, that: “Today savage Indians attacked a stabilizing force sent in to modernize and bring services to the state of Wyoming.”
NS: [Laughs.] That’s good. That’s good.
JS: Your turn.
NS: OK. Let me try. “Today, regrettably a settler party doing a land survey to try to create better water resources and to build a pipeline to deliver —” I’m terrible at this, Jeremy.
JS: We don’t even need to do that one! Scratch. That’ll be the Easter egg at the end of the episode.
JS: It was just something that I was thinking about, like, wow, it would be fucking crazy to think about how these dingbats would be tweeting about this stuff. Like, I mean it would be, it really would I think glorify the people moving west, not to mention the early stages on the East Coast, but as they move west, that this was, this is all for the benefit of humanity and the savages are attacking the people trying to help the world.
NS: Yeah, it’s true. You know, the difference between the liberals and the conservatives would be this: the conservatives would say, the Conservatives would always say, you know, “our people came under attack by savages and we had to kill them, we have to wipe them out because, you know, it’s us or them.” And the liberals would say, “Maybe we did something wrong. Maybe there’s some kind of way in which we could do a better job in this exchange.”
JS: Isn’t that how we got reservations?
NS: Yeah, basically.
JS: I mean isn’t the idea, “We’ll give you some territory here.”
NS: We’ll give you something.
JS: Yeah, and you can have your own laws to an extent.
NS: And “it’s lamentable what’s happened,” the other things that liberals will say. Like they’ll say, you know, “OK, it’s all played out this way and it’s lamentable.” Like, John Jay writes a letter to Jefferson saying, this is very early in New York State frontier, and he says, our settlers are killing too many people, and the native people don’t like the avidity with which we are claiming their land. But, what can we really do? There’s nothing much we can do, because these are our people. You know and they are not. Right?
So, it’s kind of like, there’s a bit of a mea culpa like, let’s throw up our hands. It’s like the way in which people, a lot of people will treat killing by the police, you know? What can we really do? You know, these are our guys, you know? And they’re doing the best they can under difficult conditions.
Sure they make mistakes sometimes. But they’re under a lot of pressure out there protecting us from civilization, protecting us from savagery, right?
NS: So, that’s the kind of liberal response, and “let’s have some body cameras, let’s have a little more accountability.” But no liberal is out there calling for strong civilian oversight of the police. You know, no one’s calling for taking away, in a really substantive way, police discretion right around their use of force and violence. Right?
JS: Right, I mean it’s more often aimed at that the police force needs to more accurately reflect the racial or religious makeup of communities. And I wonder how you push back against or respond when people say, “Look, yes, those extreme things, Professor Singh, that you’re about, they happen, everyone knows that they happen. Are we perfect right now? No, we’re not perfect. But we just had two terms of a black president. We came very close to having a woman as president, she got three million more votes in the popular election than Donald Trump. Police forces across the country are aggressively recruiting and hiring people of color, people who speak multiple languages. Yes, there still is racism, but look at all of the progress that we’ve made and how can you argue that America remains a racist country when a black man was president for eight years?”
NS: Well that’s not a hard case to make, because I think that if you — one of the stories, one of the arcs in the book that I’m trying to follow is the arc of mass incarceration or hyper-incarceration, which has led to 1 million African-American people in prison over 30 years.
JS: They commit a lot of crimes.
NS: That’s what Steve Bannon would say, you know. And that’s what others would say.
JS: They need better fathers.
NS: Exactly. And Obama said similar things, right? So, the idea that we would produce the world’s largest penal society, you know, larger than the Soviet Gulag Archipelago, is somehow something that gets back down in its fundamental explanation to basically the deficiency of like, the slave-descended population. Right? Even for some liberals.
But I take a totally different view which is that mass incarceration is the product of an organized abandonment of black people that relates to a much longer history of confinement, of separation, of lack of access to jobs and infrastructure and other kinds of benefits, and basically —
NS: And economic independence as well.
JS: I mean, yes, you’re on to something that I think we don’t talk about enough.
NS: So, these kinds of questions of the failure to resolve, the failure to redress and again to repair a long internalized history of racial violence that really comes out of slavery, and Jim Crow, and segregation, and ghettoization — and now mass incarceration — is something that for me, prima facie, is the sort of evidence for a continuous kind of internally racist history in the United States for which the election of a black president was not significant in changing.
I mean, I think Obama made some overtures, you know the reduction of some sentences for drug crimes, the critique and rolling back at the federal level of certain kinds of mandatory minimums.
You know, Eric Holder, the attorney general, began to make some kind of modest reforms around the edges, because I think there is recognition now that the carceral state is a failure, the carceral state has done its damage. Right?
JS: In the book, this is one of the passages on Obama. You said, “Obama quietly lowered the volume on the bellicose rhetoric and lightened the military footprint of the long war, he moved the mass deportation of undocumented migrants back into the shadows and inaugurated modest reforms of the drug wars and the mandatory sentencing guidelines that have been key to expanding the criminal punishment complex.” Nonetheless, you write, “Obama strengthened the interrelationship between the inner and outer wars, as well as their legal and institutional basis, by expanding the use of unmanned armed drones and targeted assassinations. Obama also added a new and terrifying dimension.”
NS: Yeah, Obama — I was one of the people who when Obama was elected actually had some hopes. I think the United States electing an African-American to be president is a sign of some popular resonance, of an inclusive and anti-racist, kind of, let’s call it public feeling.
I’m not going to make a blanket statement, America is a racist country. It’s not really about a country being racist. It’s about various kinds of social forces, and structures. And we have to be able to examine and analyze that. And obviously in this country, these questions have also been contested: slavery was contested, Jim Crow was contested. When specialized segregation and ghettoization was contested, the result was quite inconclusive, it didn’t result in any kind of genuine desegregation, and if anything, it set the carceral train in motion.
But there are strong constituents, constituencies in this country who would like to produce a more robust kind of social solidarity across racial lines.
JS: Well, and you say, “the labors of egalitarian and social transformation will fail if they do not frontally address the forms of human sacrifice and sundering of human commonality affected by state-sanctioned violence.”
NS: That’s right. I put the onus for the continuation of racist public policy and the structuring mechanisms that divide the population along racial lines in the domain of state power, and in the purview or field of action of state elites.
That doesn’t mean that ordinary people don’t act in racist ways that have consequence, but I think ordinary people also act in non-racist or anti-racist ways that can have consequences. It’s actually about how we organize public feeling and public policy in a way that directs us towards a widening conception of social solidarity and the kinds of policies that we would need to sustain that. Right?
And that’s really in some ways where Obama kind of falls short, right? Because he represented that kind of hope and aspiration. I think his election genuinely did. But in choosing to govern in the name of caution and continuity with what came before, and choosing not to seriously have a public reckoning with the record of torture by the Bush administration, to not more frontally go after the kind of predatory lending that led to the crisis, the financial crisis, that was also very racialized, was really to choose to enact what I call in the book a kind of laundering operation.
You know? And a lot of times, this is what liberals do for reactionaries, they kind of clean up the mess. But without actually doing the kind of turning towards a different orientation. And sometimes I think we need we need more, we don’t just need more struggle from our side, but we need to actually lay down some markers of our own.
Because if Obama had gone after the Bush administration torturers, maybe he wouldn’t have succeeded. You know? Maybe we wouldn’t have gotten justice. But we would have had a kind of marker that we could have looked to and sort of said, “Look, we tried to hold some people to account here.”
And the thing is, the right understands this very well. The right understands that sometimes laying down a marker, even, when it doesn’t get what it wants, sets the terms for the next battle that it’s going to fight.
JS: Obama’s birth certificate.
JS: I think of that, I mean they knew they weren’t going to get anywhere with that and it was a huge part of the ascent of Trump.
NS: A huge part of the ascent of Trump. Meanwhile, Obama’s deporting people en masse, strengthening the deportation machinery, giving speeches, really, that are completely consistent with the language of criminalizing immigration violations. Why should immigration violations be in the domain of the criminal? I mean, these are basically, for the most part, people who are trying to make a living in the United States, many for almost a generation. Right? This could be talked about in a completely different way. Why do we adopt the right’s language that anyone here without papers is somehow a criminal? Why would that be the case?
And now Trump, of course, accentuates the kind of occasional horrific criminal violation by someone who is out of status and uses that to recursively characterize entire populations. Right? In order to sharpen this idea of the divide between the native-born and the foreign-born.
I mean the DHS now is even contemplating policies that are going to put green card holders and people who are naturalized citizens under a kind of extra burden of surveillance and pressure, as if we — and I wasn’t born in this country — by virtue of our non-native status are sort of here at the beneficence of the sovereign, you know?
NS: It’s a really a scary time, and I think people are kind of shocked. You know? And some of the shock is good, and some of the outrage, and the anger and the fight-back.
But the idea that we somehow just flipped a switch and got Trump in this weird way that doesn’t try to think about a longer story that takes us through some of the failure of reckoning of the Obama years, and, of course, the sort of the pathway that the Iraq war put the country on, and even before the Iraq war, the pathway that the Clinton-era mass incarceration project put us on, you know, I think makes it really difficult for us to make sense of what’s happening right now and to make sense of the forces that Trump has been able to mobilize.
JS: What do you think is the both the short-term and long-term impact of having such overt racist rhetoric attached to racist policy in the United States? Or to have someone like Trump who seems to just thrive on the idea in his own head that he is the anti-PC guy, but really, completely legitimizing, if not at times celebrating, acts of outright violent racism from the presidential podium, whether it’s Twitter or a press conference.
NS: Right. I honestly don’t know the answer, Jeremy. I’m not like, one of the sort of “the apocalypse is coming,” you know? I mean: the apocalypse may be coming, which is, you know, the environmental apocalypse. There are all kinds of things —
JS: Well, I keep saying to people, Trump’s nowhere near murdering as many people as Bush and Cheney yet.
NS: Exactly. Exactly.
JS: But he’s as scary in his own way.
NS: Exactly. And you don’t know with him when the shoe is going to finally drop, right? Whether it’s in North Korea or somewhere else. There is a sort of a feeling of anxiety that people have that’s legitimate. That I have. But I think that again, the anxiety has been something that’s being stoked in us for at least two decades, you know, that Americans live with the expectation of violence. And we live with the expectation that our state will commit violence on a, sometimes, perhaps even on a scale that is horrifying to us as Americans, right? We live with that as, sort of, a constant.
Whether that will come to pass under Trump, whether it’s more likely under Trump — I think Obama did make it feel a little bit less likely, in certain ways, even though I think part of that sleight of hand was, again, really about the rhetorical cover or not drawing as much attention to it, whereas Trump always wants to put it in the foreground.
But in terms of the consequences of what Trump’s doing: I mean Trump is dangerous in the sense that I think he is animating a kind of a notion of American citizenship, and native-born status and racial status as somehow either the equivalent of an entitlement to rule others, or is something that has been dispossessed and therefore we need to reclaim it. You know, and I think that’s a scary gambit. Right?
Because I think we were, in some ways, under Obama and before, even under Bush and Clinton — because remember, W. Bush, he wanted the grand immigration bargain. You know, he wanted a more multicultural inclusive Republican Party. I mean he had a very inclusive administration, waging war overseas, to go back to the earlier points we were discussing.
I think there was a sense that, OK, the white supremacy project, you know which was such a huge part of American history, is no longer really viable. But I think Trump’s trying to make it viable again.
JS: Well, you know, we did an interview not too long ago with the Nigerian musician Seun Kuti, whose father was Fela, he’s the youngest son of Fela, and we were talking about Trump and he said something that was on its surface quite simple, but also as resonated with me which is that, all of this talk about Trump being more dangerous than anyone else is bullshit. “He’s just unmasking who you guys have always been.” Like he is sort of speaking plainly in a way about —I mean he pretty accurately, I think, represents Andrew Jackson’s worldview on a number of key issues.
And in your book, you seem to the bookend your discussion of war-craft and race-craft with Trump, and that Trump moment. Talk about that influence though that, both he and Bannon have cited of Andrew Jackson, and he made these Navajo code talkers that came to the White House sit under a portrait of Andrew Jackson, but maybe talk about the way that you deal with Trump in the book and the Andrew Jackson question.
NS: Well I think, Jackson really tied together the idea of, America as a white man’s democracy in which material accumulation through dispossession, the dispossession of native lands, and American state violence, and American civilization and prosperity were kind of yoked together.
And even liberal historians celebrated Jackson in the sort of ’40s and ’50s, people like Arthur Schlesinger, you know as kind of great democratizers. That really was Bannon’s vision. I mean Bannon’s kind of [an] odious figure but it’s at certain moments he would talk in ways of well native-born Latinos and African-Americans are going to have a place at this table, too. You know, so even Bannon could expand into a sort of inclusive language but it was all about a national possessiveness. And that possessiveness was clearly understood as being linked to somebody else’s dispossession and if you didn’t have the stomach to dispossess somebody through force, if necessary, you weren’t really acting as a proper American.
And that really is a pretty stark break from the language of Wilsonian internationalism, where we’re sort of creating a rule-bound world where everybody thrives and there’s enough to go around. Right? It’s a really stark break and I think it’s interesting.
Now, is that who Americans always have been? To some extent, for sure. You know, but like I’ve said before, there are these competing currents.
JS: As we wrap up, I wanted to get your thoughts on this trend of paramilitarization of law enforcement or police, whatever you want to call the generic term. And you cite in the in the book the work of Alfred McCoy, who we’ve had on this show and has done a lot of work on the ground and in exposing the real history of the relationship between the United States and the Philippines in the U.S.-Philippine war. And he used the phrase that it was a “laboratory of police modernity.”
And at The Intercept we do a lot of reporting on the surveillance state, not just the paramilitarization of the troops in the street, but also the use of technologies that were created for the military or spy agencies, like StingRays now coming home and being used to patrol the streets, looking for “street crime.”
How do you see the lessons from what McCoy called the “laboratory of police modernity” and the surveillance state now as it manifests itself in communities around the United States?
NS: I think that we’re evolving towards a nation in which the people are seen as being in protective custody, of a certain kind, right? The numbers of incarcerated people we talk about is always something like around 2 million, and then when we think of the numbers of people on parole or probation we get into like 7 or 8 million and then we think of the people who are related to the people who are on parole, probation or incarcerated and we get into, the numbers of 15 or 20 million. And then you think of the numbers of people who have been charged with a felony or arrested, and suddenly we’re talking about, you know, 70, 80 million American adults who have had some kind of primary relationship to the policing apparatus of the state, who are in some ways marked as potentially criminal.
And the ways criminal violation is now used as a tool of information, as a tool of stigma, as a tool of surveillance, as a tool to potentially revoke someone’s rights at a later point, particularly people who have various kinds of uncertainties in their immigration status. But you could imagine it being used or rolled out further than that, it really is a tremendous technology of control and it’s a technology of control, as McCoy’s shows, that was elaborated very profoundly in the long counterinsurgency war the United States fought in the Philippines and it was the first time you really saw the use of demographic information, photographic information, extensive informants systems, basically tracking the population, imagining the population as a potentially subversive population in which you had to begin to know how to sort people.
And, at the very same time as you see that happen in the Philippines, you see the origins of crime statistics in the United States which are especially targeting African-Americans internally. And I don’t exactly write about this in the book but Kahlil Muhammad has written a book on the history of what it’s called “The Condemnation of Blackness,” fantastic book, part of [which] deals with the origins of crime statistics in the United States. These, these technologies which have been racially targeted and elaborated within colonial context are actually now being more generally applied to the population as a whole. Right?
And that’s one of the great ironies of the, say, the post-colonial era or the era of the American empire and globalization is, and even the era of civil rights, or the era of formally inclusive democracy, is that what actually happens during these periods is not a general advance of rights — but a kind of a rhetorical advance of rights. And tools that were once used against formally right-less populations, now being elaborated and used more widely in relationship to everybody else. You know and I think that actually requires much more discussion than we probably have time for, but it’s something of the danger that we just under now. And so when people talk about the threat to democracy represented by the authoritarian Trump, you know, I would say let’s think over a longer period of the sort of erosion of our, of a kind of a robust democracy by these kinds of corporate powers and governmental powers that have really irrigated what were once thought to be the kind of sovereign rights of citizens.
JS: Well, we would love to have you back to continue that discussion, Professor Nikhil Singh, thank you very much for joining us.
NS: Thank you so much, Jeremy. It was a pleasure talking to you.