In answering Ardern's global anti-racism call, don't let state actors slide

In answering Ardern's global anti-racism call, don't let state actors slide
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In the wake of the massacre at Christchurch, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has issued “a global call” to combat right-wing extremism. “If we want to make sure globally that we are a safe and tolerant and inclusive world we cannot think about this in terms of boundaries.”

How do we answer this call? Thoughts and prayers are well and good, but what is the first step?

The answer is to resist demonization in all its forms, wherever it occurs, whether public or private. A single ideology binds the individual extremist to the state that adopts extreme measures. It is the pernicious belief that their victims are monsters who will replace us unless we destroy them.


To date, people have missed this connection between official and private extremism. They focus instead on the climate of hatred created by racists and demagogues, and ask whether Trump “caused” Christchurch. We should not waste our breath debating the finer points of free will and individual responsibility.

The key to Christchurch — and Quebec City, Pittsburgh, Charlottesville, and Charleston — is not in how the ideology of individual extremists differs from that of official policy, but in how it is the same.

The government that tortures prisoners in secret sites, rains death from a cloudless sky, immures captives in proxy prisons, and cages children has convinced itself that it faces annihilation, its future imperiled by an enemy that prays to an alien God. No less than the maniac who invades a house of worship, the state seduced by this serpent will abandon what it holds most dear to repel the invaders.

The madman lays down his life; the state sacrifices its principles. But they are merely two expressions of one shameful judgment that some among us are monsters in human form. And because they are the same, we combat one when we attack the other, and abet one when we tolerate the other.

To be sure, public and private violence are not identical. For one thing, the state cannot excuse its conduct by invoking the mental illness that so often afflicts the individual. Nor can the state point to systemic conditions to mitigate its behavior — the crushing weight of racism and classism that perennially permits those with privilege to amass still more. The state had a hand in creating these conditions, and obviously cannot rely on them to excuse its cruelty. Of the two, therefore, public violence is far more sinister.

But even allowing for these great differences, the two share a conviction that some people not only can be, but must be cast beyond the pale. The proper response to Christchurch, therefore, is to denounce demonization in all its forms, whenever and wherever it appears, but especially when championed by government.

The language of dehumanization is easy to recognize, and Trump’s particular brand of this malice has been well chronicled. In his Manichean world, some humans are “snakes” who “infest our Country.” “These aren’t people,” he told us last summer. “These are animals.

But it is not enough to criticize language. Far more important is to attack the policies that emerge from this language. They arrive unbidden, accompanied by the drumbeat of national emergency. We are told that the fate of the nation hangs in the balance, and that we must treat this man worse than we would a dog, embrace the shortcut of communal guilt, and accept a retreat from the rule of law. We have seen these policies often. Time is short, the need is great, and the clock is ticking.

It is always a lie.

But even that is not the greatest challenge. We must recognize the connection that holds these policies together across the globe. Our obligation is to realize that the dignity of a child in a cage at the border is the same as the dignity of a man in a cage at Guantanamo. The man tortured at a police station in Chicago is no different from the man tortured at a CIA black site in Thailand.

The men and women destroyed by the carceral state in Baltimore are no different from the men and women destroyed by the national security state in Pakistan. The long-neglected rights of Native Americans in this country are the same as the long-neglected rights of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and of Syrians in the Golan.

Prime Minister Ardern is right to call for a global campaign against white nationalist rage. That campaign must begin with the realization that demonization anywhere is a threat to humanity everywhere.

Joe Margulies is Professor of Law and Government at Cornell University. He is a civil rights attorney and critic of the national security state who has written about the cruelty and inequity of the American criminal justice system. He has defended people kept in detention at Guantánamo, at Camp Cropper in Iraq, and at CIA black sites. He is author of “Guantánamo and the Abuse of Presidential Power” (Simon & Schuster 2006) and “What Changed When Everything Changed: 9/11 and the Making of National Identity” (Yale 2013). He is writing a new book on the politics of forgiveness. Follow him on Twitter @JoeMargulies.