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A few words from the Editor June 2004

The clean-scrubbed skin. The pretty smile. Its a face you’d expect to find on any Midwest campus rather than a few inches from an Iraqi who died during interrogation at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison. Army Spc. Sabrina Harmon, along with Pfc. Lynndie England, Sgt. Charles Graner and all the other enlisted women and men who have appeared in videotapes and photographs of Iraqi prisoners being abused have become the new shocking face of imperial violence.

These young men and women, of course, are only the end product of empire. While there’s no question that the Nuremberg prinicples must apply in their case, it is also quite obvious the poison that led these soldiers to engage in such deeds can be traced back up the chain of command and into the very fabric of our imperial society.

Pick out a different thread and it will lead you to tortured British citizens in the concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay. Another thread will bring you closer to home to any number of facilities in our prison-industrial complex were inmates are kept in lightless rooms for months on end to correct inappropriate behavior. Yet another threat will bring you closer to home, where police are instructed to “control” citizens at all times and citizens of certain colors, economic status or political belief are told they should submit rather than question the legitimacy of a police officer’s action.

Abu Ghraib and Oregon State Penitentiary. Spc. Sabrina Harmon and Portland police officer Jason Sery. While not identical pairings, they are still opposite sides of the same imperial coin.

Empire is built upon the principal of dominance. The powerful dominate the weak; the wealthy dominate the poor. And while the worst aspects of domination may occur in distant colonies — real or virtual — where the constraints upon the guardians of empire are the most tenuous, the poison eventually courses its way back to the homeland. Political dissent becomes less tolerated. Restless, deprived communities expected to provide the labor but not share in the fruits of empire are more heavily repressed.

Elites, who never perform work themselves, must create the mechanisms to make this system work. For the past 30 years, that has meant the transformation of a conscription-based army into a professional standing army. Inside the empire, policing has gone from a multi-jurisdicational system based largely on civilian models to hyper-militarized police forces that through shared data and other resources is fast approaching a de facto national police.

At the heart of both is the transformation of young men and women like the ones we’ve seen on the front pages of the newspaper. The transformation has shifted their allegiances from the communities in which they were born and raised to the institutions they now serve. As the founders of this nation recognized, standing armies of any kind represent a grave risk to real democracy because the ultimately become beholden only to their leader and oftentimes only to the instituion of which they are a part.

For progressives seeking to create a more just and democratic society, taking on this obstacle is of the utmost importance.

Until we reach a time when no form of defense force is necessary, we have a responsibility to address the question of what armed forces in a democracy should look like. If we believe democratization is always an essential element of progressive change, then we must be willing to look beyond the current agenda of the peace movement. The discussion must examine — even at the risk of raising the hackles of many 60s-era activists whether a lottery-based draft — in which all citizens of a certain age group must participate.

On the home front, democratization is also the key. We must be looking at ways to reconnect the women and men who are part of police institutions to a broader democratic community. The police accountability movement in this country has offered up some steps in that direction: more training emphasizing democratic values; citizen review boards; elected police commissions; and community-driven community policing methods to name a few.

There remains a great deal of discussion to take place in the progressive community before we reach agreement on many of the above ideas. It will be well worth the frustration and hard work such discussions represent. If we can begin moving solid programs on these issues we can save thousands from being transformed into torturers and brutes as well the thousands more they victimize. We can also begin undermining the foundations upon which our bloody empire is built.




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Last Updated: August 3, 2004