Friday, May 22, 2009

Preemption to Prevention : Bush to Obama

Glenn Greenwald provides a thorough FAQ about the contexts and consequences of Obama's suggestion in yesterday's speech at the National Archive, that the US might need to institute "preventive detention" as a security strategy to protect the US from terrorist threats, particularly threats from Al Qaeda. As critics from the left and the libertarian right have quickly noted, the institutionalization of indefinite preventive detention would provide the US president with far more power to detain without trial so-called enemies of the nation than was ever granted to the Bush or any previous administration.

I count myself among the ranks of those who oppose preventive detention. As the medio-political blogosphere is loudly and correctly objecting, this policy would violate fundamental principles of the US Constitution. What is most interesting about preventive detention for me, however, is the way it indicates the persistence of premediation in the age of Obama.

Premediation furnishes the media regime for the Obama administration's preventive approach to terrorism as it did the Bush Administration's doctrine of preemption. In the case of Obama's prevention as of Bush's preemption, government security action (or "pre"action) is triggered not by an act of terrorism that has been committed in the past, nor by any specific threat or plan or plot to commit terrorism that presently exists, but by the potential to commit terrorism in the future.

Premediated terrorism takes no specific or particular form, and may never come about--or perhaps it may. But in the case of preventive detention it is immaterial if the terrorist threat is actual or not. It is a virtual terrorism that has real (which is to say virtual) consequences. The potential to commit virtual terrorist acts against the US may have as one of its consequences the triggering of US security action, the indefinite preventive detention of the virtual terrorist. Like Brian Massumi's characterization of the primacy of preemption in the Bush era, Obama's prevention comes prior to, or precedes, the terrorist action it would prevent. Prevention operates within a realm of premediated security--securitization, or security action, is triggered by the premediation of potential terrorism rather than the mediation (or remediation) of ongoing or completed terrorist acts.

The political conseqences of preventive detention are horrifying. Medialogically, however, the consequences of prevention are in some sense business as usual. At the present historical moment mediation is oriented persistently towards ongoing futures which can only emerge through the present and into the past by being subtracted or selected from an amorphous and indefinite field of other potential futures. Which is to underscore that premediation was not invented by the Bush administration but creatively deployed by them, particularly during the Cheney-Bush years from 2001-2005--and that premediation persists virtually into any number of potential future media regimes.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Transparency and Affectivity

Yesterday's decision by the Obama administration to bar the release of more than 2000 additional photos of detainee abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan has been criticized from the left by groups like the ACLU as an about-face in Obama's earlier claim that these photos would be released. Refusing to release these photographs, Obama's critics argue, makes a mockery of his avowed commitment to "transparency" in government. Obama justified his decision to keep these photos from the public by arguing that “The publication of these photos would not add any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals. . . .  In fact, the most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger.” 

"Transparency" is indeed the crux of the issue here, but not in the way that the ACLU (or perhaps the Obama administration) understands it. What underwrites the ACLU's position is a commitment to the idea that photographs provide transparent evidence of unconscionable, illegal behavior by US soldiers. For the ACLU photographs are understood chiefly as evidentiary; the right of the public to know about their government's behavior is the fundamental principle on which their argument rests. This right to know is more important than considerations about the consequences of making the photographs public. Transparency, not affectivity, is foremost for the ACLU.  

For the Obama administration, on the other hand, knowledge of the existence of the photographs and the kinds of behavior they show is enough. Or perhaps more accurately, the need for the American public to have photographic evidence of this behavior is outweighed by the global affective and military consequences that releasing these photographs would produce. Obama's argument for withholding the photographs is based not upon what the photographs depict, about the knowledge they would provide about unlawful, inhuman behavior by US soldiers, but about how the photographs would act in the world as media artifacts.  The photos "would not add any additional benefit to our understanding," he insists, but would "further inflame anti-American opinion" and endanger "our troops." Affectivity, not transparency, guides Obama's decision to bar the release of these photographs. 

My aim in unpacking the assumptions underlying this debate is not to make a strong case either for or against the release of the photographs (although as an academic scholar I generally tend to favor accessibility to and availability of the historical record). Rather I invoke this debate because of its affinities to the argument I make about Abu Ghraib in my forthcoming book--that the outrage produced by the release and distribution of the Abu Ghraib photographs derived less from their evidentiary transparency than from their affectivity as media artifacts. Obama's justification for barring the release of these 2000-plus additional photographs, because of their affective potential to inflame anti-American opinion and thus further endanger US troops, restages part of my argument about the Abu Ghriab photographs--that their powerful global impact can be explained less by what they showed the public than by what they did. While I have sympathy with the ACLU's arguments about transparency of government I find their single-minded focus on the evidentiary transparency of the photographs to be medialogically naive.