The Sikh temple massacre in Wisconsin:
Why patriotism can lead to mass murder from higher motives
After a gunman with ties to white power groups kills six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, law officers, politicians and the media “search for a motive” they find elusive. They point to the Neo-Nazi groups and music scene that the killer was involved in, but this just proves his “madness” and “the same mix of fear, ignorance, and bigotry that fuels all violence” (National Council of Churches). There is general agreement: the murders are “mindless” (USA Today), motivated by nothing but “evil” (Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker) and therefore a “senseless act” that calls on Americans to do some “soul searching” (Obama) because it is ultimately beyond understanding. This confession that the violent event is incomprehensible, however, doesn’t lead public opinion makers to shut up, but to go on about how fundamentally foreign it is to “our broader American family” (Obama) – of course, America sees itself as the model “multicultural society,” “a nation of immigrants,” and the American state would never kill foreigners, who are just as protected under its force as its own citizens, and any attack on them is pursued as “terrorism.”
The murderous deed is certainly not “incomprehensible.” The perpetrator himself didn’t think it required any further explanation – either to his sympathizers or his foreign enemies. The message is as simple as it clear: “They are aliens, they do not belong here, and we must get rid of them – by any means necessary.” It’s so important that its up to him, and he sacrifices his own existence for it. As he said in his lyrics: “What has happened to America, that was once so white and free? … now I’ll fight for my race and nation.” With his 9mm pistol, he enforces his own interpretation of a fundamental difference between Americans and aliens which everyone is familiar with in principle. And he didn’t make up this difference. The state created it with all its sovereignty. With its citizenship and immigration laws, the state defines the extent of the rights of humans, divides those located on its territory into natives endowed with all rights and duties and those who in principle have no business being here because they belong to other states and are therefore only exceptionally granted rights which range on a scale depending on how useful they are to the state; some enjoy residence and work permits because they are useful for the growth needs of American capitals, some are recognized as deserving political asylum, some tolerated, and a lot of them detained and deported if the state doesn’t find them of any use. So the state creates its people, who are unconditionally available to it and therefore obligated to increase their usefulness to it, because it exclusively makes use of them for its benefit. It also permits its people’s rights to extend to some foreigners if they pledge their allegiance and demonstrate the loyalty which it assumes in its natives. But with its use-oriented opportunistic dealing with foreigners, the state creates conditions in the country that give pause to well-meaning native citizens. They ask themselves whether so many immigrants want to be American merely for their own advantage. They know Americans who look like Indians, and Indians who may be almost the same as “real” Americans, and lots of other “fellow Americans from immigrant backgrounds” whose presence they see as being no good for “us” and instills “fear” when they are perceived as being too many, something the politicians should “take more seriously.” Quite a few good Americans seem to recognize in the state’s dealing with foreigners a relativization of their relationship to their state, a challenge to the national special status that their state owes them. It does not enter their minds that this is owed to a legal act of state. The citizen sees himself concerned here as a patriot, for the question of membership to a people is not a question and certainly not one of desire and choice. One is American or one is not, and one is for America because one is American. The desire for the political power is determined in this conception by a pre-political character of the people: The collective people creates the state, whose primary task is to serve the people and whose privilege, to be the state of “we the people,” it fulfills.
This reversal of the relationship between the state and the people in the minds of the citizens is the result of successful politicization. In its elementary form, it exists in the reflexive habit of the citizens to think in terms of “us” and “them,” to put every interest into relation with the common good, and to have an unquestioning and unswerving bias for the people and the nation. Then they feel and think as Americans and the cause of the nation is close to their hearts. They find a source of edification and disappointment in the fate of the nation, sharing in its victories and defeats. So they embrace the cause of the nation in their flesh and blood and give it practical feeling. The people see their state-assigned function as their own and constitute themselves as the people, from which “others” are naturally excluded. The concept “alien” belongs here, though not to politically correct language in a democracy. The state maintains and promotes the bad habit of patriotic thinking and feeling, from childhood indoctrination up to the organization of big national events in which the people celebrates itself and enjoys the identity of “I” and “we” that otherwise does not exist in the market economy and its free competition.
Anti-immigrant resentment belongs to the political culture of the country, serving in the democratic competition as an effective means for getting the electorate’s attention. Democratic politicians want to protect their clients from “immigrants abusing our social programs,” want “American jobs for American workers,” see foreigners “buying up America,” campaign against “anchor babies,” demand “English only,” call for “secure borders to protect against an immigrant invasion” and call on the police to detain people suspected of being foreigners.
The flip side of healthy patriotism is a fundamentally critical attitude of the people towards the state authority. The democratic state tends to let the ideal unity of the people and nation lapse, because a people standing in loyalty to it is its basis and means, but not its purpose. It pursues other tasks besides maintaining national traditions, primarily the promotion of capitalist growth, which is why opinions about immigrants among the people diverges and sometimes conflicts with those of the responsible politicians. The people did not order the import of “highly skilled workers.” The state has its reasons for allowing immigrants to get food stamps, but the people have little sympathy for this. Whether or not foreigners are annoying is seen very differently by the state and the people, which is the reason for the complaint that the state neglects its duty to its own people. It is not concerned about the “legitimate grievances of its citizens” and should let foreigners know who is “in charge.”
The step to violence is not that far off, but the good patriot remains a critical subject, respecting the state’s monopoly on violence and requiring that his state govern its cause on its own terms. The racist domesticated by civic responsibility still mostly abides by this distribution of tasks, even when his resentment of foreigners turns into hate because he has made the people and the nation his concern to such an extent that he simply can’t stand the presence of “alien elements among the people” and feels that this is a personal injustice, contesting his right to an America that should belong exclusively to his own (white) American people.
The radical right wing activist shares the sullen nationalist sentiments of grumbling members of the people, but he considers them inconsistent, because they see the danger to the people and nation as much as he does, but do nothing about it. He renounces patriotic obedience and trust in the state’s governing of the national cause in the sense of the people – and acts on it. He wants to “End Apathy,” as Wade Michael Page’s band name put it.
So he kills a bunch of Sikhs. Or like the Norwegian patriot Breivik he makes “rescuing the Christian West and its values from Islam” his highly personal duty and reminds the state power what they let themselves in for with their immigration policy by launching a bloody attack on the children of the ruling party. Page carried out his criticism of the state’s delinquency on the foreigners themselves, and counted on its deterrent effect on them and signal to his scene. Such “senselessness” doesn’t exist without a higher mission.
The people: A terrible abstraction (Parts 1 and 2)
Foreigners and the problem they represent