The United States - overcome by a "battlefield mentality"?

Members of the Washington D.C. National Guard stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, June 2. (Credit: Win Mcnamee - Getty Images)

As 10 000 people marched in Geneva Tuesday against the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, academics from Switzerland, France and the United States debated the “racialization” of security from the 9/11 era to the current Covid-19 crisis at a Graduate Institute, Geneva webinar.

Why is it important? Preoccupations with terrorism, radicalization and extremism have proliferated in the United States over the past two decades, exacerbating racial tensions, political polarization and a “battlefield mentality” among many people in the United states and abroad.

But the widening circle of protests over the death of George Floyd might also be the sign of “a global moment” where old assumptions are reassessed, said the panelists, who included Elizabeth Hurd, American Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University; Nadia Marzouki, Research Fellow at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS); and Mohammad Mahmoud Mohamedou, Graduate Institute Professor of International History.

Roots of the racialization of security. Historically, racism and a preoccupation with security have been interconnected. Mohamedou:

“Security has been instrumentalised in the name of racism and racism has been securitized.”

Over the past two decades, the two notions have moved even closer together, with security “elevated, sanctified and fetichized” onto racism. Blame has been attributed to Muslims, Arabs, and other people of black or brown colour for much of what is wrong in society, said Mohamedou.

In the wake of the death of Floyd, the alignment between security and racism was etched in sharp relief. Hurd:

“Following the death of Floyd, peaceful protesters were described as “terrorists” and “extremists” by governments officials. A battlefield mentality is taking shape in the US.”

The patterns cementing this “battlefield mentality”.

  • African-Americans have long been perceived as a threat to social and personal security, even in colonial times;

  • Muslim men and women have been perceived as an ideological and/or religious threat locally and globally.

  • Latinos have been perceived as a threat in terms of their origins as migrants in the United States, “barbarians at the gate”;

  • Militarization of police. The image of police deployed on the steps of the Capitol in Washington DC in riot gear with their faces covered , underscores that evolution. Mohamedou:

“Is it private military companies, armed groups, terrorists or a guerilla movement? What do they look like? No, they are the government…”

Racialized governance. According to Hurd, issues of race, religion politics and national security have always been intertwined in law and public culture. But the “battlefield mentality”, as such, became even more deeply rooted after the September 11 terror attacks in New York City and Washington DC. A range of post-9/11 initiatives followed, often with exotic names such as: “Countering and Preventing Violent Extremism (CVE and PVE)” or “Targeted Violence in Terrorism Prevention (TVTP)”:

“Congress authorized US$ 10 million dollars for TVTP in 2021. We cannot understand CVE unless we understand that history and we cannot understand that history without understanding the US as a racial project. This brings us full circle to today’s protests (…) driven by this sense of siege, police and military presence, the militarization of society as a whole.”

The hundreds of miles wide region of the southern US hugging the Mexican border is Hurd’s latest research topic, one she finds to be a perfect example of the racialization of government policies. She said that the US NGO People Helping People found vehicles driven by Latinos in the town of Arivaca (18 km north of the Mexican border in Arizona) were 26 times more likely to be asked for their identity cards and 20 times more likely to be sent for secondary inspections. Hurd:

“This kind of racialized policing of patrolling is part of a long history of white supremacy in the border patrol founded in 1924 in the Immigration Act. (…) This formidable police instruction is part of the backbone of a much larger skeleton of state sponsored white surpremacy’s power in the US. CVE is a part of this, a key supporting actor in this drama.”