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The Return of Relevance


Trying to stay afloat in the turbulent wake of September 11, I was full of fear like most people, fear of another attack, fear of the U.S. war machine, fear of racist assaults on Arab-Americans and South Asians, fear of further erosion of civil liberties in the name of national security. In many ways this fear was debilitating – it was hard to get on with the business of my feminist politics as usual. Everything else besides “this” seemed besides the point.

Now the fear is somewhat less acute personally, though like all of us, I fear the potential consequences of U.S. military operations, or just the threat of operations, in terms of loss of life in Aghanistan and other targeted countries. But some space has opened up to experience the return of relevance. As progressive forces in the U.S. begin to forge an anti-war movement, it is a critical time to reflect on how our various “issues” meet in the current moment. Some of the intersections are more obvious than others, but it doesn’t take too much stretching of the political imagination to come up with numerous linkages.

In fact, we desperately need to make these linkages if we are going to build a broad, effective and sustainable movement. If ever there was a time to cross issue and identity boundaries, it is now. This doesn’t mean a kind of naïve ideological blurring; on the contrary, it requires a sharpening of political analysis and strategy.

Recent feminist reconceptualizations of violence, for example, have much to offer in this period. In “Whose Safety? Women of Color and the Violence of Law Enforcement,” published by AFSC and the Committee on Women, Population and the Environment, Anannya Bhatacharjee argues against the artificial distinction between private and public violence. Women’s anti-violence groups and law enforcement accountability organizations must work more closely together to fight mounting state-sponsored violence against women of color and immigrant women, in their homes, communities and work places.

Bhatacharjee points to the increasing cooperation between law enforcement agencies – the police, Border Patrol, and INS – in this repression, as they seek not only to defend national borders but “interior borders based on institutionalized racism and economic privilege.” As the forces of repression become more integrated, advocacy groups need to develop a more integrated response: prisoners rights, immigrant rights, women’s rights are all at stake and intertwined.

In analyzing the unfolding response to the September 11 attacks, we also need to drop the artificial distinction between internal and external violence. Militarism abroad will mean more militarization of society at home. Many commentators tell us that nothing is going to be the same after the attacks, but in the case of domestic repression, it is essentially more of the same which we can expect, with vulnerable groups such as immigrants and communities of color bearing the brunt of the intensified assault on civil liberties.

The foundations of the national security state have been laid in place carefully over the last decade or so, largely under a Democratic administration. The ‘war on drugs,’ ‘the three strikes and you’re out’ policy, the criminalization of pregnancy, youth being tried as adults, welfare and immigration ‘reform,’ soaring incarceration rates – all of these have already made life “never the same” for many families.

The emerging anti-war movement needs to focus not only on U.S. militarism overseas, but at home, and to make common cause with the many groups who have been fighting domestic repression, just as these groups need to make common cause among themselves.

At this time we also need to be particularly watchful of the many ways militarism intensifies patriarchal attitudes and practices in the society at large. Even on the left, men’s voices tend to dominate since foreign policy has traditionally been a male preserve. Building a strong feminist presence in the anti-war movement is essential for its success. There is much to be learned from progressive feminist organizing, such as the difficult but necessary crossing of racial, class, cultural and national boundaries in the reproductive rights movement.

Feminists have also been out front in expanding the meaning of human rights and the struggle for an International Criminal Court, which is where, in a better world, those responsible for the mass murder on September 11 would be brought to justice.

Environmentalism is relevant at this time too. We do not have to wait for the first bombs to drop to point out the environmental devastation wrought by war. Just revving up the U.S. war machine has tremendous environmental costs. The U.S. military is already the largest domestic oil consumer and generates more toxic waste than the five largest multinational chemical companies combined. In general, our country’s devil-may-care attitude toward reliance on and over-consumption of fossil fuels undergirds U.S. support for repressive regimes in the Middle East. SUV-culture is not just a culture of conspicuous consumption, but one which depends on military might.

There is plenty to find in our own issues and movements that is relevant to the struggle ahead. But the other lesson to take from this moment is that militarism is always relevant and that even in times of relative peace, we ignore it at our peril.

Betsy Hartmann is Director of the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College. 1)

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