America means one thing and one thing only: if you oppose it you are a terrorist. (A being, in popular imagery, so vile that it deserves no sense of justice) However, as long as you love America you can commit the most heinous acts and you may not be treated fairly but you will be recognized as human.
However the moment you oppose America or Canada or Europe or Australia you will not be seen as an equal, as being deserving of rights, but an outsider, an alien intruder.
A boat of Tamil refugees fleeing the oppressive situation in Sri Lanka is deserving of our sympathy and more importantly, our understanding. The Canadian government (and the Sri Lankan government) and the xenophobic press want us to have the utmost contempt for those on-board. They want us to vilify them as terrorists, as line jumpers, and as parasites.
It sounds all sound too familiar to those who know anything about Canadian history. The MS St. Louis carrying Jewish refugees from Europe was not permitted to dock come to Canada. It returned to Europe and many of the Jewish passengers were murdered in the Holocaust. The point of the analogy is not just to draw a crude line between two sets of refugees coming to Canada by boat.
Rather we must recognize we are in one way or another all products of migration. My ancestors, were economic and political refugees from places like Scotland and Ireland. They came here by boat. They are no more deserving of settling on this land than Tamil refugees. In fact, the legacy of racism and colonialism in Canada makes the migration taking place seem tame in comparison.
To be fair let’s state the facts. The migration of my ancestors was part of an imperial drive to colonize North America. To do this required the mass murder and mass displacement of indigenous peoples throughout North America. Migrants who came to the shores of North America in shitty boats in 18th and 19th century came to North America because they thought they could have a better life. They were part of an explicit program to colonize. Migrants, today are forced to come to Canada and other global North countries for the same economic reasons. At least those coming to North America now aren’t part of some murderous colonial project, they are the products of neo-colonialism and neo-liberalism.
Just as Irish, Italian and other ethnic groups migrating to North America, Tamils and others are vilified. They are deemed to be almost sub-human terrorists. This is about race and racism. There can be no other conclusion. However, the operation of race is not the only thing going on. The equation Tamil=Terrorist also has a geopolitical subtext. It is about labeling the defeated the poor and the invisible underclass as beyond the pale of human rights. The reasons are that the global north wants the migration system to continue. It is not about ending migration and sealing borders. It is not even about keeping out racialized people.
It is about making sure that a few rich and educated people immigrate here and the rest of the people who come are here viewed not as people but as some form of temporary labour. They are not workers, but non-fixed capital which can be used and then disposed as needed.
It is important that migrants are not just allowed to come to Canada to work and leave. They must also be painted as outsiders. society must be codified legal/ illegal/ temporary. This functions hand-in-hand with racism.
The most interesting case of making sure that outsiders are dehumanized is surely Guantanamo. According to the internal logic, the War on Terror being waged is neither a proper war nor some police action. It is battle beyond any legal framework. It is the excess of modern warfare. It doesn’t point to the return to some pre-convention war as savagery model, but clearly illuminates the topography of future imperial systems.
There are those who are human and those who are not. Prisoners of war versus enemy combatants. Foreign troops versus terrorists. This goes beyond the usual racist dehumanization that comes with war and occupation where foreign armies and populations are labeled as “gooks” or “sandniggers”.
The situation of Omar Khadr is a good example of this neo-non human category that is being created. The Canadian born Guantanamo Bay detainee is in the process of being judged by a kangaroo court in the United States. The facts of his case are clear. He was a 15 year old child soldier who, along with his family went to Afghanistan to take up arms against American invaders of that country. In July of 2002 Khadr was blinded by shrapnel, shot twice and taken into custody by American troops.
The conflicting reports surrounding the firefight and his capture will never be made clear. He may or may not have thrown a grenade that killed a U.S. soldier. An invading soldier may have been killed by a boy, who was initially attacked and blinded by said soldiers. Is this not the point of war? To kill enemy soldiers, especially after being attacked by them. Khadr was taken into custody and like so many other detainees was tortured. Beatings, refusal of pain medication, forced urination on himself, forced caring of water buckets to aggravate his injury, stress positions, sleep deprivation, force feeding, the threat of military dogs, and of being gang raped to death were just some of the grotesque experiences endured by the teenaged Khadr.
Now, no one wants Khadr. Our government treats him as a persona non grata. The American government views him as an enemy combatant but not a prisoner of war. He is a stateless being. He is not a boy, nor a man. He is a terrorist. He is Muslim. He is brown. He is all brown people. There is an obvious parallel to the logic of antisemitism: the universal stateless jew masquerading as a neighbour and its contradiction, the grotesque caricature of a jewish figure as completely foreign are together intertwined to form an ever present fear. Omar Khadr is at the same time every Muslim kid in Canada and a foreign terrorist.
This is a systematic approach of dehumanizing all opposition to the point where there can no longer be any opposition. There is just internal harmony and an external threat. Is this not the present situation we find ourselves in. What real debates exist in our public arena? The census? Budget management? There are no real debates.
Without real debates we have manufactured tensions surrounding false dichotomies. Religious fundamentalism versus individual rights. Religion, as Slavoj Zizek points out, has become one of the only places to lob criticism against hegemonic capital. The system of internal cohesion creates external threats and drives people to “extremist” positions. The failing of the left has been its inability to capitalize on this.
So where are we now? xenophobia is back with a vengeance. Do we have the courage to stand up to it? Can we defy nationalism and racism? Only if we universalize our struggles and understand, as Martin Luther King Jr. did when he said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”