Friday, December 10, 2010

Against Impunity

While living in Denver, my wife and I became active in SOAWatch, an organization that protested strongly against the training of Latin American "military advisors" (read: torturers and murderers) at various domestic United States military institutions. The outrageous facts and horrifying realities of these matters are well-documented, as is US complicity (and in many ways, direct responsibility for) in the gross injustices and violations of human persons south of our borders. Among the many evils of the situation is the continued arrogance of those in power, who continue to take impunity for granted, and too often, find these expectations confirmed in reality.

This blog is not intended primarily as a "political" or "activist" endeavor. However, two recent articles from the Daily have raised the issue of impunity in situations regarding situations that hit close to home, and thus I feel deserve attention.

The first, "Operation Ivy League," reports about the shock felt by the Columbia University community in the aftermath of a major drug bust involving five students and three off-campus dealers. Anyone who went to college knows that undergrads are particularly adept at random acts of stupidity, as well as more maniacal schemes to satiate the rabid appetites stirred by campus independence. One of my own roommates, when rushing a prestigious frat in order to gain access to Princeton's (in)famous palace of elite-dom, the eating club known as Ivy, agreed to get higher than Mitch Hedberg, to be blindfolded and dropped at a train station in inner-city Trenton, and to have to make his way back - with a dead fish duck-taped to his chest (which remained there for the good part of seven days afterward, by the way). That Ivy-leaguers in particular are prone to push the limits of good sense and ethical acceptability for the sake of power and prestige is a given. This roommate of mine ended up working for Goldman Sachs, along with the vast majority of my classmates - and we all know the end of that story. What is particularly poignant about Joshua Robinson's and Lloyd Grove's Beast article is the following observation:

But, in fact, the prestigious institution on Manhattan’s Upper West Side has long been “ripe” for drug trafficking, a knowledgeable 2009 Columbia graduate told The Daily Beast. “I think the permissive environment of Public Safety”—as Columbia’s campus police force is known—“makes it a no-brainer proposition,” said this former student, who described himself as a recreational drug user who dabbled in selling. “I always felt safe.”

Another recent grad and former residential adviser confirmed these observations. “It is permissive,” the former student adviser told The Daily Beast. “I got the sense that it wasn’t a priority…When you suspected illegal drug use—which means pot, because it’s the only one you’d be able to tell from the hall—you’d have to call Public Safety. Of course, there was the understanding that Public Safety would take so long to respond that there would be no evidence still apparent. I don’t know if it was deliberate, but after 45 minutes or an hour, you’d have to be a moron to get caught. You’d have to be still holding a joint.”

Perhaps there's no direct link between campus administrations and their police forces at elite institutions who look the other way while the future leaders of America are habituated into an amoral world where reading Nietzsche (poorly, I might add) becomes an excuse to see detachment from responsibility or the consequences of one's actions as a privilege earned with one's degree. Maybe its just a coincidence that Donald Rumsfeld, known for his authorization of torture as legitimate means of interrogation of terrorists, and a member of my collegiate grandfather class - he is class of 1954, I, 2004 - and the fact that the Columbia undergrads recently busted were involved with individuals prepared to hire an undercover cop to kidnap and torture a rival dealer. Or maybe, just maybe, impunity is something engineered into the moral DNA of the powerful by the negligence of those whose own continued prosperity rests upon neglecting to acknowledge in others what would also bring condemnation on themselves and the system of domination to which they wittingly or unwittingly lend legitimacy.

The second article, "Sex Slave Outrage," deals in even more serious matters. Michelle Goldberg reports on the efforts by the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, the same group that successfully ended Craigslist's "erotic services" section due to its implicit promotion of sex trafficking and sexual abuse of women, to hold another such venue,, similarly accountable. The Rebecca Project is using non-violent, persuasive means via a series of advertisements picturing a mug shot of a man holding a sign that reads "I paid to rape a 14-year old I found on Backpage," and urges the service, an outlet of Village Voice Media, to "close your 'Adult' section until you can guarantee no girl is sold for sex on your website." The response?

Much as Craigslist did, Village Voice Media, which didn’t respond to requests for comment, argues that it can’t be responsible for what people post on its site, and that it helps law enforcement prosecute those involved in sex trafficking. A post on the company’s corporate blog says that in the McFarland case, “Without our knowledge, the predator violated our terms of use. has stringent safeguards in place to ensure that only adults use the site. We provided the FBI with the perpetrator's IP address and credit-card information.”

While sounds a bit more engaged than Columbia University Public Safety, once more the evasion of responsibility, rather than the acknowledgment of tragedy (see Stanley Cavell for more on this) is again a common theme.

As I have implied elsewhere, participation of any form in an industry that operates on the basis of the commodification of other human bodies - in this case, and far too often, the bodies of women and children - even casual engagement with materials that underwrite such industries, represents a sacrifice not only of personal righteousness, but also of justice. The two are reciprocal and inexorably intertwined. This is particularly striking in light of the article's reporting that

The campaign has a particular urgency as the Super Bowl approaches, because the game is a magnet for prostitution. During last year’s Super Bowl in Tampa, the Florida Department of Children & Families took custody of 24 minors who’d been brought to the area for prostitution in the days leading up to the game. This year in Texas, Attorney General Greg Abbott said recently, “There is an organized effort to bring in children and women for the purpose of human trafficking and for the purpose of the sale of sex.”

“There’s no question that Backpage will play a critical role in facilitating the purchase of girls” in Dallas, says Saada Saar. At least, not unless the site makes changes soon.

In a strange and abominable collusion between bohemian libertarian values and the obvious connection between consumerism, violence, and male exploitation of women, entertainment and self-satisfaction become occasions for the event of abuse, injustice, and impunity. One wonders if participation in the Super Bowl, even by watching any of its numerous ads attempting to shape initializing and bruti-fying self-understandings of masculinity (often vis-a-vis objectifying and commodifying potrayals of women), is something we can do with a clear conscience, knowing what is taking place on the ground in lonely motel rooms and lofty luxury suites in Tampa before the broadcast. We all seek impunity in our own ways.

Mature believers are called to their own discernment in these seemingly complex, yet harrowingly simple decisions. If we cannot discuss prostitution in scripture without sniggering at the word "pimp" (as happened in our New Testament Theology class the other day), partly because of the glorification of such figures in popular culture, and if we attempt to justify such laughter, we act with impunity. If we remain unconcerned with the ways we are malformed by culture, education, politics, and bad theology, we act with impunity. If we believe that responsibility, consequence, and conversion are inconveniences to be put off until a later more manageable time, we act with impunity. If others continue to act with impunity, it is because the Church has given such impunity to them as a gift which in its very form mocks the Eucharistic offering that most intimately and urgently implicates us in God's death in the lives of God's children, as well as the justice and righteousness God calls us to pursue as those who have been first held accountable, and only then been given God's justice of forgiveness.

None of us ought to be surprised by the world's reveling in impunity, from the heights of power to the depths of the underworld, seeking to gather into its shadow all of us who dwell in the midst of such things. But at some point, the Church is called to come out of its union with the easiness of an impunity enjoyed at the expense of the unseen suffering of others, and to acknowledge and embrace the responsibility Christ has given us, not merely for ourselves, but also for the least, and the greatest, of these. In discerning and renouncing our participation in the ugliness of impunity, the Church will discover new depths of her beauty, embraced in the arms of solidarity.

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