Spectacles have played a significant part of empires and public life throughout history. From the circuses of Rome to the Nuremberg rallies of Nazi Germany, the staging of public events for mass mobilization has served the interests of the ruling elite. However, in this era of the society of the spectacle where images dominate beyond just the media environment, the spectacle is even more integral to the functioning of society.
Only our callousness and denial, characteristics built into the political culture of empire, prevent us from effectively countering the gruesome spectacle of Abu Ghraib and what it represents. One does not need a radical imagination to break free from such horror; just a sense of common humanity. But to recognize that common humanity requires overcoming ethnic, religious, and national prejudices that also inform the political culture of empire.
Perhaps it may be time to raise the whole matter of the "F" word. It certainly seems reasonable to call this erosion of liberties and rights creeping fascism, albeit a postmodern fascism that does not need to rely on mass mobilization [hic] for realizing a proto-fascist agenda. In one of the most brilliant analyses of everyday life in Nazi Germany, Detlev Peukert devoted a whole chapter to 'The Atomization of Everyday Life' in his Inside Nazi Germany (236-242). Combining a form of psychic numbing with political numbing, many Germans just retreated from any public political life and took refuge in their own isolation. Since there is much evidence to support the tendency towards atomization and privatization of everyday life in the United States, it may not require utilizing any reference to fascism, whether postmodern or not. On the other hand, when an administrative authority relies on the militarization of everyday life to pursue a repressive and aggressive agenda, it may be necessary to raise the specter of fascism.
Of course, the racism that led the U.S. military to see every 'gook' as VC in Vietnam has also re-appeared in Iraq. According to one British commander in Iraq, American troops often saw Iraqis as 'undermenschen -- the Nazi expression for sub-humans.' Although embedded U.S. reporters rarely provided an insight into the racist mindset, Mark Franchetti of the London Times quoted one U.S. soldier as asserting that 'Iraqis are sick people and we are the chemotherapy.' And with chemotherapy if the sick person dies it was only to help cure the person.
To view the Bush regime as an aberration in U.S. politics, notwithstanding the electoral shenanigans of the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004, is to neglect the right-wing trends in American life during the last 30 years. These trends have been part of a reaction to the democratization fostered by the movements of the 1960's and the crisis of U.S. hegemony in the 1970's in the aftermath of the conflict in Southeast Asia. Starting with the Reagan Administration of the 1980's, attempts have been mounted at the national, state, and local levels to turn back the clock by repealing or undermining legislative advances made by minorities and women and to reverse environmental protections.
To prove they have compassion, albeit constricted and exclusionary, Republicans mount high-profile campaigns such as their intervention in the Terry Schiavo case. Congressional Republicans obviously believe that they can play on the sentiments of a media-manipulated public, too busy or numbed to realize the details of their awful budgetary cuts. Furthermore, and most tragic of all, hewing to a strict father model of government, Congressional Republicans have arrogated to themselves the desire to play god, dispensing life and death according to their own narrow-minded whims and truly heartless politics.
The immediately biopolitical significance of the state of exception as the originary structure in which law encompasses living beings by means of its own suspension emerges clearly in the 'military order' issued by the President of the United States on November 13, 2001, which authorized the 'indefinite detention' and trial by 'military commissions' (not to be confused with the military tribunals provided for by the law of war) of noncitizens suspected of involvement in terrorist activities [...] What is new about President Bush's order is that it radically erases any legal status of the individual, thus producing a legally unnamable and unclassifiable being. Not only do the Taliban captured in Afghanistan not enjoy the status of POWs as defined by the Geneva Convention, they do not even have the status of persons charged with a crime according to Americans laws. Neither prisoners not persons accused, but simply 'detainees,' they are the object of a pure de facto rule, of a detention that is indefinite not only in the temporal sense but in its very nature as well, since it is entirely removed from the law and from judicial oversight. The only thing to which it could possibly be compared is the legal situation of the Jews in the Nazi Lager (camps), who, along with their citizenship, had lost every legal identity, but at least retained their identity as Jews. As Judith Bulter has effectively shown, in the detainee at Guantanamo, bare life reaches its maximum indeterminacy.