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'Imperial privilege,' write the authors, 'has distorted the political conversation in the United States by allowing some questions of conscience to be heard while silencing others.' (Photo: via Iran Daily)

Imperial Privilege: On War and Violence Near and Far

“Imagining politics as a form of war,” writes political scientist and philosopher Achilles Mbembe, “we must ask: What place is given to life, death, and the human body (in particular the wounded or slain body)? How are they inscribed in the order of power?” When it comes to presidential elections in the United States, the answer is “not much”—especially when those bodies are in faraway lands and wounded or slain not by “terrorists” but by state actors. The ability of the American electorate to shrug off the plight of those who suffer as the direct result of U.S. foreign policy is so pervasive that it deserves a name. We call it “imperial privilege.”

Indeed, so pervasive is this particular form of privilege that it is not limited to the “usual suspects,” e.g., militarists or right-wing politicians. Imperial privilege makes it possible for even the liberally-inclined to turn a blind eye to the toxic footprint of U.S. militarism at home and abroad; to fall silent at any mention of the homicidal decisions of an American President; to exclude such matters from public political discussion and to prevent them from influencing their voting patterns in any way.

"Whether by turning off the TV and heading to the mall, the movies, or for a hike in the great outdoors, Americans may turn off war with a click. People in countries such as Yemen where U.S. armament sales fuel the devastation of war do not enjoy that option."

Despite the fact that the Black Lives Matter movement has made the nation aware of the militarization of our police, the use of tanks and teargas on the streets of American cities shocks the conscience only of a vocal minority. The connections that exist between police violence at home and U.S. militarism abroad has little salience as an election issue. Instead, Donald Trump’s belligerent racism and xenophobia have captured the attention of many people of colour and their liberal white allies and convinced them to support Hillary Clinton. Trump and everything he stands for are surely offensive, but are they necessarily more offensive than Clinton’s history of cold and calculated hawkishness? Has the human toll of that hawkishness proved to be any less racist?

We are told that refusing to vote for Clinton constitutes a particular type of privilege, because communities of colour will suffer most under a Trump presidency. But imperial privilege allows Americans (black, brown, and white) to focus only on the “homeland” and ignore the consequences of their political choices for any other country. There is a disturbing moral disconnect here. Voters who support a candidate that recognizes black lives matter nevertheless avert their gaze in good conscience from the thousands who are killed as a direct result of that same candidate’s interventionist policies. Voters scandalized when a child’s life is jeopardized during a domestic police confrontation regard the slaughter of large numbers of children in other countries as regrettable but inevitable “collateral damage.” They call for context. But what context justifies the taking of innocent lives? “Collateral” and “context” then become part of the lexicon of imperial privilege.

The American Empire is not a physical empire as were the European Empires of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Rather than colonies it has bases, command posts, zones, etc. and reserves the right to invade and occupy any region of the world where it considers its interests endangered. Such interests are material as well as strategic. These are the new “colonies” and, as Mbembe indicates, “the sovereign right to kill is not subject to any rule in the colonies. In the colonies, the sovereign might kill at any time or in any manner.”

Americans enjoy the luxury to turn away from pictures of violent conflict: of children smeared with blood and mud, of refugees living in desperate conditions. Whether by turning off the TV and heading to the mall, the movies, or for a hike in the great outdoors, Americans may turn off war with a click. People in countries such as Yemen where U.S. armament sales fuel the devastation of war do not enjoy that option. Neither do the people of Gaza who suffer daily from the Israeli government’s routine employment of excessive force—violence underwritten by U.S. military, economic, and political support. The luxury to turn away is imperial privilege.

While race as a biopolitical category is recognized within the U.S. social order, it is only too often invisible beyond that order, and that invisibility allows people of all races to participate in the creation of killable populations in other countries. This fact places Americans of colour in the uncomfortable and untenable position of racializing foreign peoples and, further, of acting on that racialization through their participation in (and/or support of) the military. Consider this analogy: would the American electorate support a proposal to arm Denmark so that it could bomb Norway? Probably not; and yet it has supported arming the Saudis so that they can bomb the Yemen. Imperial privilege hides in plain sight this manifestation of racialized hierarchies in the world order.

In short, imperial privilege has distorted the political conversation in the United States by allowing some questions of conscience to be heard while silencing others. We wish to break that silence.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Rashna Batliwala Singh

Rashna Batliwala Singh received her Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She is a Visiting Professor at Colorado College.

Peter Matthews Wright

Peter Matthews Wright received his Juris Doctor from Duquesne University School of Law and his Ph.D. in Islamic Studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is Associate Professor and Chair of Religion at Colorado College. 

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