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Author: Sudha Setty

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The Rule of the Clan: National Security, “Us” and “Them”

Thanks to Mark and Deven for letting me participate in this fascinating symposium on The Rule of the Clan.  I know I’m late in the week, but I appreciate the opportunity to offer some thoughts on clan impulses and national security.  Mark’s observations on the need for U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies to better understand clan allegiances, traditions and naming conventions in those regions that pose the thorniest national security challenges to the United States bring to the fore an important and underappreciated aspect of being able to optimize security operations and foreign policy strategy.

Mark also points out that deep-seated clan allegiances allow for individuals to find comfort and refuge in times of need or perceived danger; for example, the note about members of the Irish Republican Army finding support and taking shelter in Irish-American communities in New York or Boston upon fear of prosecution.  Yet these same observations apply not only to these various communities within the United States or the countries in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia that Mark identifies.  In some respects the same notion of clan allegiance and the “othering” of those not affiliated with the clan defines dynamics of U.S. national security more broadly.

Many scholars and activists have identified the othering of Muslims and Arabs in the post-9/11 context allowing for certain aspects of U.S. national security policy to develop—this has occurred in many areas, including immigration, detention, interrogation practices, profiling, and our foreign policy stance more generally.  Of course, the counterargument is that Muslims and Arabs are, by and large, the perpetrators of terrorist acts against the United States.  But setting aside whether this allegation is true, it is clear that Muslims and Arabs not at all associated with terrorism have borne the brunt of whatever national security abuses have occurred in the last 11+ years.

Based on this othering, I have argued elsewhere that we can use Professor Derrick Bell’s interest convergence theory, developed in the context of critical race theory, in the national security context.  Bell’s interest convergence theory argues that the protection of outsider groups often is not based on a moral imperative to grant equal rights (in Bell’s case, arguing about the gains made by African Americans in the mid-20th century civil rights movement), but rather on the desire of the in-group to achieve other gains (such as the early Cold War imperative to influence global geopolitics by desegregating the United States and then holding the United States up as an exemplar of human rights as a contrast to the Soviet Union).  To contextualize this argument in national security matters and Mark Weiner’s work, I think we can better understand the parameters of various counterterrorism policies by consider the interests of the in-group.

For example, the limits of the U.S. targeted killing program by largely defined by in-group interests (here, the government and politically powerful demographic factions), not about the moral question of whether using such a program is wrong, or even about international law that might bar some uses of the targeted killing programs, particularly in countries with which the United States is not at war.  Thus, we see that the program has developed such that U.S. citizenship is not a bar to being targeted and killed by a drone, particularly if the target is not on U.S. soil and not considered to be one of “us.”  Indeed, when Senator Rand Paul’s vaunted filibuster in Spring 2013 led to a grudging acknowledgement by Attorney General Eric Holder that the executive branch did not have the power to use drones to target and kill U.S. citizens on U.S. soil if they are not engaged in combat (a pretty narrowly defined limit that protects a particular in-group), it was considered a victory for the libertarian interests that Paul was promoting.   Concerns about non-citizens on U.S. soil, or non-citizens and U.S. citizens in other countries that are not active theaters of war, were simply outside of the scope of libertarian ire at the time—those issues were not concerns because they were about “them,” not “us.”  And yet Senator Paul’s efforts are the only ones that have been successful thus far in getting the executive branch to admit hard limits on its authority vis-à-vis the drone program.

The same type of analysis could be used to map the debate over the NSA surveillance programs or any other controversial counterterrorism programs.  So I come back to asking Mark: to what extent do you think these types of U.S. political dynamics reflect the aspect of clannish behavior that you identify as leading a society to protect its own and discount the value of others (and “others”)?  Might the conception of clan be seen to undergird U.S. national security policies such that the traditions of liberal democracy (such as equal protection and due process) are undermined because of claimed necessity?  Is such undermining accepted by large swaths of the populace because the abuses—if they are perceived to exist—only affect “them,” and not “us”?