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  • Worlds Neither New Nor Brave: Racial Terror in America
  • P.J. Brendese (bio)

The article title referenced in footnote 13 has been updated.

A commentary on “Brave New World” by Sheldon S. Wolin, Theory & Event, Vol. 5, No. 4 (2001)

Without cruelty, there is no festival: thus the longest and most ancient part of human history teaches—and in punishment there is so much that is festive!


In the aftermath of 9/11 there emerged a manufactured consent that ours was a “new world,” one where Americans were suddenly vulnerable to terrorist attacks for the first time. The shock of the destruction spilled into widespread alarm, stoked collective outrage and provoked indignant responses of “how dare they?” For a brief moment, some even entertained the question, however innocently, of “why they hate us.” The ensuing global “War on Terror” propagated by the Bush administration was largely abetted by a complicit media that dared not overextend itself with the work of contesting the veracity of Iraq’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction. Nor would pundits venture to peer too deeply into the Administration’s judgment to invade a country that had nothing to do with the terrorism in question. There appeared to be an agreement that this was an unprecedented time that called for equally exceptional measures. So it was fitting that during the inaugural years of Theory & Event, Sheldon S. Wolin addressed the purported novelty of the post 9/11 political environment in an essay entitled “Brave New World.”2 Wolin argued against framing the emergent issue at hand as a war centered on terrorism alone. Instead, he contended that we would do well to consider “terrorism in the context of certain developments that preceded it. Declaring a world as new is not only a way of calling attention to what is novel and distinctive but a distraction from some unresolved problems.”3

In his short essay, the specific remainders Wolin had in mind prompted him to ask what democratic citizenship can mean in the context of a superpower nation and globalized economy. A worthy topic [End Page 24] indeed, since the novelty of the “war on terror” was buttressed by the Bush Administration’s insistence that the war persist “indefinitely” and the war was “declared by an illegitimate president.”4 When some citizens wondered aloud “why they hate us,” Wolin saw not just ignorance, but a citizenry that viewed itself as not “being implicated in the actions of their government, particularly if it concerns matters imperial involving remote and alien people. Not being implicated is recognition of one’s powerlessness.”5 From there it followed that the “sovereign people” have come to inhabit the role of spectator whose participation is limited to cheering for their side—even when an election is stolen or war is waged in their name.6

For Wolin, “terrorism by itself,” should be rejected as a “dangerous construction,” in favor of considering “terrorism in the context of certain developments that preceded it.”7 Yet, as I shall argue, we are in particular danger of considering terrorism in isolation precisely when we ignore the history of racial terror that looms large among the War on Terror’s preceding developments. In his essay, Wolin did not include an analysis of race in the context of 9/11 or its immediate aftermath. Nevertheless, his reference to the antecedent conditions out of which 9/11 arose provides an opening for my consideration of race here. In what follows I take up Wolin’s call to address those preceding developments by examining the legacy of racial terror that remains unresolved and is perpetuated by spectator citizens who largely regard themselves as not being implicated in the actions of their government. At the present moment, the focus on “terrorism by itself” largely means considering it as the exclusive domain of Islamic extremists. Such a horizon decontextualizes the issue from how the current War is conjoined to historically entrenched, unresolved problems of domestic racial terror—problems so redolent of history and still so pervasive today. With this in mind, I take the recurring incidents of police terror against African Americans and Native Americans to be an outgrowth...


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