- "Order Is the Best We Can Hope For":Sicario and the Sacrificial Violence of the Law
The civilized have created the wretched, quite coldly and deliberately, and do not intend to change the status quo.—James Baldwin
The spectacular modes of violence witnessed within contemporary politics offer a persistent challenge to the end-of-history proclamations that were made at the end of the previous century.1 The imagined resolution of social antagonism that was presumed to follow the fall of the Berlin Wall promised a global order in which liberal, capitalist democracy would provide a cohering anchor for all nations and cultures to coexist within a single universal. Rivalry between sovereign nations had been accredited as the source of murderous global conflict in what had been the bloodiest century in human history up to the end of the Cold War; with the twenty-first century heralding the suppression of that rivalry, it was anticipated that the violence would dissipate under the glare of a shared adherence to rule of law. However, the preponderance of increasingly spectacular images of violence delivered by contemporary politics and reflected in our popular culture troubles this [End Page 230] presupposition. The sight of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on fire that has been seared into our collective memory is read as confirming the end of "the end of history."2 The so-called War on Terror launched in the aftermath of 9/11 has continued to remind us of the return of a violence that was never truly contained, particularly with the images of Lynndie England's Abu Ghraib and the capture of Saddam Hussein. Critical scholars have responded by taking up the task of unpacking the insights that the War on Terror can offer us with regard to the contemporary workings of violence within the modern global legal order.3 However, absent from this critical engagement has been another abstract war that has both preceded and paralleled the War on Terror: the so-called War on Drugs. The task I will undertake in this essay is to address this absence by drawing some insights into the structuring of contemporary violence and its operative function within our proclaimed peaceful global legal order. I will examine first the legal architecture that governs the War on Drugs and then the representation of this inexhaustible war within popular culture, particular through Denis Villeneuve's 2015 film Sicario. Sicario, a cinematic interrogation of the irresolvable conflict between drug enforcement agents and narcotraffickers along the U.S.-Mexican border, captures the ways in which the drug war offers a telling instance of law underwritten by violence. The drug war and its damning representation in films such as Sicario offer a significant challenge to the presuppositions of the universal triumph of the rule of law heralding the realization of universal peace, for the legal project of universal drug prohibition requires reconciling an expansion of law with an expansion of violence. I will illustrate how the drug war reveals a violence that is not only present within the legal order but also in fact constitutes its very ground, a violence that takes a (re)generative form due to the way in which the construction of its victims imbues it with legitimacy. I term this violence "sacrificial violence," following the work of philosophical anthropologist René Girard. My exploration into the sacrificial undercurrent of legal ordering begins with an evidential problem: that the empirical violence that has resulted from the law's determination to prohibit drugs cannot be explained without challenging the orthodoxy that international law is opposed to violence. The contradiction between international law's founding claim to save "succeeding generations from the scourge of war"—as stated in the opening line of the preamble to the United Nations (UN) Charter—and its concurrent declaration of a War on Drugs holds significance for both scholars and practitioners who continue to uncritically invest in the redemptive power of law. [End Page 231]
The Drug War as Catastrophe
To intimately associate the violence of the War on Drugs with the workings of the international legal order is to call into question a primary orthodoxy of the law: that...