Monday, July 27, 2009

Violence in the Senate

In 1856 Preston Brooks, a U.S. representative from South Carolina, attacked Senator Charles Sumner on the Senate floor, beating him with a cane until Sumner collapsed, unconscious. Brooks continued beating him until his cane broke.

Less than a month later, Brooks delivered a speech entitled "In Defense of His Attack on Sumner" in the House of Representatives. The speech is an indignant collection of justifications for violence that casts Brooks in the role of victim and, as such, is exemplary of U.S. patriotism.

It begins with an emotional argument about the relationship between a person and the state, positing that the person of Preston Brooks is coextensive with the state of South Carolina: "Whatever insults my State insults me." The state then becomes sacred, something that "commanded [Brooks's] pious veneration." Lastly, a familial relation: to defend the state is "to perform the duty of a son." The state deserves and gets obedience, and hasty and unquestioning vengeance.

Brooks moves from there onto technical ground. The attack happened on the floor of the Senate, not the House; if he is accountable, it is "there and not here." The Senate has no jurisdiction over members of the House, and the House has no jurisdiction over acts committed in the Senate. In juridical terms, Brooks is nowhere, and has impunity.

From there he turns to a counterfactual: "If I desired to kill the senator why did I not do it?" Foresight and mercy led Brooks to choose "an ordinary cane" to attack Sumner. The weapon is proof of Brooks desire not to kill his adversary.

What a common set of arguments. Patriotism is unthinking and unblinking obedience to the state. Acts of violence occur in a state of exception that fall outside of normal legal rules. The tools of violence, counterintuitively, demonstrate the merciful and measured nature of the aggression. The ability to find a multitude of analogies to the war on terror does not indicate a sinister undercurrent of U.S. thought; it shows the mundanity of such arguments and that they lie in easy reach of anyone scrambling to defend the indefensible. The arguments function in their simplicity. Any challenge is met by repeating the original argument.