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.

1 comment:

Tom said...

It also rests, I think, on the concept of "right." By that I mean, the state is always "right," even if it has to take "bad" actions. We see this in the Palin-esque "My country, right or wrong, but my country." I think, though, the so-called "War on Terror" has removed the wrong from that formulation in a very powerful way.

You example of Brooks is right on. His defense of his actions implies his knowing that he did something bad -- the beating -- but he didn't do anything wrong because though his actions were bad, they were right in order to defend honor and the like.

We see this in the debate over torture. Indeed, Cheney said as much when he said that we'd have to play in the "shadows" to fight our enemies.

No longer does right=good and wrong=bad. Right=right according to the prosecutors and proponents of the so-called war on terror and the use of torture. Good, wrong, and bad have take on new meanings with wrong and bad only applying to the enemy (terrorists, Sumner) and good being a naive concept that no longer applies in a post-9/11 world.

NB: Your comment that this violence is mundane and not a sinister plot is backed up, I'd say, by the fluidity of these terms/concepts.

This is all complicated, of course, buy the current tea-baggers and birthers who now see the state -- at least in terms of domestic policy under President Obama -- as wrong and bad which brings us back to the very Bismarkian concept of the tension between the primacy of foreign politics vs. the primacy of domestic politics.

I write this while jet-lagged, no it may make no sense, but I really found the post interesting and sparked this word vomit.