Good Mutants, Bad Mutants
Scene from X-Men (2000):
Senator Kelly: I have here a list of names of identified mutants living right here in the United States.
Dr. Jean Grey: Senator -
Senator Kelly: Here's a girl in Illinois who can walk through walls. Now what's to stop her from walking into a bank vault, or the White House, or (gestures toward the gallery) into their houses?
Dr. Jean Grey: Senator, please -
Senator Kelly: ...and there are even rumors, Miss Grey, of mutants so powerful that they can enter our minds and control our thoughts, taking away our God-given free will. Now I think the American people deserve the right to decide if they want their children to be in school with mutants. To be taught by mutants! Ladies and gentlemen, the truth is that mutants are very real, and that they are among us. We must know who they are, and above all, what they can do!
The war on terror, as the administration has been eager to point out, is not a war on Islam. As a matter of fact, the official rhetoric has often taken trouble to distinguish between the liberal, reformist Muslims (the allies) and the fundamentalists (the enemies). The latter are typically seen as religious fanatics – almost always men – who are stuck somewhere in a medieval past, stubbornly refusing and resisting modernity. The last part is significant in that the fundamentalists' opposition to modernity is not seen as a vestige of the premodern mindset, one that might eventually be excised, but as a hardened position that is not available for persuasion or change (and presumably, can therefore only be bombed into submission). The fundamentalists, the potential terrorists, the enemies of civilization are thus also the enemies of modernity, the enemies of democracy, and the enemies of capital. They are, in the words of Thomas Friedman, dutifully echoed by Farid Zakaria in last week's New York Times Book Review, the losers of globalization.
The intricate/intimate connection between global capitalism and the war on terror comes out in Friedman's writings quite clearly. In a February 14, 2004 New York Times column, he describes his visit to the office of the Indian software company Infosys in Bangalore India. Friedman, who is very impressed by the tiered wood-paneled conference room with its cameras, its clocks, its screens and the infrastructure that allows video conferencing with customers and suppliers from across the world, then has an epiphanic moment: “As I looked at this, a thought popped into my head: Who else has such a global supply chain today? Of course: Al Qaeda. Indeed, these are the two basic responses to globalization: Infosys and Al Qaeda.”
Indeed. Infosys or Al Qaeda. Call centers or madrassas. With us or against us.
Friedman does not stop there. Quoting Nandan Nilekani, the CEO of Infosys, he tells us in the words of his native informant: “From the primordial swamps of globalization have emerged two genetic variants. Our focus therefore has to be how we can encourage more of the good mutations and keep out the bad.”
Promordial swamps. Genetic variants. Good and bad mutations. The good mutants work in spaces servicing the global economy. The bad ones want to destroy freedom, democracy, free markets. One needs to “keep out” the bad mutants and when they sneak in, to arrest them and incarcerate them before they get to do any real harm.
The recent story that hit the headlines only to vanish a few days later is illustrative. A Bangladeshi couple enters the country illegally with a three-year-old daughter. Thirteen years later, the man who now works as a watch salesman makes about $16,000 a year (is he the good mutation since he services the global economy and its insatiable appetite for cheap labor or the bad one since he disregarded the borders of the nation state that while shrink into insignificance as far as the mobility of capital is concerned but grandiosely rise to foil the movement of human beings?). The 16-year old daughter, wearing a veil and teaching religious classes at local mosques (bad mutation), stays away from home overnight. The father, fearing that his daughter is considering eloping with a man she is fond of, calls the police for help. FBI agents, allegedly posing as members of a youth center, enter the family home without a warrant, seize the girl's computer, and find an essay that relates to suicide (apparently arguing that suicide is anti-Islamic). They arrest her contending that she is "an imminent threat to the security of the United States" since she was planning to be a "suicide bomber." A Bush administration official admitted to the New York Times that "there are doubts about these claims, and no evidence has been found that such a plot was in the works."
That doesn't seem to matter, however, because the girl entered the U.S. illegally and has no citizenship rights. Since she is being held in a counterterrorism investigation, the state does not have to produce any evidence against her or offer her a court appointed lawyer. Even the bond hearings have been closed. In a bizarre twist, the authorities charged another sixteen-year-old, a Guinean already facing deportation proceedings, with being a co-conspirator. The evidence? She greeted the arrested Bangladeshi girl at the Federal Plaza who was dressed in her Islamic attire, with the standard Muslim greeting "As-salaam-alaikum" (Peace be upon you).
Bottom line: A girl is arrested on the grounds that she is a potential suicide bomber; the evidence is her conservative Muslim lifestyle (the essay on suicide is meaningless without this backdrop). Another girl is held under suspicion because she greeted the potential suicide bomber in an Islamic fashion.
The story is not exactly unfamiliar: Muslim immigrants arrested on the charge of being terrorists. But what we are seeing is a significant transformation in the discourse of the "war on terror." The veiled Muslim woman is mutating from the eternal and abject victim of her religion and her men to the quintessential agent of Islamic terrorism – the suicide bomber.
The curtain is going up on the next act in the unfolding drama of the Politics of Fear.